Mourning in America: A Time for Action

Twenty children and six adults were shot and killed in an elementary school on Friday, with another dead in her home.  One man entered that school in Newton, Connecticut and pulled the trigger.  But he is not the only one with blood on his hands.  Every gun manufacturer, every lobbyist pushing to relax gun laws and every politician that takes their money, every media organization glorifying killers and the havoc they wreak, and every gun owner who refuses to admit that there is a gun problem in this country shares in the responsibility for what happened.

My Toy!

Assault weapons like the one used in the Newtown school shooting must be outlawed.  But, that is only the beginning of what should be done to solve America’s gun problem.

Sadly, massacres like this are so common that there is a standard response when they occur.  The instant media blitz is always accompanied by a debate over whether such an event could have been prevented.  The country mourns with the families of the victims.  Prayers are said.  Speeches are made.  Bodies are buried.  But, ultimately, nothing is done.  People move on.  And then, inevitably, the cycle begins again when there is another slaughter by another man with a gun.

Not this time.  The cycle cannot continue.  There must be a response.  Something must change.

Conventional wisdom says that a certain amount of time must pass before reacting to a horrific event, that decisions should not be clouded by emotions.  That is nonsense.  We cannot and should not wait one single day more before taking action to attempt to eliminate the possibility of any more killings.

We should not wait until these fresh emotions pass, but should hold on to how we feel right now.  We should remember the sadness, the rage, the confusion, the desperate agony of yet another avoidable tragedy and use it to motivate us to get something done so that no one has to feel the way we feel right now, use it so no one else has to die this way and no one else has to bury their children.  We must do something, and we must do it now.  Today.

That said, opposition to any effort to regulate guns is strong.  The National Rifle Association, the biggest and most powerful pro-gun lobbying group has not been shy about spending money for their cause, and its list of friends in government is long.  Courts have ruled that gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment, despite a convincing argument from Harvey Wasserman at the Columbus Free Press that this was not its original intention.  Wasserman says that the Second Amendment exists for the express purpose of regulating gun ownership and does not guarantee the right of private citizens to own firearms.  Still, it seems very unlikely that any law outlawing guns would be found to be constitutional.  But, that does not mean that we cannot try to lessen their availability.

President Obama spoke this morning on the subject of gun violence and said that he is seeking solutions for the plague of gun-related killings.  It is notable that he mentioned the numerous shootings that have occurred just since Friday’s massacre in Newtown, as well as the thousands of deaths that occur each year due to guns.  He has boldly called for action.  His full statement can be seen here:

There is momentum behind an initiative to ban some types of semi-automatic guns, also known as “assault weapons.”  This weekend on Meet the Press, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, said that she plans to introduce a bill banning assault weapons on the first day of the next session of Congress.  Her proposed bill would also outlaw certain kinds of bullets and extended magazines.  A similar ban was enacted in 1994, but was allowed to expire under President George W. Bush in 2004.  In an encouraging sign, numerous lawmakers, including President Obama in his comments this morning, have voiced their support for a new assault weapons ban.  This would be a step in the right direction, but it would only be a small step.

This is not a time for small steps.  It is a time for bold, decisive action.  I’ve come up with a few suggestions of my own that I believe can help fix this country’s dysfunctional relationship with guns.  I am no expert, and I certainly make no claims that any of these would result in a complete end to gun-related killings.  But, like the president, I do think that every idea should be examined, every solution considered.  We have made token gestures of gun control and they have not worked.  It is time to try something else.  My wish is that these ideas can be part of a much larger discussion, one in which we recognize the true scope of this nation’s problem with guns and a genuine effort is made to remedy it.  I would welcome any explanation as to why any of these would not help, as well as any additional ideas.

  • Renew the ban on assault weapons- As I said, this is only a small step, but it is still a good start.  I have seen no valid reason that any private citizen would need a semi-automatic rifle like the one used to slaughter the children in Connecticut, capable of shooting a large number of bullets in a very short period of time, causing a maximum amount of damage with a minimum of effort.  This is not a weapon for self-defense.  It is offensive, in every sense of that word.

