Given that Matt and I are both gun enthusiasts, scientists, and bloggers, and we’re both interested in something being done to prevent mass shootings such as in Newtown, Aurora, and almost one dozen other locations in just the last few years, we decided to host a more formal debate on the issue. I’m taking the side of a more stringent policy specifically on certain types of firearms that I don’t believe should be freely-available to citizens, that is, magazine-fed semi-automatic handguns and rifles. This doesn’t mean I believe in a ban, but simply more barriers to purchase, and simple safety measures to prevent unauthorized use such as in the Newtown shootings. I will start, and Matt will respond in a few days.
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and now Webster, among other mass shootings, have brought the issue of gun control regulation back into the public consciousness, and reignited what appeared to be a dead political debate on the issue of gun regulation. During the presidential debates, questions on gun control resulted in non-committal answers from both candidates, and a universal affirmation of 2nd amendment rights. In the face of 20 dead 6 and 7-year-olds, we can no longer deny that more needs to be done to prevent mass murder by guns. I say this as a gun owner.
The issue of gun control needs to be tailored to address two distinct types of gun violence. One is the mass killing that we have seen at unconscionable frequency over the last decade, the second is the “routine” gun violence associated with violent crime and murder that we experience every day. This gun violence has been tracked more intensively since Newtown, and one estimate from aggregation of news stories is that since Newtown, an additional 588 gun deaths have occurred as of 1/5/13, largely homicides (suicides are more rarely reported). That is approximately one Newtown of deaths daily, but less obvious as the deaths are spread out geographically.
To address these two problems I would propose two major federal restrictions on gun ownership.
(1) Significant restrictions on civilian ownership of magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons is the best way to decrease the frequency, and severity of mass violence.
A criminal background check would be only the start of an evaluation for ownership of these types of weapons, which I believe should include both magazine-fed rifles and magazine-fed handguns, such as used at Virginia Tech, in which a shooter managed to kill almost 30 people in about 10 minutes. These weapons should be restricted to adults over age 21 (or possibly older – Israel restricts possession to 27 if the owner has not served in the military). Sale should require gun safety training certification that is provided by law enforcement (I have received such training and it is useful), or a history of military service, and a subsequent license to own such weapons. These licenses should require renewal every three to five years with repetition of criminal background check, and verification that the weapons are still in the licensee’s possession. Purchasers should have to provide a reason for ownership. It doesn’t have to be a great reason but it has to be better than “I want one.” Sport shooting, hunting, etc., would be legitimate reasons. Preparation for an incipient race war should raise red flags. When not in use the weapons must be stored in a gun safe or trigger locked (or built in fire lock) with civil and criminal liability if the gun is then used by unauthorized persons (children, criminals etc.) who obtained the guns without some minimum barrier to access. Additionally, we should consider adopting strategies used by other countries, such as requiring two other adult, non-criminal citizens known to the individual to “vouch” in a sworn statement that the individual seeking the weapon is an upstanding citizen, not a criminal, and not obviously dangerous (this might have prevented Virginia Tech, Aurora, or the Giffords shooting). Magazines larger than 10 rounds should be illegal, period. Round-stamping technology should be required for all newly manufactured firearms that allows shells to be traced to the weapon that fired it. New weapons should be manufactured with built-in fire lock mechanisms to prevent unauthorized use.
(2) All transfers of firearms should be accompanied by the same level of scrutiny as purchase of a firearm from a federally licensed firearms dealer (an FFL). Guns, like cars, should effectively be titled, so that transfer of firearms results in a background check of the purchaser, paperwork accompanies transfer, and when guns end up in the hands of criminals, as they do every single day, the source of the firearm can be effectively tracked, and the supplier of the firearm to the criminal market punished. Right now, every day, firearms are purchased for sale into the black market. There is almost no investigation of guns back to their source because the NRA has effectively lobbied to make such tracking impossible. This only serves to benefit gun manufacturers, it does not benefit public safety, or law-abiding gun owners, to make it so anyone can dump a gun onto the criminal market with impunity. There is no federal requirement for such background checks, or requirements for records of such sales, and most states do not require any scrutiny of private sale of firearms. While it is illegal to sell weapons to felons, or to the underaged, it’s only illegal to do so “knowingly”, and without background checks, and without a paper trail, these laws are virtually unenforceable. Hence, a thriving illegal gun market that ensures no one, even a criminal, has any difficulty obtaining a firearm. Finally, all gun thefts must be reported to law enforcement (currently not required in all states).
