The flawed opposition to reasonable gun safety regulations

Bob Sheak, June 1, 2022

bsheak983@gmail.com

The present post builds on and updates my analysis in a post that was circulated back on March 14, 2018 (https://wordpress.com/post.vitalissues-bobsheak.com/11).

An argument for reasonable gun restrictions rests most fundamentally on the premises that the ownership of guns should be regulated, and that gun ownership is not an absolute, unlimited right of citizenship. Thomas Gabor, who has studied gun violence and policy for over 30 years in the United States and other countries, concludes that we need to find a “delicate balance” between ownership/access and regulation. He states his position, along with other reasons, writing that “[g]un ownership can be a right while every effort is made to ensure that those who pose a risk to public safety cannot easily obtain them” (Confronting Gun Violence in America, p. 32).

Reasonable regulations would, for example, include the requirement that gun purchasers must have and pass a universal background check before they can purchase a weapon. Another regulation: Firearms must be registered and gunowners must have a license.

Reasonable regulations additionally would include the banning of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The Brady United website offers this definition: “An ‘assault weapon’ refers to a semi-automatic gun designed for military use and quick, efficient killing. Assault weapons are uniquely lethal because of their rapid rate of fire and high muzzle velocity — coupled with high-capacity magazines, which attach to an assault weapon to allow dozens of gunshots without needing to reload. A high-capacity magazine is typically defined as any magazine or drum that is capable of holding more than either 10 or 15 rounds of ammunition” (https://bradyunited.org/fact-sheets/what-are-assault-weapons-and-high-capacity-magazines).

Reasonable regulations would ban open-carry laws that allow individuals to carry their weapons visibly in public. Reasonable regulations would emphasize the need to secure schools, without arming teachers.

Part 1: the grim gun situation in the U.S.

Gabor’s position would only be considered radical by the NRA, weapons’ makers, the Republican Party, and the millions in Trump’s base who oppose any gun regulation. There is an enormous lobbying effort nationally and in the states against any gun regulation. Robin Lloyd, managing director of the gun violence prevention organization Giffords, provides a glimpse of this powerful, right-wing lobbying effort in an interview on Democracy Now (https://www.democracynow.org/2022/5/26/uvalde_texas_robb_elementary_school_gun).

“The American gun lobby, which is supported by American gun manufacturers, is alive and well. The National Rifle Association, the NRA, has been weakened due to self-inflicted wounds of greed and mismanagement of funds. But other organizations, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is the lobbying arm for the gun industry and gun retailers, is alive and well. And actually, the National Shooting Sports Foundation spends more on lobbying against gun violence prevention measures here in Washington than the NRA does. So, they’re the true face of the American corporate gun lobby. And quite frankly, there’s a lot of money at stake. There has been an incredible surge of gun sales in the past decade, largely driven by fear and conspiracy promulgated by the corporate gun lobby here in the United States, and that has meant an incredible increase in their bottom line.”

Opposition from the Right against any gun regulation

For decades, since the early 1970s, opponents of gun regulation, most prominently the National Rifle Association (NRA), the National Shooting Sports Foundation, weapons producers and their army of lobbyists have used their political influence in the Republican Party to promote a one-sided interpretation of the Second Amendment. They want to keep government at all levels from regulating gun ownership. On this point, Gabor captures the uncompromising position of the NRA and its allies as follows: “…those viewing gun ownership as an inalienable right often see this right as an absolute and will yield little ground regardless of the annual death toll or other evidence pointing to the harm produced by widespread gun ownership” (p. 263).

New York Times reporter Greg Weiner illustrates this retrograde viewpoint, reporting on a speech given by Wayne LaPierre, leader of the NRA, at the [2018] Conservative Political Action Conference. Here’s some of what Weiner reports.

“According to this conception, rights are zones of personal autonomy where the individual owes no explanation and the community has no jurisdiction. This manner of thinking about rights is a serious barrier to reasonable regulations of firearms. The N.R.A. ritually claims the mantle of the Constitution, but the American founders who framed it had a far richer view in which individual rights were subject to considerations of the common good.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/opinion/wayne-lapierres-unconstitutionalism.html?_r=0.ab).

Brian Schwartz reports on May 27, 2022, for CNBC that the National Rifle Association’s lobbying machine is still potent and that it continues to support an absolutist anti-regulation position on ownership and access to guns, including unregulated access to semi-automatic and automatic guns made for war (https://cnbc.com/2022/05/27/nra-holds-convention-has-lobbying-cash-after-texas-school-shooting.html). He writes, for example:

“The group has spread its messaging widely in recent days. The NRA’s Facebook ads, which was launched last week [third week of May, 2022], are still active, according to the social media giant’s ad library. One of the active NRA ads has a picture of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, with a message of “Don’t let them take your guns.”

The ad “leads viewers to an online petition to Congress that reads, in part, ‘I demand that Congress vote down every bill, every treaty, every resolution, and every amendment that would infringe upon my Second Amendment rights in any way.’”

