Policy Solution Series 1: Reasonable Gun Control

Recent mass shooting events at a concert in Las Vegas and at a school in Parkland, Florida are the latest in a horrifying sequence of mass shootings in America. The tragic deaths of children (and those of ordinary Americans) cause strong reactions–generally, there is a group that immediately jumps to restricting gun access so such shootings cannot happen, and a group that defends the second amendment to the Constitution’s guaranteed that Americans’ “right to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

There are good points on both sides of the debate. It is unconscionable to allow such massive and lethal violence in our free country–particularly toward our children–but also the American Revolution would not have been possible had the colonists not had weapons available with which to resist the British. It is part of our ethos that the government is not only answerable to the citizenry, but also constrained from oppression by its lack of a monopoly on violence. Put simply, the government cannot control Americans through violence because Americans can respond in kind.

That barrier to gun control is ideological and enshrined in our Constitution, but it is also practically impossible to breach. By some counts, there are 300+ million guns in the United States, almost one for every person. Even if magically gun sales stopped, there are more than enough weapons for wannabe mass shooters. And logistically collecting that many weapons is nearly impossible–and highly likely to fail if tried, as gun owners are by and large fairly open about the fact that they simply would not surrender their ability to defend themselves against lethal force.

Some proposed solutions involve targeting certain kinds of weapons and accessories–semi-automatic rifles (like the AR-15), high-capacity magazines, ‘bump stocks,’ and the like. But this is also impractical because high-capacity bullet supplies are easily fabricated and even action-advanced firearms (i.e. bolt- or lever-action) can produce a high rate of shots in a skilled shooter. Such solutions might satisfy the criteria of “doing something” about mass shootings, but it’s doubtful they would deter or hinder another such event.

It is likewise doubtful that increasing the amount of guns will have a measurable effect. Some have called for better security at schools in the form of armed teachers or guards to stop mass shootings, but it seems clear that not having bullets flying within a school is safer than a gunfight between a shooter and a teacher. Moreover, there was an armed security guard at the recent shooting in Parkland who did not get involved–the risk that armed personnel supposed to provide protection from shooters will fail is too great to make that our collective safeguard against such a threat. Also, the shooter in Las Vegas used rifles to kill at a distance, and the firearms carried by security personnel are typically handguns and shotguns, which are ineffective at range. Anyone not carrying a rifle would have been extremely unlikely to have killed the Las Vegas shooter unless they were in the same room as he was.

So here are some proposed solutions to improve security against mass shootings that balance second amendment rights with the unquestioned need to stop mass shootings.

  1. Strict licensing for firearms, and tough criminal penalties for violating terms of license. In the same manner that we prevent people from operating cars (another potentially deadly piece of equipment) through licensing and use laws, we can do the same for guns. Persons under 18 should not be able to use semi-automatic rifles at all, and must be restricted from using other firearms except under the supervision of a responsible adult. Perhaps it is arguable that children and youths learn how to use hunting rifles, shotguns, and handguns, but there should be tough criminal penalties and mandatory sentencing for adults who allow kids access to firearms. This type of law may already exist in many states, and if so that’s a good thing, but the critical action here is to make adults accountable when they provide opportunities for kids to access lethal force.
  2. Require transponders in firearms that are capable of mass shootings. This would apply to semi-automatic handguns (not revolvers), semi-automatic rifles regardless of the magazine capacity, and semi-automatic shotguns. Hunting rifles and single/double-shot shotguns would be exempted. The purpose of the transponder is to trigger a security response in designated gun-free areas such as schools. Any person attempting to enter a school, for example, with a weapon capable of mass shooting would trigger an automated, physical lockdown and alert law enforcement or on-site security. Ideally this would prevent a would-be shooter from even entering a school–and the coverage area could include outside playgrounds and such. Law enforcement weapons would also have a transponder, though it would be coded so that they could bring their weapons into otherwise gun-free zones. The cost of modifying weapons would be borne by the owners; the cost of systems to lock down gun-free zones would be borne by the public. As a backup to the obvious loophole of a shooter bringing in a unmodified weapon or making their own, the security systems would be programmed to respond also to the acoustic signature of a gunshot. For this to be effective, there would have to be strict criminal penalties to owning an unmodified weapon when such a weapon is capable of mass shooting.
  3. Enable law enforcement to respond to credible threats immediately. The first solution here is an strong incentive to prevent the more deadly firearms from falling into the hands of would-be mass school shooters (it would likely not have prevented the Las Vegas shooting). The second provides physical security when a mass shooting is attempted. But the only way to prevent actual mass shootings is to stop the people who would do so. In many of these events, shooters gave ample warning of their intentions–and those warnings were repeated by others who knew them. Law enforcement, from local police departments to Federal agencies such as ATF and FBI, should have the ability to investigate such warnings and a process for doing so that both precludes plain harassment and protects the rights and reputations of those investigated. That likely means funding, additional officers, and legal resources; it also should apply to warning signs like increased gun purchases as well as social media posts or personal complaints. It also means better tracking of gun purchases and more universal background checks. It is hoped that merely the act of being investigated for intent to commit a mass shooting would deter a would-be shooter, but certainly confiscating firearms and mandating counseling or other restraints for substantiated warnings is important too.

These proposals attempt to balance the right of Americans to keep and bear arms with the absolute need to prevent future mass shootings as much as possible. They may in some cases be partially in place, and they may not fully consider ‘workarounds’ taken by some shooters. They are here as points of dialogue only, to generate conversation that recognizes the perspectives of all stakeholders in this issue and drive towards a consensus solution that accomplishes our actual goal of eliminating mass shootings.

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