Alas, we pivot to politics today, because the latest school massacre in Texas requires our sober attention.
My Thoughts On The American Problem Of Mass Gun Shootings
At the outset, I will note that I try to steer clear of controversial political topics because they are bound to upset many readers – it is not good for business. Even so, sometimes I feel called to use my platform to articulate what is weighing my heart, and today I do that concerning guns in America.
Mass gun shootings are so common in the United States of America that they no longer cause surprise. In a land of immense wealth and opportunity, we have become accustomed to breaking news alerts on our phones about the latest mass killing. This week, 19 school children and two adults were gunned down in Texas. Last week, black Americans were viciously targeted in a grocery store attack in Buffalo, NY, with 10 losing their lives. Land of the free, home of the gunned down…
Our Practical Problem
The way I see it, the problem is on two levels. First, there is the practical issue of access to guns. What makes the USA different than other western nations or flourishing democracies? Everyone should acknowledge that a big contributing factor is access to guns–the statistics are clear.
Consider in Japan that citizens can bear arms, but there are restrictions including:
- attending an all-day safety class
- passing a written test
- achieving at least 95% accuracy during a shooting-range test
- passing a mental-health evaluation
- passing a background check
- this includes not only a criminal record check, but an interview of friends, family, and neighbors
- classes and exams must be retaken every three years
- new magazines can only be purchased by turning in old ones
The result? Despite a nation of 127 million souls, Japan rarely see more than 10 gun deaths per year. Mass gun shootings are practically unheard of.
Consider also Australia. In 1995 there was a horrific mass shooting in Tasmania, killing 35 and injuring 23. Australia’s gun laws were fairly similar to the USA at that point. But Australia banned many weapons and introduced a mandatory buyback program (those who held illegal weapons were not prosecuted for turning them in). That program resulted in the Australian government buying back 640,000 guns.
This has virtually eliminated mass shootings (there have been three, two with illegal weapons). Furthermore, suicides and domestic violence incidents have also plummeted, with areas that had more guns returned showing a correspondingly larger decrease in such deaths. Even with a consistent rate of suicide attempts and domestic violence, such incidents are far less likely to end in death because there are less guns within easy reach.
I point that out not to suggest that Japan or even Australia is model for the USA, but to note that the correlation between gun control and gun deaths are statistically significant.
Compare that to the USA, where I was offered an unlicensed weapon in the parking lot of a gun show when I was 22 years old (I attended the show for a research paper I was writing…it’s all too common, though). It is laughably easy to buy a gun in this country.
There is a middle way; a starting point. Pew polling demonstrates a majority of Americans support:
- background checks (81%)
- assault-weapons ban (63%)
- high-capacity ammunition magazines ban (64%)
There’s a huge difference between gun ownership and unbridled gun ownership which make mass gun shootings far more likely.
The problem is not public support, but the Senate filibuster which allows a minority to block majoritarian priorities. The Senate was designed to be a deliberative body, but it is a tough stretch to say that the Framers’ intended the current filibuster rules to allow broad consensus to be thwarted by a minority of states in a body that already gives immense additional power to smaller states by giving every state two Senators. Fundamental rights should not be put up for a vote, but defining the limits of such ambiguous rights is perfectly appropriate in a representative republic.
Our Moral Problem
But gun reform alone is not enough. Nor is access to mental health services or even a more careful monitoring of social media postings, though all would help the problem. Second, there is a deeper moral problem that transcends any gun laws. This is harder to articulate. It gets to the heart of the “give me liberty or give me death” American spirit. I believe we must acknowledge that our culture glorifies violence in a unique way that leads to more mass shootings. In our culturally Christian nation, many killers have twisted and perverted that faith to justify murder. And pragmatically, Pandora’s Box has been opened. Even with reasonable gun reform, there are still so many guns out there that we cannot even approach a European or Canadian model if we wanted to. It’s also not so far-fetched to believe that if guns were restricted, the depraved human heart would find other devices of mass extermination. Even so, our answer must not be to give up all hope.
While we start with a more dangerous system, we can address this problem via the principal of subsidiarity. It starts at home. It starts with being involved in the lives of our children, especially the young men who seem most prone to attack. Laws restricting or confiscating guns may not be realistically plausible, but certainly we can choose whether to have arms in our own homes. And from a very early age we can discuss with our boys about the value and dignity of all human life created in the image of God and worthy of protection.
In my house, I have chosen not to have guns. While I may risk being unable to respond to an intruder, I have peace of mind knowing that my inquisitive children cannot find a cache of guns and accidentally discharge one. I weigh my risks and have chosen accordingly. And from a very early age I have been speaking to my son about guns, not to scare him, but to help him recognize that these devices have the power to kill and as such, should never been seen as a toy or a trivial device.
Revisiting Second Amendment Jurisprudence
That may be the ultimate solution, but that doesn’t mean common-sense, broadly-backed gun reform should be off the table. Consensus-based reforms should start at the state level and I hope at some future point the U.S. Supreme Court will re-examine its Second Amendment jurisprudence.
In law school, I studied under Carl T. Bogus, a preeminent U.S. Second Amendment scholar. He reasons that James Madison drafted the Second Amendment to assure his constituents in Virginia (and the South generally) that the federal government could not disarm the state militia, on which the South relied for slave control. As such, I think Justice Stevens made the stronger argument than Justice Scalia in the District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which held the Second Amendment protects the individual right to bear arms, unconnected with service in a state militia.
History is made not so often slowly over time, but in brief windows of progress. After the Civil War, the “Radical Republicans” pushed through three constitutional amendments and set the groundwork for equal opportunity in a short Reconstruction period that ended with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise in 1876. Imperialism and a pair of World Wars united the country again, but to the exclusion of many minorities, who would not see even the hope of equal opportunity until a series of legislative and judicial moves in the 1960s which again marked a brief window of progress.
I hope for a day in which even recalcitrant gun advocates recognize that the loss of life in this country is simply unacceptable and a bandaid approach of gun reform may not be the ultimate solution, but will ultimately lead to fewer incidents. It’s a compromise. We are a nation of compromises.
Persistence, determination, and the right timing can lead to monumental reforms and reduce mass gun shootings. I pray that happens here and think that a number of reforms will help lessen the risk for more mass killings. But I recognize that gun reform alone will not solve the problem: people of goodwill must realize that we all are all responsible for those entrusted to us and we must be ever-more vigilant about those in our circle of influence. That will require work, but that work will save lives and lead to human flourishing.