Of course, Trump pushes for maximum gun rights to please a major segment of his electoral base. Kelly Hopper reports on Trump’s address on May 27, 2022, to “the National Rifle Association’s annual conference in Houston, slamming Democrats for their positions on gun control and pointing to mental health as the root cause of mass shootings just three days after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school” (https://politico.com/news/2022/05/27/trump-gun-rights-nra-speech-uvalde-shotting-00035836). According to Hopper,

“The former president invoked Second Amendment rights several times and stated that ‘evil’ is the reason to arm citizens. He stressed the importance of added school security measures such as metal detectors and arming teachers, and said teachers have to be ‘able to handle’ an active shooter situation.”

The U.S. is unique in the world with respect to widespread gun ownership

Chris Hedges brings our attention to one of the ugly facts about gun ownership in the United State, that is, the country is loaded with a massive number of guns, far more than any other country, and yet, rather than curtail violence, the pervasive availability of guns of all kinds seem to aid and abet it (https://www.truthdig.com/articles/guns-and-liberty).

Laurel Wamsley provides the following facts on the sadly unique international U.S. position on gun ownership (https://npr.org/2022/05/28/1101307932/texas-shooting-uvalde-gun-violence-children-teenagers). She notes:

“When the total number of firearm deaths are counted, the U.S. ranks second in the world, after only Brazil, according to a study using data from 2016.

“One factor in America’s high level of gun deaths is the massive number of guns in the country: Civilians in the U.S. own an estimated 393 million firearms, according to a 2018 study by the Small Arms Survey [now over 400 million]. That’s nearly 46% of the estimated 857 million civilian-held firearms in the world. That’s a striking proportion, when the U.S. has just 4% of the world’s population.”

In the U.S., kids are more likely to die from gun violence than in other wealthy countries, according to Wamsley’s sources.

“For years, researchers at the University of San Francisco and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have compared the rates of firearm deaths in the U.S. and other populous, high-income countries — mostly nations in Europe.

Their most recent study, which looks at data from 2015, finds that the U.S. accounts for the vast majority of firearm deaths among children. Across the 29 countries in the study, the U.S. accounted for almost 97% of the firearm deaths among children 4 years old or younger, and 92% of firearm deaths for those between the ages of 5 and 14.

“And over time, the U.S. is accounting for an ever-larger share of people killed by guns in these countries. The U.S. firearm death rate increased nearly 10% between 2003 and 2015, even as it fell in other high-income countries.”

The numbers of gun-related deaths and physical and psychological injuries are climbing

“Five years ago, just under 4,000 children and teens up to the age of 17 were killed or injured by gun violence, according to the Gun Violence Archive. By the end of last year, that number was up 43% to 5,692. Some 1,560 of these children and teenagers died.

“So far in 2022, at least 653 children and teens in the U.S. have been killed by guns. Another 1,609 children and teens have been injured by firearms, according to the archive.

“The highest rates for gun-related deaths, according to an analysis by the National Safety Council, are among people ages 15 to 34.”

Journalists at the Washington Post have “spent years tracking how many children have been exposed to gun violence during school hours since the Columbine High massacre in 1999. The facts have been updated, as of May 24, 2022 (https://washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shooting-database/?itid=hp-banner-main). They report:

“Beyond the dead and wounded, children who witness the violence or cower behind locked doors to hide from it can be profoundly traumatized.

“The federal government does not track school shootings, so The Post pieced together its numbers from news articles, open-source databases, law enforcement reports and calls to schools and police departments.

“While school shootings remain rare, there were more in 2021 — 42 — than in any year since at least 1999. So far this year, there have been at least 24 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during the school day.

“The count now stands at more than 311,000 children at 331 schools have been killed, wounded, or exposed to school shootings.

“The Post has found that at least 185 children, educators and other people have been killed in assaults, and another 369 have been injured.”

Additional evidence on mass killings

In April 1999, the country was stunned by the mass killing of 13 students and teachers at Columbine High School in Colorado by two students, who then committed suicide. In the course of the past 20 years, eruptions of homicidal violence have become almost commonplace, and the death tolls resulting from such incidents have in many cases far exceeded the terrible loss of life at Columbine. The 2017 attack in Las Vegas resulted in 58 deaths. The 2016 attack at the Pulse nightclub in Florida left 49 dead. The 2014 shooting in San Bernardino cost the lives of 14 people. The 2012 assault at Sandy Hook Elementary School claimed 28 lives. The attack on an audience at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, also in 2012, took 12 lives. The shooting at the Fort Hood Army base in 2009 resulted in 13 deaths.”

“The killings are not only deadlier than in 1999. Such incidents occur much more frequently. Mass killings involving more than four deaths take place every 16 days in the US, 10 times more frequently than in the period between 1982 and 2011, when the average time between mass killings was 200 days.”

The editors at Education Week provide an update, as follows

“There have been 27 school shootings this year (2022]. There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, when Education Week began tracking such incidents. The highest number of shootings, 34, occurred last year. There were 10 shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018 (https://www.edweek.org/leadership/school-shootings-this-year-how-many-and-where/2022/01). They also refer to the most recent school murders.

“On May 24, 19 children and two adults were killed and 16 injured in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. It was the deadliest school shooting since 2012, when a gunman shot and killed 26 people as young as 6 years old at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Fatalities exceeded those in the 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead.”

