Guns in America (part 1)
In the tragic aftermath of yet another mass shooting, this one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’ve decided to start work on an open-ended series of posts about guns in America and, more particularly, where we go from here. I’ll be honest: The shooting really, really shook me, seemingly more than other people with whom I’ve discussed it; that’s not to say that they weren’t shaken as well, but it seems to have hit me even more strongly. Did I lose family members? No. I’d never even heard of Newtown before. But I think that because I’ve been so worried about gun violence in America, I was sort of hyper-sensitized to the issue. I don’t know. I do know that I’ve been writing about and advocating for stronger gun control laws for a long time. It seems that it took the death of 20 young children to force this discussion to the fore.
Anyway, pardon this first post if it’s a bit disjointed. I wrote most of it very late Friday night before taking a break. I thought about taking the time to refine and research, but in the end I’ve decided just to finish a few thoughts and post. There’s time enough in the days, weeks, and months ahead to get into more details.
Before I can drive a car I have to meet several requirements. First, I have to be of a certain age. Second, I have to have attended some kind of school to learn not only how to drive but also the rules of the road. Then I must go through a probationary period before I can get my license. During that probationary period, I have to practice my driving skills, usually in the company of an adult relative. Once my probationary period is over, I have to take a test. Usually the test measures both my knowledge of the rules and my abilities as a driver. If I pass both parts of the test, I am eligible for a license.
But the requirements don’t stop there. That license must be renewed every few years. If I do things wrong during the term of the license I may either lose it altogether or when it’s time to renew it, I may have to take those tests over again. Furthermore, I have to demonstrate, as a condition of my license, that I have insurance that will pay for damage to others that I may cause while driving. My license may also have restrictions on it. For example, my license may require that I wear glasses or contacts while driving; my license may provide that I am ineligible to drive at night. And my license only allows me to drive certain types of vehicles. If I want to drive a motorcycle or a big truck, I have to get a different license. If I want to drive a bus or a passenger van or a limo in which I will be transporting others, I have to get yet a different license.
And then let’s look at the vehicles themselves. They must have seat belts and I have to wear my seat belt. In most (many?) states, if I ride a motorcycle, I must wear a helmet. The car must have airbags. It must meet fuel standards and emissions standards. I can’t drive with a child in the front seat and the child must be properly secured in an approved child safety seat. The car must have certain lights to show other drivers what I’m planning to do (turn signals) or that I’m slowing down (brake lights). And I’m obligated to use that turn signal, to stop at certain traffic signals, not to change lanes at certain times, and on and on and on.
We also have license plates on our cars that help both the police and other drivers identify us as we drive around. Furthermore, we’ve empowered our police to drive around and watch for unsafe driving or driving that violates the law. We’ve given our police the ability to look at a license plate to see if the car has been stolen or if the driver ought not to be behind the wheel. We allow our police to periodically set up road blocks to be sure that drivers aren’t drunk. And, of course, we don’t let people drive when they’ve been drinking.
And why do we have all of those rules? Because cars are dangerous. They can hurt people. With many cars on the roads, we need sensible rules to be sure that our roads aren’t the scene of absolute chaos and mayhem. We need to be sure that when things go wrong, that we’ve minimized the risk of death or serious injury. And we’ve designed a system to be sure that drivers are in a position to be responsible (financially) for the damage or injuries that they’ve cause (and, in most states, we’ve created a state system to step in when a driver didn’t have the mandated insurance).
We can’t stop all injuries and damage caused by the careless or improper use of cars. But we have worked to minimize it and create a system of responsibility.
But cars aren’t built for the express purpose of killing people.
And yet we have far less regulation concerning guns.
Which is easier to obtain: A gun license or a driver’s license? So far as I know, to get a gun license, you don’t have to go to school or take classes. You don’t have a probationary period before you get your license. You aren’t tested on the rules or your skill in using the weapon. To get your license, you don’t have to provide proof of insurance to cover what you might do with that gun. Your license doesn’t restrict the kinds of weapons that you can use. In fact, I believe the only limitation is whether you are permitted to carry a concealed weapon. You may have to undergo a background check before you purchase a gun, but only if you buy one at a licensed gun store and not if you purchase one from a friend or at a gun show. Now we do provide that there are a few places where you can’t take your gun (but query how anyone will know if it’s concealed) and if you use your gun in some situations you may have committed a crime. Of course with so-called “stand your ground laws” all you have to do is claim self-defense or that you were trying to prevent a violent crime and your use of the gun may be unassailable.
