Just six months ago, I wrote “whenever there is mass shooting in the U.S. …the debate about gun violence inevitably ramps up. Gun control advocates demand more restrictions on gun[s]…while Second Amendment proponents argue that bearing arms is a constitutional right and…more restrictions won’t help…”
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Since Orlando, the debate and election-year politics have become even more polarized as legislators and pundits demand “remedies” that may or may not help and legislators fail to find common ground. In a presidential election year with tragedy so fresh in our minds, addressing this issue could be more pivotal than in years past.
The data on guns remains selectively presented by each side, often with rhetoric that indicates more of a reaction to the perception of what the other side wants than reality. Even in the debate surrounding bills that just failed in the Senate, Democrats earned 7 Pinocchios from the Washington Post for arguments in support of gun control. The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, hasn’t said much beyond fighting any restrictions whatsoever and hasn’t proposed a lot more in regard to potential solutions.
As IndependentVoting.org Jacqueline Salit and Kathy Harris pointed out in a recent open letter to the presidential candidates, “communicating across the ideological and partisan divide serves the American people best. The problem is that the culture of our partisan election system makes it difficult, if not impossible, to respond as a unified nation.”
President Obama and most gun control advocates understand draconian gun control is a non-starter. But is that what they secretly want? We’re not mind readers and there are admittedly different interpretations of the Second Amendment, even folks on the fringe calling for its repeal. Still, if Democrats have this hidden agenda, the chances of it coming to pass are negligible.
Likewise, while gun control proponents focus on NRA rhetoric, few gun rights advocates expect unfettered access to any kind of weapons. While the NRA doesn’t offer much in the way of constructive suggestions and often presents info that is equally 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.” Fully automatic assault rifles (not assault “weapons”) have been illegal for years and far too many people don’t understand the difference, or that focusing on these at all is a red herring: the number of rifles of any kind used in U.S. homicides is relatively small.
IVN independent author 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.”
Opinions on gun rights are sharply divided, but in December 2014, Pew Research found longstanding belief in a need for tighter gun restrictions had changed, with 52% saying it’s more important to protect the right to own guns while 46% favored controlling gun ownership. More recently, 63% of Americans now say having a gun in the home makes it a safer place compared with 30% who believe it’s more dangerous.
While we cannot legislate away every tragedy, the key to finding answers is not assuming all legislation is more control. The generic idea of gun control is far less appealing in the abstract than specific measures.
A couple of points for perspective:
1) Mass shootings make headline news even though they are statistically rare and other gun crimes are regularly addressed by anti-gun writers, but they are hardly our most lethal vice. Further, we should start where the most damage is being done.
I won’t mention diseases or driving (more red herrings) but 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 guns and we wouldn’t focus on assault-style weapons and purchases through legal channels, which are used in a small percentage of crimes.
It’s also important to note that while most homicides in the U.S. are committed with guns, having the most guns per capita does not equate to having the most murders; in fact, the U.S. isn’t even in the top 100. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a conversation about guns but we must prioritize and a more comprehensive approach that addresses the causes of violent crime will result in wider-reaching benefits.
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. That may be good for raising money, but it’s a divisive and counterproductive strategy.
3) Disagreement about the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is all the more reason to explore other options.
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. Why start with the latter? If you question the Second Amendment, understand it is still in place and regardless, we should start where the most lives can be saved.
In the meantime, wouldn’t it be nice to pass legislation with minimal resistance from the NRA?
In that light, here are some ideas that make sense:
1. Improve Education
We can start with safe storage and public safety campaigns but we should also train people how to deal with a live shooter. We train kids and adults how to deal with tornadoes and hurricanes, but are less consistent on how to deal with an attacker. Most school plans are centered around a lockdown strategy and much more effort should be put into how that’s executed based on each individual campus. Civilians and security guards as well need strategies for dealing with an armed assailant. The police can also do community outreach.
2. Changing Law Enforcement Strategies to Address Illegal Guns
The data varies, but estimates of how many guns used in crimes are obtained illegally range from 79% to 97%, meaning the vast majority of crimes are committed with guns obtained illegally. Millions of guns are obtained in burglaries.
Illegal gun trafficking has to be addressed on more than one level including better access to dealer inventory and more stringent rules for who can sell guns. While we have the right to bear arms, there is no right to be a commercial dealer. Law enforcement should be able to access information that manufacturers and dealers (including international) are legally required to keep with a warrant or just cause. In Kansas City and Pittsburgh, controlled crackdowns on illegal gun activity led to huge decreases in gun crime.
3. End the War on Drugs
Estimates of how many homicides are directly related to illegal drug trafficking run as high as 50%, not to mention related property crimes.
Noah Smith wrote in The Atlantic:
“[With 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. ”
4. Prison Reform
Smith continues, “stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers.” 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.
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.”
The prison-industrial complex perpetuates a cycle of intergenerational failure by destroying families without rehabilitation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on policies that make things worse. Fortunately, this is at least one issue that has the kind of support from different camps that we rarely see.
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 ACLU and NAACP, as well as the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Americans for Tax Reform. State reforms aimed at reducing prison populations have already lowered imprisonment rates and seen a corresponding drop in crime rates while cutting costs dramatically.
5. Increased Gang Intervention
Gangs and gang membership mostly decreased from 1996-2003 but have since reversed course. The number of gang-related homicides is over 23% nationally but in some urban areas, as much as 35%. It’s also worth noting that the drug trade, prison reform and gang intervention are closely intertwined.
6. 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. More intensive probation strategies could also help.
7. Improve Mental Health Access and Treatment
The National Center for Biotechnology Information points out, while “it is undeniable that persons who have shown violent tendencies should not have access to weapons … connections between mental illness and gun violence are less causal and more complex than current US public opinion and legislative action allow.”
This is not a direct precursor 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 awareness and intervention as well as drug and alcohol rehab, especially insofar as they relate to violent crime.
8. Background Checks
Keeping in mind that legal gun sales are not the primary source of the problem and calls for “gun control” haven’t improved the dialogue, congressional Republicans still appear tone deaf to one measure that the overwhelming majority of Americans support. As recently as July of 2014, 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.”
Still, background checks and “watch lists” must provide due process for those wrongly denied and if we do not coordinate databases, the effort may fall short. Authorities need to gather data on those who are not allowed to buy a gun through legal channels as they may turn to other sources.
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 elsewhere. If the Justice Action Network can bring together polar opposites for the common good, there’s no reason we shouldn’t demand the same from our government.