Part 2: Rebutting right-wing rationales for non-regulation of guns:

(1) that the Second Amendment legitimates unfettered gun ownership, access, and where guns can be carried; (2) that a right-wing U.S. Supreme Court should have the final word in ruling on constitutional issues; (3) that gun regulation, if any, should be left in the hands of state officials; (4) that mass shootings are carried out only or mostly by those with mental illness; (5) that teachers should be armed to protect themselves and the children.

#1 – The Second Amendment of the Constitution does not mean absolute and unregulated gun ownership

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” (https://law.cornell.edu/wex/second_amendment).

There are two parts of the Second Amendment.

Those who want more gun regulation put their emphasis on the opening phrase of the Second Amendment that refers to “a well-regulated militia.” This phrase suggests that the federal or state governments should play the major role in determining who can own guns. The implication is that regulation of guns for private ownership is not about individual rights but about rules that aim to provide collective security and what is in the common good.

Those who want little or no gun regulation focus on the second part of the Amendment, that is, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” From the perspective of the contemporary National Rifle Association and other unbridled gun supporters all regulation is anathema and as threats to the most fundamental “freedom” of Americans. The Legal Information Institute adds, “some believe that the Amendment’s phrase ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’ creates an individual constitutional right to possess firearms. Under this ‘individual right theory,’ the United States Constitution restricts legislative bodies from prohibiting firearm possession, or at the very least, the Amendment renders prohibitory and restrictive regulation presumptively unconstitutional.

What does the historical record indicate? Through most of US history up through the end of the 20th Century, the courts have found that, as John Atcheson reports, the introductory phrase “a well-regulated militia” constrains, or takes precedence over, the clause ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/02/24/no-founding-fathers-didnt-give-you-right-to-bear-arms).

Atcheson puts it this way: “In short, the individual ‘right’ was contingent on the need to keep a well-regulated militia, and hence it protected the States’ interests in having a militia, not an individual’s right to have and carry a weapon.”

Gabor (cited previously) refers to supporting evidence. He writes:

“In four Supreme Court rulings between 1876 and 1939 and in 37 cases involving challenges to gun laws heard by federal courts of appeal between 1942 and 2001, the courts have consistently set aside these challenges and have viewed the Second Amendment as protecting state militias, rather than individual rights. Thus, with little exception, the first 125 years of ruling by higher courts interpreted the Second Amendment to mean that ‘The people’ collectively have the right to bear arms within the context of a well-regulated militia, rather than for protection against fellow citizens or for other personal reasons. This view of the Second Amendment is consistent with the requirement, in America’s first Constitution, that each state maintain a militia and with the modern Constitution, which provides for both state militias and a standing army” (p. 266).

The official state militias have been long ago abandoned. Nonetheless the point is, for most of U.S. history, individual rights to firearms were regulated and limited. Gabor also quotes several Supreme Court justices who expressed support for the “militia” preeminence interpretation of the Second Amendment. For example, former chief justice Warren Burger, “a conservative and hunter himself, said in an interview in 1991 on the MacNeill Lehrer News Hour that the focus on the “right to keep and bear arms” has “been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud…on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime” (Gabor, p. 266). As noted above, the interest group he has in mind is the NRA and its increasingly intense efforts to end virtually all restrictions on gun ownership by private citizens.

Remarkably, given the power of the NRA and the pro-gun lobbies, President Clinton signed a 1994 law banning the manufacture and sale of new assault weapons and high-capacity magazines (holding more than ten rounds of ammunition) – and it remained in in force for ten years until 2004, according to Gabor. The ban was allowed to expire by the US Congress in 2004. Even during the years of the ban, though, the law had loopholes. There were “grandfathering provisions” that “allowed weapons and high-capacity magazines already manufactured to continue to be bought and sold, severely undercutting the effectiveness of the ban” (Gabor, pp. 292-293). In short, Clinton’s ban on assault weapons had at best only very modest effects on reducing violence associated with guns, even from assault weapons. But, even with its flaws, the ban did have some modest, positive effect. In as assessment of the effects of the ban, Christopher Koper, associate professor at George Mason University, writes:

“Although the ban has been successful in reducing crimes with AWs [Assault Weapons], any benefits from this reduction are likely to have been outweighed by steady or rising use of non-banned semiautomatics with LCMs [large-capacity magazines], which are used in crime much more frequently than AWs. Therefore, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence [as of 2013]. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury, as we might have expected had the ban reduced crimes with both AWs and LCMs” (https://www.factcheck.org/2013/02/did-the-1994-assault-ban-work).

Nonetheless, it is worth emphasizing again that through most of U.S. history there have been federal laws in effect to limit the gun ownership of private citizens, other than for hunting, conservation, certified gun collections (where the guns are inoperable) and sports-related activities, and that the temporary assault ban did have some positive effect. Though it should also be mentioned that the ban did not close other ways by which individual can acquire guns. In addition to the grandfathering loophole and the parts of the gun market that were not covered by the ban, guns could be obtained through private sales (e.g., now through the internet) and at gun shows, both of which remain unregulated. Of course, there has always been an illegal market for guns. George Aisch and Josh Keller report on one aspect of this illegal gun market in their article “Traffikers Get Around State Laws (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/12/us/gun-traffikers-smuggling-state-gun-laws.html). At the same time, Gabor presents evidence that such bans can have some positive effect (pp. 292-293).

