The United States has a long history and heritage of gun ownership. Current estimates suggest that somewhere between a third and half of us live in households containing one or more firearms. The total number of guns is pegged at over 350 million, more than one firearm for every person in the country.
Spirited arguments continue over the meaning and purpose of the Second Amendment. The US Supreme Court has held that it does guarantee an individual right to keep and bear arms, and that “reasonable regulation” is permissible. Congress and state legislatures will learn through experience, if new laws face court challenges, how the phrase “reasonable regulation” will be interpreted and applied.
Gun violence is a serious problem in American society. Each year tens of thousands of us die as a result of shootings – homicides, suicides, and accidents – and many more are injured. Thus, much attention has been focused on responsible gun ownership and keeping guns out of “the wrong hands.” The wrong hands include those of people with criminal records, the mentally ill, and children who lack training and direct adult supervision.
Mass shootings, including the horrific massacres that took place in Sandy Hook and Las Vegas, are reported extensively by the news media and understandably are viewed with tremendous concern by the public, legislators, and policymakers. While shooting incidents involving only one or two people account for the vast majority of deaths and injuries, it is the mass shootings that typically result in a public outcry that something must be done.
I believe the single largest obstacle to crafting new gun laws is that advocates on opposite sides of the issue have deep mistrust toward each other, and millions of people whose views they influence have opinions shaped by that mistrust. Gun rights advocates see everyone on the other side as harboring the ultimate goal of a gun-free society. Gun control advocates think the “gun nuts” on the other side don’t care who can gain access to a firearm, so long as their own right to own, collect, and use guns is in no way restricted.
We need people on Capitol Hill with a deep understanding of the issues who also understand the way advocates on either side think, and what they think about the other side and its motives and goals. I am such a person. As a gun owner myself who has read extensively on the political philosophy of gun rights and the history of the American gun culture, I understand that perspective. As a physician who has devoted many years to promoting public health, I understand the perspective of those who see guns as a “vector” of the “disease” of gun violence, or who see guns as implements that are designed simply for killing and therefore have no place in a civil society.
On the “gun rights” side are certain elements that I believe must be accepted as part of the framework of discussion. First, Americans will continue to own guns for hunting. Second, there is a belief in a natural human right to self defense, and that right encompasses the right to use lethal force, including guns, for that purpose. Third, the right to keep and bear arms should be limited only in the ways that are absolutely necessary for public safety.
On the “gun control side” there are also essential elements to accept. First, homicides (that are not justifiable), suicides, and accidental shootings are a blight upon American society and must be reduced to far lower levels than we have today. Second, there must be some limit on what kinds of arms the individual has a right to keep and bear. There is broad agreement that “weapons of war” do not belong in private hands, the only question being where exactly that line is drawn. Third, mechanisms and processes to keep guns out of “the wrong hands” are today entirely inadequate.
Currently attention is focused on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The use of background checks can be subverted through private sales not going through the “instant check” system and through illegal “straw man” purchases. Further, the system in place for entering information about mentally ill persons into the database is unsatisfactory.
Accidents involving children lead to an insistence on placing greater legal obligations on parents, with consequences that might include imprisonment for allowing guns to be found and used by unauthorized persons. Discussion of this issue gets very emotional, but it is nevertheless a discussion worth having.
Mass shootings, especially those in which weapons capable of rapid fire are used, raise calls for such weapons to be banned or severely restricted. Currently there are tight restrictions on ownership of weapons capable of fully automatic fire. Semiautomatic rifles and pistols have been privately owned, with few restrictions, for well over a century, and semiautomatic rifles (often erroneously called “assault weapons”) are used in a tiny fraction of shootings that contribute to the annual death toll. A ban on certain semiautomatic rifles was in place for a decade, but a “sunset” was written into the bill. It had virtually no effect on the number of these firearms in circulation or on their use in crime. A permanent ban might take decades to have the intended effect in the absence of confiscation of those firearms already in civilian hands. Still, very few fatal shootings involve these weapons.
In something of a departure from its usual “no compromise” approach, the National Rifle Association has recently indicated a willingness to support new restrictions on the production and sale of devices that make it possible to shoot a semiautomatic rifle virtually as rapidly as a “machine gun” (selective fire rifle). So there is reason to believe frank discussions are possible, and compromises can be forged. I believe they must be led by people who have a broad and deep understanding of the issues from the entire spectrum of perspectives. My background and experience will allow me to play a significant role.
All issue papers are written by me, Bob Solomon. Your feedback is welcome!