Common Ground on Guns is Possible

Another horrible tragedy perpetrated by a madman for reasons as yet unknown. Whatever his motivation, the President’s characterization of the Las Vegas massacre as an act of “pure evil” is probably the most truthful thing he has said in months. Yet before the victims had even been given a proper burial activists, celebrities and politicians were already taking aim at the 2nd amendment and calling for more gun control. It is a sad testament to the state of our country that we cannot refrain from trying to score political points and insult one another for even one day after something like this occurs.  Some people even went so far as to imply that those who attended the country music festival were complicit in their own murders because they might have supported gun rights and voted for Republican candidates. Because of course everyone knows that listening to country music makes you a gun toting ignorant Republican. What is sadder still though, is that there are things we can maybe agree on that could help keep firearms out of the hands of those who would commit such acts in the future but we can never seem to have an honest discussion about them.

Most people in the country, including gun owners do support expanded background checks and would probably support mandatory checks on all firearms purchases, even private ones. Interestingly Nevada, a very liberal state when it comes to guns, had just passed such a law, although apparently the shooter passed those checks anyway so changes in the law nationwide would have had no effect in preventing the tragedy. Still, we could also probably agree on making sure that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has the most up to date information and push for greater reporting of mental health issues. The same could be said of preventing those on a terrorist watch list from purchasing a gun. Of course, because being able to purchase a firearm is a constitutionally protected right, we must have a robust adjudication and appeals system with due process protections for those erroneously put on such lists.

Where things become more contentious on regulating firearms is when we hear calls to ban this or that type of weapon because of some cosmetic feature that people with very little actual exposure to guns find scary. So called Assault Weapons bans seek to prevent citizens from buying rifles with features such as pistol grips, folding or telescoping stocks, and detachable magazines. These calls are odd considering the vast, vast majority of gun crime is committed using handguns, not rifles. It is also odd because the semi-automatic rifles which are not subject to the ban such as the M1A, have almost identical capability as an AR-15, especially for those looking to kill as many innocents as possible. Not having a pistol grip or flash suppressor on a rifle is not going to make a significant difference in how deadly they are to someone looking to target innocent people and who are looking to get killed anyway.

Researchers analyzing the effect of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban found that of all the banned features the only one that would have made an impact on mass shootings was magazine capacity. In this case gun owners do need to be honest and acknowledge that a higher capacity magazine will enable someone to fire more rounds without reloading. However, this would do nothing to stop a person who simply wants to kill as many people as possible, and if they take the time to plan for their heinous act, as many recent shooters have, then practicing reloading will still enable them to kill a great many people. Even using a bolt action rifle, a trained shooter could probably inflict just as much if not more damage because he could sacrifice quantity for quality in terms of shot placement. This is not to give the typical pro-gun argument that because people can circumvent regulations or laws that none should be applied, but we should be aware of the limitations of things like assault weapons bans. Perhaps a compromise would be to limit magazine capacity for rifles at 20 rounds because this would enable the effective lawful use of a semi-auto rifle while making something like a 60-round drum illegal. This would not satisfy those who would have Americans only have access to bolt action rifles and shotguns, but it would probably be a politically feasible proposition that both sides can live with.

We would do better and have a greater chance of finding common ground on this highly polarized issue if we focused on strengthening background checks, especially as it related to mental illness. With the ease of using instant criminal background checks, there is no sound reason to oppose all firearm sales or transfers to require a background check by law at the federal level. Bipartisan bills like H.R. 1217 proposed back in 2015 would address most of the current issues relating to background checks and help us to ease people’s concern about guns without needlessly trying to ban this or that particular type of firearm.  

The NRA did oppose that and similar bills in the past for various reasons, such as a desire to avoid the eventual creation of a national gun registry, but you can be an avid 2nd amendment rights supporter and still believe in wider background checks for firearms transfers. In these cases, it is not only ok for pro-gun people to oppose the NRA, it is probably essential because absent moderate laws relating to firearms use, those who are generally hostile to guns in general become emboldened and ambitious in their proposals. If congress could have put something palatable to both gun owners and public safety advocates to a vote years ago, then we would not have harshly anti-gun laws like those recently passed in California.

Ultimately though, all of these debates and even those calls for more guns in the hands of citizens seem to miss the fundamental point that something is terribly wrong in our society that is feeding these barbaric acts of pure nihilism. Even if inspired by terrorist or other extremist ideologies, the targeting of innocents followed by the taking of one’s life is the act of a person who has given themselves completely unto evil and hatred of life itself. We need to figure out why this is happening and do something about it at a societal level. It probably has to do with alienation and a loss of meaning in our lives, not to mention the lack of familial bonds all over the country. 

The shooter’s brother said so himself, that they were not close. Families are supposed to be able to take care of problems before they become an issue for society. If you see a brother, a son, a cousin going down losing themselves in nihilism or mental illness, you are the one best positioned to intervene. With the loss of family and community seen in the last few decades, people can isolate themselves and sink into an abyss of darkness and despair that can turn them into cold machines of wanton destruction and murder. Whatever we end up doing about guns will mean little if more of these sorts of people slip through the cracks. Remember that absent guns the hater of mankind still has access to acid, knives, cars and the ingredients necessary to make explosives. Those who have given up on life and believe only in death will not be stopped by laws and even a reduction in the number of deaths is still unacceptable if an event still occurs. We must go deeper than guns if we want to live in a world where public gatherings are times of joy and celebration, not fear and mayhem.


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