In the aftermath of the movie theater massacre last Friday in Aurora, Colorado, gun control issues predictably reenter public consciousness. The result will probably be just as predictable. If state and national response to this mass shooting follows the pattern set by responses to other mass-shooting tragedies (fairly recently, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood), nothing whatsoever will change.
It’s a fact that the United States Constitution contains the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court has interpreted quite capaciously within the past few years (striking down some cities’ attempts to regulate the sale of firearms, for instance; see D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago). It’s also a fact, from a strict constructionist standpoint, that the founding fathers could not have intended private citizens to enjoy untrammeled rights to automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, as those technological ‘advances’ had not yet been made. Nevertheless, it’s an additional fact that guns are part of this country’s mythological self-representation, the lethal reification of rugged individualism.
Most advocates of gun control therefore realize that the United States will never ban guns altogether. Moreover, the political power of the National Rifle Association has guaranteed that elected representatives – no matter what their individual beliefs about unfettered gun ownership, no matter what horrendous gun-enabled incidents occur – will shy away from proposing or supporting any legislation directed at regulating guns or ammunition. Twenty years ago, gun laws tended to be a partisan issue; today, no party is willing to take on the gun lobby.
The reason is money. The NRA presents itself as a citizen’s advocacy organization, but it has become a lobbying group primarily for gun and ammunition manufacturers. U.S. companies make most of the world’s guns and bullets, and they sell them throughout the world. It is a huge and highly lucrative industry.
At the same time, individual paid NRA membership – among hunters and recreational shooters, for example – has been decreasing (after a long post-9/11 rise) and there’s evidence that the organization inflates membership claims in order to exert maximum pressure on state and national legislators.
Hunters know that an AK-47 is not helpful in shooting a deer (it’s neither sporting nor useful if one wants to enjoy some venison). Hobbyists know that rapid-fire weapons do not measure one’s skill on a range or a skeet-shooting context. People who sincerely believe they need a gun for self-protection know that a conventional pistol or shotgun will suffice.
So who benefits from non-existent gun control laws? Weapons manufacturers. And, arguably, criminals.
But not so fast. There’s a seemingly legitimate scholarly debate about whether tougher gun laws actually result in a decrease in crime. One problem about the reliability of this debate is that funding for solid research about the gun/crime nexus has been reduced to almost nothing (thanks in large part to NRA efforts). Another problem is situational: when a headline-grabbing incident such as the Aurora shootings happens, people are quick to focus on the putative psychopathology of the perpetrator and to meander into the shadowlands of profiling and predicting behavior.
Often (as was true this past weekend) tentative conclusions resemble warmed-over gruel: you usually can’t tell who will turn homicidal, mass murderers will find a way (bombs, chemical attacks, poisonous snakes, whatever) to attempt to make their desires/fantasies/compulsions/sheer evil happen. Ergo, new gun control measures would not have stopped Aurora, or Tucson, or whatever hideous event is in the news at the moment. Family members, co-workers, fellow students, Facebook friends should be more vigilant. Etc., etc.
For sake of argument, let’s grant that all this is true and sufficient. Is there a reason other than the dark night risen of this past weekend, and corollary occurrences, to reconsider gun and ammunition control in the United States?
There certainly is.
Gun suicide. Nearly 60 % of all suicides in the United States are committed by gun; outside of accidents, gun suicide is one of the top causes of death among teenagers and military veterans, significantly outweighing numbers from homicide. There’s absolutely no question that having a gun in the home enables ‘successful’ suicide – the percentages of suicide attempts by, say, pills or hanging that result in death are substantially lower than the percentages of suicide attempts by gun that result in death.
It’s true that most gun suicides are not accomplished with AK-47s. A single well-placed shot from a conventional weapon will suffice.
So what sorts of legislation might address some of these problems?
Let’s take suicide-by-gun first. If there were nationwide licensing standards, potential gun purchasers could be required to complete a gun-ownership safety course that would include safe storage of weapons in the home. Parents of young children install safety locks in cabinets containing toxic cleansers or prescription drugs, for instance; shouldn’t the same level of awareness be directed towards guns and ammunition? The old shoe-box on the closet shelf solution certainly is not sufficient with older children, who may also know combinations to gun safes and lock boxes (or could simply break into them).
‘Advanced weapons storage’ would be particularly useful in the case of teen gun-suicides. Teenagers who attempt suicide are not always (probably not usually) chronically mentally ill. Instead, they can be in the throes of volatile emotions, emotions that can and do change pretty quickly. If a suicide attempt is unsuccessful, often there’s no second try. Situations change, a ‘cry for help’ is heeded, young people mature. But if that despondent, impulsive teenager has easy access to a gun, there’s usually no chance for help or healing. The first try is deadly.
Secondarily, more background checks (and corollary waiting periods for gun ownership) about criminal and mental records could help keep guns of all sorts out of the possession of people (teens, parents of teens, and adults in general) who might have tendencies to be irresponsible or deadly with guns. It could also be argued that having a reasonable limit on guns owned (who needs more than two hunting rifles or self-protection handguns?) might be helpful, as a few guns are easier to secure in the home than is an arsenal of firearms. Also, multiple purchases drive the ‘secondary gun market,’ which is the source of many guns used in criminal activities.
Ah – abridgment of Second Amendment rights! Well, what about the constitutionally guaranteed rights against unreasonable search and seizure in the Fourth Amendment? Why do we submit to taking off our shoes and having our hair gel confiscated at airports? Terrorism is a good reason . . . but the number of U.S. citizens who die by gun-suicide and by domestic gun violence each year far exceeds those killed in 9/11, much less the number killed in this country by overseas-motivated terrorism in years subsequent (just about zero). In other words, why should the United States take measures that may be constitutionally shaky to protect its people from ‘alien’ terrorism while refusing to take some commonsense measures to protect people from home-grown death-by-gun?
Going back to the Aurora killings – wouldn’t the death and injury toll have been less if it had been illegal to purchase automatic weapons (in other words, reinstitute the Brady Bill) and, perhaps, if coordinated tracking of internet ammunition purchases had been in effect (raising red flags if a single civilian bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition within a short time period)?
Theologically, ‘the dark night of the soul’ is a crisis of faith when a believer wrestles painfully with disbelief in what had been a religiously or culturally dictated given in order to come to a more sanctified understanding of what’s right and moral. It may be time for the United States as a nation to wrestle with its own dark night of the soul regarding the putatively sacrosanct nature of unregulated gun ownership.
The victims of gun violence deserve no less.