I hesitate to predict that any reasoned consensus will break out on the issue of mass-shooting incidents, but there are early signs that common sense might be taking hold.

The NRA’s booth at the 2010 Shot Show, held annually in Las Vegas (Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

According to the Washington Post/ABC poll: “More than half of Americans see the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday as a sign of broader problems in society, not merely the isolated act of a troubled individual.” However, caution seems to be the watchword from voters, the Post adds: “The Washington Post poll did not show a significant shift in public opinion on the gun issue itself. A clear majority of Americans continues to support a nationwide ban on high-capacity ammunition clips — the kind used at Sandy Hook last week, and in other recent high-profile killings. Just over half support banning semiautomatic handguns. At the same time, nearly three out of four Americans continue to oppose banning the sale of all handguns except to law enforcement officers.” No questions were asked about mental health issues, which leaves it unclear if the public thinks the “broader problems in society” at the root of these incidents are related to mental health, guns or culture.

Nevertheless, the more narrowly focused the legislation (e.g., regulate high-capacity magazines, rather than nebulously described “semi-automatic” weapons) and the more concern shown for those who are most at risk for these acts (e.g., those with signs or a history of mental illness), the more likely that agreement can be reached.

Sensible conservative voices are calling for reconsideration of the impact of the “no new laws” position that many in the GOP have adhered to. Former congressman and new Republican Artur Davis writes:

Liberals will need to concede that banning firearms altogether is undesirable as well as unconstitutional, and that prohibitionist rhetoric only aids and abets the [National Rifle Association’s] own absolutist stance. They will need to demonstrate a much sharper sensitivity to the fact that handguns do serve the ends of self-defense in both middle class suburbs and urban neighborhoods, and that hunting is part of the national cultural fabric: much too much of the leftwing punditry on this subject overflows with a barely disguised regional and class based contempt. . . .


At the same time, conservatives would do well to recognize that the fact that gun ownership is a right does not immunize it from regulation—no more than speech is shielded from defamation suits, or restrictions against inciting violence or using words to conspire to achieve a crime; no more than the free exercise of religion precludes scrutiny of whether churches are complying with the obligations of their tax exempt status, or of whether government grants to faith based institutions are being validly spent. Similarly, the roots that gun possession hold in our culture surely don’t carry more sociological sway than driving or marriage, both of which require some method of formal registration. Lastly, just as liberals ought to abandon their fictions around existing gun laws, conservatives should also admit that the existing regulations around guns have hardly marginalized gun ownership or created some unreasonable barrier to gun possession.

Davis favors “a strategy that focuses on discerning more about the humans who would own the guns (especially high impact firearms).”

That sort of careful analysis is not limited to the right, a positive sign for those who want to address a problem and not merely create an issue. The New York Times reports: “Some advocates [of gun control] have also argued for banning assault rifles, though some of them also acknowledge that the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, was inadequate and largely ineffective. Defenders of the firearm, however, say that it is misguided to blame a gun that is used by millions of owners across the country in a responsible manner.” Perhaps, before racing to introduce legislation, lawmakers will review past history and see what has already been tried and what is the most effective way of tackling the problem.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to ignore the mental health component. When these incidents occur, Americans can predict with near certainty the profile of the shooter: teen or young adult, male, socially estranged, mental health issues (diagnosed or not), etc. Robert Leider makes a strong argument for focusing on this subset of people:

Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Jared Lee Loughner (Tucson, Ariz.), James Eagen Holmes (in the Aurora, Colo. theater), and now Adam Lanza all had significant mental health problems. As the country turns its attention to overhauling its health-care delivery system, we must discuss improving access and delivery of mental health care to those who need it. As part of this conversation, we need to update federal firearm laws as they relate to persons with mental illness — laws that currently are primitive and rooted in stereotypes.

Federal law generally prohibits the possession or acquisition of a firearm by a person “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.” Putting aside the offensive label and legal jargon, in simple terms this means that a person is prohibited for life from possessing firearms if the person has ever been: involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or found by a court to be a danger to himself or others, found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial, or unable to manage his own affairs. It does not matter whether the person currently has a mental illness.

Federal law is both under- and over-inclusive. It is under-inclusive because plenty of people with severe mental illnesses escape the ban on possessing firearms—provided, for example, they have managed not to be formally committed to a mental institution, or found by a court to be incompetent or insane. The ban is over-inclusive because many people recover from mental illness and lead healthy and productive lives. …

There is plenty of room to compromise on this issue, and in a way that may produce meaningful results. Both sides should continue to work together to update the “National Instant Check System.” Gun dealers use this system to vet gun purchasers before transferring firearms. Unfortunately, despite a 2007 federal law that was supposed to mandate better reporting by states (passed in response to the Virginia Tech massacre), many states lag behind in reporting individuals who are barred from possessing firearms due to mental illness. … Mechanisms can be put in place to identify such people — and restrict their access to firearms, including expanding background checks to private sales, i.e., between individuals who are not in the business of selling firearms. Gun owners (especially close relatives of such persons, such as Adam Lanza’s mother) should also be obligated to store unused firearms safely so that potentially dangerous persons and minor children do not gain easy access to them. 

This, of course, requires increased availability of mental health treatment, training for those who interact with young adults as to behaviors that should elicit concern and flexible rules that allow individuals to be retained for a mental health evaluation under proper circumstances. In other words, treat mental health more effectively and more comprehensively and we will, if the net is fine enough, sweep up a number of those people who are a danger to themselves and others.

The common strain running through these more nuanced approaches is a primacy on data, a determination to focus on the heart of the problem and a resistance to plunging into sweeping legislation which is destined to fail. Extremists on both sides would prefer to have an all-or-nothing fight to score points against the other; if voters really do think we have larger societal problems, they should reject such game-playing.