Gun Violence to Gun Sense*
*”Gun Sense” (instead of “gun safety” or “gun control”) is a term used by Moms Demand Action
It seems to me that the problem of gun violence is really several different problems with guns as a common factor. Our thinking is easily muddied by the tragedy and intense media coverage of mass shootings. It’s useful to discuss five separate categories of gun deaths, each of which may have a distinct solution.
Evidently we are disproportionately fearful of personal violence. The statistics clearly show that “bad guys with guns” are a rarity. Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. Most homicides (80%) are committed by a person known to the victim—and half are romantically or socially involved. Holdups, home invasions, and mass murders are quite rare.
On any given day, absent a recent gun incident, only 2% of Americans would rank gun violence as the number one problem the nation faces. This constituent complacency is possibly the biggest barrier to legislation reducing gun violence. The gun industry get its way most of the time.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully established itself as a political third rail for any individual politician of whom they disapprove. Despite the fact that only 26% of NRA members are activists who want no government restrictions on guns, the NRA has formidable lobbying clout. It’s the money that flows to the NRA from the gun manufacturing industry that makes the organization influential. It’s gun profits more than pro-gun extremism or Second Amendment zeal that stiffens NRA resolve.
HOW DO WE CREATE GUN SENSE?
The various loopholes and gaps in our present gun control laws are deliberate, most of them fostered by the NRA and the gun lobby. Their strategy of obstruction is revealed by these tactics:
- Encumber regulatory agencies by understaffing (defunding personnel) and imposing burdensome procedures and paperwork
- Resist all regulatory legislation by threating political attack ads and making strategic campaign contributions
- Conceal the public health problem by suppressing government collection of gun violence statistics, create gag rules on medical professionals, and block transparency of data
- Litigate every new regulatory initiative
- Shield gun makers from product liability suits with laws that convey tort immunity
- Promote broad-based gun ownership with fear-based, self-defense arguments
- Block accountability for transfer, lost or stolen guns by constraints on record keeping that make it tedious and time consuming, if not impossible, to trace a gun or audit a buyer’s eligibility
- Impede efforts to add dangerous people to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database
It’s business as usual for the army of industry lobbyists who subvert democracy to advance special interests. The effect of these tactics is to allow guns and ammunition of all sorts to be bought and sold freely in public and private channels with little or no accountability for vetting the buyer. Illegal “straw-man” purchases are common because it’s hard to actually prove such cases in court and the courts tend to treat them lightly.
The automobile may be a metaphor for how guns should be handled. Liability for what happens with a car rests with the owner who holds title. Owners are not only liable, they are also required by law to carry insurance. Automobiles must be registered annually. If gun owners were required to carry insurance and were liable for injuries caused by gun accidents, there would be a very powerful incentive to secure guns and ammunition.
Mandatory registration would make gun trafficking much more difficult – nobody knowingly buys and drives a stolen car – you must have a valid registration and title for a car. NRA gun zealots fear that such registration is the prelude to confiscation (it’s a tacit admission that gun ownership is not an immutable right). The 2008 Heller decision by the U.S. Supreme Court could be reversed, restoring the notion that one’s right to gun ownership is linked to “a well-regulated Militia” as the opening phrase of the Second Amendment states.
Fix 1: Public Health
We need to learn as much about gun-related, public health issues as we can, share the knowledge, and then build practices and programs that will lead to solutions. Medical professionals should be encouraged, not be prevented from seeking information about gun access.
Public Health Summary
- Fund CDC research on the health aspects of gun ownership
- Openly publish the facts about gun injury
- Make health care for depression and other mental illness easily accessible
- Encourage medical professionals to make gun access part of the patient profile
Fix 2: Education
The idea that one needs superior force to vanquish evil and resolve conflict is deeply ingrained in all of us. It’s the essence of popular adventure stories that our heroes prevail with “guns and guts.” Super heroes don’t lead “win – win” negotiations: they slug and blast their way to overpowering the bad guys.
