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Saturday, April 21, 2018

GUN CONTROL: PROTEST, POLITICS, AND REALITY

The gun control debate has been drowning out almost everything in national political media coverage with the exception of President Trump’s sex life twelve years ago.  Recently however, a poll shows that the relative importance attached to this issue is dwindling somewhat, as might be expected after the emotional trauma of the Florida school shooting subsides. Another reason might lie in the evolution of the “gun control movement” which immediately followed the shooting.

The movement originated as a series of protest marches led by student “survivors” of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and supporting marches by students across the nation.


Several of the Florida students have been touring the country to speak at “town halls” and support rallies, college campuses, and televisIon news panels.  The announced strategy is to confront politicians who accept donations from the National Rifle Association, who gun control advocates identify as the source of all resistance to gun control legislation. The student activists are demanding that once identified, voters should deny these politicians reelection on the basis of this single issue. As a side bar to the public appearances of the teenagers from Florida, groups accompanying them are attempting to register other young people to vote, assuming they will join the effort to defeat any legislator who doesn’t agree to refuse donations from the NRA and vote for gun control measures which will presumably be offered in various legislatures by anti-gun members.


The young activists, who apparently have dropped out of school to pursue their new mission, are a politically appealing group. Defined by the media as “victims” or “survivors”, and as innocent children stepping up in defense of all the nation’s school children, they offer a difficult to criticize movement with abundant positive media coverage, or they did until recently.


The most prominent of the teen aged movement leaders is eighteen year old David Hogg who seems to have morphed from advocate to aggressive activist as national media provided him with a platform. He now appears to be brimming with adolescent self importance after he organized a Twitter campaign to boycott advertisers on Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s nightly television show. This was to punish Ingraham for teasing him on Twitter for the non-gun control issue of being denied admission to several prominent universities. Several “sensitive” and politically correct advertisers actually caved to Hogg’s threat and canceled their contracts with Ingraham’s show. In the aftermath of this adolescent “coup” attempt, Ingraham’s viewership increased by twenty percent. 


Hogg has now called for another boycott by customers of two of the nation’s largest investment firms, Blackrock and The Vanguard Group, both of which invest indirectly in the stock of gun manufacturers through their management of index funds. If an eighteen year old high school student trying to intimidate  two multi-trillion dollar investment management companies by Twitter attack seems to a controversy weary public, like another episode of politically contrived theater, it is perfectly understandable.


Still, like the “never go away” political issue, immigration, gun control is, and will be, a point of social conflict and election significance for the foreseeable future.  The debate is now cluttered by unrealistic claims on both sides and a rejection of contextual reality. 


Some simple facts provide the parameters within which a reasonable debate should be carried out.

1. There are an estimated 300 million firearms in private hands in the United States. This means that the most extreme or simple minded gun demand by gun control advocates for an Australian style voluntary trade in, or confiscation of guns is both logistically and politically impossible. 

2. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right of fire arm possession has been upheld by the Supreme Court in two modern cases:

District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010 which clarified Heller to say that neither the federal government nor state governments can infringe on the right to fire arms possession.

3. In spite of retired Supreme Ct. Justice John Paul Stevens call to support the student gun control movement by repealing the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the repeal process makes such an event politically impossible. The procedure requires a two thirds vote in both houses of Congress and approval by three fourths of the fifty states legislatures. Currently the House of Representatives has 193 Democrats, the party most likely to support repeal, but a two thirds vote requires 292. In the Senate, a two thirds vote requires 67 in the affirmative. Currently the Democrats have 49 seats and the Republicans 51. While there would likely be a small level of cross party voting both “for” and “against”, the numbers required are far out of reach in either house.  


The three fourths requirement for approval by state legislatures is equally daunting. Thirty-eight states would have to approve the repeal meaning only 13 states are required to block it. There are at least 30 states, mostly in the South and West that would likely not approve of such a repeal. Indeed, 31 states currently allow the open carrying of pistols. Other states allow concealed carry.


What this means for the gun control movement is that banning possession of firearms by the federal or state governments is politically impossible and should be taken out of the debate.

It also means that the National Rifle Association’s “slippery slope” objection to all gun control measures based on the ultimate “threat” of registration leading to confiscation is fiction.

Thus the debate should be narrowed to policies that might achieve a consensus.  The measures most frequently mentioned and which are part of the demands of the student movement, include

banning the sale or possession of so called “assault rifles”. These are rifles, made by a number of manufacturers both domestic and foreign, that resemble the U.S. military’s M-16 rifle, itself an adaptation of the civilian Armalite AR-15.

The horror of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School attack brought back the memories of what seems like a plague of similar mass shootings, the most notorious being the Columbine High School attack in Colorado, the Newtown, CT. elemantary school attack,  and the Las Vegas massacre in 2017 which left 59 dead and 422 wounded. All of these incidents involved the use of AR-15 style rifles.  Thus the frustration with the apparent inability of the legal system to act as a deterrent for these unfathomable acts is understandable. But such a legislative deterrent has been tried before and it’s provisions and limitations need to be studied before any similar effort is undertaken.  


