Is there a way for everyone to be safer?
The commonplace of guns being used in violent crimes is so frequent that we’ve become desensitized to it. It isn’t until there is a mass shooting, particularly at a school, that there comes a cry for something to be done about “gun control.” The sad thing is that every day people are dying because a gun was used while someone was committing a crime. So, as a country, we should focus on reducing gun violence all of the time, not just when a large, tragic event occurs. What can be done to make our country safer?
Whenever the topic of gun regulation comes, opponents declare that their Second Amendment rights are being threatened. This portion of the Bill of Rights states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It was adopted on December 15, 1791. Since then, the Supreme Court has further clarified through numerous court cases that the right belongs to individuals, but the right isn’t unlimited. According to their rulings, it doesn’t prohibit all regulation of either firearms or similar devices. These determinations are fundamental in that they uphold the Second Amendment and provide a path forward for better regulation of guns.
An essential component in the discussion about guns is understanding the different types. A fully automatic weapon, such as a machine gun, is defined by the fact that it continues to fire until it runs out of ammunition, so long as the trigger is pulled down. Ownership of these types of weapons is illegal if they’ve been manufactured after May 19, 1986. If you want to own one built before this date, you must have a special federal license. It’s important to note that in all of the mass shootings that have taken place since record-keeping of such events began with the first one in 1982, none of them have been committed with a fully automatic weapon. As defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a mass shooting is a single attack in a public place where three or more victims are killed. The number was lowered from four in 2013.
Semi-automatic weapons automatically reload a bullet into the chamber, but the shooter must pull the trigger separately to fire another round. AK-47, AR-15, Sig Sauer, UZI submachine guns, and MAC-10 machine pistols are some examples. Often these are referred to as “assault weapons” by the media. Depending on the weapon’s size, they can hold 20-30 rounds. These weapons are extremely popular, and most weapons that individuals own are some variation of this type (which is why most mass shootings are carried out with them). They come in various forms, such as handguns or hunting rifles. Single-action weapons require the shooter to pull a handle back each time they want to fire a gun.
Some devices can modify semi-automatic weapons making them more dangerous. High-capacity magazines are compartments that can hold significantly more cartridges than the weapon itself, sometimes between 60-100. Bump stocks replace a rifle’s standard stock (the part held against the shoulder), allowing the weapon to slide back and forth rapidly, harnessing the energy from the kickback shooters feel when the weapon fires. This lets the stock “bump” back and forth between the shooter’s shoulder and trigger finger, making it easier to fire the rifle rapidly again and again. The shooter holds their trigger finger in place while maintaining forward pressure on the barrel and backward pressure on the pistol grip while firing. This means the weapon can fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun without technically converting it to a fully automatic firearm. Both of these modifications were used in the Las Vegas mass shooting.
Looking at data for mass shootings from 1982 through this point in 2018 provides some interesting information. During this period, there have been 97 mass shootings resulting in 816 deaths. Of these mass shootings, 16 occurred at a school, with 162 deaths. Separate and apart from the deaths, there were 1275 injuries associated with those same mass shootings, and of those injuries, 195 occurred at a school shooting. If you break down the data into two 18-year periods (the first 18 years versus the second 18), it shows that the number of mass shootings and mass school shootings is rising. In the first 18-year period (1982-2000), there were 32 mass shootings resulting in the death of 245 people, with 6 taking place at schools causing 38 of the deaths (this includes the 13 deaths that occurred at Columbine, which happened in 1999). In the second 18-year period (2000-2018), there have been 62 mass shootings resulting in the death of 571 people, with 10 taking place at schools, causing 124 of the deaths.
It’s vital to note that more than half of the mass shooters have obtained the guns they used legally. The federal regulations for purchasing a gun state that people who meet the following criteria are ineligible to possess, receive, ship, or transport firearms: those convicted of crimes punishable by imprisonment for over one year (except state misdemeanors punishable by two years or less), fugitives from justice, individuals dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces, persons subject to a court order that restrains such persons from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner, or persons convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Unlawful users of certain depressant, narcotic, or stimulant drugs and those found to be mentally incompetent or committed to any mental institution are ineligible to buy firearms. You also can’t purchase a gun if you’re an illegal alien or a citizen who has renounced their citizenship. If you’re under 18 years of age, you can’t purchase any firearms; if you’re under 21 years of age, you may not buy any weapon other than a shotgun or rifle.
Anything beyond these requirements is up to individual states, which varies considerably. Some states allow you to go to a gun dealer, pick out your gun, and fill out a Form 4473 (from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF). Next, they call the local Bureau of Investigation office for an instant background check using your provided information (photo identification with your name, birth date, gender, race and social security). If approved, you pay for your gun and walk out with it. Other states also require you to complete an online safety course (which takes about 30 minutes) and present the certification of completion at the time of sale. Still, others impose a waiting period where you must wait a certain number of days before you can take your gun home. Form 4473 doesn’t need to be filed with the ATF or any other national or state agency, but the gun dealer is supposed to keep it on record for a minimum of 20 years. These regulations only apply if you are buying a gun from a dealer. If you buy a gun from an individual, there is no background check or paperwork, so there’s no transaction record. Due to the variation in gun purchasing laws, the lack of an easy-to-access, real-time updated database, and no regulation on private gun sales, there’s no way to tell who has a gun. There’s also no way how many guns an individual has, how much ammunition they have, or if they’re still in possession of a firearm they purchased years ago.
