There is a Moderate Solution for Gun Control

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"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."

At this point, we all know the drill. First, deaths by guns, then “thoughts and prayers,” a brief period of talk about political reform, all followed by…nothing further. The difference now is that a group of high school students are mobilizing their peers and their elders in a highly effective way.

Public opinion has long been on the side of additional gun regulations, and these voices have become stronger in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. A recent poll by Politico and Morning Consult indicated support for more restrictive gun laws at 68 percent, compared to only 25 percent who oppose stricter laws. A poll by CNN found a similar result, with 70 percent backing stricter gun laws, with 27 percent opposed. The CNN poll also found

Nearly all Democrats (93%) back stricter laws, as do a majority of independents (64%) and a plurality of Republicans (49% vs. 46% who oppose them).

These are historically very strong findings. Yet even prior to the murders in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida, support for certain gun control measures was significant among both Democrats and Republicans according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The focus is on the mass murder and injury of innocents, with each new event further tearing at our national fabric. The killings that have taken place include Newtown, Aurora, Washington Navy Yard, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, and now Parkland. Although these make up a small percentage of the deaths by guns in the U.S. each year (most gun deaths are by suicide), these shocking events raise our consciousness to a level that now seems to be compelling action.

Although public sentiment favors additional regulation, the feasibility for specific new measures remains unclear. Many politicians, particularly those in strong Republican territory, have come to view support for gun regulations as a poison to their political future. They are convinced of this due to the influence of the gun lobby and the understanding that gun rights activists have been more energized in their voting habits than those who favor further gun regulations.

Attempts to impose unrealistic and overly aggressive gun laws are unlikely to be successful. A moderate approach that maintains a balanced position for legitimate interests should make the necessary progress and have every chance at success.

In short, gun regulations should (1) be legal, (2) be supportable by a clear majority of both the public and highly energized voters, (3) balance the need for public safety against gun rights. The scope of legal gun regulation has been significantly clarified with the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision.

The impact of Heller:

Prior to 2008, court precedent appeared to establish that the Second Amendment existed only for state militias. But the Heller decision overturned a ban on all handguns in Washington, DC, (including those kept in the home for self defense) and for the first time established an individual right to gun ownership. A state militia was found to be “a” reason for the Second Amendment, but not the only reason.

The freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights are not without boundaries. The right to “keep and bear arms,” like the right to free speech and other rights, can be restricted when government interests are sufficiently strong. In fact, guns were tightly limited in the towns of the old West, even though only a small minority shot up saloons. Government will impose requirements in many areas, such as building codes, public behavior, and traffic regulations in the name of public safety. Gun laws, so long as they are within the Second Amendment as now interpreted under the Supreme Court’s Heller decision, are no different.

Although it’s not often talked about, Heller outlined several Second Amendment limitations. For example the Court opinion said:

  • “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”
  • “[T]he Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.”
  • The Court recognized “the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.”
  • “[W]eapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned”

Putting together the full scope of the Heller decision, the current law of the land provides a limited, but important, individual right to “possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” An entire class of guns most used for self-defense, handguns, cannot be banned, but weapons “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens” or “most useful in military service” can be. This defines the scope of the Second Amendment right, despite any arguments to the contrary by activists on either side. Notably, there’s nothing in the Heller ruling that precludes the government from issuing background checks or regulating the gun market. These sorts of polices would, therefore, meet the Constitutional standards needed to continue the discussion.

National laws and state laws:

Current public sentiment favors additional legislation that will help prevent mass shootings. Gun laws consist of both national and state legislation. Sometimes a centralized and standardized approach makes sense. However, at other times, state and local regulation may best meet the needs of the public. Two areas of legislation appear reasonable and responsible at the national level.

First, the need for better information and better data integration can be most effectively achieved on a national basis. This involves comprehensive gun registration, monitoring transfers to new owners, and restricting gun purchases to those who may be a danger to others. National legislation that accomplishes effective and actionable information could encompass the following seven components, which are among the highest supported measures in the Politico/Morning Consult poll.