Feinstein’s bill would also ban extended magazines, like the 33-round clip used in the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that resulted in six deaths and numerous injuries, including the wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  These magazines exist only to allow shooters to fire more bullets without needing to reload, to cause more devastation without being inconvenienced by the necessity of changing the clip.

These guns and their accessories serve no purpose other than to make easier to kill people, and should therefore be outlawed.  This is also among the ideas backed by President Obama this morning.

  • Repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act- This bill, enacted in 2005 under President Bush, protects gun manufacturers or sellers against prosecution if those firearms are used in a crime.  There is no reason that the makers and providers of weapons designed specifically to kill other human beings should be protected when those weapons do exactly that.  To suffer no repercussions when they are directly responsible for every single injury or death caused by the guns they make and sell allows them to literally get away with murder.

This is an idea backed by the National Law Journal, and it in no way infringes on the Second Amendment.  By facing large financial penalties for the misuse of their products, gun makers and sellers might be encouraged to back measures that ensure these weapons are only owned by people who will use them responsibly.  Of course, it would be even better if they were so heavily penalized that they decided not to make or sell guns at all, but  as with the proposed assault weapons ban, any step in the right direction is a good thing.

  • Mandatory and thorough background checks on ALL gun purchases- The law currently requires background checks on all gun purchases made via licensed gun sellers.  But, due to the dubious “gun-show loophole,” there is no such requirement for guns sold privately.  According to a study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, fully 40 percent of all gun purchases are made this way, without proper background checks.  Additionally, privately sold guns are used in 80 percent of crimes committed with a handgun.  This is easily fixed, and makes so much sense that it is even supported by most NRA members.

But, I would go a step further.  In addition to a simple criminal background check, there should be a full psychological evaluation of anyone seeking to purchase a gun.  After all, most mass-killers obtained their firearms legally and had no previous criminal record.  Granted, a psychological evaluation is not a foolproof method of identifying just who is likely to slaughter masses of innocent people, but it would keep guns out of the hands of a lot of potentially dangerous people.  A similar policy has been enacted in Japan and has been very successful in keeping both the rates of gun ownership and gun-related murder among the lowest in the world.

  • Safety and skill testing- The Japanese laws also require a mandatory gun safety class with a written test and a skill test which requires gun-owners to show that they know how to handle their weapons safely and effectively.  Anyone who met these requirements would receive a license allowing them to purchase and own a gun.  Anyone who did not have such a license would be prohibited from buying a gun, simple as that.  This is another common-sense requirement that is shockingly lacking from American gun policy.

It only makes sense that anyone wanting to own a weapon should at least know how to use it responsibly.

  • Buyback programs- A simple way to get guns out of the hands of people is for the government to buy them.  A recent two-day buyback effort in Camden, New Jersey netted 1,137 guns.  Admittedly, this is barely a drop in the ocean of an estimated 300 million guns that are owned nationwide.  But, if more than a thousand guns can be taken off the streets in a single city over a single weekend, a national buyback program could succeed in removing millions of guns from circulation in this country.

Importantly, this buyback program should include firearms that would be outlawed by any assault weapons ban.  The proposal by Sen. Feinstein would not apply to guns that are already in circulation, but would merely prevent any new sale of these types of weapons.  Her bill should be amended to make all assault weapons illegal and institute a mandatory buyback for all such firearms.  This was part of the gun control policy in Australia that has virtually eliminated mass shootings in that country and seen a steep decline in both gun-related murder and suicide rates.

  • Tax all gun and ammunition sales- There are currently taxes on things like alcohol, tobacco and gasoline.  Guns and ammunition should be added to that list.  Not only should they be taxed, but it should be at such a high rate that it discourages sales.  Firearms and the bullets they use are cheap enough that people can buy them easily and in large quantities. As suggested by Alex Pareene at Salon, they should be made “less cheap.”

