Is there a way for everyone to be safer?
The commonplace of guns being used in violent crimes is so frequent, we’ve become desensitized to it. It isn’t until there is a mass shooting, particularly when it is 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. This is why we, as a country, should be focusing on what the problem is all of the time, not just when some large, tragic event takes place. What is the real story with guns in relation to violent crimes? What can be done to make our country safer?
Whenever the topic of gun regulation comes, opponents always state that their Second Amendment rights are being threatened. So, what does it actual say? The Second Amendment is “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 December 15, 1791. Since then, through numerous court cases, the Supreme Court has further clarified that the right belongs to individuals, but the right is not unlimited and does not prohibit all regulation of either firearms or similar devices. These determinations by the Supreme Court are key in that they uphold the Second Amendment but also provide a path forward for better regulation of guns.
An important component in the discussion about guns is the understanding of the different types. A fully automatic weapon, such as 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. These types of weapons that have been manufactured after May 19, 1986 are illegal to own and if you want to own one manufactured prior to this date, you need to have a special federal license. It is important to note that in all of the mass shootings (as defined by Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, is a single attack in a public place in which three or more victims are killed–the number was lower from four in 2013) 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. Semi-automatic weapons will automatically reload a bullet into the chamber, but the shooter must pull the trigger separately in order to fire another round. AK-47, AR-15, Sig Sauer, UZI submachine guns and MAC-10 machine pistols are some examples of these. Often these are referred to as “assault weapons” by the media. Depending on the size of the weapon, they can hold 20-30 rounds. These types of weapons are extremely popular and most weapons that are owned by individuals are some variation of this type (this is why most mass shootings are carried out with these types of guns). They have a variety of uses from handguns to hunting rifles. There are devices that can modify these 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 to rapidly again and again. The shooter holds his or her 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. Single-action weapons require the shooter to pull a handle back each time they want to fire a gun.
Looking at data for mass shootings from 1982 through so far in 2018 provides some interesting information. During this time 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 of them 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 proves that the number of mass shootings and mass school shootings are on the rise. 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. The majority of mass shootings and mass school shootings and the resulting deaths have occurred in the past 18 years, so this indicates that we need to address this issue now more than ever. It is important to note that more than half of the mass shooters have obtained the guns they used legally. So, how difficult is it to purchase a gun?
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, unlawful users of certain depressant, narcotic, or stimulant drugs, those adjudicated as mental defectives or incompetents or those committed to any mental institution, illegal aliens, citizens who have renounced their citizenship, those persons dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces, persons less than 18 years of age for the purchase of a shotgun or rifle, persons less than 21 years of age for the purchase of a firearm that is other than a shotgun or rifle, 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. This means that anything beyond this is up to the individual state and it varies greatly. Some states allow you to go to a gun dealer, pick out your gun, fill out a Form 4473 (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF), they call in your information (photo identification that has your name, birth date, gender, race and social security or other identification number) to local Bureau of Investigation office for an instant background check, (if approved) your pay for your gun and walk out with it. Other states also require you to complete an online safety course (takes about 30 minutes) and present the certification of completion at the time of sale. Still others, impose a waiting period where you have a to wait a certain number of days before you can take your gun home. The 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 for record for a minimum of 20 years. Due to the variation in gun purchasing laws and the lack of an easy-to-access, real-time updated database, there is no way to quickly tell who has which gun, whether or not they should even have a gun, if they still have it (they didn’t sell it to someone else), how many guns an individual has and how much ammunition they have for each gun (there is nothing in place to keep track of how much ammunition a person buys). The minimal regulations that we have 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 no record that a transaction took place.
When asked why they own a gun, more than half of the Americans who do say it is for protection and of the remaining half, a third say it is for hunting. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are over 31,000 deaths yearly from gunshot wounds, which comes out to about 86 people dying daily. In the United States, gun homicides are seven times higher than Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom, maybe Americans aren’t wrong to worry about protecting themselves. Since all of these countries have gun safety laws that we don’t and have far less homicides than we do, it is time for the United States to take a look at our laws in relation to purchasing guns and gun ownership. While some of these countries laws are incredibly strict, we have the benefit of being about to pick the best from each and improve ours. Comparing the number of deaths in 2015, Japan had 1 person die from a gunshot wound, England had 19 and the United States had 13,000 (49 from mass shootings). Considering that less people died in Japan or England for all of 2015 than the United States had die in mass shootings alone for the same year and we know what our gun laws are, it is important to take a look at what those countries are doing regarding their gun laws.
Japan’s laws are very strict, but highly effective at preventing a high number of deaths from gunshot wounds. There are several steps. The first is to attend a one-day training session that is offered by the local police department once a month and costs about $60. After you spend all day in class, you have to take an exam and pass it. Once you do this, you apply for training at a licensed shooting range. 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 you have 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 finally checks out, you get approval to move on to the next step…training at the shooting range. You arrive 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 get training on 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 which is actually selecting a gun and making a formal submission to Japan’s version of FBI. After mailing all the necessary documents and two months later, you receive your temporary license, which is required by gun shops to complete a sale. Once you have your temporary license, you go back to the gun shop where you picked out the gun you would like 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 total process takes four months. This isn’t the end of the process. Every time you purchase shotgun shells (it is not legal to own a handgun in Japan), you need to present your license (stores record how much ammunition you buy). Each gun owner is required to log these purchases and a record of 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 is stored (the guns and ammunition must be stored in separate rooms and in wall-mounted lockers). This process is incredibly lengthy and, therefore, it would never pass as is here in the United States.