#2 – The Supreme Court has evolved into a pro-gun arbiter

The Supreme Court began to shift on gun rights in 2008 in the case District of Columbia v. Heller, a decision in which the court ruled 5-4 “that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes (e.g., self-defense within the home) in federal enclaves (jurisdictions)” (Gabor, p. 267). However, this decision did not affirm anything like an absolute right to gun ownership. Gabor interprets what the court had in mind.

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” (Gabor, 267-268).

The upshot is that, even in recent years, federal law remained at odds with the NRA’s absolutist stance. This may change in favor of the anti-regulation position, as the Supreme Court has move further to the right with Trump’s appointments of Neil Gorsuch on February 1, 2017, Brett Kavanaugh on July 10, 2018, and Amy Coney Barrett on September 29, 2020, combined with the 3 conservative justices already on the 9-person court, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts. 

In an article for CNN Politics, Ariane de Vogue quotes Adam Winkler, a professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, who said this about Gorsuch: Although Gorsuch’s exact views on the Second Amendment remain a mystery, several of his decisions made it harder to keep guns out of the hands of felons.  (https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/20/politics/neil-gorsuch-abortion-religious-liberty-enviornment-guns-control/index.html).

Even before Gorsuch, the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, began to expand the rights associated with gun ownership.

Veronica Rose, chief analyst at the Office of Legislative Research for the state of Connecticut, provides a summary of a Supreme Court decision that was made after District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). Rose summarizes the McDonald v. Chicago 5-4 decision in 2010, the thrust of which is that the individual states have the right to pass laws that give individual’s the right to keep and bear firearms for lawful uses such as self-defense in one’s home (https://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-R-0314.htm). Notice the words “such as” open the opportunity of states to expand the rights of gun ownership in any number of ways. Here I’ll quote some key paragraphs from Rose’s account.

“In a five-four split decision, the McDonald Court held that an individual’s right to keep and bear arms is incorporated and applicable to the states through the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Writing for the majority, Justice Alito observed: “It is clear that the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty” (p. 31). “The Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms fully applicable to the States.” In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Thomas wrote that the 2nd Amendment is fully applicable to states because the right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment as a privilege of American citizenship.

“The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the gun ban, deciding instead to reverse and remand the case for additional proceedings. However, the court’s decision on the 2nd Amendment makes it clear that such bans are unconstitutional. But, as it held in Heller, the Court reiterated in McDonald that the 2nd Amendment only protects a right to possess a firearm in the home for lawful uses such as self-defense. It stressed that some firearm regulation is constitutionally permissible and the 2nd Amendment right to possess firearms is not unlimited. It does not guarantee a right to possess any firearm, anywhere, and for any purpose.”

Note also that the court decisions employ vague words (“such as”) that open a wide range of undefined circumstances under which citizens have a legal right to purchase and own weapons, all sorts of weapons. The McDonald decision invokes the Fourteenth Amendment and in context in which lends support to the guns’ rights position. The relevant provision of the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1, states “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” This is another one of the laws that can be interpreted and applied in several ways but which a conservative court is likely to be interpreted in a way that is favorable to the rights of individual gun owner rather than to public safety concerns.

#3 – State laws on gun ownership – diverse and often lax.

While the federal government and the various states can impose some, often ambiguous and often weakly enforced laws, on gun ownership by private citizens, they cannot ban such ownership. At the same time, federal law is vague enough to be applied expansively by the states. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has a 63-page long review of the gun laws by the states that was updated on March 1, 2018 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_laws_in_the_United_States_by_state).

It’s startling how extensive gun ownership rights are. The law is bewilderingly complex and diverse. Note that in the following summary list of state-level gun ownership laws, there are some issues like arming teachers or other school personnel that have not yet been legislated or addressed by the judicial system. Here’s is what the Wikipedia investigators find generally. There is also a table that includes all the states in alphabetical order and provides details on gun-related laws for each of the states.

        Some [not all] states and localities require that a person obtain a license or permit to purchase or possess firearms.

        Some [not all] states and localities require that individual firearms be registered with the police or with another law enforcement agency.

        All states allow some form of concealed carry, the carrying of a concealed weapon in public.

        Many states [not all] allow some form of open carry, the carrying of an unconcealed firearm in public on one’s person or in a vehicle.

        Some [not all] states have state preemption for some or all gun laws, which means that only the state can legally regulate firearms. In other states, local governments can pass their own gun laws more restrictive than those of the state.

        Some [not all] states and localities place additional restrictions on certain semi-automatic firearms that they have defined as assault weapons, or on magazines that can hold more than a certain number of rounds of ammunition.

        NFA weapons or weapons that are heavily restricted at a federal level by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. These include automatic firearms (such as machine guns), short-barreled shotguns, and short-barreled rifles. Some [not] states and localities place additional restrictions on such weapons.

        Some [not all] states have enacted castle doctrines or stand-your-own ground laws, which provide a legal basis for individuals to use deadly force in self-defense in certain situations, without a duty to flee or retreat if possible.

        In some [not all] states, peaceable journey laws give additional leeway for the possession of firearms by travelers who are passing through to another destination.

