In the aftermath of last week's tragic shooting on an Oregon college campus, the reactions of America's political leadership ran the gamut.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Tennessee suggested that the lesson to be learned from Roseburg was that "serious Christians" need to acquire gun permits, to fend off the war being conducted against them as a persecuted sect.* Former Gov. Jeb Bush suggested that the best thing government can do to prevent such tragedies is to do nothing, as if citizens killing each other by the thousands is not a proper sphere of government activity.
Hillary Clinton is proposing to close the so-called "gun-show loophole," which allows private firearms buyers and sellers to conduct business without a background check, and to make gun sellers and makers legally liable if they knowingly allow their products to be misused. Sen. Bernie Sanders also took a tougher line on gun regulation than he has taken historically, including calling for a ban on assault-type weapons. And on Thursday President Obama inadvertently echoed something I had written earlier that day, saying it's time that the issue of gun safety be "politicized":
"When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives. So the notion that gun violence is somehow different, that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt and protect their families and do everything they do under such regulations, doesn’t make sense."
So let's look at the issue in a little more detail, from the legal situation to politics to what might be practical and effective:
The Constitution is not a legal obstacle to rational gun-safety legislation. In its most recent pro-gun rulings on the subject, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment gives the American people the constitutional right to keep firearms at home as self defense. Personally, I don't have a problem with that conclusion -- people do have the right to protect their homes. Even if the statistics tell us that guns kept at home are more likely to be used against friends and family members than against invaders, that's a judgment that people have a right to make for themselves.
However, in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court's 5-4 majority took the time to carve out a substantial area in which gun-safety legislation clearly doesn't conflict with the Constitution.
"Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited," the majority ruled. "From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose," an observation that strikes directly at the heart of the NRA's version of the Second Amendment. The court majority specifically noted that "the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment."
".... nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."
All in all, Heller reconfirmed that government has the power to limit the types of weapons that are legally available. It ruled that Americans have no constitutional right to possess weapons of the sort they would need to challenge government with a violent takeover. It recognized that laws banning or regulating the carrying of firearms in public have long been considered constitutional. And it explicitly endorsed the concept of a government-issued license to possess firearms, such as that still in effect in the District of Columbia.
Those parameters give government considerable legal latitude, should it decide to exercise it.
Polling on the question of gun control is complicated. On the general question of whether tighter gun laws are needed, Americans are split roughly down the middle, and an overwhelming 73 percent say they would oppose laws that attempted to ban handgun sales nationwide. But when the questions get more specific, the numbers change.
For example, some 85 to 93 percent support requiring background checks even in private firearms sales, with strong support even among Republicans. Seventy percent support a federal firearm-registration system, a proposal that would make the NRA lose its lunch. Fifty-seven percent back a ban on assault-style weapons. Only 14 percent, according to Gallup, believe that gun laws ought to be made less strict. And 63 percent would oppose arming teachers.
At this moment in history, however, that 14 percent in favor of less strict regulation have more political power than the 86 percent who oppose weakening gun laws still further. And if that's going to be reversed, it's going to require a lot of community-level activism, education and organization. That's how the NRA and its allies have achieved a veritable veto on such issues -- through a dedicated, shrewd commitment to the democratic process -- and that's the only way in which that veto can be undone.
The "good man with a gun" scenario is romantic Hollywood claptrap. Yes, it is plausible that a concealed firearm in the right hands in that Roseburg college classroom might have been used to reduce the carnage.** Plausible, but not likely. When a gunman enters a classroom unexpectedly, wearing body armor and with guns drawn, prepared to kill, the likelihood of an amateur reaching into a bookbag for a handgun and responding effectively is pretty low. It's certainly much too low to form the basis of public policy.
And here's the other part of that equation. For that handgun to exist in that bookbag at the moment it is needed to fend off a mass shooting, it will have to be there, constantly, in tens of thousands of other bookbags across the country. It will have to be there, easily accessible, in all those countless moments when it isn't needed to fend off a mass murderer. It will be there to be stolen or lost. It will be there when a curious child goes poking around. It will be there when a lover's quarrel turns angry, or when the bookbag is accidentally dropped to the ground. It will be there when someone's thoughts turn suicidal, or when the neighbor won't turn the music down.
It will always be there, and both common sense and data tell you that in an open public setting, it is much more likely to be used as an instrument of tragedy than of safety.
According to FBI statistics, for example, you are almost four times more likely to be murdered by someone you know -- a friend, relative or co-worker -- than by a stranger whom you might fend off with a firearm. And for every murder committed with a firearm during the commission of another crime, such as a robbery, assault or burglary, two murders are committed as a crime of passion, the result of an argument, brawl or lover's quarrel.
Overall, trying to establish how many times guns are used in self-protection is very difficult. Concrete data is impossible to come by, with one important exception. We know how many people are murdered each year, and we know the circumstances. In 2014, FBI data tell us, there were 8,124 cases of murder with a firearm, balanced against just 229 cases of justifiable homicide by a civilian with a firearm.
In short, the average firearm, including that handgun in the bookbag, is 35 times more likely to be used in a murder than in killing a criminal.
So what do we do? Closing the gun-show loophole would be wise, but I doubt it will produce huge dividends. The burgeoning movement to downplay media attention given to mass murderers such as the Roseburg killer is also worth trying. We can do a lot better at tracking and interrupting the flow of thousands of weapons into the hands of criminal gangs, particularly across state lines. Gun registration makes a lot of sense, again as a means of keeping weapons from those who should not have them. And if you're going to suggest improvements in mental-health treatment as an alternative approach, as have many conservatives, then you should at least carry through on that initiative rather than cut back on mental-health funding, as has been the history.
However, given the huge numbers of firearms already in circulation, we couldn't put the genie back in the bottle even if we wanted to do so. We're never going to be Sweden or Switzerland or the United Kingdom, and I'm not sure we would want to be either. Any approach that we take to the problem would have to be tailored to the American reality and its traditions.
As a result, my own personal proposal in addition to those above would be to require passage of a gun-safety course before you are allowed to buy ammunition. The personal discipline needed to show up for and pass a six-week gun safety course would weed out a lot of people who should not have weapons while still allowing responsible Americans to exercise their right to hunt, protect themselves or just go plinking or target shooting.*** It would also make legal gun owners more cognizant of their responsibility to treat their weapons with the respect that they deserve.
There's no question about the constitutionality of such a system. States such as Texas, for example, already require passage of such courses as a condition for getting a concealed weapons permit. And I hear from a lot of responsible, Second Amendment gun owners who consider mandatory gun-training classes to be sheer common sense.
It wouldn't be perfect, but nothing would be perfect.
*According to the most recent data available, 1.8 percent of hate crimes reported to the FBI were perpetrated against Christians.
**In Oregon, concealed weapons are allowed on campuses but not in classrooms. And there's a lot of testimony that the Roseburg campus was anything but a gun-free zone.
***A gun instructor in California says that he was approached by the Roseburg killer a year ago for a course in firearms tactics, but ended up turning him down. "We wanted him to take a beginner safety course and he was trying to tell me that he already had experience with firearms," Elon Way told Reuters. "And I didn't get a good feeling about him, so I turned him down."