Furthermore, we have very little regulation of the guns themselves. Yes, we have a prohibition on fully automatic assault rifles, but apparently it’s quite easy to purchase the parts (at a gun show) to get around this prohibition. But we don’t require that guns have trigger locks. We allow people to purchase body armor and ballistic shielding. Even more amazing, we have almost the opposite of fuel and emissions standards, in that we allow such things as armor piercing bullets and high-capacity magazines, things specifically designed for no purpose other than to enhance the ability to kill other people.
And guess what? Guns do kill people. Lots of people. Children, too. Kindergarteners learning their ABCs.
I don’t know (and I don’t have time to do the research), but I’d be willing to bet that there are 10 times more laws and regulations that come into play for the school bus that takes those children to and from school than there are for the guns that made sure that they never arrived home.
And that is sad.
It’s a tragedy.
It’s a shame.
And it’s something that we can — we must — do something about.
Will new laws and regulations stop every gun death? No. But might they reduce the violence. Perhaps. But can you look at the parents of those children gunned down yesterday and say that you weren’t willing to try? Should your children be scared to go to school, your wife scared to go to the mall, your family scared to go to a movie, because someone might have easy access to an assault rifle?
Think about this: A terrorist tried to hide explosives in his shoe, so now we all must take off our shoes before flying. Fertilizer can be made into bombs, so have detailed reporting requirements for the purchase of certain types of fertilizer. Sudafed can make drugs, so it’s not available over the counter anymore. Banks have to report certain types of cash transactions to stop money laundering. Even fireworks are subject to stringent licensing and illegal in many states.
But we’ve been unwilling to even consider similar types of reasonable gun regulations to stop the flood of gun violence on our streets, in our homes, in our shopping malls, in our movie theaters, in our houses of worship, and in our schools.
So what kind of reasonable restrictions and regulations might we think about adopting?
First, what’s wrong with education and testing before we issue gun licenses? Why not be sure that those who are going to acquire a gun know how to use it safely? Why not ask that they are aware of the laws of where they can have the gun and where they can’t? Why not require some small measure of competence so that if the person does find themselves in a position to use the gun, innocent bystanders aren’t at an even greater degree of risk? And as a brief aside, before you say “Second Amendment”, let me remind you that the Second Amendment makes specific reference to a “well-regulated militia”. Couldn’t the licensing and education component of a gun license be considered part of that “well-regulated” notion?
What about a probationary period? Perhaps people should have to wait six months or year after they learn how to use a gun before they’re allowed to purchase one. Or perhaps they should be required to shoot at least some number of rounds at a shooting range with a competent instructor. And maybe that instructor should also teach some simple gun safety lessons, especially ones aimed at being sure that children don’t have access to their parent’s guns.
When you get a driver’s license, you have to take an eye exam and your license may show a restriction on the basis of the results. I don’t know if there are other sorts of medical conditions that are investigated or noted in the driver’s licensing process. But what’s wrong with requiring some kind of medical examination with regard to gun licensing? An eye exam seems to make sense in the automobile arena because the obvious relation between poor vision and the probability of making a driving error as a result. Given that so many people who use guns to commit acts of mass violence appear to have mental illness of one form or another, why not require the gun licensing process to include a simple exam to look for evidence of mental illness? Is that unreasonable? (And perhaps that could lead to better efforts to try to help people with mental illness, but that’s a discussion for a later post.)
And why, under any circumstances, should someone be able to avoid a background check when purchasing a weapon? The very notion that someone can avoid a background check simply by purchasing their weapon from an unlicensed dealer at a unregulated gun show seems so ludicrous as to be … um … ludicrous. Gee, I’m a felon with a history of mental illness so I can’t buy a gun at a gun shop, so I’ll just go to the gun show, avoid the background check, get myself a high power assault rifle and, while I’m there, I may as well buy the kit to convert it to full auto!
For that matter, did you know that even if you’re on the governments terrorist watch list you can still buy a gun? Seriously. Even al-Quaeda is aware of this loophole; they’ve written about it in their training manuals!
What a great world, huh?
From what I’ve read, even a majority of NRA members support eliminating the gun show loophole. So you’d think that would be an easy change to make. Wouldn’t you?
Maybe we should also think about things to make law abiding gun owners take a bit more care of their guns. For example, we could require them to keep a trigger lock on the gun when it’s in the home. You know, so that when their five-year-old finds the gun he can’t accidentally kill a friend. Or maybe we should make it a crime, punishable by significant jail time, if your gun is used (or maybe even touched) by a child. I’m sure that people worried about defending their homes from an intruder can still find a place to keep their gun where a small child can’t find it. We have very strict laws and punishments for underage drinking or even possession of alcohol (not to mention drugs); so why not have similar laws for children or the parents who enabled the child to have the weapon?
