Mass shooters, although almost always male, in many other ways grimly echo the diversity of American life. Dylann Roof in Charleston is white. Elliott Rodgers at UC-Santa Barbara was of mixed English-Chinese origins. Major Nidal Malik Hasan of Fort Hood is of Palestinian descent. Aaron Alexis, who killed at the Washington Navy Yard, was black. Their belief systems are distinctive too, sometimes right, sometimes left, sometimes religious, sometimes secular. Some are deeply mentally ill, but many more are not. And so on backward through the list of these distinctively American slaughters.
Despite their differences, however, these mass killers shared one quality with each other and with every other American besides: easy access to deadly weapons.
Gun massacres are regularly followed by another uniquely American ritual: a cacophony of voices exonerating American gun laws for American gun violence. “What type of gun law would have made this situation not occur?” objected South Carolina’s junior senator, Tim Scott, on Fox News. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry dismissed the “knee-jerk reaction” that “if we can just take the guns out of the hands of everyone in this country, these types of things won't happen again.” Gun advocates boldly insist that gun massacres occur because Americans are not yet heavily armed enough. In the end, the political system shrugs its collective shoulders: The fact that Americans are regularly gunned down in large numbers by lone gunmen—and that Britons, Germans, French, Italians, Canadians, Japanese, Australians, New Zealanders, South Koreans, Danes, Swiss, Poles, and Spaniards are not—is just one of those unfathomable mysteries, like the fate of the crew of the Mary Celeste. There is of course no “one law” that would prevent all gun massacres, any more than there is “one law” that would eliminate all house fires, all fatal car crashes, or all smoking deaths. Yet American society has made amazing progress at enhancing citizen safety against fires, car crashes, and smoking.
It’s true that “no one thing” did it. It would have been utterly false to predict “nothing” could do it.
So with guns.
The good news is that the larger decline in the crime rate has reduced Americans’ odds of being murdered in any way, including by gun. Yet even as crime rates decline, not only in the U.S. but in all developed countries, the United States continues to suffer mass casualty gun massacres with a frequency seen nowhere else in the developed world: 133 between 2000 and 2014, as compared to 3 in Canada, 2 in Australia, and 1 in the United Kingdom, according to one global survey. As guns proliferate (perhaps 270 million of them in the United States comparted to just 9.5 million in Canada)—and as handguns displace hunting pieces—so do gun accidents and suicides.
The right of gun ownership is cherished by many Americans. Yet there are incremental steps, building on existing law, that could keep guns out of wrong hands and enhance public safety.
Enforce Laws Against Prohibited Gun Buyers
Under current federal law, it is illegal for many categories of people to own firearms. Among those prohibited owners are:
- Anyone who has been convicted of a felony whose full civil rights have not been restored;
- Anyone who is a fugitive from justice;
- Anyone who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance
- Anyone who has ever been adjudicated as mentally noncompetent or involuntarily admitted to a mental institution
- Any alien illegally present in the United States
- Any alien admitted under a non-immigration visa
- Anyone who has been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces;
- Anyone under a restraining order for harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner;
- Anyone convicted of domestic violence, including misdemeanors.
But while it’s illegal for people in those categories to own firearms, the complementary duty imposed on others not to sell firearms to prohibited persons is weak and easily evaded. Federally registered firearms vendors are required to enter the prospective purchasers’ names into a federal database. If the names are not found, the vendor is clear, without any independent obligation to verify further. Guns sold at gun shows or in other private sales are not subject even to the background check rule in most states. A convicted felon clutching a syringe and ranting about his dishonorable discharge can enter a gun dealer’s premises and—so long as his name does not appear in a database—the seller remains legally immune no matter how much objective warning he had that his customer was a prohibited possessor.
Under the 2005 federal
Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and similar state laws, vendors can generally be held liable for a sale only if they can be shown to have had affirmative knowledge that the gun buyer intended to use the weapon to commit a crime.
Contrast this to the laws that apply to people selling liquor. Liquor sellers have an independent legal duty not to serve intoxicated people. Liquor sellers can be sued by injured third parties if they fail in that duty.
Most gun dealers wish to sell to lawful owners. Most—but not all. In 1995, a researcher analyzed government tracing data and discovered that 1 percent of gun dealers sold 57 percent of the weapons found at crime scenes. By holding these rogue gun dealers to account, it might be possible to significantly diminish the flow of guns into criminal hands. Instead, Congress chose to protect rogue gun dealers from scrutiny and sanction. In 2003, Congress passed a law forbidding government agencies to disclose tracing data that might link a particular dealer to a criminal purchaser. It’s hard to hold gun dealers responsible for selling to unlawful buyers if nobody is allowed to know where an unlawful buyer purchased his weapons.
