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A lot of people in the wake of the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School have proposed various and often contradictory solutions to preventing gun violence. On the extremes, some have called for a ban on all firearms, while others suggest that we need more guns in the hands of more people in more places. Certainly everyone can agree that it would be best if gun violence in this country didn't exist, but that's simply wishful thinking.
Human Beings are by nature a violent species. Civilized societies in the developed world have to some extent limited or curtailed violence in certain places at certain times. However, in the absence of a strong and viable law enforcement and justice system that is seen as generally fair, a populace that respects and participates actively in civil affairs and a prosperous economy, violence as a general rule is endemic in human societies. As a general rule, the less stable a region of the world, politically and economically, the higher the rate of criminal and political violence.
America's Multiple Gun Violence Problems
Among nations in the developed world, the United States currently is ranked higher in gun violence, and violent crime in general, than other developed nations. The level of violence does not match that of many less stable, less developed countries in Africa or Latin America, for example, but among our "peers" America is the nation with the highest rate of gun violence.
According to statistics compiled by the FBI under its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, guns were used in 66% of all homicides from 2000-2008, with handguns representing 51% of all murders. (source: http://www.census.gov/...). In terms of numbers 86,112 were murdered using guns for that period. Please note that this figure does not include gun deaths caused by negligence, suicide, or accident. Nor does it included deaths ruled by police as justifiable homicides. Of gun homicides and other gun violence, the vast majority of them occur in metropolitan areas, with higher incidents of homicide among individuals with criminal records and/or a history of domestic violence.
Only a small percentage of gun violence results from mass shooting incidents such as the ones in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT. There have been at least 62 mass shooting incidents since 1982. However, the number of such incidents has risen over the six years, with 25 mass shootings since 2006. (Source: Mother Jones, "A Guide to Mass Shootings in America").
In general, each year, the majority of gun deaths in America - roughly 30,000 per year - result from suicide; e.g., 19,932 gun suicides in 2010 versus 11,032 gun homicides (source: CDC, i.e., National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), National Vital Statistics System.
Produced by: Office of Statistics and Programming, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). Among Americans, guns are the most common means of committing suicide, representing roughly one half of all those who kill themselves in the United States. Some studies have shown a statistically significant correlation between gun deaths and households in which guns are present, though obviously the research in this area has been limited by Congress' refusal to allocate funds for research on gun violence by the CDC and NIH.
A smaller percentage of gun deaths are the result of accidental shootings, though there is a much higher rate of people who were wounded but survived an accident involving gunfire. For example, in 2007, for each 100,000 people in America, 5.21 suffered a nonfatal accidental shooting injury. For that same year, per 100,000 people, only .20 people died from an accidental shooting. These statistic vary from year to year, but 2007 falls within the normal range of about 4% of accidental shooting victims suffering a fatal injury. (Source: CDC databases via this link).
So we have several different gun violence issues in America. Let's enumerate them:
1. SuicidesI think it is safe to say that, absent a complete ban on all firearms (which would require the repeal of the 2nd amendment), gun violence will be a continuing problem in America. As a nation, we own more guns, and more guns per capita, than any other country on earth. Those guns are not going to disappear overnight. Furthermore, I also think it safe to say that there is no one overarching solution to every gun problem I've identified above, at least from a practical standpoint.
3. Gun violence in Urban Areas, usually related to criminal activity
4. Guns used in Domestic Violence
5. Mass Shooting Incidents
Laws and educational programs promoting gun safety among gun owners is unlikely to have much impact on gun suicides. A ban on high capacity magazines and military style "assault weapons" might help limit the slaughter and the number of mass shooting incidents, as might tighter restrictions on who can buy firearms (see, e.g., Australia). However, with the large number of handguns already in the hands of Americans, legally or illegally, it's difficult to project how effective such measures might be.
As for increasing funding to make mental health resources available to more people, I'm all for it. I question the commitment and political will of Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures to take that step, however. Republicans have consistently opposed funding for mental health since the days of Ronald Reagan. Furthermore, simply providing better treatment for the mentally ill is not necessarily going to reduce gun violence unless it is part of a regulatory scheme that does a better job at preventing firearms from being acquired by people with a history of mental illness, emotional problems, suicidal tendencies or a history of violent behavior.
