What can we do to prevent another Newtown? Your commission will be on the right track if it proposes reasonable regulations to keep guns like the AR-15 that Adam Lanza used to massacre 20 children and kill 6 staff members at Shady Hill Elementary School out of the hands of madmen, minors, convicted criminals, drug addicts, and other categories of people now not entitled to buy firearms from federally licensed dealers.
But you will be on the wrong track if you propose banning such “assault rifles” altogether. Besides, semi-automatic military-style rifles like that do not figure significantly in the far more serious problem of gun violence on city streets and suicides. Handguns, though, kill about 30,000 people a year this way.
Nobody should have too many illusions about what strict gun control alone can do to reduce our gun violence problem – daily fatal assaults and mass shootings alike. Senator Dianne Feinstein apparently intends to propose a bill to ban manufacture or sales of new semi-automatic “assault” rifles, and treat existing ones the way fully automatic machine guns, “Tommyguns,” have been regulated since the 1930s. The National Firearms Act, the 1934 law that made fully automatic machine guns and sawed-off shotguns very difficult and expensive to buy and own, has been since amended to require fingerprinting and photographs of the owners and registry with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the BATFE. The 1934 law came in response to popular outrage over the way organized crime, the Syndicate, had outgunned the police and sprayed bullets around the country as the criminals made money selling illegal booze during Prohibition.
One can, today, technically, still own a Tommygun, if one complies with all these restrictions, but few people do or want to go to the trouble. We don’t hear the NRA complaining very loudly about why we can’t just go out and buy fully automatic machine-guns. One could argue that the National Firearms Act has actually worked: No machine guns were used in Newtown. Nor in the Aurora movie theater last summer. Nor in Tucson when Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at the shopping mall. Nor in the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people, plus the shooter, in 2007. But rifles or handguns with high-capacity magazines were involved in all of them.
Senator Feinstein’s bill reportedly would not only ban new purchases of such weapons but prevent current owners from selling them or passing them along to heirs, requiring their estates to turn the weapons in to the government after they die.
There’s no need to be so restrictive about guns whose firepower is no greater than that of many ordinary rifles used for hunting, though requiring their owners to register – with their state authorities or with BATFE -- might make sense. Yet there is also no earthly reason why any civilian should need to own a magazine capable of holding 100 rounds – as James E. Holmes, the shooter in Aurora, had for his AR-15 – for self-defense. If you want to propose a ban, ban large-capacity magazines like those for all firearms – as news reports indicate you plan to do.
Gun control should aim at keeping weapons out of the hands of people who everybody agrees should have them – not at keeping weapons out of the hands of as many qualified and law-abiding people as possible. But the criteria and the definitions in the existing federal NICS instant-background-check system all need careful reconsideration and refinement. For years, all too often, states have not been turning over all their mental-health records to the federal background check system. We dismantled our national mental-hospital system, which had its own horrors, but have done essentially nothing to replace it. So many dangerously ill people go without treatment and are not stopped by the background check from buying weapons.
If you plan to recommend closing the most dangerous loophole in the background check system itself, bravo. That’s the one that exempts anybody who buys a gun privately from a private owner instead of a licensed dealer from having to pass the background check. Private sales may be as much as 40% of all sales of firearms in this country.
Increasing the penalties for illegally buying a gun for people who cannot legally do it themselves – straw purchasing – should be another one. Adam Lanza didn’t buy his guns. Perhaps requiring gun owners to keep weapons in the home locked up so securely so that no one else can get access to them might have prevented Adam Lanza from getting his hands on his mother’s guns after he shot her to death there before going to the school – we may never know.
Can enough members of Congress be persuaded that doing things like these would save more lives than doing nothing? Maybe, if you can get responsible gun owners who do not think the NRA speaks for them to speak up for themselves. Maybe, if you can get the members of this 113th Congress convinced that they should listen to what the public wants, not just what the NRA wants. If this can’t be done now, after the horror of Newtown, when can it be done?
The important thing is for your commission’s report to start the national conversation about what measures gun owners and gun-control advocates can agree on to make it safer for all of us to live with the 300 million guns in private hands in America. Constructive talk may get us there – confrontation clearly has failed.