Mass shootings show need for gun law reform

The US needs more stringent background checks, more data on guns, an assault weapons ban – and more social capital.

Wisconsin Community Reels After Gunman Kills Six At Sikh Temple
A gunman in Wisconsin killed six people, and himself, at a Sikh temple on August 6 [Getty Images]

The real problem with the gun debate, nearly three weeks after the tragic Colorado theatre shooting and now just days after the tragic Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, is that it is being framed as a gun rights issue, not as a gun safety issue. While few in the US want their rights stripped, most Americans expect some semblance of safety in society. While the US protects freedom of speech for self-proclaimed skinheads and white supremacists such as Army veteran Wade Michael Page, it must also protect the public from any 9/11 and war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder that turns violent.  

Think about the safety issues at stake: The US public was shocked to discover that James Holmes easily purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition online and that there are no limits on military-grade assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in his state. Few know that US homes with a gun face a risk of homicide 2.78 times greater and a risk of suicide 4.8 times greater than homes without a gun. Fewer still know that background checks – which US gun owners support – can identify only one-seventh of the nearly 3m people who have been involuntarily committed to mental health facilities, because many states are reportedly not giving the data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. A better system may have preemptively detected both James Holmes and Wade Michael Page. 

 US police probe Sikh temple gunman’s links

US citizens have the right to drive a car (which can also be a weapon), yet we abide by the rules for testing, insuring and manoeuvring the vehicle. We must do the same with guns. We must stop protecting gun manufacturers – the apparent purpose of the National Rifle Association – and start protecting the people of this nation.

So is the US government prepared to do this? Likely not. Why? Because, while President Barack Obama has mentioned that assault weapons belong in the hands of US soldiers and not on the streets of the US, he has left it to Congress to move forward on an assault weapons ban or a ban on high capacity magazines such as the ones allegedly used by James Holmes.

That’s too bad because Congress isn’t remotely close to doing anything beyond issuing a resolution condemning the violent act. In fact, Senate Democratic Party leader Harry Reid has eluded the debate entirely, even dismissing the Senate’s revisiting of the issue one year from now. House Republican Party leader John Boehner acknowledged that he welcomes “other” ideas around gun control, which means that the ones on the table – such as bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines – are, in his opinion, null and void.

The few in Congress who have been vocal – from US Senator Frank Lautenberg to US Representatives Jim Moran and Mike Honda – should be lauded for their courage at a time when even progressive pundits are reticent to talk about the need for more gun safety in society. At least some Democrats in the House are talking about banning online gun sales. If only more members of Congress would be like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, who has been vocal about the need for tighter gun laws and better background checks. It is remarkable to see Mayor Bloomberg as the leading progressive voice on this issue.

Given the near silence in Washington, what should be done to stem the tide of nearly 100,000 firearm-related injuries each year, 30 per cent of which result in death? What should be done to ensure registration and licensing on the nearly 300 million guns in the US (a figure which grew from 200 million in only 15 years)? What should be done to ensure that there are reasonable limits on handgun purchases per month so that we can stem gun running and gun trafficking, which are rampant in the US? What should be done to ensure that states are giving mental health data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) so that shootings such as that at Virginia Tech in 2007 – in which the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was on Virginia’s list but not on the national list because the state failed to provide the data – are more preventable?

“It is reasonable for US policymakers to ask for a renewal of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Here’s what should be done. First, since there’s the consensus around background checks, let’s start there. Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently polled gun owners, many of whom were National Rifle Association members, and a good 80 per cent of those polled support background checks. The problem with the existing background checks is that they primarily detect criminal records, missing important warning signs that fall short of what’s criminal. On the mental health front, furthermore, it relies on states to provide data, which many fail to do, and the data is narrowly defined. Someone such as James Holmes wouldn’t be on that list because, despite reportedly having some form of mental illness and despite encouragement by his family to have psychological treatment, he wasn’t institutionalised or clinically diagnosed. That needs to change. We need better data on anyone who wants to buy a gun. Before the Virginia Tech shootings, the state of Virginia wasn’t giving NICS its data, which is what ultimately allowed Cho to buy a gun. Thankfully, since that awful incident, Virginia is changing its laws on that front, but more is needed.

Second, we need better gun data. We know more information about the interstate trafficking of bananas then we do about guns. Some basic registration, permitting and licensing would go a long way to ensuring better data on gun purchases and trafficking. We do all of the above for automobiles – which are part and parcel of our American rights and freedoms – and we should require this for weapons as well.

Third, it is reasonable for US policymakers to ask for a renewal of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines. As Congressman Moran put it, US residents also have a right to live in a safe society. We must balance that right with the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Anyone who claims that if we were all armed all the time that we’d be better able to defend the public against attackers is promulgating a fallacy. During the mass shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ public event in Arizona, there were persons in the audience who were armed – but even they failed to prevent the shooting. It took several persons tackling the shooter to eventually disarm the assailant. Perhaps a better tactic is to train everyone in martial arts.

Fourth, we must get the money out of US politics. Currently we have the best democracy money can buy, which is why the NRA has kept Congress largely quiet on this issue. While it is known that NRA members and affiliates  give millions of dollars each year to Congressional campaigns, elected officials should follow a different financial equation. The cost of each homicide – and keep in mind there were 12 in Colorado – is $1.3m, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s what it costs taxpayers in terms of medical, court and police costs. Never mind the longer-term costs of this violence to our society, in the billions of dollars, in terms of lost economic productivity, as those persons killed are no longer in the workforce.

Lastly, there’s the question of social capital, which is harder to quantify than anything aforementioned. James Holmes was isolated. There were few people close to him to detect warning signs. Army veteran Wade Page was an extremist and may have struggled with 9/11 and war-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Without question, and the data show this, more peaceful American states and cities have higher rates of social capital. That means levels of trust in the community are higher, perceptions of criminality in society are lower, and community involvement is higher. That’s what we need to focus on. Any policies that improve the likelihood that Americans do not feel marginalised or disenfranchised – socially or economically – is critical.

That is where we need to head. It’s not too late to lead, three weeks later, and we’ll have a better country for it. Leaders, it’s time to lead. 

Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.