Nonetheless, though I'm pointing out various difficulties we face on confronting our nation's "addiction" to guns (a word I find adequately describes the surfeit of firearms Americans possess and our collective attitude toward guns), taking no action is not an option in my opinion. The economic cost to our society from the levels of gun violence is frighteningly high, but even more so is the social and moral cost we all incur. How many lives are ruined by gun violence each year? By that calculus, saving even one life is worth the effort.
Not every proposed solution to gun violence is likely to address each of these very different problems. However, we do need to consider our various options. Here are four I recommend.
Four Proposed Actions
So let's examine four measures that can be taken that might limit gun violence in America. These proposals are representative and are not intended to provide a complete and comprehensive solution to the issue of gun violence, but one has to start somewhere.
Identify and Prosecute Gun Dealers Who Disproportionately Sell Firearms Used in Gun Violence
We know that a small number of gun dealers are linked to sales of firearms that end up in the hands of criminals or individuals who are prohibited from owning a gun. Let's examine just one state, the state of Virginia, where a small number of dealers sell a disproportionate number of the guns that ultimately are used to commit crimes.
A year-long Washington Post investigation broke through the congressionally imposed secrecy surrounding federal gun tracing and, for the first time, has identified the dealers that sell the majority of "crime guns" in Virginia. There have been thousands of firearms dealers licensed in the state since 1998, but 60 percent of the 6,800 guns sold in Virginia in that time and later seized by police can be traced to just 40 dealers. The merchants include mom-and-pop gun shops, inner-city pawn dealers and suburban sporting-goods outlets.
The data highlight long-standing questions about the role of gun sellers in fueling crime. Do these dealers bear any responsibility for how their guns are used? Is law enforcement sufficiently focused on whether they are doing enough to prevent "straw purchases" for criminals?
Academic experts and law enforcement officials argue that gun traces can be used to help identify dealers that, knowingly or not, are selling guns to traffickers. Gun rights activists counter that the tracing unfairly tarnishes dealers and merely reflects the volume of weapons sold. But the Virginia records reinforce studies by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and others that show volume is only part of the equation. The 40 dealers account for about 30 percent of the state's gun sales, but their guns make up almost two-thirds of those seized and reported to State Police.
It seems reasonable to me that concentrating law enforcement resources on dealers who, knowingly or not, are involved in a process that ultimately puts guns into the hands of individuals who already are not lawfully permitted to own or possess firearms, should be one of the first steps we should take. This will require additional funding for ATF and other federal and state law enforcement agencies so they have the resources and manpower to crack down on these dealers and the networks that employ straw purchases to acquire guns for unlawful trafficking to criminals and others not entitled to purchase firearms legally. However, it would be money well spent in my view.
Ban High Capacity Magazines
I understand the thrill that some people get from shooting off dozens of rounds of ammunition in rapid succession, but it seems to me that the entertainment some receive from through such activities does not justify making high capacity magazines available to anyone who can afford to buy them. We know that the Tuscon, Aurora and Newtown killers all purchased and used thirty to 100 round magazines for their weapons to increase the amount of carnage they could generate over a brief period of time before law enforcement could arrive on the scene. High capacity magazines make sense for military operations and mass murderers. For everyone else? Not so much.
This is a no-brainer for me, though I know there are people who resist the idea. I would advocate for a very stringent law, making the sale of any high capacity magazine a felony immediately. I'd also require owners of large capacity magazines no more than three years maximum to turn them in to law enforcement for compensation. After three years, ownership of existing high capacity magazines would be illegal. I admit I don't know how the courts would treat such a law, though I'd like to believe that they would view it as a rational restriction based on public safety. Which leads me to my next idea.
We require proficiency tests and a license to drive a car. At the very least, a gun owner or user should be required to take a mandatory training on how to properly use, maintain and keep their guns safe. Gun owners should be required to pass a test before acquiring a license to own a gun, or if a family member, use a gun owned by another person. Again, this doesn't prevent anyone from owning a gun, it simply insures they have had a minimum level of knowledge regarding using guns safely. Even in my state of New York, a permit to own a rifle or other long gun is not mandatory (though many local gun clubs with gun ranges do require safety classes before they will allow people to use their range). It seems logical to me that of you want to exercise your right to own a gun, you also should have to demonstrate that you can do so responsibly and safely.
Licensing requirements could also be another means to weed out individuals who have criminal records, mental health issues, persons with a history of domestic violence, etc. This would work best in my opinion as a federal program so that the standards for obtaining a license are universal across all states. Once you obtain a license, you could purchase guns in any state by simply showing your license, though I would retain the mandatory background check by gun dealers to cover changes in the status of a person's right to a gun license (e.g., to cover situations where a person has committed a felony since a license was originally issued).
