After Sandy Hook: What can be done to curb gun violence in America?

December 19, 2012

 

Matt Bennett: After the catastrophe in Newtown, the gun debate has radically changed. Gun safety advocates, so long frozen out of the discussion in Washington, now suddenly have momentum on our side. Where before we were trying to thread a tiny needle—to find a small measure or two that could escape or survive the wrath of the NRA—now we are preparing to embark on a negotiation.

Like any negotiation, both sides should come to the table with a list of demands. The NRA’s list is already clear: nothing. No new gun laws.

On our side, some are proposing renewal of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. And renewing it with some updates would be an important step. As Brad Plumer has detailed, the ban would outlaw the sale of assault rifles like the one used at Sandy Hook, as well as high-capacity clips that allow such rapid carnage.

That’s good, but it’s not enough. It’s been nearly 20 years since the last significant federal gun safety legislation. There is more we can do to reduce gun violence without infringing the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

    • Making Guns Safer: We should demand that the firearms industry install anti-theft devices on their products. Such measures are built into cars, ATM cards and iPhones – we have the technology to make stolen guns inoperable, and it would have a huge impact on crime if we did.
    • Universal Background Checks: We should close the gaping loophole in the Brady Act and make it illegal for anyone to transfer a firearm to someone outside of family without a background check.
    • Improving the Instant Check System: Congress should finally provide states the incentive and the funds to complete the background check system and ensure that data from courts and mental hospitals is entered into the system accurately and quickly.

No new law is going to end gun crime or put a stop to future mass shootings. But now that the NRA has been forced into a negotiation, we should go in with a list of serious demands.

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Roger Pilon: The Newtown tragedy cries for a change in public policy, but if we’re serious about wanting to reduce the carnage from random mass shootings, stiffer gun control laws are no answer. Marginal gains might be had from, say, regulating gun show transactions or large round magazine sales. But as study after study has shown, no credible correlation can be drawn between such laws and gun violence. As in most such cases, the Newtown guns were legally obtained, after all.

Our mental health policies doubtless need attention, but that’s a complex issue, fraught with civil liberties implications – like gun control itself. Self-defense is one of our oldest, most basic rights, as the Supreme Court held when it ruled that the Constitution protected the qualified right of individuals to own guns.

That brings us to a practical answer that does have promise. The best protection against an unstable person with a gun is another person with a gun. That’s why the police have guns. But they can’t be everywhere. As they raced to the Sandy Hook School, or Virginia Tech, or Columbine, the killing of defenseless people continued. Yet as David Kopel shows in the Wall Street Journal, we have many examples, as recently as last week at a mall in Oregon, where ordinary citizens with handgun permits saved many lives. We’ve learned that the Sandy Hook principal “lunged” at the killer. Suppose she’d shot him. How many children would be alive today if she had?

Gun-control advocates often recoil from such suggestions. Perhaps they believe we can confiscate 300 million guns from law-abiding citizens. That won’t happen. What we can do, if we’re serious, is reduce the risk with trained and armed people in otherwise “gun-free zones.” Do I wish it were otherwise? Yes. But it’s not. That’s the real world.

Donna Cooper: Let’s face it: Nothing is certain. We often employ expensive cancer treatments with less than a 50 percent chance of success because it is imperative to use all the tools we have to save lives. Yet when it comes to measures to stop dangerous individuals from legally purchasing guns, the demand for guaranteed solutions paralyzes lawmakers.  

Since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, there have been 21 more mass murder killings that have cut short 187 lives and injured at least 167 innocent victims. All of these mass shootings were committed by disturbed individuals who often used semi-automatic weapons. The facts of these tragedies suggest it’s time to get serious about mental health as one way of helping save lives.

While most people suffering with mental illness are not dangerous, the National Threat Assessment Center finds that 78 percent of youth who gunned down others in school attacks had histories of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Yet only 34 percent of these individuals ever had a mental health evaluation prior to the attack and a mere 17 percent had been previously diagnosed with a mental health or a behavioral disorder prior to the attack. 

This lack of professional intervention is especially troubling in light of the fact that from 2009 to 2011, states cumulatively cut more than $1.8 billion from their budgets for mental health services. And federal budget cuts are expected to take a much larger toll on services. We need well-funded public mental health protocols that mimic successful physical health strategies, including periodic check-ups, research and testing of new treatments and care for those diagnosed with illness.   

John Hudak: In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, President Obama wants to act, but can he? This question has sent media, analysts and citizens scrambling for answers since his words at the Memorial Vigil Sunday night: “…I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this…”

In some ways, the president’s formal options to change policy in a direct way are quite limited. Yet, his informal powers to influence the media narrative, public opinion and Members of Congress may be the true source of his power in this arena.

Presidents typically find the power to act in a direct way through power delegated from Congress or through vague provisions in federal or common law. However, in the context of gun control/rights, Congress and the courts have been clear and have offered the president little discretionary power. The president can direct the attorney general to increase enforcement of weapons trafficking and illegal sales. Yet, meaningful gun control policy must come from a legislative remedy rather than an executive one.

Instead, the president can use the informal and persuasive powers of his office to try to move and shape legislative proposals to address this issue. He must work with and within Congress—rather than around Congress—to achieve his goals.

Outside of gun control, the president can direct funding priorities (grants, contracts, etc.) toward research into mental health issues, school safety, and gun violence. This research can inform legislators as to the best solutions. In addition, the president can use what is learned from this tragedy to develop regulations related to the Affordable Care Act to maximize coverage, access, and treatment for mental health care. Beyond these areas, solutions generally require Congressional action.

What are your ideas on reducing gun violence? Share your thoughts below.

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