And why not a concept like “gun insurance”? Folks on the right love to talk about letting the market control things. Well, how would the insurance market change the gun industry and gun culture? Hey, we could build in exceptions for use of guns to prevent tyranny and stuff, but it seems to me that if your gun hurts someone (other than in real self-defense), than you should pay for those damages. If your gun is stolen and you don’t report it immediately (24 hours?), then you remain responsible. If you want a gun license, you need to present proof of insurance. If you want to purchase a gun, you have to present proof of insurance covering the type of gun you’re buying. Thus, a hunting rifle would probably have a lower premium than a Bushmaster .223.
While I understand the Second Amendment provides a right to bear arms, it says nothing about the right of the government to tax. So, for example, why not impose an enormous tax on guns (or at least certain classes of guns). Or, perhaps, we limit the tax to ammunition. The Constitution says nothing about the right to buy bullets. You want bullets but don’t want to pay the tax? Make your own. And why don’t we track ammunition sales, especially sales made in bulk? We track fertilizer sales. We track sales of Sudafed. But not bullets? That’s insane.
I suspect that many of the people who oppose additional gun regulations are the same people who favor racial profiling for crime prevention. Why then shouldn’t the police be able to use information on the sale of weapons and ammunition to help profile, anticipate, and maybe even prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary School?
And of course, the obvious elephant in the proverbial room is the types of weapons and equipment that are available. I’ve written before about what the Founding Fathers knew of when the wrote the Second Amendment. There is an enormous difference between a single-shot, muzzle-loading, flint-lock rifle and a 30-shot, semi-automatic assault rifle with armor piercing bullets wielded by a person clad in body-armor. Why do we allow individuals the ability to purchase and possess military-grade hardware? It’s not for hunting. And I doubt that these high capacity assault rifles are really that much use for individual defense against a burglar or rapist. Instead, I think that part of the allure of these weapons is the Red Dawn fantasy of standing up to tyranny (a subject that I’ll discuss more another time). But consider the true effectiveness of that Bushmaster .223 or any other assault rifle against an RPG, Abrams battle tank, drone with Hellfire missiles, F-18, stealth bomber, or any of the host of other weapons possessed by our military.
It seems to me that it is more than reasonable to limit the types of weapons that we allow. Similarly, it’s more than reasonable to restrict possession of expanded capacity magazines and things like armor piercing bullets. To those who ask where we draw the line, I’d respond in kind. Where do we draw the line? Why aren’t all explosives permitted? Can I walk down the street with an RPG or flamethrower? Am I allowed to own a sniper rifle with a range in excess of a mile? Can I have my own drone armed with missiles? A tank? Why not? Where are you drawing your line?
Yes, I like action movies and books. Maybe more than many. I’m a fan of Rambo and Reacher, Rain and Bourne, and all the others like them. But to those who think of themselves as a virtual superhero who, if confronted by a gun-wielding assailant could step in and rescue the day with their own gun … dream again. Sure, there might be some people out there with the training and skills to successfully intervene. But I’d be willing to bet that the crossfire would be as bad as or probably worse. Just look at the recent shooting in New York where the police shot several (9?) innocent people in the chaos and confusion. More guns on our streets will not make us safer. And guns in our classrooms? Seriously. Fuck no.
I’ve got more to say on the subject. Lots more. But it’s late. I’m tired and almost unbearably sad. Hopefully this post will be but the first of a many on the subject. More importantly, hopefully the thoughts at the core of this post will be echoed and repeated in other venues by other writers and by our elected leaders. Hopefully, the deaths of those children will lead to real change and a safer America.
Let me finish tonight with one last thought: If you agree with me that it’s time for the implementation of additional, reasonable gun regulations, then please don’t just nod your head as you read this. Pick up the phone and call your legislators (both state and federal). Right them a letter or send them an email. And then do it over and over again. Tweet them. Post on their Facebook wall. And tell your friends to do the same thing. Should you happen to be a member of the NRA, tear up your membership card and send the dues you would have paid next year to an organization like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
We can make a change. But only if we work at it. Only if we raise our voices. Only if we make our politicians understand that we’ve had enough. Only if we make it starkly clear that it’s time for them to prioritize our safety and the safety of our neighborhoods and schools over the blood money that they get from the NRA and the gun lobby. The power is ours. It’s time to exercise it. Now. Loudly.
Because if we don’t, then the next shooting might be closer to home. And then who will you have to blame? If your loved one doesn’t come home from the mall or movie or school and you didn’t call your Congressman… Answer that one on your own.