        Some [not all] states require a background check of the buyer when a firearm is sold by a private party. (Federal law requires background checks for sales by licensed gun deals, and for any interstate sales.)

The evidence establishes that there are states, “red” (Republican) states, that do not even require a license or permit to possess firearms or to register them with the police or other law enforcement agency. And “many states” allow “some form of open carry.” The states with the weakest gun laws and the highest household gun ownership rates, such as Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, also have the highest homicide rates and highest rates of gun deaths. This is well documented by Gabor’s chapter 8: “The Deadliest States.” Indeed, there are many states that don’t place any restrictions on semi-assault weapons or on high-capacity magazines. There are even some states that allow private citizens to own machine guns. Overall, in the states where Republicans control the state houses and legislatures, gun laws allow for easy access to a wide range of weapons and ironically also have the highest rates of deaths and injuries from guns. It’s the opposite in “blue” states like California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut. Hawaii, Maryland, and Rhode Island.

In Ohio

What is the law on gun ownership by private citizens in Ohio, where the Governor is a Republican and the state house and state legislature are controlled by Republicans? According to the evidence that Wikipedia has compiled, private citizens in Ohio are permitted to openly carry long guns (e.g., rifles) or handguns without a permit if they are 18 years or older. There is no requirement that firearms must be registered or that gunowners must have a license. This means that there is too little time for an authorized gun seller to collect all relevant information on a person before he/she buys a gun, though as I already noted, the federal system that provides information for background checks is inadequate. And, further, there is no law in Ohio governing semi-assault or assault weapons.

You can see the status of 28 bills that would change how Ohioans purchase, carry and use their guns have been introduced since this legislative session started in January 2021, as reported by Anna Staver

 (https://dispatch.com/story/news/2022/05/25/ohio-lawmakers-have-introduced-nearly-30-gun-bills-what-they/9923728002). Fifteen of the bills were introduced by Democrats, only one of which has received a first hearing. Thirteen bills were introduced by Republicans, and “all but one of the Republican bills (which was just introduced) has started moving through the process. And some, like the one removing the requirement to get a permit before carrying a concealed weapon, have been signed into law.” 

#4 – They blame mental illness as the main, if not only, reason for mass shootings

There is a danger in creating and putting people into stigmatizing classification schemes. Those on the pro-gun side of the argument often argue that mass gun shootings are the result of persons with mental illness. Linda Qiu and Justin Bank consider the mental-health issue in an article titled “Checking Facts and Falsehoods About Gun Violence and Mental Illness After Parkland Shooting” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/us/politics/fact-check-parkland-gun-violence-mental-illness.html). Their main finding is that most people with mental illness do not commit violent crimes. They cite the following evidence.

“Overall, mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent 1 percent of all gun homicides each year, according to the book ‘Gun Violence and Mental Illness’ published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016.

“To be sure, gun violence experts contacted by New York Times reporters have said that barring sales to people who are deemed dangerous by mental health providers could help prevent mass shootings. But the experts said several more measures — including banning assault weapons and barring sales to convicted violent criminals — are more effective.”

Qiu and Bank continue.

“A 2016 academic study estimated that just 4 percent of violence is associated with serious mental illness alone. “Evidence is clear that the large majority of people with mental disorders do not engage in violence against others, and that most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness,” the study concluded.

A 2015 study found that less than 5 percent of gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people diagnosed with mental illness.

“As John T. Monahan, a professor specializing in psychology and law at the University of Virginia, told The Times: ‘Two things typically happen in the wake of a mass shooting. First, politicians claim that mental illness is the major cause of violence in America. Then, advocates for people with mental illness respond by denying there is any relationship whatsoever between mental illness and violence. Both groups are wrong. Research shows that the association between mental illness and violence is not strong, but it does exist.”

Red Flag Laws

There is now some discussion in some states about introducing “red flag” gun laws that would urge teachers, school administrators, other school personnel to pay attention to and perhaps discipline students who exhibit dangerous behavior or talk in person or on twitter or facebook about committing violence to themselves or others. These laws would also encourage students and their parents to do the same.

Bennett Leckrone considers this issue in an article for The Columbus Dispatch and reports that Ohio legislators are considering ways to take guns from at-risk people before they might harm themselves or others (http://www.dispatch.com/news/20180303/ohio-lawmakers-mull-ways-to-take-guns-from-those-showing-red-flag-of-danger).

Jason Hanna and Laura Ly address this topic in an article the title of which captures the thrust of their report, namely, “After the Parkland massacre, more states consider ‘red flag’ gun bills” (https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/07/us/gun-extreme-risk-protection-orders/index.html).

Such a policy would first have to figure out a way to protect first amendment and due process rights, and also avoid over-reacting on racial grounds. When do behavioral problems forecast future violent outbursts. Should government and school authorities encourage a student “tip” system, in which students are encouraged to provide information about another student who is behaving aggressively? It seems reasonable that schools might be better positioned to anticipate such problems if they had trained psychologists and counselors who could intervene and investigate such situations professionally

#5 – They want to arm teachers  

If the responses of those who oppose gun regulation, for example the likes of Trump, the NRA, and many Republican legislators, continue successfully to achieve their pro-gun goals, we’ll unfortunately end up with fortress-like schools, armed teachers and/or other adults in the schools, fearful children, and, given the record, the chances that minority children in inadequately-resourced schools will end up disproportionately among the victims. Benjamin Balthaser, associate professor of multi-ethnic US literature at Indiana University, South Bend, argues, “arming teachers” will kill education 

(http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/43707-arming-teachers-killing-education-why-trump-s-proposal-has-nothing-to-do-with-safety).

