Whenever there is mass shooting in the U.S., whether committed by a deranged lunatic with questionable motives or radical Islamic jihadists, the debate about gun violence inevitably ramps up. Gun control advocates demand more restrictions on gun sales and use while Second Amendment proponents argue that bearing arms is a constitutional right and regardless, more restrictions won't help because they don't affect criminals.
Without getting into the data that is often cherry-picked by one side or the other, it's clear that as with so many issues today, the rhetoric often belies more of a reaction to the perception of what the other side wants than reality.
Despite cries from the right, President Obama and most gun control advocates understand Australian-style gun confiscations is a non-starter. If they have a "hidden agenda," the chances of it coming to pass are negligible.
Likewise, while gun control proponents focus on mouthpieces such as Ted Nugent, few gun rights advocates expect unfettered access to weapons of any kind. Despite rhetoric from the NRA that is largely devoid of any constructive suggestions and often inaccurate, the vast majority of Americans concur with the Supreme Court and Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote in Heller v. D.C., "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited."
Opinions on gun rights are sharply divided but as recently as June, Pew Research indicated a slight but growing majority of support for gun rights. The key to finding answers is noting that while support for gun control is lower, that does not preclude any sort of legislation that would help. The generic idea of gun control has become less appealing in the abstract but people are generally open to specific regulations.
A couple of points in regard to finding pragmatic solutions:
1) Mass shootings make headline news and other gun crimes are regularly promoted in liberal blogs, but they are hardly our most lethal vice.
Forgetting about the red herrings of disease and driving a car, violent crime has been on a sharp decline since 1991 and tobacco is by far the leading preventable cause of death in this country—16 times greater than guns. If we're truly serious about saving lives, we'd make tobacco control a higher priority than gun control. Regardless, there's no reason not to address all violent crime including that which involves guns.
2) Like any other idea, effective legislation to curb gun violence needs to be sold to garner support.
For years, the right has been woefully inept at selling conservative ideas as a means for the betterment of all and instead allowed themselves to be portrayed as only caring about the wealthy, the unborn, and corporate interests. When it comes to gun legislation, the left has allowed the idea of gun control to define the debate. This has put them in a position of appearing to be in league with all the people who simply don't like guns and don't think they should be a right at all. It's not an effective strategy.
3) Whether or not we agree with the current interpretation of the Second Amendment shouldn't preclude other options from being the primary focus.
There are a number of things we can and should do first and foremost before even thinking about legislation that affects law-abiding gun users. It makes no sense to start with the latter. In the meantime, wouldn't it be nice to pass legislation with minimal resistance from the NRA or at the very least, resistance that isn't defensible?
In that light, here are some ideas that make sense:
1. Harsher penalties for gun crimes
While mandatory minimums are controversial and could be costly, there is no reason we can't encourage prosecutorial discretion and sentencing to be tougher on gun crimes. This means that the only people affected will be those already accused or convicted of committing a crime.
2. Address the illegal gun trade
The data varies, but estimates of how many guns used in crimes are obtained through authorized legal channels range from 3% to no higher than 21%, meaning the vast majority of these crimes are committed with guns obtained illegally.
If we can curb the flow of guns used in at least 79% of these incidents, that will make more of an impact than trying to further restrict legal gun sales.
How would this be done? Obviously illegal gun trafficking would have to be addressed on more than one level, but we would need to start with better access to dealer inventory and more stringent rules for who can sell guns.
A national gun registry is not an option, but there is no reason law enforcement shouldn't be able to access information that manufacturers and dealers (including international) are legally required to keep with a warrant or just cause.
While it is a constitutional right to bear arms, there is no right to be a commercial dealer or for that matter, sell them at all. This might also help corral the perpetrators of the millions of guns obtained in burglaries.
3. Improve mental health access and treatment
It should go without saying that mental health should be a priority regardless of gun issues, but in regard to mass shootings, suicide, and other symptoms of depression and anger, intervention is key.
This is not necessarily the source of most gun violence, but because we are struggling to ensure access to affordable mental health care, this should be a priority and should include drug and alcohol rehab -- especially insofar as it relates directly to violent crime.