But the Hollywood epic is not the real world. Far from it. Enlightened people back off, cool off, and work it out. Completely independent of the gun issue, our society needs to learn peaceful conflict resolution in family and school settings. Spouse abuse, battery, and simple assaults are far too common. Mature, sober adults don’t slug it out or shoot each other.
Videos like this paint a fantasy picture of how armed intervention saves the day. In the real world, bad guys don’t faint conveniently. The more probable scenario is the ex-boyfriend making an unwanted visit. He advances trying to sweet talk the woman out of the gun, or flies into a rage … a happy ending is not likely.
The most common homicide starts with a disagreement or an insult—then escalates. It happens in social situations among people who know each other. If one or more have guns, shots are fired. The police arrest everyone involved and leave it to the judge to sort out who did what to whom. (I’d bet that most self-defense gun owners have little awareness of those dynamics. Nor do they appreciate that brandishing a gun or firing shots will almost certainly get them arrested.)
Safe handling of guns requires knowledge, skill, and practice. Police and the military drill until the practices are instinctive, and then they periodically demonstrate their mastery of the skill sets. You can’t safely be a casual gun user. Buying a gun, firing it a few times, and then locking it up until you need it does not instill the calm and instincts necessary.
In your church and community life support “Love Thy Neighbor” by advocating peaceful conflict resolution, fact-based education about gun safety and lethal force, compulsory safety training for gun purchasers, and awareness that “guns and guts” is storybook stuff.
- Promote compulsory gun safety training
- Create public information campaigns about responsibility and consequences:
o Gun owner’s liability (like auto owner accident liability)
o Permissible use of lethal force (tragic mistakes happen under stress)
o “Shots fired” usually means arrest and court appearances (cops let the court sort out the facts)
- Teach peaceful conflict resolution in schools and families
- Counter the Hollywood “guns and guts” hero fantasy
Fix 3: Accountability
Currently, Americans can easily purchase and keep their firearms legally and anonymously. More laws is not the solution. When all U.S. federal, state and local gun laws are tallied, they number more than 20,000. Yet one can buy a gun from a private seller and take it home without any paper trail or public record. With the exception of certain major cities, that’s legal. Federal gun control is at the point-of-purchase. Once you get it home, most states and municipalities have no restrictions on gun possession.
- Prevent informal and unrecorded gun transfers (mandate licensed dealer oversight/documentation of transfers)
- Require digital transfer records to facilitate tracing of guns used in crimes
- Extend record retention period (currently background check compliance is not auditable after 3 days)
- Expand background check data base—include those on terror watch list and no fly list (add appeals process)
- Repeal immunity for manufacturers for after-sale liability
- Create truth-in-advertising requirements (like FDA drug and cigarette health warnings)
- Mandate minimum safety training and liability insurance for gun owners (like car insurance)
- The seven fixes listed above can’t be done quickly or easily. There is controversial politics involved. It requires a persistent grassroots effort and includes getting corporate money out of politics.
Fix 4: Restrict Military-style, Rapid-fire Weapons
Despite the drama and media hype, mass shootings are not the priority in terms of number of deaths. If we accomplished the forgoing fixes for Public Health, Education, and firearms Accountability, the problems of preventing Mass Shootings would be much simpler.
Certain weapons are unusually dangerous in the hands of an agile shooter because they are designed to quickly maim or kill many people. The challenge is to draw a clear distinction between such weapons and others that look similar but do not have that capability. With a high capacity magazine a semi automatic can fire 30 rounds in ten or fifteen seconds.
The law already recognizes limits on second amendment rights. For nearly a century the US has made it nearly impossible for a civilian to own a machine gun, weapons like the one in the video are not machine guns. Paired with high capacity magazines, the difference in firepower is trivial.