There will likely be an objection to this sort of taxation, but exceptions can be made for certain groups.  For example, target shooters tend to use a lot of bullets, but they do so in a way that is not dangerous or criminal.  The easy solution would be for them to use rubber bullets or non-lethal ammunition that could be exempted from exorbitant taxation.  Surely, a rubber bullet is just as effective at shooting a paper target as a traditional one.  The tax would apply only to live rounds and the guns that fire them.

Additionally, revenue raised though these taxes should be used to increase federal spending on mental health care.  People that truly want to buy a gun will do so no matter the cost, but there’s no reason that some of the money spent should not go to providing help for people who currently lack it.  Obviously, only a very small fraction of people with mental illnesses have violent tendencies, and a large number of people with these tendencies have no history of mental illness.  But, funding for mental health care has been slashed nationwide, and the recent trend of mass-killings by shooters with psychological problems has brought the need for better mental health care into the spotlight.  Any additional revenue from taxation could be used to create a federal gun registry.

  • Registration of all guns and ammunition- There is currently no federal law requiring that guns be registered, except for certain fully-automatic guns and weapons like bazookas or mortars.  This makes it virtually impossible to track who owns a gun or how many guns any person has accumulated.  This is another problem with a simple solution.  A law should be passed requiring gun owners to register their weapons, and should require them to submit their social security numbers and fingerprints.  This would make it much easier to account for weapons that have been stolen and to track anyone who amassed a cache of weapons.  It would also help identify any convicted criminals attempting to purchase firearms.

Equally important would be tracking ammunition sales.  By flagging anyone buying large amounts of ammunition, law enforcement would be better prepared to stop mass-shootings before they occur.  An added benefit would be that the additional paperwork and time necessary for registration, as well as the sharing of personal information that would be required, might deter people from buying weapons.

A gun registry would also allow for law enforcement officials to track crimes committed by gun owners. For example, any gun owner who committed a violent crime, even if it did not involve a gun, could have his gun license revoked and his guns confiscated.  This would be especially helpful in cases of domestic abuse, since 70 percent of spousal murder/suicides involve previous incidents of domestic violence.

I would also propose limits on the numbers of guns and amount of ammunition that any one person could legally purchase.

  • Gun Insurance- Guns, like cars, are dangerous machines that can be deadly if not handled correctly.  So gun owners, like car owners, should be required to purchase insurance in case anyone is injured or killed when these machines are misused.  Similar ideas from Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars and Robert Cyran and Reynolds Holding at Slate illustrate how a gun insurance program could work.

Rates could be determined by insurance providers based on a risk assessment of the gun owner.  Those with a history of handling guns safely would pay lower rates, and those with a record of anything that would rate them as a higher risk for coverage would pay higher rates or not be insured at all.  Anyone deemed too high a risk to be insured would not be allowed to purchase a gun.  Likewise, guns carried in public, like those allowed by concealed-carry laws, would be subjected to higher rates than guns kept safely locked away at home.

  • Smart guns- Numerous advancements in gun safety have been made that could help eliminate misuse of firearms.  It should be made mandatory that gunmakers adopt these advancements when manufacturing weapons.  For example, “grip recognition” technology exists that prevents anyone except for the owner to fire a gun.  A similar system reads fingerprints.  This would have prevented the shooter in the Newtown massacre from successfully firing a single round, since the weapons he used belonged to his mother, who was shot and killed with her own gun.

So, those are my suggestions.  Though they will do little to regulate the estimated 300 million guns currently in circulation, any or all of these ideas should make it far less likely that we have to go through what we’ve gone through this week.  Any idea that can save lives and prevent tragedies like the one in Connecticut, or the ones before that in Wisconsin, Colorado, or in countless other places, should be considered.  Too many people have died for us to stand by and let it continue to happen.

We should mourn those we lost, but we cannot let them have died in vain.  We must do something to break this endless cycle of death and despair.  Enough is enough. The time is now.

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