He’s worth quoting, as follows.

“Bearing the role of public education in mind, it is self-evident that arming teachers will do little if anything to actually make schools safer. Not only would having multiple shooters increase the confusion and mayhem of a mass shooting, the “good-guy-with-a-gun” theory has been widely debunked, and leads to all kinds of other bizarre questions, such as: Who decides which teachers are armed? Where are the guns stored? Who decides when a teacher can use a gun? What are the penalties for misusing a gun? The practical problems with arming teachers are so abundant, like many of Trump’s gestures of contempt, these ‘solutions’ are not designed to solve real-world problems, but rather to shift the discourse and change the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable in civil society.

“The proposal to arm teachers should not be seen as just a joke. It is not serious as a way to stop violence but is deadly serious about one thing: ending the progressive role of education and educators. The proposal is not about helping students but turning the student-teacher relationship from one of trust and respect into one of violence…. The right [to gun ownership by private citizens] does not imagine teachers wielding weapons so much as weapons remaking teachers”

Henry Giroux echoes these and other concerns (https://www.truth-out.org/news/item/43732-killing-children-in-the-age-of-disposability-the-parkland-shooting-was-about-more-than-gun-violence).

Giroux is troubled by the call to eliminate the ordinary gun-free zones in the public schools by arming teachers for eliminating gun-free zones and arming teachers, when this “comes at a time when many schools have already been militarized by the presence of police and the increasing criminalization of student behaviors.”

Giroux continues: “Suggesting that teachers be armed and turned into potential instruments of violence extends and normalizes the prison as a model for schools and the increasing expansion of the school-to-prison pipeline. What is being left out of this tragedy is that the number of police in schools has doubled in the last decade from 20 percent in 1996 to 43 percent today. Moreover, as more police are put in schools, more and more children are brutalized by them. There is no evidence that putting the police in schools has made them any safer. Instead, more and more young people have criminal records, are being suspended, or expelled from school, all in the name of school safety.” Giroux quotes Sam Sinyangwe, the director of the Mapping Police Violence Project, to further document his point.

“The data … that does exist … shows that more police in schools leads to more criminalization of students, and especially black and brown students. Every single year, about 70,000 kids are arrested in school…. [Moreover] since 1999, 10,000 additional police officers have been placed at schools, with no impact on violence. Meanwhile, about one million students have been arrested for acts previously punishable by detention or suspension, and black students are three times more likely to be arrested than their white peers.”

“Trump’s proposal to arm teachers suggests that the burden of gun violence and the crimes of the gun industries and politicians should fall on teachers’ shoulders, foolishly imagining that armed teachers would be able to stop a killer with military grade weapons, and disregarding the risk of teachers shooting other students, staff or faculty in the midst of such a chaotic moment.”

Brian Moench also brings our attention to what seems to be a commonsense fact, namely, that “teachers with handguns are no match for assault rifles” (http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/43689-teachers-with-handguns-are-no-match-for-assault-rifles-why-the-trump-nra-plan-doesn-t-work).

And Gyasi Ross worries that young African American and Native American students could turn out to be disproportionately the victims of armed teachers (https://www.truthdig.com/articles/arming-teachers-stupidest-racist-idea-going).

“According to a new CBS poll, the nation is split almost nearly in half on whether teachers should carry guns, with 44 percent of Americans saying they support arming more teachers and 50 percent opposing the idea. Even more unexpected is the fact that this is not split along entirely partisan lines. We tend to expect Republicans to stick to the party line in order to keep up their National Rifle Association contributions. But although 74 percent of Democrats oppose arming teachers, the poll shows that 20 percent support the prospect. Egads!”

Ross continues.

“If Trump, Republican legislators, and the NRA have their way, school districts in communities will have the right, if not the mandate, to arm at least some teachers – and other school personnel. If this is the way the current debate is resolved, the tragic irony is that it will facilitate the manufacture and distribution of yet more guns in a society that already has a surfeit of guns, including semi-automatic and automatic weapons that are designed for war. It will be a boon for the weapons’ makers and a victory for the pro-gun advocates like the NRA and most Republicans. But, in the process, the schools’ basic missions will have been compromised, that is, providing students with the educational foundation to become informed and productive citizens. Indeed, there are already serious problems in the American schools, especially in how they are financed so much by local property taxes, resulting in great inequalities among school systems and in vastly unequal outcomes for students. This issue of an unequal school system has long been of concern and has worsened. See the articles and books of professor of education Diane Ravitch for incisive analyses of the problems and inequalities the school system generally and, in a recent book, the “hoax of the privatization movement.”

Part 3: An approach to achieve reasonable gun laws

John Donohue, distinguished professor of law at Stanford University, offers an outline of an approach for convincing people to support reasonable gun regulations (https://www.stanford.edu/2015/09/03/how-us-gun-control-compares-to-the-rest-of-the-world). He makes four points.

