We certainly can’t talk about how to address gun violence. With details still emerging about the horrific murder of at least 27 people, including at least 20 children, at an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, we can’t possibly discuss the fact that the killer was armed with at least two handguns and fired as many as 100 shots in his killing spree before either being killed or killing himself. It’s way too soon. We’d be politicizing this.
At least that’s the story. But if we don’t discuss gun violence, we ignore the fact that guns may not kill people, but they certainly make it easier to kill people. We don’t talk about the similar events just in the past few months, nor the fact that since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, America has had twice as many school shootings as all other nations on Earth combined.
But we have to discuss these things, because the alternative is to ignore some simple steps we could take to avoid tragedies like this. Yes, that may “politicize” the shooting, but refusing to talk about it is an abdication of our responsibility.
1. Criminal and Mental Health Background Checks on All Gun Sales
The federal government already mandates background checks on people seeking to buy weapons through licensed dealers. Unfortunately, there’s a loophole the size of Texas in the law. If you buy your weapon from an unlicensed dealer — at a gun show, over Craigslist, from some shady character on a street corner — you don’t have to go through a background check.
Since about 40 percent of guns are sold by private sellers, this means that a huge percentage of weapons sold are moving around legally with no background check required. Don’t want a felon to get a weapon, or someone with a history of violence and mental illness? Tough. Right now, all it takes for them to get their hands on a weapon is to go to a gun show.
Needless to say, this pretty much obliterates the effectiveness of a background check requirement. If you can’t pass a background check, you just have to find someone on the internet selling what you want. This also makes it easy for people to make a living as resellers — buying guns legally, then selling them to people who would fail a background check.
Requiring a background check on all gun sales would make it much harder for criminals to get their hands on guns, which seems like an obviously good thing — and the reason we need to talk about this.
2. Reducing the Size of Magazines on Weapons
Jared Loughner, who shot at dozens people including Gabby Giffords, had access to extended gun magazines, which let him fire 31 shots in just 15 seconds. Loughner was stopped when he ran out of ammo and tried to change magazines, giving bystanders the chance to subdue him; had he run out of ammo sooner, he would have been stopped sooner.
High-capacity magazines are important if you’re trying to kill a bunch of people quickly. They’re very useful for soldiers. For your average gun-owner, though, they’re simply unnecessary. If you’re using a handgun for self-defense, the guy you’re aiming at is going to be no more dissuaded if you can shoot him 30 times than he would be if you could shoot him six.
Reducing the size of magazines, especially on handguns, would make guns less useful for spree shooters. It may not prevent every gun death, but it would limit the damage one lone evil-doer could do.
Someone is shot and killed, and police have the bullet, but the perpetrator is long-gone. Fortunately, that bullet has a record of the gun that fired it engraved upon it. All police have to do is check a database, and then they can find the last registered gun-owner and start tracing the weapon.
Science fiction? No, it’s microstamping, and the technology to make it happen exists already. Essentially, the process uses a laser to etch a specific design on a gun’s firing pin. The designs are registered and unique to each gun; whenever the gun is fired, it then leaves a unique identifier on each bullet.
This is no problem for gun owners who aren’t shooting and killing people, or even gun owners who use their weapons in legitimate self-defense. Law-breakers, though, can be tracked down, making it harder to get away with murder. It might make someone think twice before drawing their weapon.
4. Reinstating the Assault Weapons Ban
There was a time when some of the worst weapons on the street today were illegal. Weapons designed to kill people were outlawed by federal law; the big magazines that Loughner used were banned. The Assault Weapons Ban was passed in 1994, and for 10 years, it made it harder to buy a gun that could take out a small army.
Alas, the bill was written with a sunset clause, and in 2004, when the ban expired, Republicans chose not to reinstate it. This allowed Americans the chance to buy AK-47s and Uzis once more.
Obviously, the Assault Weapons Ban doesn’t end all gun violence, but it makes it a little harder to commit mass murder.
5. Requiring Gun Owners to Be Licensed
Gun proponents often compare guns to cars, noting that cars kill lots of people, and they’re still legal, so why not guns? Leaving aside the obvious fact that cars aren’t designed to kill people, there’s something to this argument. It’s just not what gun proponents think it is.
As anyone who has driven knows, in order to legally get behind the wheel of a car — a machine that, if used carelessly, can be deadly — you have to secure a license showing you’re competent to drive. This license can be suspended or revoked if you violate the law, effectively removing your privileges to legally drive.
Why not a license for gun owners, demonstrating that they are indeed responsible, sober people who are aware of the danger presented by firearms? The license could cover different classes of weapons, and would demonstrate that a gun owner was educated enough, say, not to keep his gun under his pillow where his four-year-old could get to it.
Requiring a license to own a gun would make it harder for criminals to own weapons, and easier to get guns out of the hands of criminals. And just like gun owners say, it’s just like what we do with cars. It’s a simple and obvious way to mitigate gun violence.
When Will It Be Time?
Of course, there are those who will complain that talking about gun violence is gauche so soon after a terrible tragedy has happened. To these people, though, it will always be too early to discuss gun violence. The National Rifle Association, the most important pro-gun lobbying group, is supported strongly by gun manufacturers. The simple, common-sense gun restrictions wouldn’t make it much harder for responsible, law-abiding people to buy guns and ammunition, but it would make it much harder for people with criminal records to. This might dent profits, and that is something that the NRA refuses to countenance.
As long as guns are readily-available to anyone who wants them, there will be incidents like the Sandy Hook shooting, and as long as incidents keep happening regularly, it will always be “too soon” to “politicize” the shootings. At some point, though, we have to recognize that it is not too soon to begin this discussion. It’s too late — too late for the dozens killed Friday, for the people killed in Wisconsin and Colorado, for all the people killed in smaller, less-publicized gun crimes. It is past time that we begin this discussion; every time we fail to do so, we make the next dead child inevitable.
Image Credit: Robert Nelson