Following every mass shooting, people are outraged, grieving, and asking why, but that’s usually where it ends. Candles are lit, people hold hands and sing songs of prayer. It’s part of the mourning process and we all need to do it, but it doesn’t help the big picture which is guns in America. Just last week Illinois was the 50th state to allow the carrying of concealed weapons, although it wasn’t their choice. It was mandated by a federal judge. Also last week, Florida celebrated the issuing of its one millionth gun permit, and yes it was an actual celebration.
In America everyone is expected to own a gun, like everyone old enough to drive is expected to own a car. It’s a part of the culture, but it’s a dangerous part of the culture, one that costs lives, innocent lives like those lost at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Connecticut.
What can we do about this? Banning all guns is not an option in America, but banning assault weapon ownership is an option and a good first step. It was once against the law to purchase or possess assault rifles, until the Bush administration let the law expire under pressure from the NRA. What’s next? Marc Ambinder of The Week shares a few of his thoughts:
There are two factors common to mass shootings in the United States, and a “vector,” as the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg says, that links the two.
One is easy access to firearms capable of killing lots of people quickly. The second is the perpetrator’s having a history with mental illness.
The first point: significant minorities of all guns purchased or obtained in the United States are done without the benefit of an instant background check. This is not a loophole; it is a circus ring. The background checks are relatively limited in scope, as is normal. This is relevant because, for reasons of law and technologies, it is hard to scour the most relevant records quickly.
One of the most prolific rumors is that of this background check requirement, but as evidenced above it’s almost impossible to check criminal histories with an instant check and it is impossible to know who’s nuts and who isn’t.
The second point: the alleged gun-wielding murderers who shot up Columbine, Aurora, and Ft Hood, among many others, have all been discovered to have had in retrospect clear signs of mental illness. In some cases, privacy laws preventing doctors from disclosing this to employers and others. In others, the level of mental illness or distress was relatively benign; none of us would want our own human difficulties disclosed or added to a database as part of some sort of mass surveillance effort aimed at tracking everyone who has seen a psychiatrist.
So is it easier to tighten access to guns or broaden access to mental health records? Each may conflict with a value — the second amendment in one case and privacy in the next — but which value is worth sacrificing to some extent in order to move forward?
The answer to me is fairly obvious: Everyone who wants to have access to a gun can do so provided they register their weapon and get state-sanctioned training. The types of guns that people can carry on their persons ought to be limited to those made legitimately for self-defense. The gun show loophole should be closed; with the exception of family-to-family transactions or old weapons given as gifts, every sale or exchange of a weapon must be registered. The instant background check will be replaced for new gun owners with a state-approved training course that includes a more extensive background check. (Each state course would have to meet basic federal guidelines but could differ in the particulars.)
So how do we implement these necessary changes? Why do we live in a country where it’s harder to get a driver’s license than it is to buy an AK47, a weapon designed for one purpose, killing people?
American politicians need to get off their butts. So far, most, including the president, have abdicated a moral responsibility to talk frankly about guns and rights, ironically, they say, because the issue is “complicated.” Goddamn right it’s complicated. That’s why we ought to talk about. Democrats still adhere to the fear that if they mention common-sense gun rules, their party will lose the backing forever of gun owners and those who see gun ownership as a stand-in for checking government power. For the most part, though, that coalition isn’t the Democratic Party’s coalition, and it becomes less so with every election.
The gun rights lobby, one of the most powerful in the nation, could lead the charge here, but I guarantee they won’t, because they’re afraid they’d lose the chance to demagogue politicians who rise up against them. The NRA’s opponents are as central to the NRA’s successes as anything else.
Now it’s time for a new approach on the federal level, and that means, Mr. President, you need to get involved, no matter how complicated the question.