Much of the nation is still in shock and and anguish after the horrific slaughter of school children in Connecticut. What is an incomprehensible act is made worse by the lack of an answer to “why” and the lack of a target for anger since the perpetrator committed suicide and the enabler, his mother, was also killed by him.
A political reaction was also predictable as elected officials sought to demonstrate their genuine outrage as well as their instinct to use the tragedy for political gain. Long standing gun control groups have seized the moment and joined in. The result has been a rash of demands to “do something”. But the public safety issue surrounding gun ownership is so complicated that knee jerk demands lack a focus on reality and those offered so far are more likely to complicate legal gun ownership than to deter criminal acts.
To justify a renewed effort at gun control, advocates often cite statistics to demonstrate what Elizabeth Rosenthal said in her recent commentary in the New York Times i.e. that in the U.S. there is a “widespread expansion of gun violence.” Commonly, it is shown that in “industrialized” countries the U.S. has a higher rate of homicides than those mostly in Western Europe. While this is true, it is also true that in some of our closest neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean the homicide rate is significantly higher.
The U.S. homicide rate per hundred thousand people annually is 5.0 (2011).
El Salvador: 69.1
The difference is largely the result of cultural differences which also explain much of the difference between the U.S. and Western Europe. Weapons in civilian hands played a vital role in the exploration and development of North America centuries after European populations were stabilized into peasant/ruler relationships. The last battle of the Indian wars in the West ended just some 114 years ago in 1898 and a hunting culture continues to exist in rural areas across the nation but especially in Western states.
This doesn't explain a high level of homicide but it does explain the high level of gun ownership in the U.S. compared to Western Europe and its spill over into criminal hands, in addition to the high level of commitment exhibited by gun rights advocates, the vast majority of whom are law abiding citizens.
The major issue for gun control advocates is availability of weapons which makes it easy for individuals with criminal intent to carry out their crimes. The first reaction after the recent theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and then the school shootings in Connecticut was to call for a ban on the sale of a particular type of weapon that was used in both instances, the so-called “assault rife”. This is a rifle designed to look like a military weapon but unlike its military counterpart, it is semi-automatic. The focus on its use, besides the ominous but incorrect sounding name, is its ability to accept large magazines containing up to 30 rounds.
Since these weapons are collector and hobbyist items not commonly used for hunting, they appear to be an easy target for gun control and indeed a federal ban on the manufacture or sale of “assault rifles” was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Now they are the foremost feature of the newly energized gun control movement.
Currently the suggestions being offered besides a renewed ban on the manufacture and sale of assault rifles offer little that would seem to deter the kind mass killings that have stimulated the effort.
Former Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords who was the victim of a mass shooting in 2011, and her husband, former astronaut, Mark Kelly, have announced the formation of an advocacy group called Americans for Responsible Solutions to raise money and “spur a national conversation about gun violence”. The conversation has been going on for decades and has mostly taken the form of acrimonious debate, with little compromise.
New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, a probable Democrat presidential candidate in 2016, has proposed a gun control agenda for the state of New York that has been described as the most restrictive in the nation if it is passed by the New York legislature. The measure would include: a redefinition of “assault rifles” to include more models and more features; and limiting detachable ammunition magazines to 7 rounds from the current limit of ten 10. Cuomo would also require background checks for the sale of ammunition, as well as weapons.
President Obama has appointed Vice President Biden to put together a “task force” to make recommendations for gun control legislation on the federal level and for areas for non-legislative executive action. The task force recommendations, which are soon to be delivered will offer these ideas:
Ban assault weapons. Ban high capacity ammunition magazines. “Tighten” background checks on those seeking to purchase a gun. Make gun trafficking a felony. Have the Department of Justice prosecute people who falsify background check forms. Order federal agencies to send data on individuals in their files to the National Gun Background Check Database.
While some of these initiatives make sense, especially in the area of background checks and the underlying motive to reduce the availability of weapons for criminals and the mentally ill, most inevitably butt up against reality.
As in the failed war on drugs, the problem is driven by issues of supply and demand. There are an estimated 270 million firearms in private possession in the U.S. An estimated 40% of weapons purchases are not required to conform to current law. These are private sales between individuals and at the huge number of gun shows whose sellers are not licensed vendors.
While assault rifles can be more dangerous in terms of shots fired without reloading, most gun related crimes involve hand guns. Studies have shown that the 1994-2004 federal ban on assault rifles had no effect on the incidence of gun violence or lethality.