First, Donahue’s research team finds that the great majority of Americans, including a majority of NRA members, favor universal background checks. Indeed, 90% of Americans favored such checks after the Newtown school massacre of 2012.

Despite the influence of the NRA, Trump, the Republican Party, the gun manufacturers, the right-wing media, most Americans believe there is a need for gun regulation. Experts and the public agree on how to stop gun violence. Politicians don’t, according to Christopher Ingraham (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/10/02/experts-and-the-public-agree-on-how-to-stop-gun-violence-politicians-dont/?utm_term=.394c3020ba60).

“Despite its reputation as an intractable, deeply divisive issue, there’s a lot of agreement among the American public on support for gun-control measures.

Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza and Rachael Bade report for Politico, on “a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted entirely after the shooting in Uvalde, offering a snapshot of the mood of American voters at this moment in time, and where they stand on a variety of gun reform proposals” (https://politico.com/newsletter/playbook/2022/05/26/new-poll-shows-huge-support-for-gun-restriction). Here’s what they found.

“Requiring background checks on all gun sales: Eighty-eight percent strongly or somewhat support; 8% strongly or somewhat oppose. Net approval: +80

Creating a national database with info about each gun sale: Seventy-five percent strongly or somewhat support; 18% strongly or somewhat oppose. Net approval: +57

“Banning assault-style weapons: Sixty-seven percent strongly or somewhat support; 25% strongly or somewhat oppose. Net approval: +42

“Preventing sales of all firearms to people reported as dangerous to law enforcement by a mental health provider: Eighty-four percent strongly or somewhat support; 9% strongly or somewhat oppose. Net approval: +75

“Making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks: Eighty-one percent strongly or somewhat support; 11% strongly or somewhat oppose. Net approval: +70

“Requiring all gun owners to store their guns in a safe storage unit: Seventy-seven percent strongly or somewhat support; 15% strongly or somewhat oppose. Net approval: +62

“BUT voters also support a proposal that’s been floated by many advocates of gun rights:

“Equipping teachers and school staff with concealed firearms to respond in the event of a school shooting: Fifty-four percent strongly or somewhat support; 34% strongly or somewhat oppose. Net approval: +20.”

Second, the NRA’s claim that guns reduce crime is belied by the fact that the “US is by far the world leader in the number of guns in civilian hands” and it has by far the highest homicide rate. And “only the tiniest fraction of victims of violent crime are able to use a gun in their defense.” Donohue writes on this point:

“Over the period from 2007-2011, when roughly six million nonfatal violent crimes occurred each year, data from the National Crime Victimization Survey show that the victim did not defend with a gun in 99.2% of these incidents – this is a country with 300 million guns in civilian hands.” 

And,

“…a study of 198 cases of unwanted entry into occupied single-family dwellings in Atlanta (not limited to night when the residents were sleeping) found that the invader was twice as likely to obtain the victim’s gun than to have the victim use a firearm in self-defense.”

Donohue and his colleagues at Stanford have also spent years studying the effects of “right to carry” laws (RTC) found “the most compelling evidence to date that RTC laws are associated with significant increases in violent crime – particularly for aggravated assault.” Additionally, they report, the Uniform Crime Reports from 1979-2012 show that, “on average, the 33 states that adopted RTC laws over this period experienced violent crime rates that are 4%-19% higher after ten years than if they had not adopted these laws.”

Third, most other advanced nations make it harder for people to obtain a Glock semiautomatic handgun “or any other kind of firearm.” Donohue lists some examples of other countries that have tighter gun regulations than the U.S. and have much lower violent crime rates. The lesson: Other countries have proven they can protect the public safety with more strict gun regulations – and the U.S. should learn from them.

        Germany: To buy a gun, anyone under the age of 25 has to pass a psychiatric evaluation (presumably 21-year-old Dylann Roof would have failed).

        Finland: Handgun license applicants are only allowed to purchase firearms if they can prove they are active members of regulated shooting clubs. Before they can get a gun, applicants must pass an aptitude test, submit to a police interview, and show they have a proper gun storage unit.

        Italy: To secure a gun permit, one must establish a genuine reason to possess a firearm and pass a background check considering both criminal and mental health records (again, presumably Dylann Roof would have failed).

        France: Firearms applicants must have no criminal record and pass a background check that considers the reason for the gun purchase and evaluates the criminal, mental, and health records of the applicant. (Dylann Roof would presumably have failed in this process).

        United Kingdom and Japan: Handguns are illegal for private citizens.

There are other sources that support Donohue’s international comparisons. Audrey Carlsen and Sahil Chinoy report in an article for the New York Times that is more difficult in all other listed countries for citizens to obtain a weapon legally than in the United States (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/02/world/international-gun-laws.html?_r=0).

And Juliette Jowit and Sandra Laville in London, Calla Wahlquist in Port Arthur, Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Lois Beckett in New York report that “The United States’s gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than other high-income countries” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/15/so-america-this-is-how-you-do-gun-control).

