Columbine, April 1999: 13 people killed. Virginia Tech, April 2007: 32 people killed. Fort Hood, November 2009: 13 people killed. Aurora, July 2012: 12 people killed. Sandy Hook, December 2012: 27 people killed. San Bernardino, December 2015: 14 people killed. Orlando, June 2016: 49 people killed. Las Vegas, October 2017: 58 people killed. Sutherland Springs, November 2017: 25 people and an unborn child killed.
This is nowhere near a complete list of all the mass shootings in the US. These may be the most notorious in recent memory, but they are not the first, nor will they be the last, nor, unfortunately, eventually the worst. However, they and all the other mass shootings that occur each year – now more than one per day – account for only a fraction of the nearly 34,000 gun-related deaths in America each year. They are what make the news, but they are not how most people die from guns in America.
The US is awash in guns – as many as 300 million of them, more than one for every adult.
30-plus years of aggressive, well-funded, anti-gun-control messaging from the NRA and other right-wing groups has led to a very vocal portion of our population being viscerally opposed to any attempt to impose controls on gun ownership. Targeted attacks on politicians who favor gun control and support for those who don’t, along with a concerted effort to tilt the judiciary in favor of gun rights – finally resulting in the Heller Supreme Court decision, which enshrined a previously non-existent individual right to bear arms – has led to an erosion of existing gun-control legislation and a build-up of precedent in favor of gun-ownership rights. What we are left with is a state of play where home-ownership of handguns is a protected right, an existing ban on assault rifles – military-style assault rifles – couldn’t even be renewed, and items such as large-capacity magazines and “bump stocks” are viewed, not as potential killers, but as toys for enthusiasts.
However, those 300 million guns owned by Americans – a number that has been steadily increasing – are owned by a steadily decreasing number of individuals. Only roughly a third of US households own a gun and this number has been dropping since the 1980s. So while guns and gun culture seem more prevalent, they are not, in fact, more widespread. And while this highly vocal minority has worked furiously and tirelessly to ensure “that every man be armed,” they are, in fact, a minority. This leaves open the possibility that the majority – non-gun-owners – can eventually be persuaded to effect change regarding gun-ownership and gun-safety in America. This majority needs to be convinced that lives are more important than guns; that an American has a greater right to walk down the street without fear of being shot than an American does of owning and carrying any gun at any time they want.
Despite what many people think neither the Second Amendment nor the Heller decision prohibit reasonable, even highly-restrictive, gun-control legislation.
A majority of Americans support some form of greater gun control, but their voices, and votes, are outweighed by the strength of the opposition: gun-rights voters are much, much more passionate about gun rights than gun-control voters are about gun control. Years and years of inaction, in the face of mass gun-killing after mass gun-killing – never mind the massive number of other gun-related deaths – have led many to believe that nothing can be done. A few organizations have sprung up in the wake of the gun-killings – Giffords (fka Americans for Responsible Solutions) and Everytown for Gun Safety, in particular – but their efforts have been cautious and, so far, have had little effect.
The deaths continue and so does the inaction.
Even the “reasonable” legislation that has been discussed – better background checks, prohibiting domestic abusers from owning guns, even banning assault-style rifles – will have only so much impact. Most of the gun violence in America is not perpetrated with assault-style rifles, but with the handguns that are now a Constitutionally-protected home accessory; and much of it is perpetrated by people who acquire guns illegally. This does not mean those measures should not be put into place – small steps are good steps – but the gun violence in America will continue until the number and, perhaps more importantly, the overall availability of guns in this country is substantially reduced.
But this isn’t about “taking away” people’s guns.
Banning guns outright is a virtual impossibility given the number of guns and the overall positive sentiment toward gun-ownership in this country. (In fact, given the Heller decision, the “they’re gonna come for your guns” argument isn’t even valid anymore.) The push must be for registration of all guns, the same way we register cars. Any sale or transfer of a gun would need to go through a registration process, preceded by a background check and a waiting period, both things that are already valid law in a number of states. To avoid “undue burden” and lessen the likelihood of a successful Second Amendment challenge, the cost for registration should be minimal. The process could be easily handled by appropriately-licensed gun dealers with access to a government registration system, something that is already done in the case of background checks. Any restrictions on who is allowed to register a gun can be determined at the state level.
While some people would certainly choose to ignore the registration system, substantial penalties for owning or carrying unregistered guns would both serve to push most people to register them and provide a means to punish those who don’t and confiscate their weapons. The latter should not happen proactively, perhaps except in the most extreme cases, but would happen organically over time as people are caught with unregistered guns in the normal course of policing. While this would not eliminate all gun violence, it would provide a much stronger framework for ensuring that those who should not have guns – criminals, the mentally ill, domestic abusers, etc. – do not have access to them. And by requiring all guns be registered to an owner – a valid owner – the ready supply of illegal guns – those floating around outside the system – would be dramatically reduced over time.
This won’t be easy. Most Americans believe strongly in the Second Amendment –even those who don’t own guns – and many of those feel that it is one of the most important rights they have in this country. A real effort, backed with real money, must be made to convince people that what they view as a fundamental right is severely infringing on the fundamental rights of many thousands of others every year to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”