Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Most Americans would agree that the U.S. has a problem with guns. I don’t believe I need to cite any statistics to support this statement – the recent horrific shootings in Colorado and Connecticut should be enough for anyone to support a reasoned debate on the issue of gun violence and gun control.
What is the nature of this problem, and how should we as Americans go about solving it? [Full disclosure: I am a gun owner (shotguns). I was in the military where I received rifle training, and I currently belong to a gun club where I enjoy recreational shooting. I used to go bird and rabbit hunting with my father and brother both as a child and an adult. I do not belong to the National Rifle Association.] As described in one of my earlier postings (Wicked Problems), gun violence is a “wicked” problem, meaning that it is connected to other complex problems, so any proposed solution to gun violence can only help us make progress on solving this problem, not actually eliminate it. Efforts to reduce gun violence, such as those currently underway in the Congress and some state legislatures, are unlikely to result in the systemic solution that is needed.

Given this context, how should this controversial issue be tackled in a practical way that will elicit progress? In the set of actions described below, I try to take all key stakeholders into account, and I attempt to be consistent with U.S. laws and culture.
  • Who owns guns and for what purposes? According to the General Social Survey, about 34 percent of U.S. households own guns (shotguns, rifles, pistols). Gun ownership in the U.S. has steadily declined since the 1970s when approximately 50 percent of households owned guns. The decline in ownership has occurred in all regions of the country -- in large and small cities, and in suburbs and rural areas. It is estimated that the total number of guns in the U.S. is somewhere between 280 and 320 million. The reasons people cite for owning guns include self-defense, hunting, competition and recreation, and collecting, though the available statistics are not clear as to how many or what kinds of people prefer each reason for gun ownership. In short, various types of people own guns for various reasons, and gun ownership has been steadily declining for more than four decades.
  • What about Second Amendment rights? The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791, is the part of the Bill of Rights that protects the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. An absolutist view of the Second Amendment is that citizens have a constitutional right to own as many guns as they wish and that the government should have little or no authority to restrict their right to do so. I do not share this view. All constitutional rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of speech, are continually being redefined through new laws and court cases. Even the right to keep and bear arms has been redefined as recently as 2008 and 2010 as a result of Supreme Court decisions. To maintain, as absolutists might, that gun ownership rights were immutably set in 1791 when the Second Amendment was adopted, is simply indefensible. Many recent surveys show that majorities of gun owners favor certain gun control proposals, like making private gun sales subject to background checks. Although the data are not available, I suspect that the typical NRA member feels this way as well – a view that is quite different from the official view espoused by the fanatical NRA leadership.
  • What kinds of guns should be in whose hands? Since I believe that the Second Amendment does not guarantee unrestricted gun ownership, this means that some amount of gun regulation is appropriate. Guns are potentially every bit as dangerous as automobiles, so the types of guns that an individual can own, as well as the issuance of licenses to use them, should be the province of government. And, if the government wants regulations to work effectively, they must be reasonable. My view is that most rifles and shotguns can be legally owned. There need not be a limit on how many rifles and shotguns an individual can own (short of blatant stockpiling, of course) because, as the data indicate, the majority of Americans won’t purchase a gun anyway. Assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines have no place in the hands of the general public, as they do not fit the purposes Americans cite for wanting to own guns. These types of weapons are appropriate for military and police use only. Lastly, pistols present a sticky issue. They are used primarily for competitive and recreational shooting, at sites specifically designed for that type of activity. (They can also be collected.) Saturday Night Specials – small inexpensive handguns – are used primarily for robbing people and liquor stores and should be banned from further manufacture and subject to a buy-back program.
  • What about the existing stock of guns? Any proposed actions regarding gun ownership and control must address the fact that there are 280-320 million guns already in the hands of the general public. The Second Amendment mandates that the government cannot confiscate these guns. Therefore, the objective of government moving forward should be to regulate guns. Current individual gun owners should be required to register their guns and provide evidence of having passed a training course in gun use and safety in order to obtain a gun license. The current practice of several states of issuing permits to carry concealed weapons without conducting background checks should be halted temporarily until a comprehensive gun regulation program is in place.
  • What should we begin to do right now? Americans should begin to weigh in with their thoughts and opinions on gun violence, ownership, and regulation. Relevant science, such as research on the effects of violent video games and violence in the mass media should also play a part in the debate. Crowd-sourcing techniques to obtain this type of input are widely available. The question is, who should organize the process? Government is the obvious choice, but the main goal of politicians is to get reelected not to solve difficult problems like gun violence. Further, the lobbying efforts of the NRA, who really represent gun manufacturers more than hunters and sportsmen, will likely keep Congress’ “solutions” at the superficial level. In the absence of realistic government-led efforts to solve the problem of gun violence, universities, foundations, and reputable think tanks could gather scientific research and public opinion, and then publicize their findings. Governmental bodies should study and debate those findings, but if they won’t Americans should demand that they act responsibly and for the common good.
Here are several specific suggestions that I believe are consistent with American principles, laws, and culture:
  • Continuance of the ban on the sale of automatic weapons; institution of a ban on the sale of Saturday Night Specials and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
  • Creation of attractive buy-back programs for newly banned weapons.
  • A requirement that all gun sellers be licensed and obligated to conduct extensive background checks before any gun sale. This should apply to all private sellers including mail order, online, and gun show sellers. (Perhaps as much as 40 percent of gun sales take place in the unregulated private market.) Improved databases that include information on mental illness, domestic violence, felony convictions, etc. are a necessary condition for effective background checks.
  • Creation of a registry of small arms by requiring that any handgun sale, including those between private individuals, be reported to law enforcement authorities.
  • Development of proper licensing and background check procedures.
  • Passage or revision of laws so that gun owners are held criminally and financially responsible for damages caused by the use of unsecured guns in their home or business.

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