Reducing violence in America is difficult and complex. We have to face facts to make progress.
We have more guns per person than any other nation – nearly twice as many as the next two countries of Serbia and Yemen – and more gun violence than any other industrialized nation.
Progress in reducing gun violence is being stymied by Second Amendment zealots who think every individual has a sacred right to carry a gun anywhere at any time and that NO restrictions can ever be allowed. Every constitutional right has limits. Our right to free speech does not allow inciting imminent lawless action or knowingly making a false statement of fact (libel & slander). The free exercise of religion does not allow bigamy or the use of peyote.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was written because well-regulated state militias were thought to be necessary to resist insurrections, especially possible slave revolts. The Second Amendment was a compromise to obtain ratification of the Constitution by slave states.
For 217 years, the Second Amendment was considered a collective right – a state right to maintain a militia (National Guard). In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could limit weapon types, not having a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.” Therefore, civilians may not possess short-barreled rifles and shotguns or military weapons, such as fully automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, etc. The Second Amendment was written when civilian and military arms were single-shot muskets that could fire up to four round balls per minute.
Then very recently in American history (2008), a very conservative Supreme Court radically changed the interpretation of the Second Amendment to mean an individual right to possess and carry firearms. This drastic change is touted by the gun industry and its lobbying arm, the NRA, to resist any restrictions on gun possession. Most of the millions of dollars spent by the NRA to bribe politicians and to promote guns is from the gun industry, not NRA members. Gun merchants create demand for more guns and more lethal guns by preying on the paranoid fears of vulnerable, insecure and power-hungry individuals and those with serious distress and grudges. “Gun rights” is primarily a profit-driven agenda.
We have a long history of corporations lying about the danger of their products to make a profit as long as they can. We’ve seen it with asbestos, lead, nicotine, nuclear materials, thalidomide, opioids, and now guns. Anything the gun industry and the NRA say should be considered propaganda.
Once we stop considering gun ownership to be sacred and immutable, reasonable solutions to gun violence can be discussed. The idea of a good guy with a gun stopping a mass killer with a gun is a fantasy. Police officers train continually to shoot in high-stress situations and still have hit rates of only 15 – 35% in gunfights. They also train rigorously to make accurate shoot and don’t-shoot decisions. Civilians, including teachers, cannot be expected to make those traumatic decisions or to be sufficiently accurate under tremendous stress to avoid shooting innocent students. We even have militia advocates who claim individual gun ownership is necessary to protect against federal oppression, as if their militia group can succeed against the U.S. military.
In mass shootings, armed civilians will be potential targets for any other shooters and for police arriving on scene. No one in law enforcement would want the task of sorting out “good” shooters from “bad” shooters in an active shooter situation. The image of civilians with guns firing at the killer who invaded the dark theater in Aurora is terrifying. Instead of one shooter, we could have had multiple shooters with movie patrons caught in a crossfire.
Mental illness is now being emphasized as a major factor in gun violence. As a clinical psychologist, I know that most people with a mental illness are far more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence. Children who go into a school to murder people are clearly disturbed, but viewing them as evil monsters who must be destroyed is not helpful. In fact, most children who commit violence of any kind are victims of abuse or neglect. We need to learn to detect the signs of their pain and distress.
Predicting violence by an individual is extremely difficult. We need much more research, more readily available and affordable mental health services and the legal ability to remove guns from anyone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, but mental illness is not the primary cause of most violence in America.
What we need most is more research on gun safety and violence prevention. Federal money for such research has been restricted since 1996 because the gun lobby is afraid of the results.
We need to limit the size of gun magazines. If any personal threat cannot be met with 10 or 15 rounds, the threat is much too great for personal defense.
We need to limit the age of civilian gun possession. Some argue that anyone old enough to serve in the military is old enough to have unlimited gun rights. However, the military goes to great lengths to train recruits to handle weapons with skill and discipline before allowing them to use those weapons. They also reject and dismiss those found unfit for military duty. The skill and discipline necessary to handle lethal weapons does not come automatically with age.
We need to prohibit civilian use of armor-piercing rounds capable of penetrating bullet-resistant police vests. Also, high velocity AR-15 rounds do far more damage to human bodies than handgun ammunition. These types of ammunition have no reasonable use outside of law enforcement and the military, and they put everyone, including our law enforcement officers, at unreasonable risk.
We need to prohibit sound suppressors on guns because they make shooters too difficult to locate. Not being able to hear a gun being fired puts everyone in the vicinity at risk, including police officers.
We need to prohibit any device that allows a semiautomatic weapon to fire like an automatic because fully automatic weapons are banned from civilian use for good reasons.
We need to restrict concealed and open carry in certain places or situations (as we do in airplanes and courts). Allowing concealed or open carry reciprocity violates a jurisdiction’s right to determine their own rules. It’s also unnerving to see a civilian carrying a gun into a store, restaurant or other public place. How is anyone to know what the person intends? How do we tell a robber or killer from a “good guy”? And remember, “bad guys” are “good guys” until they do something bad.
We need to require background checks for ALL gun purchases and transfers. There is no way to check someone’s fitness to possess a gun without a background check.
We must change our cultural attitudes toward violence. We must stop raising males who think they have a right to whatever they want and to use coercion, power, force, and violence to solve any problem they face. We must stop honoring leaders who brag about their own use of power, authority and aggression, who respond to even the slightest perceived affront with immediate vicious counterattacks, and who provoke and incite the most hateful beliefs and actions in others.
Once we decide that arming everyone is not the best way to reduce violence, we can find many creative solutions. As Pogo said in another context, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”