Ken’s Take on the World

Of Guns and Madness

The recent dialogue regarding the regulation of firearms in this country has coalesced around two differing basic points of view.  On one side are individuals and groups interested in, finally, finding a way to reduce violence associated with guns.  On the other side are individuals and groups who act as though attempts to reach a reasonable solution are tantamount to completely striking down the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution.  The rhetoric arising from this camp has grown progressively more strident and aggressive, bordering on dangerous. 

There are many opportunities for taking action to reduce the toll of violence from guns.  The majority of people in this country appear to want sensible, logical reforms to existing legislation or new legislation that would banish certain classes of firearms or the ammunition clips that feed the weapons.  Leaders from the National Rifle Association (NRA) have stated publicly that better mental health services are necessary in order to prevent mass shootings.  I completely agree with this idea.  While progressive-minded individuals have long advocated for comprehensive mental-health programs, throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, continuing today, legislatures have dramatically cut back funding of mental-health options.  In the state of Michigan, for example, we had 16 hospitals and outpatient clinics for the treatment of mental illness.  Conservative legislators and a Republican Governor whittled that number down to four by 1999.

Study after study has demonstrated that people suffering with serious mental illness are more likely to become homeless, become victims of violence, participate in illicit substance use and abuse, and be far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for criminal activity.  Studies that have looked at the cost of housing a prisoner in a correctional facility have demonstrated that over 40% of inmates suffer from mental illness and that a significant number of these patients could be treated outside of a prison environment at a far-lower cost.  This is a waste of money.

The other idea publicly promoted by the NRA is the arming of teachers and other school workers and expanding concealed-carry laws throughout the nation including into sports venues, theaters, restaurants, churches, colleges, and bars.  As a college educator, I do not feel this is the proper approach to solving the problem of gun violence.  When I think back to the days when I was an elementary, or even a high-school student, I am not sure I would have been very comfortable knowing that some of my teachers, or other school staff members, were armed.  Some of them had a difficult time maintaining order in the classroom and demonstrated their frustration outwardly.  Getting paddled by a teacher is bad enough.  Having a teacher shoot you because you were clowning around?  Think about it.  And the thought of people with guns entering a bar and getting drunk and arguing is not a comforting thought at all.  The thought of guns at sporting events is chilling as rivalries sometimes devolve into violence, particularly in those venues that serve alcohol.

Wayne LaPierre, of the NRA, also suggested having armed guards, like Police Officers stationed in every school in America.  Putting aside the economic burden on communities aside for a moment, it is important to remember that both Columbine High School and Virginia Tech had an armed, uniformed presence when shootings occurred in both places.  Fort Hood was an active military base with armed Military Police and armed civilian guards.  In addition to being economically non-viable, this idea also fails to address the core concern associated with gun violence.  Namely, keeping guns out of the hands of those who would use them to cause harm.

The NRA, and like-minded individuals often claim, “Guns don’t kill people!”  In this, I also concur.  With the exception of someone bludgeoning another person with a gun, guns by themselves do not kill people.  A firearm, however, when used as intended has one, and only one purpose.  That purpose is to deliver a lethal projectile for the point of killing something.  Whether the weapon is a tiny Derringer, or a fully-automatic assault rifle, or a 12-guage shotgun, or a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun, or a 38-caliber revolver, each of these devices is designed to effectively deliver a projectile that is designed to cause death.  Now, one can argue that the firearm serves as a deterrent to would-be criminals.  Generally speaking, however, this argument is not valid.  While the sound of a shotgun being racked in a darkened room is enough to make some involuntarily urinate, the purpose of the weapon is not to sound scary.  The gun is designed to kill.  It is not designed to wound, maim or temporarily incapacitate something.  It is designed to kill something.  However, by itself, the gun can do very little harm.  Also, a gun carelessly handled, or accidentally dropped, may discharge causing death or injury to others.  There are more stories of individuals being accidentally killed or injured by firearms than there are of civilian individuals using a firearm to protect themselves or others.

If a gun, by itself, is relatively harmless, what, then, makes it dangerous.  What makes a gun a weapon?  The answer is simple, ammunition.  Without ammunition, a gun is a conglomeration of metal and plastic, and sometimes, other materials that are not so much functional as they are aesthetic.  A pretty killing machine, you might say.  When the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights, firearms were single-shot, and each shot had to be manually prepared using wadding, powder and a ball.  Experts of the time could shoot and reload their weapon up to three times per minute!  Of course, barrel-rifling techniques meant that shots were most effective at closer ranges.  Today’s firearms have much greater range when aimed properly, carry clips that contain multiple shells or casings, and can be fired multiple times per minute without pausing to reload.  In fact, a semi-automatic weapon with an extended magazine or clip could fire up to 30 shots in less than a minute!  The folks that are currently opposing sensible measures to address the issue of gun violence claim that the 2nd Amendment prevents Congress, or any state legislature, from taking any action that might limit access to firearms.  This argument is invalid on a number of counts.