·      Preventing sales of all firearms to people who have been reported as dangerous to law enforcement by a mental-health provider 89% support
·      Requiring background checks on all gun sales 88% support
·      Expanding screening and treatment for the mentally ill 87% support
·      Preventing sales of all firearms to people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors 84% support
·      Making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks 82% support
·      Barring gun purchases by people on the federal no-fly or watch lists 81% support
·      Creating a national database with information about each gun sale 78% support

 

 

Legislation must balance the competing interests of gun rights and public safety. The civil rights of citizens must also be carefully considered. A primary example of protecting individual rights is that the broad classification of mental illness should not be conflated with violent tendencies. The objective would be to achieve improved coordination of important information that will keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

Second, given that there is effectively a national ban on machine guns, it would make sense for bump stocks to also be tightly restricted, since they essentially turn a semi-automatic rifle into an illegal machine gun . These devices have no useful purpose for self-defense, hunting, or recreation, but can help someone who wants to murder a substantial number of innocent people.

On a state-by-state basis, further regulations can be tailored to the needs and interests of individual states. This approach recognizes the varying cultural traditions within our country, especially as it pertains to guns. Assault weapons and high capacity magazines have been banned in the District of Columbia and six states—California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. These bans include semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15.

Thus far, the Supreme Court has declined to consider lower court rulings that affirm the state laws, appearing to indicate that these actions of individual states are within Constitutional bounds.

The fifty states have had varying laws that individual governments consider appropriate for their region, based on the voices of voters and the influence of activists. In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, Florida, Oregon and other states are passing new measures that include age restrictions and increased waiting periods. Currently, DC and nineteen states require universal background checks, including sales from private dealers and at gun shows. Five states allow confiscation of firearms from someone found to be a threat to themselves or others. Two states, Oklahoma and South Dakota, are considering loosening restrictions on firearms.

Some states already allow teachers to have access to weapons in the school or on college campuses, while other states appear strongly opposed. For such issues, varying actions at the state level can help determine what works and what does not.

The Power of Voting: Strong public support for additional gun legislation has not been sufficient in the past. However, this vacuum may be changing with the current level of activism. Energized voters have more power than lobbyists and corporations, because politicians stay in office only through the grace of the democratic process. Voters can compel politicians to change their positions, or can find replacement representatives that better serve their needs. Voter activism makes the biggest difference when it operates at two different levels.

First, voting in every national election is important. Every two years, all members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election, as is one third of the Senate. High turnout in every one of these two year cycles will help the election of politicians who best represent the views of their full constituency. This is democracy in action, and those on any side of any political debate should exercise their responsibility to participate.

Becoming involved in primary elections is additionally important. In most jurisdictions, political parties choose the candidates to run in the general election through party primaries. That process has traditionally been highly influenced by energized primary voters with views toward the edges of political thought. The result is that the candidates selected can hold views tilted more toward either the left or right rather than the mainstream of their party or the voting population as a whole.

Even more critically, if a politician is thought to not behave well according to the views of the more extreme wings of the party, then that politician may find themselves replaced by another candidate during the primary process. Politicians learn the proper behavior to achieve re-election in the next round, and are influenced by the strongest voices.

In short, to obtain candidates that are in the mainstream of political thought, and who preserve a respectful balance between appropriate gun regulations and gun rights, moderate voters must become more involved in both party primaries and in general elections.

How improved regulation of guns can be achieved:

Progress can be obtained in the gun debate by holding to the mainstream of what most voters want. While this will vary from one region of the country to another, the vast majority of Americans appear to support reasonable and common sense measures, on a national basis, to improve the ability to identify and act on those individuals who might be a danger to others through the use of guns.

Additional measures, including a ban on military-style weapons can be undertaken, or not, at the state level. This approach of central action where it makes sense and federalism that acknowledges the interests of each state is a reasonable approach to a long-standing, difficult issue for improving public safety.