According to experts at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 31,000 deaths yearly are from gunshot wounds, which comes out to about 86 people dying daily. Agency officials also state that in 2015, 2824 children and teens were killed by gun-related injuries, and this number is on the rise. Other studies have found that 73% of young children in households with guns know where the weapons are kept, and 36% have handled them, contrary to their parents’ beliefs. In the United States, gun homicides are seven times higher than in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and United Kingdom. All these countries have gun safety laws that the U.S. doesn’t. Comparing the number of deaths from gun violence in 2015, Japan had one person die, England had 19, and the United States had 13,000 (49 from mass shootings). Legislation for firearms varies from state to state. Studies show a direct connection between states that have laws to prevent children from accessing guns by requiring safe storage and fewer child deaths due to guns than states that don’t have similar laws.
Some of these countries’ laws are incredibly strict but highly effective at preventing deaths from gunshot wounds. Japan has a multi-step process. The first stage is to attend a one-day training session offered by the local police department once a month, costing about $60. After spending all day in class, you must take an exam and pass it. As part of the application process, you need to provide proof of residency, photo identification, a list of past jobs/addresses, and a certificate from a mental health professional that states you have been assessed for competency to own a firearm. After all this, you go back to the police station and meet with an officer who asks you numerous questions. For the next several days, the application is checked against police databases. Once everything checks out, you get approval to move on to the next step, which is training at the shooting range. At the range, you start in a classroom for an overview and then take an exam about gun safety. If you pass the exam, you go to the range and practice shooting at targets. After you complete your training, a police officer spends the next few days making unannounced visits to your place of employment and your neighborhood to talk to people about your demeanor and such. If nothing is amiss, you get approval for the next step, selecting a gun and making a formal submission to Japan’s version of the FBI. After mailing all the necessary documents, about two months later, you receive your temporary license, which gun shops require to complete a sale. Once you have your temporary license, you go back to the gun shop where you picked out the gun to show it to them, and they issue a letter that you take back to the police to make your final application and receive your license. The entire process takes four months, but it isn’t the end. Every time you purchase shotgun shells (it’s not legal to own a handgun in Japan), you must present your license (stores record how much ammunition you buy). Each gun owner must log these purchases and record each time they fire their weapon in a “bullet-tracking book.” You also have to take your guns for inspection at the local police station after three months to ensure that no modifications have been made without authorization. The police will do unannounced home inspections to assess how your gun and ammunition are stored (they must be kept in wall-mounted lockers in separate rooms).
United Kingdom’s policy is not quite as strict, but still very effective. It states that all firearms must be licensed on either a 5-year certificate or a shotgun certificate issued by the police in the area where the person usually resides. Each certificate can list multiple firearms and remains valid until it expires, even if all the listed firearms were subsequently banned. It’s key to note that they define a shotgun as a firearm with barrels no shorter than 24 inches and a bore no larger than 2 inches in diameter. Also, it doesn’t have a revolving cylinder and doesn’t have a magazine or non-detachable magazine capable of holding more than two cartridges (plus one in the chamber). If the weapon meets these conditions, it’s subject to a less rigorous process than that of other firearms. When applying for any firearm certificate, you must justify why you need each firearm; self-defense hasn’t been considered a valid reason since 1968. Legitimate reason includes sporting, collecting, or work-related. Each firearm is listed individually by type, caliber, and serial number on the certificate. The licensing process involves positive verification of identity, two references of verifiable good character who have known the applicant for at least two years (and who may themselves be interviewed or investigated as part of the certification), approval of the application by the applicant’s doctor, an inspection of the premises and cabinet where firearms will be kept, and a face-to-face interview with a police officer. After all of this is completed, a background check is completed. If everything checks out, you’ll be granted a license. It must be renewed every five years. Anyone with a recent, serious mental health issue will be refused a license. If you have been sentenced between three months to three years in prison, you are automatically prohibited from possessing any firearm or ammunition for five years upon release. You’re barred for life if you’re sentenced to more than three years. Certain types of weapons are prohibited: fully automatic or burst-fire weapons (some air guns are included), semi-automatic or pump-action rifles (ex. Colt AR-15 or L1A1), cartridge ammunition handguns, firearms disguised as another item (ex. walking sticks, mobile telephones, etc.), rockets/mortars, air guns chambered for self-contained gas cartridges, any weapon of whatever description designed or adapted for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other things (stun guns, or electric shock devices, tear gas, pepper spray), and firearms which previously fell into a prohibited category, but have been converted to an otherwise permitted form.
