Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gun control and gun rights: Can we find a middle ground?

Another week, another mass shooting in America. This time it was children who were slaughtered.  Another disturbed young male, suicidal, decided to go out with a bang. Some people slit their wrists or hang themselves, some get roaring drunk and drive into a tree, and some load up the guns and ammunition and drive to a crowded place to shoot strangers.  In this case, children.

How can we stop this?

We can increase school security. We can push to diminish the number and violence of first-person shooter video games. We can advocate for more effective mental health screening and treatment. But at some point we have to also talk about the role of guns in these episodes of mass murder.

Sometimes, given our Second Amendment and the tremendous political influence of the National Rifle Association, it seems that the gun conversation is one we can't have in America. Both sides are strident. Both sides argue through the veil of hyperbole and emotion. But I think in fact there is more agreement than we know.  A look at recent polls on gun control suggests that this is so.

In an August CNN poll, thirteen percent of respondents said there should be no restrictions at all on gun ownership, and ten percent said guns should be illegal for anyone except police and "authorized personnel."  76% of people fell in between.

On the one hand, there are people who believe that guns, including semiautomatic weapons with large weapon clips, are needed to protect us against government tyranny.  On the other hand, there are people who believe that widespread gun ownership makes us less safe, even those of us who own guns and know how to use them. In between are people who cherish traditions of hunting or who keep a handgun at home, feeling more secure at the thought of bing able to protect themselves in a gun-heavy world.

So where is the middle ground?  What could a majority of Americans support?

96% of Americans support the notion of requiring a criminal background check before purchasing weapons.  That's more than the number who support any restrictions at all, which is odd.  Maybe when people are asked about "some restrictions," they immediately assume the worst.

We already have background checks, of course, and waiting periods -- but only for those in the gun business.  These restrictions have prevented 1.8 million sales of guns to felons.  But they don't apply to the 40% of sales that occur between private individuals.  The "gunshow loophole" is one that can and should be closed.

 A majority of Americans --57% to 42%-- support "a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47.  For ten years, from 2994 to 2004, we had such a ban, but it expired, and efforts to renew the bill have not made it to the House or Senate floor. This is something the people want, and voters should press their representatives to let the debate out into the open.

A larger majority, 60% to 40%, want to see a ban on the sale of high-capacity or extended ammunition clips that allow multiple bullets to be fired before reloading.

These two limits make urgent sense.  No matter how mad or vicious a killer, it's easier to kill lots of people with semi-automatic weapons and extended application kits than it is with a weapon that takes longer to fire and load.  This is about the body count.  Without these weapons and supplies, mass killings would still occur, but the numbers killed would be lower.  And nobody needs assault weapons and extended ammunition clips for hunting.  Or if they do, they're pretty terrible hunters.

76% support requiring owners to register their guns with local government. This is good, but we've seen time and again that registered gun belonging to a qualified owner can still be used by family members to commit horrible crimes.  What liability does a gun owner have for crimes committed with a poorly-secured gun?  Of course, sometimes the liability question is moot, as the gun owner is the first one killed. Epidemiological studies show that a person with a gun in the home is almost 2 times as likely to die from homicide and 10 times as likely to die from suicide as a person without.

I know NRA members who support the restrictions and safeguards listed here, even though they are represented by a lobbying group that adamantly opposes any restriction.  The NRA tends to consider any restriction as an attempt to undermine a fundamental Constitutional right to self-protection.  If we can convince a broad base of the 50% of Americans who live in gun-owning households that the vast majority of us do not support the idea of taking away their guns but merely want to decrease the frequency and extent of mass murder, maybe there is common ground.  Maybe the membership can convince the NRA that such extremism in the name of liberty is no virtue, not when it comes at the cost of the lives of our children.

How about you?  Hunters, gun owners, those of you who have never fired a gun... where would you draw the line?

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