Tougher Laws, or Thoughts and Prayers?

November 20, 2017

How do our political leaders respond to mass killings? It all depends on the killer. If a Muslim assailant kills innocent people in a terror attack, they call for tougher immigration laws and an end to “political correctness”. If a non-Muslim kills innocent people at a concert or in church, they call for thoughts and prayers and ask us to remember the “price of freedom”.

Some combination of Second Amendment mythology, NRA lobbying, and base forms of fear-mongering has made it impossible for us to have serious discussions about regulating gun sales, even when people buying the guns are terrorists. If it’s clear on one hand that people can own firearms for law-abiding purposes like hunting, shooting, and self-defense, and clear on the other than no-one can own bazookas and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, then it should be clear that we can draw a line between the two extremes.

The Second Amendment does not make it impossible to apply common sense to this problem. Otherwise respectable politicians and newspapers, including the editors of The Wall Street Journal (“The Gun Control Mirage”, October 4, 2017), would have us believe that the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller prohibits any limits on weapons in common use. That surely includes rifles, wrote the WSJ editors, and to confiscate those would cause an “insurrection”.

That line of reasoning is not only unhelpful, it’s wrong. The Heller case had absolutely nothing to do with rifles. In Heller, decided in 2008, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a security guard who lived in a dangerous Washington, D.C. neighborhood to register a handgun for self-protection in violation of a local law. The right of individuals to own rifles used for hunting and shooting was not in jeopardy before Heller, was not affected by Heller, and has not been challenged since.

Furthermore, the Heller decision applied only to handguns. It did not affect laws prohibiting ownership of other types of firearms, including sawed-off shotguns. It certainly did not protect the right to own semi-automatic rifles developed for use in combat. Writing in 2014, after his retirement, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens summed it up as follows: “even as generously construed in Heller, the Second Amendment provides no obstacle to regulations prohibiting the ownership or use of the sorts of weapons used in the tragic multiple killings in Virginia, Colorado, and Arizona in recent years.”

That leads us to commonsense proposition number one: not all guns are created equal. The right to own a rifle or a handgun does not extend to the right to any type of firearm no matter how destructive its power. Federal and State laws can and do prohibit ownership of sawed-off shotguns and automatic rifles. Between 1994 and 2004, Federal law prohibited ownership of semi-automatic rifles as well. The law changed in 2004 not because a court struck it down, but because it contained a sunset provision and Congress allowed it to expire.

There is no reason Congress could not re-instate that ban now. Semi-automatic rifles are no doubt fun to own and shoot, but they were specifically designed to kill combatants in warfare, and they are awfully good at their job. Prohibiting their sale will not impair anyone’s right to own firearms for the lawful purposes of hunting, shooting, and self-defense. And in reality there is no need to confiscate all the semi-automatic rifles already in circulation. Since we have no way to track past sales, confiscation would not be possible anyway. But a new ban on semi-automatic rifles also could include a ban on devices like bump stocks that make them fire like automatic weapons. It also could include a requirement that anyone who wishes to sell a semi-automatic rifle they already own must sell it to an authorized dealer so it can be taken out of circulation.

Prior bans on sales of semi-automatic rifles did not lead to “insurrections”, and there is no need to think that a new ban would either. That leads us to commonsense proposition number two: the vast majority of gun owners in the United States respect and follow the rules for purchasing firearms and using them safely.  They understand that the rights we enjoy as citizens, including the right to own firearms, carry corresponding responsibilities, and that there is a difference between regulating a right and infringing on it.   Most of us obtain state licenses to hunt, fish, and drive cars. We view the license requirements as regulations, not infringements. As it turns out, most of us view background checks the same way. A clear majority of Americans, including a majority of NRA members, consistently support universal background checks without gun show and other loopholes.

Critics are quick to point out that universal background checks will not be universally effective. The Las Vegas killer, for example, had no criminal record and would not have been deterred by effective background checks. Just because background checks are not foolproof doesn’t mean they can’t save lives. Research on a Connecticut law that required gun licenses and background checks linked it to a 40 percent decrease in homicides and a 15 per cent decrease in suicides. It’s worth noting the impact this could have on domestic violence: 1,800 people a year are killed by current or former spouses or intimate partners, and half of those are perpetrated with a gun. Universal background checks won’t deter every mass killer, but they could prevent many other incidents of gun violence each year.

That leads us to commonsense proposition number three: it is sad but true that no amount of regulation will stop a determined, methodical killer from murdering people with a gun. But the same is true of determined and methodical terrorists, cyber criminals, and others whose goal is to inflict large-scale harm on our citizens. No responsible politician or news organization would argue that because we cannot stop every such attack we might as well do nothing, wait for the next one, and then respond with our thoughts and prayers.

We take every possible measure to protect our citizens against terror assaults, cyber-attacks, and other types of mass harm. We can take basic measures to protect our citizens against mass harm caused by the wrong guns in the hands of the wrong people.