With respect to mass killings, a study (Mark Follman et. al. “Mother Jones” of the 62 incidents )(arbitrarily defined) that occurred in the 30 year period between 1982-2012 revealed the following :
Forty-nine (79%) of the assailants obtained their weapons legally. Some assailants used multiple weapons totally 142 in all. Of these weapons, 88(62%) were handguns and only 35 (25%) were assault rifles; 19 (13%)were shotguns.
The study reports that the “majority of the assailants were mentally ill. This seems to be intuitively confirmed by the simple fact that 42 of the 62 (68%) committed suicide before they could be apprehended. It could be argued that all the perpetrators who chose anonymous victims as well as those they knew in some cases were acting out of severe irrational anger and thus mentally ill in some degree.
Thus while the political focus in the wake of the Aurora, CO theater shooting and the terrible school shooting in Connecticut is on background checks and assault rifles, the facts indicate that while strengthening laws in these areas has the most public support, and might help reduce possession of these weapons and others among the identifiable criminal population but would probably not have much effect of the incidence of mass killings, which almost totally involve persons with no criminal history who up until the time they commit these type of killings are leading what most would describe as “normal” lives.
Indeed, the history of these killings indicates a mental health issue as opposed to a prior criminal motive or history. Gun control advocates argue that it is the availability of guns that makes these incidents possible but the political realities of the issue make the restriction of weapons available to persons with no documented mental health or criminal issues problematic.
So in summary, the proposed legislation at both the state and federal level appears to look like the following;
Mandatory background checks for “all gun purchasers”. Presumably this is aimed at gun shows. The impracticality of what amounts to a collection of private sales and trades in temporary venues is immense. Background checks could take days and some proposals include “waiting periods”. Gun shows typically only last two or three days and even if that problem could be overcome with some kind of instant electronic check, their short term, number, and geographical distribution make enforcement impossible.
“Establish a national database to track weapons.” A practical impossibility for anything but new sales by licensed dealers considering the millions of guns already in private hands. Also this has the appearance of universal registration which arouses the specter of confiscation in the minds of gun owners, libertarians and gun rights groups and thus is so controversial as to be politically impossible. How this would track guns past their original owners if purchased at a licensed dealer or deter crime, especially mass killing has not been explained.
“Strengthen mental health programs”. Unless this would include some way to identify individuals with mental issues and document them in data bases available to federal law enforcement authorities there would be no interface with the background check process. Medical privacy laws would seem to present a major obstacle in this respect.
Renewed assault weapons bans and restrictions on large capacity external magazines at both the state and federal level. This has highest probability of success but as has been pointed out, hand guns are used in most crimes involving guns, including mass killings. Also, millions of assault rifles and large magazines are already in private hands.
With 270 million guns in private hands in the U.S, there will always be a private market including a criminal (street) market. European/Australian type bans would have practical and politically impossible issues. As always, some gun control advocates are proposing extremely difficult and just plain extreme restrictions.
A background check on sales of ammunition is one of these. Gun owners typically buy guns much less frequently than ammunition which is an enormous market conducted by a large variety of outlets from convenience stores to big retailers like Walmart. It would present huge problems on both ends of the system.
There is even an internet petition circulating demanding the that the Second Amendment be repealed. The Second Amendment is the fire wall for gun rights groups and is the major obstacle to legislation intended to restrict gun ownership. The political realities in the nation make such an effort impossible and even less restrictive legislation very difficult.
Amending the Constitution takes a 2/3 affirmative vote in both houses of Congress and concurrence in 3/4 (38) of state's legislatures. Currently 40 of the 50 states have “unrestricted concealed carry” laws, allowing citizens to carry firearms with a permit which has few restrictions. Four states require no permit at all. Twenty-four states have “open carry” laws which allow those with permits in most cases, to carry holstered weapons openly. Thus it is clear that these same legislatures are not likely to be amenable to highly restrictive gun laws let alone, Second Amendment repeal.
The recent senseless slaughter of innocent young people and children is indeed horrific and the nation wide emotional and political response is to be expected. Of course it would it be a good thing if somehow guns were not as available to these troubled individuals as well as criminals, gang members and prospective terrorists. However, accomplishing this without targeting the vast majority of gun owners who are law abiding hunters, collectors, and sports shooters is a complex problem. The United States is not England or even Canada. Gun ownership is built into our history and culture. Additionally and unfortunately, the problems of inner city decay and the existence of hundreds of thousands of gang members make our murder and gun violence statistics high. But these are social issues which, as long as they exist, like mental health issues, will defy efforts to reduce violence within the context of our history and Constitution.
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