Blog No. 81. What to Do About Guns and Shootings?

In the wake of the most recent mass shooting, the tragedy in Roseburg, Oregon, we saw the usual flurry of demands for better gun control. No one spoke more passionately on the subject than President Obama and many of us could share his anger and frustration. Yet critics pointed out, correctly, that he proposed no particular legislative action and it is not clear that any of the previously proposed laws that failed in Congress would have prevented either the Roseburg shooting or others with which we are all too familiar.

The political landscape is not encouraging for consideration of stricter gun control laws. The  power of the NRA has not only dominated the Republican Party but cowed many Democrats as well. And while the NRA does not represent the views of all gun owners by any means, the gun culture is deeply embedded in many parts of the country. A 1997 Department of Justice survey reported that:

Gun ownership (and handgun ownership) was highest among middle-aged, college-educated people of rural and small town America. But one of the best predictors of gun ownership was the presence of firearms in the respondent’s childhood home. People whose parents possessed guns were three times as likely as others to own one themselves. In fact, 80 percent of all gun owners reported that their parents kept a firearm in the home.

It is perhaps not surprising that Bernie Sanders, representing a rural state with a long established tradition of gun ownership, has been less inclined to support gun control than Hillary Clinton.

For our part, support of gun control has been one of our advertised heresies since the founding of Yet, with minor exceptions, we have not paused to suggest specific actions that should be taken or at least seriously considered. We thought that it might be useful to do so now although it seems unlikely that anything in the way of stricter gun control will be adopted any time soon.

While mass shootings are the most prominent source of public outrage (and were the stimulus for this post), they are clearly only part of the issue. Other aspects include street crime, domestic violence and suicides. The related issues of mental health and threat assessment will also be addressed.


Registration and Licensing

We believe that the heart of effective gun control would be a system of universal licensing and registration. Licensing and registration have long been required for motor vehicles and have not been regarded as infringing the privacy or civil liberties of owners and operators of the vehicles. Given the nature of guns, licensing requirements for guns may be more stringent in some respects, but the basic model is vehicle licensing and registration. Such a system would be a vast improvement over the present system of background checks administered by gun dealers

Background Checks.  Subject to a significant loophole, current federal law requires a background check prior to purchase of a firearm from gun dealers, who are federally licensed. The loophole exempts “private sales,” i.e., sales from non-dealers at a gun show or elsewhere. We support closing this loophole as called for in legislation that was proposed after the Sandy Hook school shooting (and more recently by Hillary Clinton). But even when a background check is conducted under the current federal law, it is limited to checking various data bases under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The NICS covers several categories of persons prohibited from purchasing a handgun. Specifically, it bars sale to a person who:

    • Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
    • Is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
    • Is a fugitive from justice;
    • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
    • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
    • Is illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
    • Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
    • Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship;
    • Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner;
    • Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence

Identifying and screening out individuals in those specified categories is obviously worthwhile, but the process is still relatively superficial. Such database screenings will inevitably fail to turn up many prospective purchasers who have “stayed under the radar” but who nevertheless pose a potential risk as gun owners or users. For example, a person with a history of domestic abuse, but who is not under a current court order will not be turned away. Investigations in greater depth by local law enforcement agencies are required by many jurisdictions in order to issue a license (and particularly a license authorizing the carrying of a weapon away from the business or residence of the owner). The effectiveness of point-of-purchase checks could be greatly enhanced by requiring proof of a valid license that meets prescribed federal standards.

Licensing. Licensing of guns has been, and should remain, a state responsibility.  However, there is a clear precedent for federal and state cooperation. Current federal law exempts gun dealers from conducting an NICS check in the case of purchasers who have a state license that meets federal standards. There are presently twenty-two states whose licensing or permit laws qualify for the exemption.

Laws requiring a license or permit in order to purchase a firearm are commonly referred to as “Permit-To-Purchase” (PTP) laws. Such laws are in effect in 13 states and three — Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — have the kind of “discretionary” PTP laws most effective at saving lives and curbing gun trafficking. The key element of a discretionary PTP system is that local law enforcement has the authority to deny permits when a person who would pass a federal background check still poses a potential danger. In June, Rep. Chris Van Hollen introduced legislation that would establish a grant program that would provide an incentive for states to adopt PTP laws. The law does not spell out in detail the licensing procedure to be followed by a grantee state, but does specify that it involve fingerprinting and a photograph.  On the whole, the bill is rather tepid—participation by states is entirely voluntary—but is thought unlikely to prevail over opposition from the NRA.

