Saturday, January 19, 2013

You Say That Like It's a BAD Thing

This week the leadership of the National Rifle Association reacted to President Obama’s announcement of planned legislative initiatives and executive actions regarding gun law reform by accusing him of “attacking firearms and ignoring children.”

And, the problem with that is… what, exactly?

I’m not advocating “ignoring children” in the abstract, of course, but let’s think about this for a minute: We’re having this conversation at this moment in history, to be sure, because of the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, which feels specially urgent and painful in large part because so many of the victims were very young children. But the conversation we’re having – or that we should be having, at least in my opinion – isn’t really about gun violence against children, nor about school shootings, nor about mass shootings, because all of those are really just overlapping subsets of the broader, more fundamental problem we need to solve, which is gun violence.


I feel frustrated and conflicted when I hear people address the aftermath of Newtown by calling for reforms in school campus safety or addressing deficiencies in mental health care: Both are serious, important subjects in their own right, and the latter (at least) is a vital and urgent need on simple human grounds, even before you begin considering the potential for the mentally ill to commit violence… but solving either or both of these problems still won’t solve gun violence. The safest schools in the world won’t stop shootings in theaters or at public meetings or at fire-rescue scenes, nor, for that matter, in people’s cars, yards, living rooms, or bedrooms; the best mental health care in the world won’t stop sane people from shooting because they’re angry or drunk or scared or confused.

Guns are such a given in our culture that it takes a(n allegedly) mentally ill person killing children to create (however briefly) a political climate in which we can even talk about guns, but now that we’re in that climate, we should talk about guns. The real crisis at hand is only obliquely about children or the mentally ill; it is entirely, squarely, about guns!

I don’t actually agree with the NRA that the president is “attacking firearms,” by the way, but to the extent that he’s “attacking [public policy around] firearms,” that’s exactly what he should be doing. More specifically, we all need to be “attacking” the ease and suddenness with which so many of us can fire bullets – too often vast numbers of them – at others of us.

It’s not even really about the numbers of guns in U.S. society: As my more conservative friends are quick to remind me, there are countries – Switzerland is a favorite example – with relatively high rates of gun possession that nevertheless have low rates of gun violence. This is true, as far as it goes, but what those countries also have are rigorous systems of registration and licensing, well trained gun owners, and strict regulation of the conditions under which those owners can store, transport, carry, use, or acquire ammunition for their guns. If American gun advocates would agree to Swiss levels of regulation, I’d be willing to consider Swiss levels of gun ownership.

Instead, in U.S. society, we have not just high levels of gun ownership, but high levels of casual gun ownership by people with no particular training in gun law, gun safety, or shooting; we have easy over-the-counter retail access to ammunition in massive bulk quantities (stroll through the ammunition section of a Cabela’s store if you don’t think so); and we have almost no impediments to easy, quick access to loaded, ready-to-fire firearms in the heat of the moment.

That last is probably considered a Feature, Not a Bug™ by gun advocates – “Of course I need to carry a loaded gun, or keep one in my nightstand drawer; how else can I depend on it for self defense?” – but instances of legitimate self-defense uses of firearms are about as rare as mass shootings.

What isn’t rare, sadly, is the use of guns in against family members or intimate partners, nor is the use of guns in other sorts of interpersonal disputes or unpremeditated crimes or suicides or, perhaps most tragically, accidental or unintended shootings. And none of this even takes into account all the times a gun is used to threaten, intimidate, or coerce without ever being fired.

The extensive and perversely quasi-military preparation demonstrated by some recent mass shooters drives home the point that mass shootings are premeditated events, so new restrictions on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines, which could hinder shooters' ability to plan and provision a military-style attack, might well do some good in preventing them or lessening their impact.

But far more often, gun violence is not premeditated, and springs instead from the ease with which people can lay hands on a firearm in their worst moments of fear and rage and despair and weakness. Too much of gun violence is about the gun itself elevating bad moments to violent moments, or elevating violent moments to lethal ones… and banning big magazines and guns with flash suppressors won’t fix that. We need more.