The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act of 1994 was passed in the aftermath of several mass shootings; the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School shooting in Stockton, California in which the shooter used an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle to kill five students and wound thirty; the 1991 Luby’s shooting in Killeen,TX which claimed the lives of twenty-three and left 27 wounded; the shooter used two semi-automatic pistols; and the 101 California Street shooting in San Francisco in 1993 in which eight people died and six were wounded. The shooter used three semi-automatic pistols.


This “assault weapons ban” prohibited “the manufacture, transfer, or possession of semiautomatic assault weapons" as defined by the Act. The “definition” included a list of specific brands and models, plus a list of features that would be used to fit the label of “semi-automatic assault weapons”, some of which included certain types of hand guns. There was particular mention of “large capacity magazines”.


While the legislation was being debated, and in anticipation of it’s being passed and signed by President Clinton, sales of the already popular AR-15 type rifles boomed. Faced with the impossibility, both practical and political, of identifying the owners of millions of weapons and then creating some kind of program to take possession of them, led to the inclusion in the  Act of a "grandfather clause" that allowed for the possession and transfer of weapons and ammunition that "were otherwise lawfully possessed on the date of enactment".


The The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act of 1994 also contained a “sunset” provision of ten years. The law thus expired in 2004 and efforts to renew it or make it permanent failed.

In 2008, presidential candidate Obama stated his preference for renewing the ban on “assault rifles” and stimulated another buying frenzy among gun enthusiasts. That initiative never gained ground. However the same mind set among a growing set of gun possessors is now currently active.


While media attention and school children marches and protests seem to be creating a positive political environment for a renewed effort, the same major weakness of the original legislation exists in inflated form.  No one actually knows how many “assault weapons” are in private hands in the U.S.  Various “experts” from the FBI, ATF and the gun manufacturing sector have provided “guesstimates” and the numbers range from five to ten million.  This represents a permanent and formidable private market for these weapons as well as the same political and practical barrier to any goal of eliminating their private possession. 

The renewal of the ban might deter some impulse driven teenager from purchasing one unless he sought out the delayed gratification in the secondary personal market. But the availability of numerous standard semi-automatic handguns with internal magazines, some of which hold up to eighteen rounds, would probably be an attractive option at a fourth of the price of most of the AR-15s.


Thus while passing an assault weapons ban which would necessarily be similar to the 1994 version, would provide political cover for politicians and partially satisfy the demands of the pressure groups and protesters, the emphasis for dealing with the problem of mass shootings, especially at schools should be elsewhere. Assuming that deadly firearms of various types will always be available to individuals intent on carrying out these horrendous acts, the logical alternative policies to deter them should be about the potential shooters themselves. 


The student protest movement’s demands include enhanced universal background checks on individuals attempting to purchase any kind of firearm. The school shooters have been obviously psychologically disturbed individuals whose behavior should have elicited warning signs to parents, teachers, school counselors and mental health personnel who may have come in contact with them. A reporting system including an easily accessible central data bank is a doable project. Legal modifications to an over restrictive personal privacy regime would need to be made along with a scale of risk to allow appeals for removal. This would be a political challenge but would also test the level of genuine concern that gun control politicians have for public safety.


In the case of school shootings, the perpetrators have been students themselves, recent students, or just disturbed young people. A federal age limit of at least twenty-one to purchase a firearm or ammunition would have deterred the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooter who is twenty. The legal age for the purchase of alcohol is twenty-one.  The typical age requirement for the states now allowing recreational marijuana sales is twenty-one. It would seem logical that the purchase of a firearm should require at least the same level of maturity as your typical pot head.


Thus the list of potentially effective legislative options for dealing with mass shootings with the use of semi-automatic weapons is limited. Additional armed and properly equipped security officers would serve as a deterrent as would video monitoring of hallways and public spaces in schools between classes.  Arming teachers is a bad idea. In all probability, most teachers would decline that responsibility. Aside from full time carrying, making a loaded weapon both quickly accessible and secure against unauthorized access would be a physical problem and could be a legal nightmare in case of accident or misuse. 


Even a ban on “high capacity” magazines if enforceable, would provide little inconvenience to shooters. The 1994 law allowed only magazines with a capacity of ten cartridges but shooters can carry multiple magazines and can reload in a matter of seconds.


Thus a ban on the manufacture, sale, or possession of “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines” and rarely used “bump stocks” are mostly political responses to the problem. The focus should be on identifying and deterring or neutralizing the sick individuals who carry out these horrendous acts. Still,  mass shootings, like the vast majority of gun crimes are matters of random personal behavior and in a politically democratic nation with a historic firearms culture and a constitution that protects it, aberrant personal behavior is impossible to completely control.