Under my proposal, arrests for felonies, a history of domestic abuse, commitment to a mental health institution, or attempted suicide, with or without a gun, would result in mandatory suspension of the license or the right to obtain a license, a suspension that could be lifted only by an adjudication that the individual was no longer subject to conviction, or no longer a risk to self or to others. In the case of a felony conviction (or conviction for violation of any gun law, or criminal violations that involve the use of violence against another person, regardless of whether they are felonies or not) the right to a gun license would be revoked permanently. I'd also add a provision requiring gun owners to renew their license every five to ten years. A federal tax on gun sales could fund the licensing program, much like the federal tax on gasoline funds highway maintenance. The ATF would seem the appropriate agency to manage a gun licensing program.
I expect a lot of gun owners may take offense at such requirements, and find them too onerous. My response is that if you can put up with the requirements to obtain a driver's license, you can handle the requirements for a gun license.The NRA always claims it represents responsible gun owners. Well, I believe responsible gun owners should welcome laws to make gun ownership safer.
Improve Databases for Persons Not Entitled Under Current Law to Own Firearms
One of the major flaws in our current system of mandatory gun checks is the lack of complete information regarding all individuals who under current law are prohibited from purchasing a gun. A background check doesn't do much good if the database being used is incomplete such as is the case in Minnesota, among other states.
"Gun control alone is not going to solve the complex problem of guns and extreme violence. We have an access problem, and the severely mentally ill should never have access to guns," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said at a news conference. [...]The failure of the current system is what allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to obtain the weapons he used to kill thirty two people and wound seventeen others.
Among the concerns are incomplete records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is relied upon by gun sellers to determine whether an individual is allowed to buy a gun. Some key information regarding felony and drug convictions, along with mental-health court orders, have not been entered. Stanek said they want to see this information submitted within 24 hours in electronic format to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension so it can be uploaded immediately to the background check system.
In 2007, Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho passed two background checks without a problem even though two years earlier he had been found to be a danger to himself and others.
Confusion over the language in the law meant his name was never added to the federal database. After that incident, Congress took steps to encourage states to beef up reporting — but the problem still persists.
"Mental health records are woefully incomplete," says Duke professor Philip Cook, who studies gun violence. "There are something like 30 states that do not submit records."
If this requires additional federal funding or legislation to ensure that all states are submitting all of their relevant records, then that seems to me reasonable actions to take. I doubt we need billions of dollars to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, but we do need the political will of our politicians and support from their constituents, especially those who are responsible gun owners. Frankly, I can't think of any responsible person, gun owner or not, who would oppose improving the national database we use for mandatory background checks.
A Not So Final Word
This diary is not meant as a comprehensive overview of our gun violence issues, nor of the measures we can take to ameliorate those problems. I am well aware that some may disagree with my analysis of the problem, and the four specific proposals contained in the diary. I recognize that many of you may see the issue differently than I, and/or have other solutions you prefer to those I discuss here. You are welcome to raise your own recommended actions in the comments, as well as provide constructive criticism of the proposals I do discuss. I would suggest, however, that if you object to taking any action whatsoever to address gun violence in the United States, you would be better off not commenting at all. This is a diary intended to stimulate debate and reasonable discourse on what can be done, not why its best to do nothing at all. If your only contribution is to simply state that all proposals are an infringement on 2nd amendment rights this probably isn't the diary for you.
The same applies to anyone who thinks the only solution is to ban all firearms. Absent a repeal of the 2nd amendment, that just is not going to happen, and I don't foresee a successful campaign to repeal that amendment happening anytime soon, if ever. It's easy to rag on gun owners as selfish, reckless, unfeeling and crazy right wing individuals, but that's a stereotype that I have found simply doesn't apply to a majority of people who own guns. Are there people who stockpile weapons and join self-identified "militias." Sure, but that represents a subset of all people who own guns. Painting all gun owners as fetishists or members of a cult does little to advance dialogue on the issue of gun violence.
All that said, I recognize this is a hot button topic at this site for many people. However, just because a topic is "controversial" is not a reason to avoid reasoned discussion. Nor should that discussion necessarily devolve into a meaningless and disrespectful discourse. As a community we can and should act better than a bunch of monkeys flinging their feces at one another. At least I hope we can.