While the programs’ success in Japan and the United Kingdom are evident, both have certain aspects that would not appeal to most citizens in the United States. Our solution needs to focus on two parts. The first is developing a national standard when it comes to purchasing a gun and maintenance of records. The second is a focus on mental health.
The standardization for purchasing a gun would take the best parts of all the different programs we have discussed. To make the changes more appealing, experts have suggested that any new laws wouldn’t be retroactive. However, if you own a gun(s) and would like to comply with the new process voluntarily, that would be accepted. Note, even if you own a gun(s), you would need to comply with the new laws when purchasing a new gun after the changes went into effect. All of the previous ineligibilities remain, except that you would need to be 21 years old to purchase any firearm. Form 4473 would be filled out electronically so it could be entered into a federal database. Having a national database would make it easier to purchase a gun wherever you are, not just in your home state. In addition to this form, you would need to provide two personal references that can be interviewed to vouch for your character and have a mental health exam completed by your doctor to determine that you are mentally competent enough to operate a firearm. Also, you would need to take a gun safety course and participate in a day of training on a gun range. Both should be offered for a fee by local law enforcement once or twice a month. When you have completed the mental health exam and the required courses, you will get a certificate from each that you will submit to the ATF for them to proceed with processing your license. The organization would complete a thorough background check looking for anything that would preclude you from being eligible to own a gun. Once you have received approval, you are issued a license that needs to be renewed every five years.
The database would be updated with every purchase on how many guns you own with a list of the type, caliber, and serial number. It would also be logged how much ammunition you purchase. If you are purchasing ammunition for a gun(s) that you owned before the law changes and haven’t already registered those guns to your license, you would need to do so at that time to complete your ammunition purchase. If you’re purchasing a new gun with a license in good standing and no violations, the dealer will follow a similar process to the current one (identification verification and an instant background check). Guns would only be purchased or sold to authorized dealers, so sales directly between individuals would not be permitted. A dealer would need to verify the current ownership and that the new owner is eligible to purchase the gun using the database, and that they have a proper gun license. There wouldn’t be a limit on the number of firearms or ammunition you could purchase just a registration of everything to keep better track of it.
As part of these new regulations, bump stocks, and high-capacity magazines would be illegal. To ensure that guns don’t become altered, they would need to be inspected every license renewal by local law enforcement. In addition to the license, you would need insurance on the guns, similar to insurance on motor vehicles (liability, etc.). It seems a bit absurd when you think about our current gun regulation compared to owning a car. You need training, a license, and insurance to own/operate a motor vehicle, which can also kill people, but you currently don’t need any of those to own a gun.
The other major factor in preventing gun homicides is addressing mental health. After a mass shooting, when talking to family, friends, or mental health professionals about the shooter, there’s usually a consensus that the person could’ve used mental health help. As a society, we need to do a better job of offering a non-threatening public health approach to providing access to mental health services to individuals who need them the most. Certain individuals, such as police officers and teachers, need better training about what to look for and do for someone who is so distressed that they are threatening violence. School-based counseling and violence prevention programs have proven effective at teaching students how to resolve conflicts and problems without resorting to violence. By using a more widespread threat assessment approach, any possible dangers could be investigated more thoroughly and help provided to people who need immediate intervention.
The road ahead to better regulation of guns and mental health access will be bumpy, and that’s primarily because the political debate over gun rights has made it near impossible to discuss this topic. Many people who support the current gun laws are members of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Therefore, many people opposed to the current gun laws attack the NRA as the reason behind the mass shootings. Before vilifying the NRA, it’s essential to understand a few things about them. First, there are about 4.25 million NRA members in the U.S. Second, none of the mass shooting events have ever been committed by a member. It was founded in 1871 by two Union veterans who were appalled by their troops’ lack of marksmanship. They found the organization to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” Since then, it has offered numerous programs promoting gun safety and training people to operate firearms properly. The issue is that the current viewpoint of the organization is that the Second Amendment must be protected, and any legislation to change the existing laws threatens it. The NRA donates millions of dollars yearly to congressional representatives to ensure their viewpoint is heard. For those opposed to current gun laws, the support of the Second Amendment makes it seem like the NRA isn’t concerned about all the lives lost due to gun violence.
It’s easy to realize that the United States needs to do something to stop the increase in gun violence, especially mass shootings, that are taking place. If providing those who own guns with the security of knowing that their ability to do so wouldn’t be denied and providing those who want more gun regulation with a sense that there’s more being done to prevent people who shouldn’t have a gun from getting one, then everyone wins. The proposed changes to gun laws discussed in this article deliver on both these points. Since the NRA’s primary focus has always been gun safety and the proposed changes don’t deny them the right to “bear arms,” they most likely should support these changes. The data shows that by having better gun regulation, including better mental health programs, everyone is safer because guns stay out of the hands of people who shouldn’t be using them, which appeals to those who want better gun regulation. There is no question that when it comes to guns, people have their own idea of what is right, but to do what is best for all, we need to work together to have better regulation where everyone feels safe without infringing on long-held rights.