We must change our minds about gun violence

Constitutional rights are extremely important, are made difficult to change to withstand the whims of shifting political moods and are not subject to popular vote to protect minority rights. But that does mean they are inerrant, absolute, or unlimited. Some constitutional provisions have been wrong and have been corrected. All constitutional rights have limits. Freedom of religion does not allow prayer in public schools, federal aid to parochial schools, or polygamy. Free speech does not allow obscene, libelous or slanderous speech, inciting lawless action, or revealing classified information. Freedom of the press can be restricted for national security. The government can restrict freedom of assembly by time and location, can require permits and can prohibit gatherings that are violent.

Those who claim the Second Amendment must be unrestricted and must allow anyone to purchase, possess and carry any gun anywhere are clearly wrong. This kind of all-or-nothing thinking has produced an irrational stalemate that blocks progress toward reducing violence. While everyone’s goal is increased safety, proponents of unfettered gun ownership focus on their own personal safety, and gun control proponents focus on the safety of the general public.

The right to keep and bear arms was established to provide for well regulated militias to protect our nation from foreign invasion, domestic insurrection (especially slave revolt) and possible federal tyranny. In the 18th century, our federal government was untested and not yet trusted, and personal weapons were the same as military weapons. A man called up for militia duty could be expected to bring his own gun. For men or women to bring their own guns when joining the military now would not only be considered ridiculous, it would not be allowed. Fully automatic rifles that are common in combat are strictly regulated for civilians.

Opposing the federal government by ordinary citizens with private guns might have been possible in the 18th and early 19th centuries. To think that any civilian group today, no matter how well armed, could take on the US military is ludicrous. We need to use political and civil means to oppose government actions we dislike, not armed insurrection based on Second Amendment gun rights.

Because the Second Amendment was originally written to sustain militias, it was understood to be a collective right for more than 200 years. Only in 2008 did a very conservative Supreme Court reverse prior rulings and decide by one vote that the right to bear arms was an individual right. Even so, that right for individual self protection does not justify increasing the risk of violence for the general public. We need research on how to minimize risk of violence for everyone. The 1997 ban on federal funding for research on gun violence is absurd. We can never make the best decisions on reducing violence by prohibiting research. That irrational political decision was driven solely by radical dogma.

Having discussions of gun regulations dominated by the gun industry, its propaganda arm the NRA, and by individuals who are the most fearful and paranoid is not sensible. The NRA was formed in 1871 to improve military marksmanship and was once a reasonable advocate for hunter safety training and conservation of wildlife. It took a radical turn in the 1970s when it expanded its lobbying, changed its primary focus to a rigid advocacy for unrestricted gun ownership and became a propaganda arm for the gun industry. It is now extremely doctrinaire and opposes even the most reasonable gun regulations.

We already know that a firearm in a household significantly increases the risk of accidental shootings and suicide. Even the risk of dying by homicide is higher for people who live in a household with a gun. We need to resume funding research on gun violence to determine if this evidence holds and to find effective solutions. It is immoral to sacrifice people to accidents and suicide, especially children, just to cater to people who manage their paranoid fear by carrying a firearm.

Most people on both sides of the debate agree that certain people should not be allowed to possess a gun. It seems obvious that there is no way to enforce that without universal background checks. How would we determine if someone has a history of violence, criminal behavior, significant mental illness, or even terrorist intentions without a background check?

The answer to mass shootings is not to have a larger gunfight by wanna-be heroes who are almost certainly poorly trained, untested, and unprepared. Military personnel and police officers require extensive training and continual practice to be prepared for a gunfight. Even with that preparation, police officers have a shooting accuracy of 15 to 35 percent in real-life situations, and they learn to use discipline in deciding when not to shoot. Having civilians deciding what threat warrants a lethal response is terrifying. Having several “good guys” shooting in the chaos of a gun attack would almost certainly increase fatalities. Also, when police arrive on the scene of a shooting, trying to tell the difference between “good” shooters and “bad” shooters would be a nightmare.

Mass shootings (4 or more people killed in a single incident) get the most attention and are rightly shocking and abhorrent, but they are a small part of the overall carnage. The US is 11th out of 71 countries in gun deaths per 100,000 people. We have five times the rate of any European country. Every day about 300 people in the US are shot and about 90 people die. We also have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. Our five percent of the world’s population owns 35-50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns. It would seem that gun ownership is not deterring gun violence. The Second Amendment was meant to protect American citizens. It is clearly not working, especially when it is considered sacrosanct and used to stonewall any gun regulation or even discussion and research of gun safety.

It is completely irrational to argue that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” It is equally ridiculous to argue that arming every “law-abiding” citizen will make us all safer. All bad guys were law abiding until they broke the law. The solution to gun violence in America is a radical change in attitude. It’s time to end our mythical infatuation with guns and with violence as the answer to every conflict. The ultimate answer for a less violent society is uncertain, but we must make every effort to find it with scientific research, reasoned discussion, civilized political debate, and considered legislative action.

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