First, let’s address the issue of mass violence.
While it’s true that madmen will always find ways to hurt others, it is clear that ready access to machines designed to kill masses of people have increased the severity of these incidents. A concurrent incident in China, in which a man attacked schoolchildren with a knife, and stabbed 22, was notable for no fatalities. It should be common sense, that machines designed for easy and rapid killing will make mass killing easier, hence safeguards should be in place to prevent easy access to such machines. Such safeguards will not prevent all killing. And much is made by gun rights lobbyists of this fact, but that is not the point. The point is decreasing the severity of such assaults; making it harder, making it rarer for the deranged to kill en masse.
Mass violence is not just a problem in the United States. Similar incidents have occurred in other countries, even mass shootings in countries with significant restrictions similar to what I would advocate. However, the experience of other countries is less in frequency and severity. Yes, other countries have mass violence despite strict gun control, even countries like Norway. However, no other comparable industrialized country has gun violence similar to ours. No you can not compare the United States to Mexico. No, gun control is never perfect. No, we can not prevent all murder, all mass murder, or all violent crime, but we can decrease the death toll.
The recent mass shootings have been had one factor in common. The shooter had access to a magazine-fed semi-automatic weapon (see this google spreadsheet for a summary – the overwhelming majority of the time, semi-automatic weapons have been used for these shootings in the last decade). Fully-automatic weapons – weapons that fire automatically as long as the trigger is depressed – have been banned since 1934. This is an example of a legal, constitutional, federal restriction of a class of arms deemed too dangerous for civilian use. Now we see that semi-automatic magazine-fed weapons are clearly too dangerous for unregulated civilian ownership. These are the same weapons, after all, that we use to equip our military. They have only very questionable sport use, and no sport use requires the use of massive clips or the 100 round drum used by the Aurora shooter.
Restriction of these weapons, barriers to access, civil and criminal liability for negligent storage allowing access of the firearms to the unauthorized may not prevent all mass shootings. Considering how many are already out there, it may even be years or decades before there is an impact, but if that is the case so be it. The deaths from these mass murders, specifically using these types of firearms, is simply unacceptable, and unwillingness to do anything about access to these weapons is no longer a tenable position. It is total denial that we have a problem with access to death machines. We have to change the culture that considers easy access to such weapons acceptable, or civilized.
Second, the issue of guns in violent crime.
The gun lobby in the United States exists to serve gun manufacturers, not gun owners. Hence, they have lobbied extensively to prevent any laws that would result in loss of revenue from sale into illegal gun markets. Yes, I am that cynical about this. There is no good reason that every time a gun is used in a crime, that we shouldn’t be able to track that weapon back to it’s original purchaser. It wouldn’t even require some scary national gun registry that would have every gun nut crying 1984. It’s simple. Manufacturers sell a given firearm to a distributor or dealer. They know which weapons go to which dealer by a serial number which should be on multiple parts of each weapon, internally, (there also needs to be significant improvement in technology to prevent easy defacement of serial numbers, or other mechanisms of unique gun identification – this is possible with multiple existing technologies). One could even conceive of a system in which accessing an interior serial number results in permanent damage to the weapon rendering it useless if so disassembled. Whenever a gun is then used in a crime by someone who has no legal right to own or carry such a weapon (felons, minors, etc.), the police should send the serial number to the manufacturer, who identifies the dealer. The dealer will then have a record of the sale, and who the entry point into the criminal market is.
If a given dealer has a large proportion of weapons they sell entering the criminal market, they should undergo additional scrutiny, or possibly even lose their license. And this should be international. If Mexican drug cartels are found with weapons supplied by american distributors (which they are), those distributors should lose their ability to sell weapons. We have to stop acting as if we aren’t also enabling crime in other countries by the careless dumping of military hardware into other countries as well.
If private sale requires individuals to keep records (hell, you have to keep your tax records for 7 years, we could do as well with guns), and also to require a NCIS background check, any new gun could be traced to point of entry into the criminal market. If you can not explain where your gun went, you should be criminally liable for the act in which your gun was used as an accessory after the fact. To say we can not do this with existing technology, or that we should not devote serious effort for identifying the sources of the illegal gun trade, is simply pro-criminal.
