How to Address Gun Violence

I hate writing or thinking about this topic because it means that more innocent people have senselessly lost their lives due to gun violence. 

It's even more painful that no one seems to be searching for a solution to this very real problem. We scream past each other about mental illness, gun control, and other topics without anyone proposing any new solutions for combatting the endless  parade of mass shootings. 

I admit to believing that better regulation of firearms possession ought to be part of a solution. We also need better mental health care; sadly, given that we don't exactly have an exemplary healthcare system as it is, it seems unlikely that we even understand HOW we might improve the mental health system, let alone actually implementing such a solution. 

With regard to gun control or, perhaps more aptly described, firearms regulation, both gun control proponents and opponents need a reality check. 

Gun owners and gun rights proponents ought to understand several things—first, every proposal for tighter regulation of firearms is NOT some sort of backdoor scheme to take away their guns. America has a deep and longstanding tradition of firearms ownership and use, and trying to ban even handguns would be both impractical and unfair to the millions of law abiding gun owners. 

Second, none of the rights protected by the Bill of Rights are absolute and unlimited. You can't yell fire in a crowded movie theater and cause a panic. Public safety and health require reasonable infringements upon all of our rights for the common good. 

The Second Amendment ought not be different than the First Amendment (or any of the other amendments for that matter). Jurists ought to scrutinize restrictions, but reasonable limitations are permissible and sensible. 

Given that, it's absurd to think that it is easier to get and use a deadly weapon than it is to get alcohol (highly restricted), marijuana (totally illegal in 48 states), or even a car. Some states prohibit alcohol sales after a certain time of day. Others still have blue laws on the books that prevent alcohol sales on Sunday. No one under 21 can buy alcohol. Every car owner needs to register their cars and have them inspected yearly. The list of restrictions goes on and on. 

Third—reasonable restrictions on firearm purchases can save lives. Refusal to at least explore the options (and do research on the cause of firearm fatalities) undoubtedly leads to the loss of life every day in the United States. 

On the left, gun control proponents similarly have faults. First, the time has come to look for new solutions. As much as one gun per month legislation, expanded background checks for all gun purchases, and an assault weapons ban may sound reasonable, the politics of these proposals has become fraught. Even more importantly, there is little evidence that any of them would have prevented any of the recent mass shootings. 

In most recent cases, the perpetrators legally purchased the firearms utilized in these tragedies, passed a background check, and followed all applicable state and federal laws for gun purchases. 

Second, America has a deep culture of firearms possession and usage. We need to respect gun owners, and find a way to convince them that we're not out to take their guns away. How would you feel if you had done nothing wrong, and felt as though segments of society sought to revoke your ability to possess something that you enjoyed using or that provided you with reassurance? 

If gun owners feel less under attack, it might be easier to get them to consider supporting reasonable restrictions on gun purchases. At the very least, they might be less willing to vote on the issue, which might encourage politicians to support such restrictions. 

Third, the debate over whether the Constitution protects an individual right to bear arms ought to be over. As a historian, it's tempting to immerse myself in the debate, and marshall all the historical arguments as to why the Supreme Court got the Constitution's intent wrong. But doing so would be highly hypocritical. 

Most liberals believe in a living Constitution that must be interpreted anew with time in order to keep up with modern circumstances. It is how we justify the propriety of many the Warren's Court's liberal decisions. We scorn Antonin Scalia for his rigid originalism (i.e. deciding cases based upon the original intent of the framers of the Constitution). 

If so, we can't possibly trot out our own originalism solely because we don't like gun rights. You can't have two sets of rules for Constitutional interpretation (one for rights that you like, one for rights that you don't). 

After stipulating all of these facts on both sides, I'll offer a proposal. We ought to consider limiting the ability of people under 30 to purchase firearms. 

There is ample precedent for limiting rights or behavior based upon age. Americans can't drive until 16, they can't vote until 18, and they can't drink (legally) until 21. We even restrict something as benign as the ability to rent a car by age. Society acknowledges that cognitive development is slow. Thus, actions and activities that might be appropriate for older adults are not appropriate for younger adults. 

Far more importantly, think about the mass shootings from the recent past—almost every shooter, if not every single shooter, is a young, disillusioned male with a track record of some warning signs. If we cannot create a mental health system sufficient to help these troubled souls before they do something catastrophic, wouldn't it make sense to try to keep firearms away from them?

Ideally, such a proposal should just apply to men since there are very few (if any?) mass shootings carried out by women. Given the Supreme Court's posture towards legislation that affects people differently because of gender or applies solely to one gender, this may or may not be legally possible. 

I also don't think that an outright prohibition of gun ownership for young people is ideal. Many, many young people are fully capable of handling firearms and possessing them without posing a threat to anyone else. 

As such, some sort of enhanced background check or mental health screening for a young person looking to buy a gun seems to occupy a sweet spot between overly restrictive and not sufficiently tough to achieve the objective. Germany has a similar system, though with a cutoff age of 25.  

Such a proposal is narrowly tailored and might assuage those gun owners fearful that gun control proponents spend every waking minute trying to conceive of ways to take their guns away (i.e. that everything related to gun purchase restrictions is a slippery slope). It also would not affect the lives of most gun owners, which might lessen political opposition. 

Whether such a system is practical is another question. We might need to resort to prohibiting firearms purchases or possession for people under a certain age (note that I didn't say usage—no one should desire to prevent anyone from hunting with family) simply because the resources don't exist for the sort of advanced screenings that I envision. 

What are the politics of this issue? Sadly, gun control legislation won't be possible at a national level unless and until gun control proponents demonstrate some political might.

As background, after mass shootings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Congress passed an Assault Weapons Ban and the Brady Bill. Many Democrats who voted for that legislation felt the wrath of the NRA in the 1994 Congressional elections. A mythos arose that votes in favor of this legislation cost many members of Congress their seats (the veracity of this belief is almost besides the point—politicians believe it)

Subsequently, especially for Republicans, the whims of the extremist National Rifle Association became sacrosanct, and Democrats shied away from really forcing the issue out of political fear. Gun control groups must become a political counterweight to the NRA if they hope to change that calculus. 

To do so, they must defeat several opponents of gun control to make legislators rethink the politics of the issue. Additionally, people who think that greater gun control is a good idea need to vote accordingly. They can't say gee, my congressman is wrong on gun control, but he's right on taxes, or agriculture, or government spending, so I'll vote for him. 

That posture delivered us to the current situation—politicians believe that only those Americans who oppose gun control vote on the issue. As a result, legislators believe that voting against gun control (or not even allowing a vote) poses no risk, while supporting it could cost them votes. 

The alternative to gun control proponents voting on the issue is that, politically, new gun control measures will remain out of reach no matter how many Americans lose their lives.