Fourth, according to Donohue, “Australia hasn’t had a mass shooting since 1996.” Prior to that year, there had been 13 mass shootings. The turning point came with “the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, in which a gunman killed 35 individuals using semiautomatic weapons.” The conservative government then introduced and succeeded in implementing tough new gun laws, including the banning of a large array of weapons and the imposition of a mandatory gun buy back. The murder rate fell dramatically and there has not been a mass shooting since 1996. None. Thus, banning an array of high-powered guns did not lead to the loss of individual freedom but to an improvement in public safety.

There is other evidence supporting those who see an urgent need for greater gun regulation. Authoritative research documents how permissive state gun laws are associated with higher homicide rates. Joan Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams reports on a new, sweeping analysis on gun policy from the RAND Corporation that finds stricter gun laws reduce gun violence, “that laws to prevent children from accessing firearms can decrease suicides and unintentional injuries or deaths,” and “that universal background checks would lead to a drop in suicides and violent crimes.” In the opposite direction, Rand researchers found that “[c]oncealed-carry and stand-your-ground laws—both backed by the NRA—were also found to increase violent crimes” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/03/02/what-does-research-nra-doesnt-want-funded-show-gun-restrictions-save-lives).

Add to the list the proposals to ban semi- and fully-automatic.

The NRA argues that, even semi-automatic weapons, even when equipped with bump stocks, should not be regulated. One way to contest this claim is to help others understand the extraordinary harm to the body that is done by the AR-15 and other military style weapons. When the bullet from one of these weapons strikes a person, bones and soft tissue are obliterated. Even if victims survive, they often have injuries to their organs and bones that will never be healed, often living with pain and disability for the rest of their lives. This issue is expertly addressed by Gina Kolata and C. J. Chivers in an article published in the New York Times titled aptly “Wounds from Miitary-Style Rifles? A Ghastly Thing To See” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/04/health/parkland-shooting-victims-ar15.html).

Connecticut: a model for gun regulation?

The states that have strong gun regulation are all “blue,” or Democratic, states, including, as mentioned earlier, states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and California, which also have the lowest gun deaths according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Anthony Brooks reports that gun-regulation advocates are looking to “Connecticut as a model for gun control?” (http://www.wbur.org/views/2018/03/08/connecticut-gun-laws).

Connecticut introduced its gun reform law after the Sandy Hook Shooting, which, according to Wikipedia’s account, “occurred on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, United States, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members. Prior to driving to the school, he shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived at the school, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.”

The Wikipedia section on Sandy Hook notes that “Newtown is located in Fairfield County, Connecticut, about 60 miles (100 km) from New York City. Violent crime had been rare in the town of 28,000 residents; there was only one homicide in the town in the ten years prior to the school shooting.” A report issued by the Office of the Child Advocate in November 2014 is cited by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandy_Hook_Elementary_School_shooting).

The report “said that Lanza had Asperger’s syndrome and as a teenager suffered from depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but concluded that they had ‘neither caused nor led to his murderous acts.’ The report concludes that ‘his severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems… combined with an atypical preoccupation with violence… (and) access to deadly weapons… proved a recipe for mass murder’. Lanza used his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, shot his way through a glass panel next to the locked front entrance doors of the school, and commenced the horrifying shooting spree.

About four months after the murders, on April 4, 2013, Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy, completed the signing of legislation that included “new restrictions on weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines,” according to senior reporter Anthony Brooks (http://www.wbur.org/news/2018/03/08/connecticut-gun-laws).

State lawmakers “expanded an assault weapons ban, both the sale and manufacture, including on the AR-15, and outlawed high-capacity magazines” with more than ten rounds of ammunition.

Brooks continues: “They required background checks for the sale of all firearms, tightened gun ownership regulations, and increased funding for mental health and school security.” Subsequently, crime fell, homicides were down, and “violent crime is down here more than anywhere else in the country in the last four years,” Malloy told Brooks. Gun rights critics in Connecticut criticize the law, arguing that a better way to make school safer is to make schools more secure (which is already a part of the law) and give teachers the means to defend themselves. There is little support in Newtown or in the state for arming teachers.

Concluding thoughts

This post offers a case for reasonable gun regulations. The majority of adult Americans want such regulation, though it is not clear whether a majority would prioritize their desire for gun regulation when they vote. The evidence documents that other higher-income countries have been successful in regulating guns and reducing gun-related killing and mayhem. There are some states in the U.S., “blue” states, that have effective gun regulations. Effective gun regulation is correlated with lower gun violence and deaths.

However, there is a powerful coalition of right-wing forces that are opposed to even minimal gun regulation. For them, opposition to gun regulation is only one part of a larger agenda. Inspired by the conman and aspiring-autocrat Trump, they not only oppose gun regulation, but also oppose the reproductive rights of women, while favoring severe anti-immigration policies, unlimited campaign contributions and doing their utmost to limit the votes of their opponents. It’s an old, but sad, story. It also has the flavor of incipient fascism.

The results of the upcoming November elections in November 2022 will tell us a lot. If the Republicans take control of the Senate or House, they will have the power, with the right-wing Supreme Court, to obstruct any policy initiatives from the Democrats and perhaps find ways to nationalize their anti-gun-regulation position and make gun regulations in “blue” states illegal. They can only be stopped if voters elect Democratic candidates to federal and state offices, along with pursuing educational and organizing efforts.

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