It seems that now, in the immediate wake of the latest domestic mass shooting, which occurred in the immediate wake of the one before that, is a propitious time to offer a few thoughts on the ever-recurring gun control debate.
Sadly, what to do about our staggering rate of gun deaths has become perhaps the most procrustean of all of our debates. Everyone believes they are right. Nobody ever changes his mind.
That said, I would think that everybody could agree on one basic fact. For whatever reason(s), too many people in America lose their lives to guns. Our average, per capita annual gun death rate is 3.2 people per 100,000 people. That is more than 400% higher than the second highest first-world country (Italy), 600% higher than Canada, and over 3,000% higher than Britain.
I can certainly concede that there may be causes for this other than guns. Our mental health system could be improved, and we are less homogenous than other countries. However, it is simply not credible to say that the ease with which virtually anyone can buy a weapon of mass destruction, a killing machine, is not a significant contributing factor to the carnage we see.
So what can we do?
First, before we formulate a package of policy proposals, we must acknowledge the Second Amendment. I may not have agreed with the Heller decision, which granted a constitutional right to personally own a gun. The court has been vague about the contours of that right, and just today refused to review a case upholding Chicago’s ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. Nonetheless, any restrictions must be thoughtful, modest, and effective, not only for political reasons, but for constitutional ones as well.
But no constitutional right is absolute. The First Amendment confers a right of free speech in a much clearer and less ambiguous way than the Second Amendment’s right to a gun. Yet there are lots of restrictions on speech that the courts have upheld using a balancing test which weighs the state’s interest in any law that impinges on a right against the impact on the right itself. In other words, a restriction on guns is likely to be upheld if it effectively serves a compelling state interest and has a comparatively minimal impact on law-abiding gun owners.
There are a number of laws that would meet that balancing test. Perhaps the most pressing is a limit of one-gun-per-month (“OGPM”) on gun purchases. The way most people who can’t legally buy guns of their own, either because they have mental health or criminal justice issues that preclude gun ownership or because they are juveniles, is through “straw purchasers.” These are people who make a living by going into a gun story and legally buy 40 or 50 cheap handguns at a time. They then sell them on the street at a profit. If they could only buy one gun per month, this would no longer be a financially feasible career path.
OGPM would allow a married couple to buy 2 guns per month, or 24 guns per year, every year. It is hardly a radical plan to disarm America. It also doesn’t depend on criminals choosing to follow the law, which is an argument against gun control laws generally. It would have an imperceptible impact on most legitimate gun owners, and would prevent thousands of bad people from easily buying guns every year.
I personally think that bans on assault weapons aren’t all that effective. Guns are so diverse that nailing down a precise definition hasn’t proven to be particularly useful. However, limiting the number of rounds a magazine could hold, to 8 or 10, would make a huge difference. Most mass shootings end when the shooter runs out of ammunition or has to stop to reload, allowing intervention. No legitimate gun owner needs to be able to fire 100 rounds to hunt or protect his home. This sort of fire-power has one purpose only: to kill lots of people very quickly. The state has a legitimate interest in stopping that.
Obviously, background checks are critical. It seems like a no-brainer that before we allow someone to buy a machine capable of killing dozens of people in seconds, we should know if they are dangerous. Over 90% of Americans, including over 75% of NRA members, agree with this, yet we’ve been unable to get it passed.
The reasons that the obvious, common-sense gun restrictions can’t pass include the excellent job the NRA has done in building a political infrastructure to support its position. For too long people who support restrictions have believed that because they are right, they should win. That’s just not how politics works. It is only recently that people such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have begun building the necessary infrastructure to compete with the NRA.
The other major reason for inaction on gun legislation is that, in my view, guns have become a proxy war for other things. Many Americans are upset at the changes they see. They are upset that the America they knew (or at least imagined) is changing. America is become more racially and ethnically diverse. The culture is changing. And this breeds fear and resentment. Guns have become the line in the sand. It doesn’t matter how reasonable or modest the restriction, there will be no compromise. Logic doesn’t matter. This is no longer a political issue. It is a theological issue.
All of this is beyond tragic. The violence we see on American streets is nothing short of wholesale butchery. Any one of us could be a victim. If we can’t work together to solve this problem, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of our nation.