Could We Prevent Some of These National Tragedies?

The shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School broke hearts not just in Florida but across the United States. Their lives can never be restored. Their places can never be filled. We grieve with the families and friends and, yes, we pray for them.

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I am supportive of the call to resist using the grief of families and students to score political points. But I believe it’s still appropriate to talk about gun control if we can do it in a compassionate, nonpartisan way. When the 9/11 attacks opened our eyes to the possibilities of terrorism in air travel, we almost universally agreed on airport security measures which were inconvenient to travelers but which have — thankfully — prevented further major attacks. Should it not be our greatest wish to do something to prevent mass shootings as well?

That is, if we can do anything to prevent them. There is a controversy raging right now whether gun legislation prevents any deaths. This 2013 article, from the conservative website The Blaze, presents a variation on a widely used argument that some of the cities or states with the most intense gun laws have some of the highest homicide rates. Then the article quotes a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed to explain why: “The gun ban had an unintended effect: It emboldened criminals because they knew that law-abiding … residents were unarmed and powerless to defend themselves.”

Perhaps this is true. But I would suggest two responses. First, perhaps areas with the strongest gun legislation have those laws because of high homicide rates, not the other way around. Second, and more importantly, is this true for mass shootings? I understand that there are some gun-related homicides which may not be affected by gun legislation. But a 2017 New York Times article, based on a year of research, records that dozens of researchers agree that certain types of legislation can significantly reduce mass shootings.

And even for those who believe that gun control will not prevent any mass shootings, I ask: Isn’t it worth trying? We have watched so many people, particularly kids, suffer and die in recent years, and yet almost no gun control legislation has been passed. I believe we owe it to those families and individuals to try. Even if we fail, we will still continue the work being done on mental health, school security, and more.

However, there is a more serious argument against gun control. Many contend that meddling with Second Amendment rights will ultimately and irreversibly limit American freedom. That would be a tragedy. The tradition of responsible gun ownership in the United States is admirable. Farmer militias started the American Revolution and played a significant role in the independence of our country. Gun ownership among citizens may act as a check on government overreach, even in our era of ballistic missiles and bombers. Families have bonded on deer hunts and shooting ranges for generations. Owning and using a gun is a source of pride and self-worth for American families across the nation. I personally hope to own a gun and to teach any future children I may have to shoot well and safely. I would not want any legislation to prevent that.

But is there no gun control legislation which could avoid the slippery slope of making guns inaccessible for the average American? Most people want guns for valid reasons which don’t involve killing anyone except in an extremity of self-defense. I believe we can protect that right while limiting the most deadly and heartbreaking forms of gun violence. It would involve some inconvenience for gun owners, like airport security did for travelers after 9/11, but we owe it to our children to bear that inconvenience. Here are three ideas which, I hope, would protect essential Second Amendment Rights while helping to prevent some gun violence. Responses? Do these go too far? Not far enough?

This is a complex issue with many ideas for improvements. But I think there are some basic guidelines which could gain broad support. Individuals convicted of any violent crime — such as a felony or domestic abuse — should probably be denied the right to buy or own a firearm, at least for many years after the conviction. Then every gun sale, whether by a company or an individual, could be accompanied by a background check. Those background checks would need to give sufficient time for law enforcement to thoroughly investigate the individual’s record.

I realize the term “assault weapon” is a loaded term. I’ll use a definition basically in line with the 1994–2004 federal assault weapons ban: any gun, manufactured or modified, which can accept detachable magazines and fire multiple rounds per second. As for high-capacity magazine, let’s assume that any magazine which fits more than ten rounds to be “high-capacity.” If we banned private ownership of these two things, a shooter in a public place would — under most circumstances — only be able to fire ten relatively slow rounds before reloading or switching guns. This would give police, security forces, or brave bystanders significantly greater opportunities to stop the killing.

A version of this ban was in place from 1994 to 2004. Research shows that it did not significantly reduce overall deaths from guns, but it did decrease deaths by assault weapons. Since these are the most common weapons in mass shootings, I am of the opinion that a long-term ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would ultimately decrease the frequency or perhaps deadliness of mass shootings.

This is an idea I’m particularly interested to hear feedback about. Many of the most heartbreaking mass shootings, including the recent one in Florida as well as Columbine and Sandy Hook, were perpetrated by people under 21. At such young ages, emotions are powerful and science indicates that the section of the brain regulating judgment is still maturing. Those are major reasons why we forbid people from drinking before 21 years old. What if we required any gun buyer under 21 to have an adult “co-sign” the purchase with them? That co-signature, like on a loan, would imply full legal responsibility for any misuse of the gun. If the kid kills someone with the gun, heaven forbid, then the adult co-signer would go to jail as well. I realize that a parent could just buy a gun in their own name and give it to a child, so perhaps this wouldn’t be a significant hurdle, but perhaps it would make parents/guardians think twice about getting the gun. Thoughts?

In closing: “No law can eliminate the risk of mass shootings, which are unpredictable and represent a small minority of gun homicides overall.” So reads the New York Times article referenced earlier. I agree. But mass shootings, as I see it, are the most devastating for our nation and more particularly for our children. If we could even prevent one school shooting by adopting some form of the limitations above, wouldn’t it be worth it? Or would such regulations kill responsible gun ownership in America?

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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