Registration. Only a few states have any form of law requiring registration of guns, and there is no comprehensive federal registration system. Federal law does require licensed firearms dealers to maintain records of gun sales, including information about the firearm(s) being purchased, as well as the purchaser.  Additionally, the National Tracing Center maintains data on gun purchases that can be made available to law enforcement agencies. Current law, however, prohibits the federal government from maintaining a fully automated data repository, and without such a system gun tracing is a slow, cumbersome process. Moreover, there is no requirement for data collection and retention in the case of private sales.  A comprehensive and automated registration system at the federal level would have several advantages. Chief among them, it would help prevent gun trafficking and “straw purchases” which involve a person who is able to pass the NICS check purchasing a weapon for an individual who could not. A more difficult question arises as to whether a federal registration requirement should be extended to cover not only guns at the time of purchase but weapons already owned. Such an expansion would clearly make the registration regime more effective but might be difficult to administer and would be even more difficult to achieve from a political standpoint.

The NRA has fiercely resisted any requirement of gun registration on the grounds that it could facilitate gun confiscation. The short answer to that, apart from the fact that any such confiscation would be politically impossible, is that it would be barred by the the Second Amendment. Advocates of gun rights routinely cite–in our view, often mis-cite–the Second Amendment in opposing virtually any form of gun control, but in this instance the Amendment clearly belies their argument.

Assault weapons.  Assault weapons have various definitions and the very use of the term is opposed by the NRA. In general, an assault weapon is a rifle or pistol that is semi-automatic, has a detachable magazine and one or more specified military features. (Such weapons require a trigger pull for each round and should not be confused with fully automatic weapons, which discharge multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. (The latter, along with machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns and grenades, are closely regulated under the National Firearms Act).

A federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004 and an attempt to renew it in 2013 (after the Sandy Hook massacre) failed in the Senate. In some states such weapons are banned, in others they are subject to the same licensing and registration requirements as handguns, and in others they are entirely unregulated. We would support a ban on such weapons, but if they are not are not barred, we believe that they should be subject to the most stringent licensing requirements. For example, in some jurisdictions, obtaining a license to carry a handgun requires passing a gun safety test, personal interviews and detailed written references from individuals who have known the applicant for a specified period of years and can attest to his/her moral character.

Ownership of multiple guns. One of the problems apparent in several mass shootings was the ownership of multiple guns by the perpetrators, and this is one of the most difficult areas to address. No federal or state law regulates the number of guns an individual may own. Federal law does require dealers to report sales of two or more handguns within five consecutive business days. Three states (California, Maryland and New Jersey) and the District of Columbia have laws limiting handgun purchases or sales to one per month. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, such laws have been shown to be effective: “Virginia’s one-gun-a-month law – which was in effect from 1993 to 2012 and prohibited the purchase of more than one handgun per person in any 30-day period – significantly reduced the number of crime guns traced to Virginia dealers.”  Such limitation could be incorporated in the licensing laws of other jurisdictions, but the fact that the NRA was successful in getting the limit repealed in Virginia reflects the difficulty of doing so.  Still more difficult would be using an expanded registration and licensing requirement to limit an individual’s existing inventory of weapons.

Mental Health

Whenever gun control is discussed in the context of mass shootings, many who oppose enhanced gun control measures argue that the real answer lies not in regulating guns, but in addressing mental health issues. We agree that there are important mental health issues that need to be confronted and resolved, but we see that as an important companion, and not a substitute, for more effective gun control.

In seeking to prevent the mentally disturbed from turning to gun violence, those currently on the front line are federal and state threat assessment teams. At the federal level, the FBI has established a unit at Quantico, Virginia, staffed by law enforcement personnel and psychologists. In 2013, Attorney General Holder credited the unit with having prevented 150 shootings in one year. Nationally, the growing attention given to threat assessment is reflected in the membership of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals which has twelve chapters in cities and states across the country. Then, last year, the American Psychological Association launched the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Mark Follman has written a well-researched and informative article on the history of threat assessment, “Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter.” Follman identifies causes of the increase in mass shootings, including social media and the copycat effect, as well as describing the techniques employed by threat assessment teams to prevent such occurrences. It seems clear to us that threat assessment  is an area of vital importance that deserves far greater public awareness and support.