Guns enter the streets every day after legitimate purchases from FFLs, gun shows, straw man sales and private sales. They also leave the streets every day from confiscations, warranted searches, and arrests. The illegal gun market needs continuous inputs of new guns to meet demand. It should also be noted the most recent Webster shooting was by a felon, who by definition has obtained these weapons illegally. I hope they track down whoever is responsible for him getting those guns, and they get put in jail for the murder of 4 firefighters.
We will never stop the routine gun violence we see in cities every day until we permanently disrupt the sale of firearms into the black market. Yes, older guns, guns before implementation of such regulations etc., will be impossible to track, but we can stop new firearms from entering the market, which they do, every single day, likely from a limited set of distributors and straw purchasers. Further, citing all the guns that are already out there as proof no restrictions will work assumes that most of the millions of law-abiding gun owners would routinely sell their firearms to criminals for profit – a notion I reject. These kinds of regulations will also put an additional onus on individual gun owners to take more responsibility for preventing the sale of weapons to criminals, and may even change the culture to reflect that transfer of a gun should be taken very seriously. This should not be a point of contention for gun owners, it should be a point of pride. People that supply weapons to the illegal market should be jailed for the same crime the criminal committed with the gun they bought.
Neither of these two strategies will prevent all gun crime, or all mass shootings. But they will make it harder. Making access more challenging, and giving those who seek access more scrutiny, will dissuade those who seek to do harm from even trying to obtain these weapons. It will not stop the most motivated of individuals, it will not stop all crime, but it will reduce the frequency and severity of the problem, as well as inject some much-needed responsibility into the existing gun markets. No other product that has potential for so much harm is sold with so little oversight, or even liability for misuse, theft or loss.
Finally, some arguments which I will not even acknowledge as worthy of attention:
1. The only thing that stops gun violence is “good guys” with guns – the argument we should arm teachers, arm principles, or place armed guards to prevent mass shootings in school. Or the even more obnoxious “when seconds count” argument.
This is a NRA fantasy. The idea that anyone who is not specifically trained in acting while under fire will prevent these types of shootings is absurd. The people that promote this have seen too many movies. The fact is, even trained police have enormous difficulty facing armed gunmen, hence SWAT teams. Previous incidents, such as the Columbine shootings, had armed individuals on site (an off duty deputy at Columbine), and they failed to stop the shooting, despite exchanging fire with shooters. One also recalls recent firefights with trained police against shooters in which the police ended up shooting more victims than the shooter. The fact is, some minimum-wage schlub, or teacher with a pea-shooter, will be more likely to shoot more kids than hit a gunman, and will not realistically stop this kind of shooting. You are not going to be able to equip all the schools in the country with adequately-trained armed individuals that have a snowball’s chance at stopping some armed lunatic with a semi-automatic. And don’t forget a shooter like in Aurora, who was wearing body armor.
Worse, this assumes the answer to this problem is an arms race, where we respond to the problem of too many guns with more guns, more fences, barbed wire, and higher walls. I don’t want to live in a country where the only solution to problems like these is imprisoning ourselves behind greater and greater security. This is a move in the wrong direction. The paranoid gun fantasy becomes self-promulgating in this situation, eventually the gun crazies will create the world the believe already exists, by virtue of putting guns in every corner, and barbed wire on every building. Yes, then it might become necessary for even teachers to be armed. What a sad world that would be.
2. You can kill someone with a frozen banana, hence assault weapons shouldn’t be banned.
I’m not kidding. I got this one on my blog. It generally goes, “well, you could just use a knife, people are going to kill people.” Well, ok then. Why shouldn’t we legalize C4 then? Fully automatic weapons? Tanks? Anthrax?
No, this is stupid. Making killing easy makes killing easy. Killing should be hard. It’s harder to kill with a knife than an AR-15. It’s harder to kill 20 schoolchildren in 10 minutes with a frozen banana than an assault weapon. Just because there’s more than one way to skin a cat doesn’t mean everyone should own an industrial cat-skinning machine that skins 1000 cats a minute.
3. The 2nd amendment protects us from tyranny.
Again, total fantasy. This is the big lie. There are any number of countries that don’t have our gun craziness that are not run by dictators. Tyranny is yelled so soon, and so often in these discussions that it’s meaningless. On my gun control thread the same person said that guns prevent tyranny and a minute later was talking about how Obama was a tyrant. Anyone see a problem with this? The idea that the US is anywhere near a tyrannical dictatorship is a joke. You people who think this are unreasonable and not worth arguing with, and should really consider looking at countries that actually have tyranny before getting on your free internet, in your free society, where you are free to buy hand cannons, monster trucks, and everyone has the right to vote, and you can chose any job you want, and go anywhere you want or even leave when you want, and start crying tyranny (and guess what – real tyrants don’t let you call them tyrants).
