The searing tragedy at Sandy Hook School underscores the urgency of dialogue on gun control even as it provides an inadequate basis for policy. Sandy Hook is not representative of the nature of illicit gun violence in America.
One reality is that the number of mass killings in the US has not accelerated over the past two decades, but public support for additional control measures has declined sharply. For example, the Gallup poll in 2011, found a majority (53% to 43%) of the respondents opposed a ban on semi-automatic weapons, this almost a decade after the earlier federal ban on assault weapons expired and was not renewed by Congress. Gallup reported, “Americans’ preference regarding gun laws is generally that the governments enforce existing laws more strictly and not pass new laws (60%) rather than pass new gun laws in addition to stricter enforcement of existing laws (35%).” Moreover, gun ownership is up 45% since 2000. Realistically, passage of new gun control measures will need broad support, including that of gun owners.
There is also a constitutional reality as interpreted by the Supreme Court which has clearly, if narrowly, determined that individuals have a right to own firearms and to use them for self-defense. The Court has signaled that it will abide reasonable limitations on ownership of firearms, leaving ample scope for public policy.
Here are a few possible approaches:
– Divide the issue into appropriate “bites.” Measures to deal with accidental firearms injuries and deaths are not relevant to measures that address criminal use of firearms. Similarly, how we keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally unbalanced is exceedingly complicated and is the aspect of firearms violence that has been the least explored. The over 15,000 firearms suicides in the US annually underscore the urgent need to address access of the mentally disturbed to firearms, as do the mass shootings.
– Keep a sense of perspective. Recall the axiom that hard cases make bad law. In fact, the incidence of firearms homicides and injuries in the US has declined significantly even as the number of guns has increased. The predicted explosion of homicides when “carry permits” were issued to large numbers of civilians simply did not happen. To gain the support of gun owners for additional gun legislation, those measures will need to have perceived beneficial effects relative to the burdens they place.
– Avoid creating new “lesser included offenses” that encumber only the law-abiding. A criminal is not going to be dissuaded by a lesser included offense. A mass murderer is not thrown off course by laws banning possession of guns in an elementary school, a place of worship or a movie theatre. Note that extremely few mass murderers select police stations or shooting ranges as their targets.
– Focus on people who misuse guns. Setting aside crimes of passion and the mentally unbalanced, those who have committed earlier firearm crimes are more likely to commit firearms homicides. They need to be monitored accordingly. Persons convicted of a felony involving firearms could be fitted with a radio frequency identifier that can be scanned by police to alert them that person is a convicted firearms felon at a distance beyond effective handgun range, thus enhancing police safety.
– Strengthen our system for granting approvals for firearms purchases. Currently, firearms transfers between private citizens are not regulated by federal law. Such sales should be routed through a federally licensed firearms dealer. When the buyers and sellers know each other, such as family members, a different threshold would be appropriate, for example, notifying the government that a transfer had occurred.
There are other constructive approaches.To make progress, a more reasoned and respectful dialogue than we have had in the past will be sorely needed.
The author served in the US Army, was a Special Agent in the Secret Service and retired from the Senior Foreign Service in 2004. He is an active competitive target shooter and a member of the National Rifle Association, the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. His views do not represent any of these organizations and do not have their endorsement.