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On Guns, We Should Heed Both Sides Of The Debate

In this Monday, July 7, 2014, file photo, Chicago police display some of the thousands of illegal firearms they have confiscated so far this year in their battle against gun violence in Chicago. The recent mass shooting at an Oregon community college has put the debate over gun violence and gun control into the center of the presidential race. At least some of the Republicans who are running have pointed to Chicago as proof that gun control laws don't work. (M. Spencer Green/ AP)
In this Monday, July 7, 2014, file photo, Chicago police display some of the thousands of illegal firearms they have confiscated so far this year in their battle against gun violence in Chicago. The recent mass shooting at an Oregon community college has put the debate over gun violence and gun control into the center of the presidential race. At least some of the Republicans who are running have pointed to Chicago as proof that gun control laws don't work. (M. Spencer Green/ AP)
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They’re both wrong.

After the Oregon campus massacre two weeks ago, our inevitable, spin-your-wheels-and-get-nowhere debate over gun control restarted, exemplified by the political chiaroscuro of TV’s "McLaughlin Group." Liberal Eleanor Clift and conservative Pat Buchanan addressed moderator John McLaughlin's question of whether we need new gun laws:

BUCHANAN: No. One of the things that motivates people like that, John, is just what you’re doing. You’ve put his name out on the air several times.  … This is a nobody. This is a guy that lives his life and he suddenly decides I want to go out in a blaze of glory, a blaze of infamy. I want to go out like the guys at Columbine. … It’s a culture of disrespect and disregard for life ...

CLIFT: There are nobodies in every country in the world and in industrialized countries. And America is the only country that has mass killings on a regular basis. We can learn from other countries. … Gun laws need to be tighter in this country. It is too easy for people to buy numbers of guns, straw purchasers passing them along, where they’re used for crimes.

Whoever said the solution to our domestic killing fields was an either-or proposition? Gun advocates who dismiss regulation sometimes sound as if they fear restrictions might actually work, fettering their extremist interpretation of the right to bear arms. (National Rifle Association (NRA) leaders oppose gun controls endorsed by most of their own members.) But we’re also a country where a parent of the Oregon killer, and of the terrorist who shot up South Carolina churchgoers in August, and of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter blithely gave their unhinged sons firearms. We love guns so much that we keep 300 million of them, representing 35 to 50 percent of the world’s guns owned by civilians, though we’re only 5 percent of the global population.

Gun control, even if successful at crimping the supply of weapons, can't address Americans’ ravenous demand for them, or the mental illness of crazed loners looking to do harm.

Clearly, our gung-ho gun culture sets us apart. Gun control, even if successful at crimping the supply of weapons, can't address Americans’ ravenous demand for them, or the mental illness of crazed loners looking to do harm. We need new, common-sense gun controls. But tackling this outsized crisis also calls for police and mental health techniques that seek to avert violence before it’s unleashed by those marinating in gun worship.

Make no mistake: this is a crisis. Since 1992, there have been 209 shootings in schools from elementary grades to college-level, 144 of them in the last three years alone. It’s true that nightmare shootings have scarred Europe, including France. But one commentator writing from that country about “America’s Gun Madness” noted that “limits on gun possession in France mean that people can go about their daily lives without fear of dying at the hands of shooters at school, stores or movie theaters.” In 2012, France had 140 gun homicides. The U.S.? 11,622.

Not just France. Facing far less carnage, other nations took decisive steps in recent decades after mass shootings, notably Australia, which banned most shotguns and automatic and semiautomatic rifles, buying back 600,000-plus weapons.

The United States bans felons, the mentally ill and others from buying guns. But in cases like Oregon’s, the guns used were obtained legally by others and given to the killers. That’s why public health officials wisely urge that the nation do what some states already do and require screening of private party gun sales, similar to what’s done with licensed dealers. It’s also time to restrict some currently legal weapons: semiautomatic assault weapons, military-style .50 caliber rifles and high-capacity ammo magazines.

Only utopians believe these restrictions would halt all gun killings. Yet they would make it harder for a Columbine wannabe to acquire weapons. (And, as columnist E.J. Dionne points out, we don’t demand that other laws stop all crime that they prohibit.) Nor would reasonable gun controls curb law-abiding citizens’ right to own a gun, unless you believe that owning an arsenal, or assault weapons, was part of the Founders’ purpose in drafting the Second Amendment. In which case, well, there’s a reason “gun nut” entered the vernacular.

And yet …

The United States is not like other countries. We have a powerful NRA and a constitutional right to firearms; Australia has neither. Some nations do just fine with unarmed police; here, you’d be confined for suggesting we follow suit. We can’t legislate away our firearm fetishism or the lethal lunacy of some sick minds.

Only utopians believe these restrictions would halt all gun killings... Nor would reasonable gun controls curb law-abiding citizens’ right to own a gun...

So some jurisdictions are trying “threat assessment,” in which teams of law enforcement and mental health professionals receive public tips about possibly worrisome individuals, learn what they can about the subject, and decide whether to take action. This can include online monitoring of social media for violently worded posts or images that might suggest someone is contemplating a rampage. Managers of a Los Angeles County program specifically targeting potentially dangerous students at schools say they’ve averted violence in several cases. They also say that any concerns about privacy are misplaced, as the law allows such interventions in cases of potential threats to public safety.

In a culture of gun reverence and a world in which treating mental illness is a work in progress, these efforts must accompany gun control. Indeed, they must do for now, as gun nuts and their congressional toadies surely will oppose more firearms restrictions until public outrage makes legislators fear for their re-election. Second Amendment fundamentalists aren’t apt to agree with the Bloomberg columnist who wrote about the mother of Adam Lanza, who shot her dead before attacking Sandy Hook: “There is perhaps no greater evidence of how deeply askew American gun culture has become than a mother taking her mentally disturbed boy to the shooting range and stocking up on firearms back at the fortress called home.”

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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