I don’t know if a lot of us are fans of Nicholas Kristof, but I suspect many of us will agree with his column in today’s New York Times, “Preventing future mass shootings like Las Vegas.” As he implies, the National Rifle Association, which I’ve long seen as Institutional Evil, will say “In this heated climate after a shooting, it’s the wrong time to discuss gun regulation.” But if not now, when? For one thing is certain: the righteous furor about a private citizen getting an assault rifle will die down after a while, only to be roused again when the next shooting takes place. Kristof gives us this horrifying statistic:
Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns (including suicides, murders and accidents) than the sum total of all the Americans who died in all the wars in American history, back to the American Revolution. Every day, some 92 Americans die from guns, and American kids are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries, according to David Hemenway of Harvard.
And that’s just since 1970! Living in Chicago, one becomes acutely aware of this problem. I often see young men, mostly black, pushing themselves about in wheelchairs, and I know that many of them got that way from being shot in the spine. In Chicago this Labor Day weekend, 7 people were killed and 35 injured, all from guns; and 438 people have died this way in 2017.
Do we have to accept this? Kristof (and this is where I partly disagree) says that we’ll never get rid of gun violence in America, and so should adopt proposes some familiar—and mild—restrictions. I agree fully with these restrictions, and with Kristof’s claim that we’ll always have some guns (illegal ones are hard to stop), but why must we simply accept that guns are inevitable and just try to regulate who can get them, and what type can be sold? Why can’t we do what Australia did, and clamp down hard on guns, something they did after a mass shooting in 1996. Strict legislation was passed, including the restriction of firearms to those who have a “valid reason” for owning them. Here are those “valid reasons”:
- Sport/target shooting
- Primary production
- Professional hunting
- Handgun or clay target shooting (including licences held on behalf of juniors)
- Employment as a security and/or prison guard
- Official, commercial or prescribed purpose or for a purpose authorised by an Act or Regulation.
After this passed, and after a buyback scheme was implemented, gun deaths in Australia have dropped 50%. (Yes, I know that you can argue against that for other reasons, but why not do the experiment in the U.S.?) Here are Kristof’s suggestions:
- Impose universal background checks for anyone buying a gun. Four out of five Americans support this measure, to prevent criminals or terrorists from obtaining guns.
- Impose a minimum age limit of 21 on gun purchases. This is already the law for handgun purchases in many states, and it mirrors the law on buying alcohol.
- Enforce a ban on possession of guns by anyone subject to a domestic violence protection order. This is a moment when people are upset and prone to violence against their ex-es.
- Limit gun purchases by any one person to no more than, say, two a month, and tighten rules on straw purchasers who buy for criminals. Make serial
- Adopt microstamping of cartridges so that they can be traced to the gun that fired them, useful for solving gun crimes.
- Invest in “smart gun” purchases by police departments or the U.S. military, to promote their use. Such guns require a PIN or can only be fired when near a particular bracelet or other device, so that children cannot misuse them and they are less vulnerable to theft. The gun industry made a childproof gun in the 1800’s but now resists smart guns.
- Require safe storage, to reduce theft, suicide and accidents by children.
- Invest in research to see what interventions will be more effective in reducing gun deaths. We know, for example, that alcohol and guns don’t mix, but we don’t know precisely what laws would be most effective in reducing the resulting toll. Similar investments in reducing other kinds of accidental deaths have been very effective.
To me this is a Band-Aid (I like the smart gun idea, and not just for cops but for everyone), yet one life saved is a whole world of misery prevented. I much prefer the UK system, which has a very strict system of ownership and storage, and no pistols (except for those with 24-inch barrels or muzzle loaders). Here are the comparative data:
The death rate in the US is 46 times higher than in the UK, and gun ownership 17 times higher. Some of you will be saying, “Yes, but there are cultural differences between the UK and US”, and my response is “Yes, we have a gun culture, but we can change it.” We also have the Second Amendment which, I think, has been wrongly interpreted by the courts, for the Constitution mandates gun ownership to allow for a “well regulated militia”. By what stretch does that mean that any citizen can have their own gun for any reason? What does that have to do with a “well regulated militia”? (If you disagree with this construal, read Garry Wills’s 1995 article on the Second Amendment).
To me it makes no sense to allow the proliferation of weapons, and other countries have taken far more drastic action than Kristof proposes.
I know I’m bawling down a drainspout here, given the courts’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, the nature of our present Supreme Court, and the power of the National Rifle Association, but what little optimism remains in me says that this issue—and these deaths—are not things we must live with forever.