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, which is issued by the police in the area in which the person normally resides. Each certificate can list multiple firearms and remains valid until it expires even if all the listed firearms were subsequently banned. It is important 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, does not have a revolving cylinder and does not have a magazine or non-detachable magazine that is capable of holding more than two cartridges (plus one in the chamber). If the weapon meets these conditions, it is subject to a less rigorous process than that of other firearms. When applying for any firearm certificate, you must provide justification for each firearm and self-defense has not been considered a valid reason to own a firearm since 1968. Legitimate reason includes sporting, collecting or work-related. On the certificate, each firearm is listed individually by type, caliber and serial number. 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 and/or investigated as part of the certification), approval of the application by the applicant’s own 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 will be granted a license. It must be renewed every 5 years. Anyone with recent, serious, mental health issue will be refused a license. If you have been sentenced anywhere between three months to three years in prison, you automatically are prohibited from possessing any firearm or ammunition for five years upon your release. If you are sentenced to more than three years, you are prohibited for life. Certain types of weapons are prohibited: fully automatic or burst-fire weapons (some air guns are included in this), 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 thing (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.
There is no question that other countries with lower gun homicide rates than ours are likely because of those countries gun policies. While the success of the programs in Japan and United Kingdom are evident, both have certain aspects that would not appeal to the majority of citizens in the United States. Our solution needs to focus on two parts: a standardization when it comes to purchasing a gun/maintenance of records and a focus on mental health.
The standardization for purchasing a gun would take the best parts of all of the different programs we have discussed so far. Changes to the laws would not be retroactive. However, if you own a gun(s) and would like to voluntarily comply with the new process, that would be accepted. Note, even if you own a gun(s) and you are purchasing a new gun after the changes went into effect, then you would need to comply with the new laws for all future purchases. All of the previous ineligibilities remain, except that you would need to be 21 years old to purchase any type of firearm. Filling out the Form 4473 would be done electronically to allow it to be entered into a federal database. By having a national database, it would actually make it easier to purchase a gun wherever you are, not just your home state. In addition to this form, you would need to provide two personal references that can be interviewed in order 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 partake in a day of training on a gun range. Both of these should be offered for a fee by local law enforcement at least once or twice a month. When you have completed the mental health exam and the required courses, you would get a certificate from each that you would submit to the ATF in order for them to proceed with the processing of your license. At this point, they would be completing 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. As part of this license (updated with every purchase), it is kept in the database 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 prior to the changes in the law and you have not already registered those guns to your license, then you would need to do so at that time in order to complete your ammunition purchase. If you have a license with good standing and no violations, the dealer would do 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 would not be a limit on the number of guns or ammunition that you could purchase just a registration of everything in order to keep better track of it. Also, as part of these new regulations, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines would be illegal. In order to ensure that guns do not become altered so that they have illegal modifications, they would need to be inspected every license renewal by local law enforcement. In addition to the license, you would need to have insurance on the guns similar to insurance that are on motor vehicles (liability, etc.). When you think of the fact that 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, it seems a bit absurd. By having a more uniform process with clear guidelines, it will help to decrease the chance of people who shouldn’t be owning guns from doing so.
The other major factor in preventing gun homicides is to address the mental health aspect of the equation. After there is a mass shooting, when talking to family, friends and/or mental health professionals about the shooter, there is usually a consensus that the person could’ve used mental health help. This means that we, as a society, need to do a better job of a non-threatening public health approach to providing access to mental health services to individuals who need them the most. We need to train people, especially police officers, teachers and so forth, 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 been 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. While we certainly need to improve this area in dealing with prevention of violent crimes with guns, there probably have been far more mass shootings that have been prevented than those that have occurred. This is due to when prevention succeeds, it is invisible to the public. You don’t read in the news about people who have threatened violence but were stopped and helped.
The road ahead to better regulation of guns and mental health access will be a bumpy one and that is because the political debate over gun rights has made it near impossible to have a discuss on this topic. Many people who support the current gun laws are members of the National Rifle Association (NRA), therefore, many people who are opposed to the current gun laws attack the NRA as the reason behind the mass shootings. Before you can say that the NRA is bad, it is important to understand a few things about them. First of all, there are about 4.25 million members of the NRA in the United States and 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, so they found the NRA to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” Since this time, it has offered numerous programs all promoting gun safety and training people how to properly operate firearms. The discrepancy comes in because they are big supporters of the Second Amendment and donate millions of dollars each to congressional representatives to ensure that their viewpoint is heard. Overall, their mission is about gun safety and the right to own guns. For those opposed to current gun laws, the support of the Second Amendment makes it seem like the NRA is only concerned about not changing gun regulation and, therefore, the opposition. Since both sides feel so strongly about their views, it makes finding a compromise a challenge.
When taking all of this information into account, it is easy to realize that the United States needs to do something to stop the increase in mass shootings that are taking place and decrease the number of gun homicides that occur yearly. If providing those who own guns with the security of knowing that their ability to do so would not be denied and providing those who want more gun regulation with a sense that there is more being done to prevent people who shouldn’t have a gun from getting one, then everyone wins. With the proposed changes to gun laws provided in this article, it delivers on both these points. Since the NRA primary focus has always been about gun safety and the proposed changes do not deny them the right to “bear arms,” then most likely they 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 in order to do what is best for all, we need to work together to get to a better place where there are less mass shootings and everyone feels safe.