One week removed from the tragedy of Newtown, and the usual actors have rolled out the usual solutions. Early calls for bans on assault weapons were heard from reliably liberal sources, and demands for more firearms access were heard from reliably conservative sources. Finally, the N.R.A. weighed in with a dramatic condemnation of Hollywood and other cultural influences, and a call for armed security guards in every school. Most of those calling for their favorite solution to gun violence are absolutely certain of a) the certainty of success for that solution and b) the certainty of failure for every other proposal.
How utterly ridiculous and sad.
Many have gone on television to pontificate about how “this time its different” (because, apparently the deaths of first graders is tragic and shocking, but high school and college kids are not); I have my doubts. If this time is truly different, if the horror we felt one week ago is truly strong enough to burn through our collective cynicism, then we will see it in the suggestion and debate of holistic solutions based on the fullness of available data.
First, lets understand what numbers are important in this discussion, because (sadly) it isn’t 27 or even 20.
31,347- The number of firearms deaths in the United States (survey year 2009)
That number is 60% of all murders and suicides in the United States for that year (a percentage that holds up year after year.) And, contrary to what groups like the N.R.A. like to claim, survey, after survey, after survey find that there is a strong positive correlation with firearm availability and total murder rates across the industrialized world. The numbers show that people may find an alternative method for suicide in the absence of a gun, but not for a murder.
But the numbers also show that the way guns are acquired is a contributing factor; nations like Norway and Switzerland have higher rates of gun ownership without the corresponding gun violence we see elsewhere. We have also seen mixed effects when nations adopt blanket bans after mass-shootings. The total gun crime numbers in Australia and the United Kingdom changed little after those nations moved to near-total bans, but we note that both nations had strict rules on firearms purchases prior to the bans. When the United States banned assault weapons and high capacity magazines in 1994, violent crime had already entered a downward trend. That trend continued until the expiration of the ban in 2004 (the following year showing the first increase in violent crime since Clinton’s election.)
But, with regard to those calling for assault weapon bans and the N.R.A.’s own proposals, Columbine happened during the assault weapons ban, and that school had an armed officer on duty. Which makes it more important that we not view mass shootings as the yardstick for success or failure in any piece of legislation. And in consideration of the N.R.A.’s other common talking point, citizens use firearms to defend themselves less than 500 per year (according to an analysis done by the Wall Street Journal). The yardstick we must use, then, is firearms fatalities. And, in the absence of an amendment to the Constitution, we must achieve substantial reductions without an outright ban of all types of ownership.
The United States tried once to ban alcohol, but found reasonable success in regulating its sale by geography, retail method, time, and age of consumer. The Untied States wrestled with a growing epidemic of highway deaths, but did not ban cars. We passed regulations mandating safety equipment (regulations the auto industry fought, then subsequently advertised as their great idea), and we mandated that drivers undergo comprehensive training and licensing.
Why not adopt this notion of regulation as the cornerstone of a balanced and thorough response to the universal problem of gun violence? Why not pass a federal model law, in the mode of the Uniform Commercial Code, that states could vote on individually? Why not also amend current health law to renew our focus on treating (not stigmatizing) mental health? Finally, while we embrace our collective right to play violent video games, watch violent programs, and revel in (or participate with) the reality stars of the prepper or moonshine variety, why not take steps to reassert a level of responsibility in the context and dissemination of media that support those tastes?
In terms of our national approach to gun ownership itself, The Rational Middle would support a model law with the following basic provisions:
- A multi-tier gun ownership licensing scheme, with increasing levels of background check, clearance requirements, training, and gun storage requirements. As an example, someone seeking a top-tier license (which might allow the purchase of assault weapons by a collector or secure target range) might be required to a) pass a deep criminal check b) pass a psychological screening c) pass an approved safety class d) provide proof of secure gun storage.
- Regulation of retail sales of firearms, with a provision for reported person to person sales of firearms given appropriate individual license. As a major component of this provision, ammunition sales should be strictly limited.
- An amnesty (on method of acquisition only) and buyback period for high capacity magazines, modified weapons, and rifled, semi-automatic weapons. Also, a ban on the auction or resale of weapons used in the commission of a crime, or confiscated as evidence in a search. The goal of this provision is simply to effect dramatic reductions on the number of these types available in the United States.
- The imposition of a 100% tariff on all imported weapons to shield U.S. gun-makers from the negative market effects of a diminished domestic market. The allocation of tax credits to help U.S. gun-makers shift production into non-weapons-based markets.
- Finally, the restriction to access all online servers for so-called “first-person shooters” (video games like Call of Duty and Halo) to individuals 18 and older. This is the one cultural element that seems most prominent in the development of a generation of kids with difficulty understanding the real effect of violence, and particularly, firearms violence. Anyone questioning this assertion should take a moment to listen to the chatter coming from the mouths of prepubescent children on these games. It is truly shocking.
Others might have different suggestions, I encourage those be written in the on-blog comments section or directly to Facebook. It is my view that a reasoned look at all of the data on gun use be the starting point for discussion and action by the democracy. Nobody wants to see another Newtown, but I submit that 30,000 gun deaths per year is the ultimate standard that needs to be addressed.
The Rational Middle is listening…