Require Gun Owners to Carry Liability Insurance
Guns are dangerous products. There are some 15,000 accidental shootings per year in the United States, leading to 600 accidental deaths. Buy a car, and state law requires that it be insured. Dig a swimming pool, and expect to pay hundreds of dollars a year more in homeowners’ insurance, which anybody who carries a mortgage will likewise be required to carry. Guns need not be insured, however, neither in law nor in practice.
The uninsured status of guns means that people injured by them face great difficulty recovering the costs of their medical treatment and other economic losses. Injured persons can sue a negligent gun owner and try to recover from his home insurance, if he owns a home. Most of the time, however, gunshot victims will be left to bear their economic losses on their own.
A requirement that gun owners carry insurance would not only protect potential accident victims—including gun owners, since many gun accidents are self-inflicted—against economic loss. An insurance requirement would create incentives for more responsible gun behavior. Just as insurance companies offer better rates to those who install burglar alarms, so they might offer better rates to those who install secure gun safes. Just as a prior accident raises the future cost of car insurance, so careless gun owners will be encouraged to exercise better care in future.
Require Meaningful Training for Carry-Permit Holders
After a slaughter like that in Charlestown, gun advocates argue that it occurred because Americans still don’t carry enough guns. If only “a good guy with a gun” had been in the vicinity, the killer could have been stopped! The implicit premise of this claim is that gun owners who carry weapons in public will use them responsibly, effectively, and accurately—that the “good guy with a gun” will actually bring down the bad guy, and not half a dozen innocent victims who happen to be within a twenty-foot radius.
Are these assumptions reasonable? Curtis Reeves, the retired police officer who gunned down a young father for texting during movie previews, was a concealed-carry permit holder. George Zimmerman thought he was a “good guy with a gun” when he tracked and killed Trayvon Martin.
Certified florists in the State of Florida are required to take six weeks of courses at a cost of at least $600. They must pass a series of exams, and purchase a business license from the state.
You might think that the power to deal death to strangers in public would be more closely supervised than the right to sell floral arrangements. You would be wrong.
To obtain a concealed-carry permit, a Floridian must only submit a “certificate of competency” from a firearms instructor—and in Florida, literally anybody can represent himself as a firearms instructor and issue competency certificates. The state does not even know how many self-designated instructors are doing business in Florida, but they number in the thousands. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports:
Managers at the Florida Division of Licensing, the state agency charged with issuing concealed-carry licenses, acknowledge that they have no authority to regulate how someone is trained, much less police the trainers themselves. The extent of their power is to deny the license application.
It’s suspected, too, that some Florida gun trainers will sell a certificate of competency without the bother of any instruction at all.
The potential victims of a concealed-carry permit holder’s inaccuracy, incompetence, senility, arrogance, racism, or lack of impulse control are entitled to better assurance than this. You enjoy Walter Mitty fantasies of bringing down a dangerous criminal and saving the girl with a well-aimed shot? Fine. Take a test under conditions that simulate the chaos of a mass-shooting scene. Prove that you can hit the target—without also putting five shots out of six into the nearby silhouette of a baby stroller or man in a wheelchair. Produce evidence of good conduct and mental stability. And be prepared to forfeit your deadly weapon if you are ever caught publicly intoxicated or engaged in other actions that display disregard for public safety, such as moving violations in an automobile.
No one change will reduce American gun violence to levels prevailing elsewhere in the advanced world. What can be done, though, is to move slowly toward greater safety through incremental steps. Guns can be removed from the hands of those prohibited from owning them. Gun owners can be induced to take better care of their weapons. The United States can do a better job of ensuring that people who carry weapons in public know how to use them safely, responsibly, and accurately.
It’s not necessary to take big dramatic steps to achieve a cumulative improvement. What is necessary, however, is to recognize that there are powerful interests in American society that oppose any enforcement action at all—even of gun laws they purport to support. Many gun makers, gun sellers, and gun owners seek a unique legal status for themselves, exempt from the norms and rules that apply elsewhere in American society. It’s this quest for special privilege, not Second Amendment rights as they have been understand for almost all the history of the republic, that enables slaughters like that in Charleston—and the miserable toll of massacres and accidents still to come.