Also, the idea we can stand up to the US military? This is a legitimate threat to the military in the year 2013? Our military so far outclasses us that there is no chance some 10, or 100, or even 1000 person militia armed with AR-15s will be anything but a passing inconvenience. If a truly immoral tyrant came to power, in charge of a nuclear arsenal, sky robots, tanks and aircraft carriers, you aren’t going to stop them with your rifle. Red Dawn was not a documentary people, and you’re again in a fantasy world.
4. It’s crazy people that’s the problem, we need to track them, institutionalize them etc.
Well, maybe we need to swing the pendulum back towards more institutionalization for the mentally ill that are violent, Webster may be an example of this, but this is ultimately extremely challenging. Already, any psychiatrist who encounters someone who they believe is an imminent threat is allowed to notify police, or commit a person against their will. This is then subjected to oversight by a judge etc. We already have systems in place to deal with the mentally-ill and maybe this needs to be tightened. However, are we really capable of identifying who has this potential among the millions with mental illness in this country? Aren’t we scapegoating the mentally-ill who are more likely to be victims of violent crime, and in general, are less likely to commit violent crimes than sane people? I also find it interesting that the NRA, which considers itself a civil-rights organization, is so ready to deny what they consider the most important civil right to the mentally ill(? What kind of due-process is going to go into this?
The mentally-ill as a whole don’t deserve to be grouped with these killers any more than white people, or 18-20 year-olds. The overwhelming majority of the mentally-ill have no capacity for violence like this. It is also extremely difficult to prospectively identify people with this potential, so more than likely attempts to pin this on the mentally-ill are just going to victimize thousands of innocent people who already are demonized, marginalized, and ignored by our society. Now I know the gun crazies are going to say I’m suggesting they should be “victimized” like they’re criminals too. No, I’m saying you should have to do some goddamn paperwork, not that you should be institutionalized for being different, or unfortunate.
5. They already had an assault weapons ban, it didn’t work.
As Matt and I both have pointed out, the assault weapons bans as promoted by demagogues like Feinstein are a joke. They ban scary-looking guns but have no real effect on function or killing-capacity of a given weapon. They are political ploys, not real effective legislation. Anyone who thinks the 1994 assault weapons ban was going to do a damn thing wasn’t paying attention that the bill only regulated cosmetic features of these weapons, not the semi-automatic function, and not the rapid-reloading function, beyond banning clips with > 10 rounds.
6. It’s unconstitutional!
No, it’s not unconstitutional to regulate firearms, the words “well-regulated” are in the freaking amendment. The 1934 automatic weapons ban is constitutional. The stupid 1994 assault weapons ban was constitutional. The Supreme Court only seems to mind when you make it totally impossible to own almost any type of gun. I’m talking about making what is essentially military hardware harder, but not impossible to access, by civilians. Further I think it’s fine for any non-felon, sane civilian to own revolvers, breech-fed rifles and shotguns, and bolt-action weapons without these restrictions. You can still do harm with these weapons, true, but it’s much more difficult than with semi-automatic weapons that can take large-capacity magazines, or even 100-round drums as used in Aurora (which thankfully jammed after 30 rounds).
7. But Israel lets everyone carry guns and they don’t have school shootings.
You don’t know anything about Israel. I actually cribbed most of my suggestions from their gun laws, which require re-registration every 3 years, military service for ownership (before age 27), ammunition limitations etc. They have a great deal of regulation, however, and their citizenry have almost all served in the military – they might actually be able to do something about a shooter, unlike the the NRA fantasists who have most likely never faced a shot fired in anger.
8. It’s because we don’t have school prayer, the students should have rushed the gunman, it’s because God isn’t in schools, it’s video games, it’s feminists, it’s doctors, it’s anti-depressants, it’s the FBI using mind control etc.
Every time there is an incident like this the usual suspects gather to use tragedy to ghoulishly grind their favorite axe. These arguments are unhelpful, and just show how warped some people are by ideological agendas. I have no interest in engaging people who promote these theories as if they have anything valuable to say and I’m not having it on this thread.