Tuesday, August 9, 2022

                                             GUN CONTROL:  AGAIN 

Polls show that 70% of Americans believe the nation is "on the wrong track".  This is a major under statement enabled by the simple wording of the "yes or no" choice of the question.  The more specific issues that we face daily in the news media generate feelings of frustration, gloom and anger that "wrong track" doesn't come near to describing. 

Although the media spot light has been taken off the issue of mass shootings by the issues of inflation/recession and the effect on the November mid-term congressional elections, the especially horrific school shootings, have brought "gun control" to a new level of prominence. It's been there before and as before, progress has become the victim of political posturing and intransigence, producing few results.

In a recent opinion piece one writer attempted to identify the problem with the simple statement that "There are too many guns" (in the U.S.).  He repeated this statement after each paragraph for emphasis and dramatic effect, in which he described the numbers and availability of weapons and the details of another mass shooting. His conclusion was that he didn't know the answer to his definition of the problem but he remained convinced that "too many guns" was the problem.

But his dilemma describes the problem of the search for solutions. Given the complexity of the national context of gun ownership, simple solutions are not feasible. Thoughts like those of the referenced commentator have stimulated "solutions" like "ban all guns in the U.S., they've done it in Australia and England".  

But impossible proposals like this clutter the political debate and stimulate accusations of extremism and division. 

The reality is that the populations of Australia and England are @26 million and @69 million respectively, a fraction of the U.S. population of 315 million. The number of guns in private hands in the U.S., estimated at @400 million, exceeds the total U.S. population. Also, neither Australia nor England has the equivalent of the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment protecting private gun ownership and neither has a historically based culture of exploration, expansion and habitation of vast areas of wilderness over  a time starting with near universal gun ownership, a trend which moved west with the geographical expansion and growing gun technology. Thus the number of private gun owners in the U.S., estimated at 81.4 million, each with an average of five weapons, is equivalent to 85.6 percent of the total populations of Australia and England combined. Most of these individuals are the hunters and sport shooters who are the heirs of the historical gun culture, others keep a gun at home for personal protection.  Unfortunately, the dark side of gun ownership is inhabited by criminals, and currently, gang members, who compete to control the benefits of crime in "urban territories". They are joined by a small number of  psychologically impaired young men and boys seeking vengeance for their own low self esteem and perceived social rejection by engaging in school shootings.

There are things that can be done on both the state and federal level to mitigate the problem of what seems to be out of control gun violence. Some of these were discussed in bipartisan settings in the Congress and have recently resulted in legislation, a starting point for further gun "management", if not "control" The point is that progress depends on concentrating on the "doable" and avoiding useless debates on the extremes. Banning the sale of so called "assault rifles" has been done in the past where the federal ban had a ten year life before a "sunset' provision in the law killed it. The ban had weaknesses in terms of the legal definition of the weapons included. This often made small variations in design enough to make similar weapons not subject to the ban. This is a fixable weakness. The gun itself however, is only part of the problem. Other weapons can be fitted with large capacity magazines, which also should be separately banned, as has been done in some states. 

This was a common sense law that was passed during the Clinton Administration although it was limited in scope because it faced opposition among the more conservative gun rights groups. What should remain in the debate, is raising the age for individuals to legally purchase any guns. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the sale of "hand guns" to anyone under the age of 21.  Rifles and shot guns referred to as "long guns", may be purchased by anyone over the age of 18. The emphasis now is on "assault type" weapons but for consistency and clarity  there is no reason why it shouldn't be all types of "long guns". The facts speak for themselves. Most of the mass school shootings were carried out by young men, under the age of 21. Currently, individuals under 21 cannot purchase alcoholic beverages or cigarettes, so the logic of allowing sales of semi-automatic rifles with large capacity magazines to 18 year olds fails the common sense test.  

Enhanced "red flag laws" were also included in the recent legislation. This is as controversial as age requirements, because it involves subjective initiation involving reporting by individuals, of possible threats of gun use by other individuals. This procedure could certainly be abused by individuals with personal motives  but  judges then determine the level of threat and can issue warrants to confiscate weapons in possession of the accused while more detailed investigations are pursued  Records indicate that few confiscations have been carried out based on red flag warnings and in the recent mass shooting in Highland Park, Il, both the background check and current red flag procedures failed completely. 

Securing schools is completely doable and should not be controversial given the horrendous outcomes in recent years.

Still, there are those opposed to the idea who need to be convinced that common sense measures can be employed that would reduce the risk of entry by heavily armed individuals. Limited and monitored entry points, along with exit only safety points, as well as monitored security cameras of all approaches to buildings, are simply a matter of money and are commonly used in the nation's court houses, public buildings and private residences.

The suggestion to arm teachers is in the non-doable category and should not be included in policy debates. This is not a popular plan with teachers and putting loaded firearms in classrooms would require them to be safely secured, which would make them not readily accessible in an emergency. Keeping them accessible to teachers would make them accessible to students and would create an inappropriate and dangerous situation. Also, requiring teachers to undergo the firearms training necessary would meet with personal and legal opposition.

Universal background checks is probably doable since it's already in place for purchases at licensed  gun dealers, but it will be difficult to enforce at short term gun shows and individual internet sales. Nonetheless, it seems to have public and political support.

It has often been pointed out that some cities that have strict gun laws also have high levels of gun violence.  This is the direct result of a lack of, or soft, enforcement of illegal possession laws.  Reasons offered are insufficient manpower, or "social justice" implications offered by liberal prosecutors, some of whom are now coming under fire for putting multiple offenders back on the street after arrest. Enforcement of gun laws which have survived court challenges, fall into both the "doable" and common sense categories, especially illegal possession laws.                                           

The single claim that "there are too many guns" is simplistic and incorrect.  The truth is that there are too many guns in the wrong hands.  Statistics show that most crime is committed by previous offenders and most gun violence is carried out with hand guns. Some states have laws in place that make gun possession by a convicted felon a crime in itself. It is just a matter of connecting the dots and making law enforcement commensurate with the levels of genuine public concern and political posturing. If gun control voices are to be taken seriously then fund police departments and prosecutor's staffs, take guns off the streets and ignore the inevitable shouting about "mass incarceration" and that possession enforcement disproportionately and "unfairly" impacts minorities when in reality it simply disproportionately impacts criminality which is in everyone's interests.

Confiscation, registration, government buy backs and imposing civil liability on gun manufacturers for the criminal use of their products are all either unconstitutional, politically impossible, impractical or obviously ineffective in reducing gun crime.

Until some future Supreme Court decision affirms a fundamental state's interest in regulating the sale, and or, the possession of firearms beyond what exists currently, the political goals should be to do what is politically doable in the short run and then pursue the more difficult long run cultural changes that underly the massive criminal use of firearms.

No level of gun control in the U.S. will completely eliminate gun violence. Like all crimes it represents a failure of advanced cultures to overcome a basic flaw in human nature as well as being a sacrifice made in the maintenance of a democratic system to protect the rights of the law abiding . Nevertheless, progress can be made where there is the will. Political compromise is necessary while whitling away at extremes like "ban all", "arm all" and "slippery slope" opposition to all types of regulation. Personal and collective security is not a "red or blue" issue. Shooters don't check political party registrations before opening fire.