It also seems clear to us that, quite apart from the problem of gun violence, we have failed to respond adequately to the challenge of mental disorders in our population. Indeed, the consequences of that failure are broader and, in the aggregate, even more important than the scourge of mass shootings. An excellent introduction to our mental health system and its deficiencies is provided by the American Action Forum in “Primer: Navigating the Mental Health System.” The article begins by with a terse summary:

The systems of mental health available in America today are incomplete, complex, and counterintuitive. Attempting to trace the paths to gaining mental health care in America is difficult, even for an individual who is not in the midst of a mental health crisis.

And it concludes with a summary of the consequences:

In 2012, 9.6 million Americans suffered from mental illness, yet nationally only 108,000 psychiatric beds were available. About one-third of these beds were reserved for ‘forensic’ patients—mentally ill criminal defendants who have not yet stood trial, or sex offenders who have completed their sentence but are not mentally stable enough to be released. Each year about 44 percent of Americans receiving disability insurance because they are unable to retain employment report suffering from mental illness. Each year 200,000 mentally ill individuals become homeless. Predominantly non-violent crimes, such as causing a public disturbance, result in about 2 million arrests, and the long-term imprisonment of 356,000 mentally ill individuals. And each year, 34,000 untreated Americans suffering from mental illness commit suicide.

Improving gun control is a daunting task, and improving our treatment of mental illness may be even more so, but both are surely worth the effort.

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Some readers may recall Blog. No. 37 wherein we recounted our devotion to the Chicago Cubs spanning seven decades. We are among the small (and annually diminishing) group of living Americans who have seen the Cubs play in a World Series. We recently had high hopes that this elite club was about to be vastly expanded, but a stunning collapse at the hands of the New York Mets brought a sudden end to their otherwise brilliant season: Sic transit gloria parvi ursi. But, in a more familiar phrase, Wait’ll Next Year!

CUBS logo

8 thoughts on “Blog No. 81. What to Do About Guns and Shootings?

  • Many thanks, Doug. A very-well presented post on this most urgent issue. Unfortunately, you’ve said many things that have already been said many times over. Still…
    Some points you do not address, which I personally believe need to be looked at much more seriously: 1) what’s sacred about a 10-round clip? It takes only one well-placed slug to kill a person by a well-trained gunman (sorry, guys, but gun-woman seems a bit stilted. Maybe ‘Annie Oakley’ would suffice?). Persons not so trained could easily kill with nine more slugs to use – just spray the damned things (the blunderbuss approach) and anyone’s likely to hit the target. Limit the clip to one and see how many lives would be spared. 2) Ammo sales. Israel, a country far more under existential threat than we here in the U.S., limit each citizen to 50 rounds in a lifetime! Yet, I’ve spoken with folk who have multiple firearms (for self-defense!) and 10,000 – yes, you read that right, 10,000 – rounds of ammo (and probably more now, as this was 4 years ago). 3) I’m sure we’ve all read about Australia which, when confronted with a mass shootiing, wasted no time in bringing firearms sales and possession under control to great effect. Their secret, in my humble opinion, no NRA! We must stop being polite towards the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and all such organizations and call them for what they are: a scourge on our society; a truly clear and present danger to us all; shills for those merchants of death, the firearms and ammo industries.

  • Outstanding discussion, Doug. Refreshingly clear, fully-2nd Amendment consistent, and a significant contribution to emerging dialogue on this critical subject. Let’s hope and pray this response to the NRA view of the world will gain some traction.

    Well done!

    • The op-ed in the WSJ argues that short of mass confiscation (a political and practical impossibility), any form of gun regulation is futile. We disagree. While no form of regulation short of confiscation will stop gun violence entirely, we believe that comprehensive licensing and registration would make a great deal of difference. That is, incidentally, an alternative that the writer in the WSJ did not discuss.

      • Yes, Doug, I see that your comments (with which I certainly do not disagree) and those in the op-ed deal with two different aspects of the issue. I look forward to reading many more cogent commentaries from you in this fraught political season …

  • Nicely said Doug. Europeans look at us as Neanderthals (in the old fashioned unkind use of the word). I was a member of the NRA for many years but abhor their position. I agree with the Europeans. Tom

  • This is out standing! Geez! Why in God’s name are our leaders unwillingly to pass such common sense legislation?

    P.S. Some years ago, I made a similar on sentence reply. My daughter replied with just one word; “Amphigory” — Geez! I had to go look it up.

  • I have been a hunter for a long time and I own far more than a few firearms. I think your proposals to be reasonable and that they would go a long way in solving the problem. As to the Cubs I can only say that bad juju is bad juju.

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