Where We Stand On Gun Violence After Newtown

Kent State: 1970

With the New Year quickly approaching, and following a long hiatus from us here at thirdpartytime.com, I thought it apt to provide a short summary of where we stand as a gun loving republic heading into 2013.

Following another horrific yet utterly predictable school shooting, this time on the East Coast, we are again embroiled in what will almost certainly be a short and unproductive national discourse concerning “gun control.” Immediately following the event, the nation mourned both publicly and privately. Candlelight vigils and prayer services dotted the land. The conversations, disagreements, and arguments mirrored that of the abortion debate, with neither side able to see the logic of the opponent’s point of view. Legislation banning certain assault weapons and high capacity magazines will be introduced, again, and may actually find some traction in Congress. The NRA, the one-time recreational, hunting, and sports shooting advocacy group provided a tone deaf response to the Newtown incident that evidenced finally, and without question, that the organization receives its marching orders not from its hunting and sporting membership, but from firearm manufacturers and sellers. The NRA now receives less than half of its funding from dues paying members.

What can be done to prevent needless firearm deaths in the future? This is a complicated issue that must be attacked on many fronts. First and foremost we must have a uniform system of law that provides for a minimum regulatory regime across all states. All firearms must be registered and all sales must be recorded in a national database, closing the so-called gun show loophole and requiring recordation of each private sale. Once this is accomplished, or before, certain states will almost certainly lead the way in restricting firearm sales and possession further, and these states must stand firm and allocate appropriate resources to fighting the law suits that will almost certainly follow. Next, we must increase significantly the punishment doled out to firearm offenders, enhancing prison terms and building extraordinary deterrents into the criminal justice system. The recent shooting in Upstate New York, during which a gentleman who himself was prohibited from purchasing firearms opened fire on several firefighters and police, had the assault rifle used in the attack purchased for him unlawfully by a female neighbor. The punishment for her crime is a maximum of ten years in prison; however the vast majority of sentences for such an offense receive little or no prison time. Would this neighbor have been willing to accompany the shooter to the sporting goods store if she knew the minimum sentence for doing so was fifteen or twenty years in prison? Would the vast majority of criminals continue to use firearms during the commission of a felony if they knew that they would receive twenty-five to life sentences for doing so? Our relatively lax sentencing guidelines for firearm crimes are starkly at odds with the percentage of violent crimes involving a gun, yet acutely in line with our collective impression of guns. This has to change.

We must also attack the issue of gun violence on the mental health front. This is certainly the most complicated and subjective element of gun violence, but can’t be ignored. Unlike the NRA, the mental health community understands that while depression, anxiety and a host of other disorders are more “closely linked” to criminality, only 5% of all violent crimes are committed by those with a mental disorder. In attempting to ameliorate the number of crimes committed by the mentally ill it is imperative that we as a society expand accessibility to mental health services. We must provide adequate care in our schools and universities. We must shun those who seek to straw-man the autistic and similarly affected.  We must provide mental health services as part of health programs for the poor and elderly, such as Medicaid, Medicare, and municipal health programs. We must require that private health insurers provide access to mental health services in each and every plan, even if it requires a public subsidy. Limiting access to firearms in conjunction with increased mental health services will not eliminate crimes and suicides among the mentally ill, but it make these crimes less frequent and perhaps less horrific.

We must also address this issue as a society, as a collective of people with a common goal in mind. Guns, assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and access to these items does not tell the entire story. Murder rates have declined in the United States precipitously over the past few decades after reaching its pinnacle in the 1980s, even as raw firearm numbers, and access to more advanced assault weapons and high-capacity magazines has increased. While a national assault weapons ban was in place from 1994-2004, murder rates had already begun to show decline, and have continued to decrease since 2004. Should we ban assault weapons? Almost certainly. However, not because the weapons themselves necessarily lead to higher murder rates, but because these weapons reinforce an ever growing national ideology of violence. Banning these weapons will undoubtedly make crimes such as Columbine and Newtown less common, but the goal is to curtail gun violence nationally, not to stamp out the most abhorrent events while the larger problem propagates out of sight in our inner cities. No matter how horrific the events of Newtown were, the murders represent a tiny fraction of the gun related deaths that take place every day in the United States. Why do we as a society gather in prayer vigils and sign countless petitions when children and young adults are murdered in our schools, yet we do not do the same for the tens of people murdered every single day? Uncovering why we as a society can’t seem to see past the rhetoric and recognize the statistics and science that explain why so many of the claims of gun rights advocates are outright falsehoods is the key that unlocks the door to a brighter future. Failing to do so will doom us to more of the same, no matter what legislation is able to meander its way through the Capitol.