The Second Amendment likewise does not prohibit licensing of gun owners or registration of firearms. Those government actions are inhibited by political pressure from gun activists who fear government confiscation of firearms. In fact dedicated gun enthusiasts often obtain one or more classes of Federal Firearms Licenses (FFL) classified as dealer/collector licenses. These licenses impose responsibility for secure handling and accountability that keeps weapons of all kinds out of criminal hands. At the same time, they grant privileges such as possession of otherwise-prohibited, fully automatic guns and make it lawful to ship weapons, parts and supplies. The licensing process involves an interview as well as a more rigorous background check than the NICS check done by dealers. Presently the number of FFL “dealer” licenses exceeds the number of Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. This may be a result of the lack of a ranked system of licensing for responsible citizens owning or possessing firearms.
Adding a ranked system of owner licenses would bring similar disciplines and practices to all gun owners. But fear of government overreach energizes the opposition to such common sense controls. Americans have no such fears about automobiles, so we have a system of driver testing, licensing, and vehicle registration with complete reciprocity among the states.
That doesn’t prevent auto sport enthusiasts from building or racing whatever vehicle they choose. For public safety governments do regulate public racing events, and prohibit racing on the highway. Why should gun ownership and use be different where public health and safety are involved?
Ranked licensing would reward the dedicated enthusiast or collector for rigorous safety practices and strict compliance with firearms regulation. These carefully vetted and highly responsible private citizens would enjoy privileges, conveniences and benefits denied to the less accountable individual. Licensing would codify the responsibility that goes with the right to bear arms.
Restrict Military Weapons Summary
- Basic firearms licensing categories
o Target practice (limit up to 8 or 10 shots per reload, semi-automatic or revolver)
o Hunting (as above, but as locally lawful for hunting)
o Self-defense (handguns and long guns, up to 8 shots per reload)
- Unusually dangerous gun license category (e.g., for collectors and museums)
o Tactical (as above, but for larger magazines and rapid fire enhancements)
o Military (fully automatic, unlimited clip/magazine enhancements)
o Machine guns, disguised guns, other ultra-lethal gear
Gun violence is foremost a public health problem. When gun advocates say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” they are partly right. Not all people can handle the responsibility for easy access to a tool that’s lethal and accident prone. Guns are very different than kitchen knives; their lethal reach is instant, far more devastating, and extends hundreds or thousands of feet.
With at least 250 million guns in private hands, possibly 375 million, and with no central record of who has them, it is and will always be nearly impossible to absolutely control any class of firearm. But with strict gun laws and appropriate licensing, we can empower enforcement to distinguish between lawful transfers among law-abiding citizens and undesirable transfers to criminals and others who should not possess firearms.
Licensing and registration laws impose accountability by their nature. It’s worth noting that the expansion of concealed carry licensing has not been accompanied by a balooning of gun violence. Thus far the statistics support the gun enthusiasts claim that arming responsible people poses no increased public hazard. Perhaps we can affirm the Second Amendment right to arms and simultaneously make it harder for fools and killers to get guns.
What can we do to replace “gun porn” and gun violence with gun sense? We can take action by addressing the Public Health issues, provide accurate and widespread Education, require sensible Accountability, and Restrict Access to military-type, rapid-fire weapons.
Make Our Democracy Work
We must support our elected representatives at all levels, especially federal, to make the necessary fixes. Send a letter or postcard to your Congressperson and Senators asking that they actively work to free the CDC from the constraints Congress has imposed. Remind them that our gun problem is primarily a public health problem. We need to let science study it. At the same time we need to full fund and empower the ATF to enforce existing law.
8/6/16 Corrected statistical typos. Less than (<) was reversed in first table, percentage of NRA members supporting background checks is 70 to 74% so only 26% support no government restrictions on gun purchase. NRA has done its own studies and claims a different result.
This essay is based on a multimedia presentation by Richmond Shreve 8/4/16, Pennswood Village. A bibliography of principal sources is posted separately.