4. End the War on Drugs
While the exact numbers are difficult to isolate due to the intermingling of drug use and related crimes inherent in the trade, it is well understood that homicides related to illegal drug trafficking are significant and some estimates run as high as 50%.
Noah Smith writes via The Atlantic:
"Legal bans on drug sales lead to a vacuum in legal regulation; instead of going to court, drug suppliers settle their disputes by shooting each other. Meanwhile, interdiction efforts raise the price of drugs by curbing supply, making local drug supply monopolies (i.e., gang turf) a rich prize to be fought over. Ending the drug war would involve reducing all of these incentives to murder. Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive to wage turf wars. Decriminalization would relieve pressure on our prison system, allowing us to focus on keeping violent people off the streets instead of pointlessly punishing drug users for destroying their own health. "
5. Prison Reform
Smith continues, "stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers," but it doesn't end there. We have one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world and a prison population that's increased by a factor of 8 in the last 30 years.
Prison reform also ties in to mental health and the War on Drugs but there's more. While the increase in prison populations cannot be completely tied to drug offenses alone, it relates to violent and property crime offenders. The role of the drug trade is often camouflaged but regardless, as Stephanos Bibas points out via The National Review:
The criminal-justice system and prisons are big-government institutions. They are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guards’ unions, and they consume huge shares of most states’ budgets. And cities’ avarice tempts police to arrest and jail too many people in order to collect fines, fees, tickets, and the like. As the Department of Justice found in its report following the Michael Brown shooting in Missouri, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” That approach poisons the legitimacy of law enforcement, particularly in the eyes of poor and minority communities.
There is evidence that prison guard unions, along with the rest of the prison-industrial complex, are a major impediment to prison reform, opposing policies that might stop the swell of incarceration. The cost of this continued trend is high and weaves a complex web of intergenerational failure which perpetuates the problem by destroying families without rehabilitation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on policies that make the situation worse.
Fortunately, this is at least one issue that has the kind of support from different camps that we rarely see elsewhere. Both President Obama and the Koch brothers have declared prison reform to be a priority and are joined by the Justice Action Network, a coalition of strange bedfellows including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, as well as the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
It's important to note that recent state reforms aimed at reducing prison populations have lowered imprisonment rates and seen a corresponding drop in crime rates as well, all while cutting costs dramatically. So while it would reduce gun violence, this is one of our most critical courses of action regardless.
6. Background checks
While broad calls for gun control have contributed to polarizing the debate, congressional Republicans appear tone deaf to at least one measure that the overwhelming majority of Americans support. As recently as July of last year, The Hill reported a Quinnipiac poll indicating "ninety-two percent of voters, including 92 percent of gun owners and 86 percent of Republicans, support background checks prior to all gun sales."
The American public is behind them; however, we must remember that legal gun sales are not the primary source of the problem. If we do not coordinate databases -- particularly in regard to mental health issues -- the effort will not be as effective as it needs to be. It would also provide important data on when those who are not allowed to buy a gun through legal channels are attempting to do so.
Along with ending the War on Drugs and prison reform, we should pursue increased gang intervention. Also, if the NRA and GOP won't allow the CDC to do any research on gun violence, perhaps ATF or another agency can.
As strange as it may sound, a wealth-building system to enhance or replace Social Security could go a long way to reducing crime. Finally, if someone could hurry up and invent a phaser we can set on stun, that would probably solve everything.
Fellow IVN contributor Ricky Gandhi nails it: "Talks of effective gun laws get muddled in partisan rhetoric and overly-simplified (or outright false) data. Gun violence in America consists of a plethora of socioeconomic factors that simple solutions cannot solve."
The evidence suggests that the measures above, aimed at a broader range of related issues, have strong support publicly (if not politically) and only one is related to routine legal gun purchases. These would yield major benefits so it makes no sense to start with other restrictions.
If the Justice Action Network can bring together polar opposites for the common good, there's no reason we cannot demand the same from the two parties running our government.