Let us, for just a brief moment, give credence to this logic.  The 2nd Amendment prevents the government from regulating firearms.  When the 2nd Amendment was ratified, firearms were single-shot and had to be reloaded between each shot.  Because there was no standing Army at the time of the Amendment’s ratification and there were no real police forces established, the enactment of this Amendment was reasonable.  It is not likely that our founders could have had the imagination to perceive the variety of weapons and the power of weapons that would exist today.  But let us suppose that they did.  Let us further suppose that our founders wanted every weapon that was, at that time, available to a standing military or police force as a standard which would mean that weapons used by military forces and police forces around the world should be permitted to be in the hands of ordinary Americans.  Without participating in this argument we can simply put aside the regulation of firearms.  Instead, we can look at the components that carry the ammunition that feeds the weapon.  We can regulate the clips, drums, and magazines that are loaded with ammunition that can be fired from a gun.  We can regulate the projectiles that can be fired from a gun.  It is important to note that the 2nd Amendment, like every other Constitutional provision is subject to review by the judiciary and that no Amendment is without limits on the scope of a “protected liberty.”

Many of those opposed to regulation of firearms cite the 2nd Amendment frequently in support of their cause.  Many of these same individuals favor a strict interpretation of other Amendments and argue against rulings by “activist” judges who expand the interpretation of Constitutional law.  They would argue that the framers did not intend for marriage equality when the 14th Amendment was adopted.  They would argue that individual states and not the federal government should do certain things because it is not specified in the US Constitution.  However, when muskets and cannons were the only weapons using gunpowder, these folks believe the founders of our great nation had the foresight to approve of the ready access of weaponry that was beyond the scope of imagination at the time when crafting the 2nd Amendment.  By the way, a strict interpretation of this Amendment would lead one to believe that an individual must be a member of a well-regulated state militia in order to “bear arms.”  In short, proponents of gun access want the broadest possible interpretation of the 2nd Amendment while many seek as restrictive an interpretation of every other Constitutional Amendment.  With the exception of the Free Exercise clause of the 1st Amendment, that is.  In any case, the Constitution was designed to be specific to modify or amend and arguments put forth by opponents of the current discourse are specious as no relevant party has suggested amending the Constitution to repeal the 2nd Amendment.

Which brings us to recent mass shootings.  Since the Assault Weapons Ban signed into law under President Clinton, and supported by President and Nancy Reagan, expired, the number of mass shootings has increased with each year incurring more multiple shootings than any year prior to the ban being implemented in 1994.  The suggestion that the ban on assault weapons was a failure is inaccurate.  Two things are consistent with mass shootings that have taken place over the past five years.  One, high-capacity magazines were used with the weapons that targeted innocent victims.  Two, the perpetrator, was prior-to, or after-the-fact, diagnosed with a serious mental disorder.

These are two areas in which many of us can agree.  The use of large-capacity ammunition reservoirs is not necessary for sporting or home/self-defense environs.  Other than an ability to get the thrill associated with feeling the multiple recoils of a gun, these devices only serve to ensure that numerous projectiles are dispersed.  These devices should be restricted for sale to, possession by, and use of, by certified, trained individuals.  Namely, military personnel and law enforcement personnel.  Because identifying, and treating, mental illness is very challenging, a process must be implemented to prevent those who have serious mental illnesses from obtaining weapons.  I would recommend a requirement that every individual wishing to purchase a firearm be required to undergo psychological screening.  Further, any individual wishing to purchase a semi-automatic weapon or an assault-style weapon, must also certify that every member of the household has be evaluated for psychological stability.  Weapons should not be accessible to people who lack the mental capacity to exercise self-control of violent or aggressive tendencies.

In addition, I would propose holding legal gun-owners liable for crimes committed with their legally-purchased guns.  Failure to properly secure lethal devices that results in injury or death constitutes negligence.  If we are able to strengthen mental health resources, we can reduce the number of prison inmates imprisoned as a result of criminal activity resulting from a failure to diagnose and treat the mental illness.  This will allow communities to enact stricter penalties for individuals unlawfully in possession of a firearm.

Sensible regulations that would help to prevent this tragedy, even if no firearm was made illegal to own or possess, include; mandatory criminal background checks of all purchasers and members of their immediate households, mandatory psychiatric screening for all potential purchasers and members of their immediate households, a mandatory 7 to 14-day waiting period for the purchase of any semi-automatic weapon, a requirement that gun owners undergo annual psychiatric screening, annual registration for every firearm, a requirement that firearm owners procure a minimum of $1,000,000/$5,000,000 policy on each firearm that is owned, a limit on the number of rounds of ammunition that can be purchased each month, a complete ban on internet sales of firearms and ammunition, mandatory reporting of ammunition sales that exceed the maximum amount for two months in a row, a ban on ammunition sales for assault-style weapons, a requirement that person-to-person sales of firearms or ammunition be conducted at a police department or other designated facility, a $1,000/gun annual fee that will be used to fund school security officers or gun-violence reduction strategies, a 1% tax on gun owners that will provide funding for mental health and treatment programs, and legislation that provides for any owner of a gun whose gun is used to injure or kill another person be held criminally-liable as a conspirator to the crime.

There.  Now we have some reasonable starting points with which to negotiate sensible, comprehensive, and responsible gun regulation.  Shall we get started?


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