Since the December 14, 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that claimed 27 lives, children no older than five or six, there have been more than 900 gun-related deaths in the United States. It’s in this context that President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden and children from the country who wrote letters to the president of the wake of the Newtown tragedy, announced his plans for what, if enacted, would be the most sweeping national gun control reforms in more than two decades.
The president signed 23 executive orders that, according to his statement, “help make sure information about potentially dangerous people who are barred from having guns is available to the national background check system; lift the ban on research into the causes of gun violence; make sure doctors know they can report credible threats of violence by their patients; put more resource officers and counselors in schools; and ensure millions of Americans get quality mental health coverage.” He also called on Congress to pass legislation that would, among other things, require background checks on all gun sales, ban military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and provide funding to investigate the causes of violence. Federal legislation may look to the recent gun control law passed in the New York state legislature as a template. According to the New York Times, the New York law “broadens the assault weapons ban to include any semi-automatic with a detachable magazine and one military-style feature” and “requires tighter registration and reporting of arms sales; background checks for all sales, including private ones; and re-certification requirements for gun owners.”
These are the types of common-sense gun control reforms Americans want to see. A Pew Research survey finds that 85 percent of the public favors backgrounds checks for private and gun show sales, 80 percent support for preventing those with mental illness from purchasing a gun, 67 percent support for a federal database that tracks guns sales, and 58 percent in favor of a ban on semi-automatic weapons. And I have no doubt these measures will reduce the number of mass shootings, but, alone they won’t solve prevent nearly all gun deaths across the country.
NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was deservedly mocked for his suggestion that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” but most popular reforms reflect exactly that thinking. Let’s be honest: we’re not having a conversation about how to most effectively reduce gun violence, but rather about who has the right to own what type of gun. We want to identify the shooters before they have a chance to kill, and prevent them from having access to the most lethal weapons. We’re taking guns out of the hands of some, while permitting others their own personal arsenal.
For instance, there is broad public support for preventing people with mental illnesses from owning guns. The New York law includes a provision requiring therapists to report to authorities any clients who they think are “likely to engage in” violent behavior. Could this provision prevent those desperately truly need mental health services from seeking the help they need out of fear their behavior could be misinterpreted and they could find themselves targets of the state? Could this further isolate those who most need help? Don’t forget that, according to the Times, while people with diagnosable mental illness are responsible for close to 20 percent of rampage or serial killings, they only account for four percent of violent crimes overall. Dr. Michael Stone, a New York Forensic psychiatrist, told the Times that most mass murders are committed “by working-class men who’ve been jilted, fired, or otherwise humiliated.” There is no illness to diagnosed amongst the greatest perpetrators of these heinous acts. Additionally, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrator, and those who are suicidal have a much higher success rate when a gun is involved.
But we aren’t concerned with protecting people from themselves. We want to protect us from them.
That’s why background checks for gun purchases have so much popular support, even across ideological lines. We want to identify the people who might do harm before they have a chance and deny them access to guns. Basically, keep the guns out of the hands of bad guys. But what constitutes a bad guy? How do we know?
Because if you were to ask Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, they might say the bad guys are Army veterans with ties to white supremacist groups. If she were still alive, you could ask 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in Chicago, killed by a gunshot to the head while hanging out with her friends, she may have told you it’s off-duty police officers. In Jacksonville, Florida, 17-year-old Jordan Davis might have said that it’s 46-year-old white men and self-described “responsible gun owners” that are the real bad guys. His killer was a previously law-abiding citizen. Seven year-old Aiyana Jones in Detroit might have an altogether different opinion, telling you the bad guys are the SWAT teams on a reality TV show. She was shot while a paramilitary unit, followed by an A&E production crew filming an episode of “The First 48,” stormed her house. It’s all about perspective.
What we’re attempting to enact at this point are a number of measures aimed at preventing mass killings. It’s a laudable goal, and maybe it’s all we can do for the moment. However, those dying in the streets in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Oakland, those being murdered by abusive husbands, or even people accidentally shooting themselves aren’t suffering because we don’t have an assault weapons ban. It’s the guns, period.
We must pass some legislation aimed at reducing gun violence because we can’t afford to do nothing. Even as we become a less violent society overall, gun deaths are an epidemic. But what’s on the table isn’t going to end gun violence, though it may placate some of our fears. What we have to face is, entrenched in our culture, is an idea that intimately links guns with freedom. More than self-defense, gun-rights activists invoke the Second Amendment, defending the right to have guns because we have the constitutional right to have guns. It’s a part of our American identity. We have developed a mythology around guns where they have meant freedom for everyone from the founding fathers to Black Power activists. If we’re serious about ending gun violence, we have to ask: what role do guns play in our society, and what role should they play? People keep dying in numbers that astound; yet we are still here trying to prevent a certain type of death from happening from a certain type of person. That isn’t liberty. Are we prepared to actually fight for it?
It’s a big question. But so long as we ignore it in favor of the simplistic binary of good guys vs. bad guys, we will be a nation in mourning, asking ourselves time and time again, “How do we put an end to gun violence?” The wrong question will always lead us to the wrong answer. Maybe it’s time we start asking ourselves if we can imagine a society where we don’t need guns at all.
For more on President Obama's proposal, read George Zornick: Obama Goes Big on Gun Control.