I support essentially all of the president’s proposals, but presidents are constrained by political realism in ways that mere bloggers are not, so let me take a stab at what I think we really need:
  1. A ban on private ownership of any weapon or combination of weapon and magazine capable of firing more than 8 shots without reloading (which allows for existing 8-shot revolvers), with limited exceptions for weapons permanently stored at a licensed shooting range and never removed from those premises.
  2. Mandatory personal licensing for gun purchasers, with, at a minimum, the requirement to pass a written test on the basics of gun law and safety (i.e., similar in scope and detail to tests commonly required for a driver’s license).
  3. Universal background checks for all gun license applicants, to screen out felons, individuals identified as terrorists, and those with a history of mental illness associated with violence (note that I do not think all mental illness should be automatically disqualifying; we need to be careful not to unnecessarily stigmatize the mentally ill, nor to infringe on their rights beyond what is strictly required by compelling public safety concerns).
  4. Registration of every firearm purchase, whether at retail or in a private sale, at the seller’s responsibility, including the name and residence (or place of business) of both buyer and seller and certification that the buyer is licensed to purchase a firearm.
  5. Similar registration of every purchase of more than 50 total rounds of ammunition at a time, whether at retail or in a private sale.
  6. A requirement that guns be stored, unloaded, in a locked enclosure when not in use, and that ammunition be stored in a separate locked enclosure.
  7. Strict responsibility on the part of gun owners to know where their guns are at all times, and to keep them out of the hands of others, except under the direct supervision of the personal owner.
  8. The obligation to report the loss or theft of a registered firearm in a timely fashion (i.e., within a legally specified time measured in hours or days, rather than weeks or months), with failure to do so resulting in loss of license and potential criminal liability for any crimes committed with unreported lost or stolen guns (penalties proportional to the severity of the crime).
  9. No right to carry a weapon in public, whether open or concealed, except when legally hunting; exceptions limited to law enforcement, military personnel, and specially licensed security professionals as directly required by the performance of their duties (e.g., just being a cop doesn’t mean you can automatically carry when off duty).
  10. A requirement that weapons being transported (e.g., between home and shooting range or hunting location) are unloaded and locked, with ammunition stored separately in a locked container.
I anticipate the hair-on-fire responses: How can we stockpile firepower as a bulwark against tyranny? And how can we have our guns at the ready to defend our homes and families?

Well, you can't. But the first — the notion that it's feasible to take on the might of a modern nation-state with personal arms — is nothing but a gun fanboyperson's wet dream, anyway, no matter how many times they remake Red Dawn. And there's every reason to think personal gun use for self-defense is both rarer than advocates would have you believe and usually illegal or undesirable when it does happen.

What my proposals do, collectively, is ensure that nobody can simply grab a gun and start shooting without training, purpose, or forethought; that society has a fighting chance to keep guns out of the hands of those whose history demonstrates they can't be trusted with them; and that when guns are diverted from their known, legal owners, we at least know they're missing. I'm suggesting that gun sellers ought to be held responsible for knowing who they're selling do, and that gun owners ought to be held responsible for knowing where their guns are and what they can, may, and should do with them. Anybody got a problem with that?

What my proposals do not do is ban any guns by type (as long as you can't fire more than 8 shots, and can only do that at a range or similar, I don't much care how many times you have to pull the trigger or what the gun looks like), or confiscate any guns, or prevent any law-abiding "sportsman" from owning guns for hunting, shooting sports, or collecting (though collectors of functional guns might need to invest in locking display cases).

Our streets ought not be free-fire zones, anymore than our schools or our movie theaters or our military bases or our houses of worship should be. Not for the "bad guys," but not for the (nonprofessional) "good guys," either: Flying bullets don't become any less lethal as a result of the virtue or good intentions of the people who fire them.

If you think saying all this means you think I'm "attacking firearms," I guess I'm doing so proudly.

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