The New Gun Debate (and the face of future legislation)

The first, necessary response to the unacceptable is not to accept it." - Michael Gerson

I grew up in a small community on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where guns were as common as the Labrador and Chesapeake Bay retrievers every good duck hunter owned.  Many of my friends were hunting with their fathers by age 12.  My Dad and I used to carry his .22 semi-automatic Sears rifle (not anything like the Bushmaster .223 used in Newtown) and .410 gauge shotgun down the street and about half a mile to a deserted stretch of sandy pine forest overlooking the Wicomico River.  There we would safely plink bottles and cans to our hearts delight.  The sight of a father and his son walking down the road carrying firearms alarmed no one.

Back then - and we're going back a half century - I also was a member of the National Rifle Association which at that time was devoted to gun safety.  It sponsored gun safety courses, and taught how to hold weapons, load them, carry them safely, and shoot from a variety of positions. You earned badges in marksmanship.  Back then the NRA was about responsible gun ownership and use.

The horror that transpired in a small Connecticut town’s elementary school this past week may be the straw that broke the camel’s back in this country with respect to the debate about guns and gun control.  It ended the old debate about gun control – one, to be honest, that hasn't been serious for decades, especially in Congress. And that thanks largely to the efforts of the NRA, which long ago abandoned its role as a gun safety organization when it became a large corporate entity given over to the manufacturers of guns and ammunition who filled its coffers in return for the NRA's unswerving loyalty to their agendas.  For many years the NRA has owned our Congress, whose members have courted it as assiduously as they have re-election.

All this changed with the slaughter of innocent children and teachers in Newtown.

In its place a new debate is emerging, and its terms are strikingly different than the old gun control debate which ended at the altar of the Second Amendment.  The terms of the new debate are these:  Is the unfettered right to bear arms worth the continuing slaughter of innocent children and others? 

The right to bear arms is deeply imbedded in our cultural heritage and history.  But make no mistake; there is nothing sacrosanct or inviolate about the Second Amendment.  The Constitution was ratified without it and the other nine amendments which make up the Bill of Rights.  Moreover, our Founders made express provisions for amending the Constitution in Article V.  The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the prohibition on alcohol, was repealed by the Twenty-First.  Yes, it was the first and only instance to date of an amendment to the Constitution being repealed, but its lesson is clear: it can be done.  And it may be done again if the people or their representatives will it. 

In place of the old, fruitless debates over the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment is a new question: Whether largely unrestricted, unregulated access to military style weaponry makes sense in a society that is already armed to the teeth and where increasingly, unstable individuals commit mass murder with weapons too easily obtained.  The question must be taken seriously because at some point our revulsion over the senseless slaughter of innocents will become stronger than our allegiance to an amendment which has seemingly made us more vulnerable instead of less. It’s worth noting that on the same day as the Sandy Hook killings a deranged individual in China attacked and wounded 23 school children with a knife.  There were no reported fatalities.

A number of reforms need to be enacted if we are serious about protecting both our Second Amendment rights and the lives of our citizens.  I offer the following, of which none are new, none revolutionary, and none of which I woud argue gut the Second Amendent. Taken together, however, they reduce the probability of another Sandy Hook.  Nothing, of course, will ever stop a deranged and determined individual from committing mass murder.  But it doesn't follow from this that we cannot make it more difficult and less likely.

1- Require gun registration for gun ownership.

This means serious background checks, with waiting periods, and as Sandy Hook shows, it means not only looking into the background of the would-be gun owner, but inquiring about the background of anyone in their immediate family who might have access to those weapons. This also means no sales at gun shows without background checks, which might end or seriously alter gun shows as we know them.

2- Make a gun safety course mandatory for anyone who purchases a firearm.  We need a return to the days of the NRA when I was a kid.  The fact that you don't have a criminal record or one involving mental illness does not make you fit to possess or handle a firearm.  We require licenses to drive cars and have pets, so what makes gun ownership different?  The Second Amendment?  It's time to admit that it, just as any of our other so-called Bill of Rights, is subject to restrictions and limits.

3- Restrict or abolish large capacity magazines. The common element with respect to weapons in the school slaughters from Columbine to Sandy Hook has been large capacity magazines capable of being quickly reloaded/replaced.  The result is the death of large numbers of kids and adults in a matter of minutes. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's CEO, says that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  That's a lie: In fact, no law officer ever fired a shot at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, or Newtown.  The perpetrators had weapons that made them remarkably efficient killing machines.  By the time police arrived, they had finished their work and taken their lives in a final act.  Bottom line: no one should have any inherent right to possess military-like killing capacity that is not in the military and issued such weapons on active duty.

If someone truly feels the need to pull off 30 or more rounds in a matter of seconds at a target, then such magazines ought to be restricted to licensed ranges where they are stored and rented for use on-premise only.

4- Outlaw the sale of armor piercing rounds.  These have no legitimate place in civilian society.

5- Mental health treatment reforms.  This may be my last point, but it's of first-order importance. From the shootings at Columbine in 1998 that killed and injured 39, to Virginia Tech in 2007 that left 56 dead or wounded, Westroads Mall in Omaha the same year that killed 9, Tucson in 2010 that left 6 dead and severely wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and finally to this year’s Aurora movie theater shooting and the Newtown tragedy, there has been a common theme: in each instance the shooters were known to have mental health/behavioral problems that in many cases alarmed those in contact with them.  Yet, in no instance did the mass murderer(s) have any problems obtaining firearms.  This speaks to our gun culture, certainly, but it  speaks as well to our culture of mental health neglect.

Since the demise of psychiatric institutions in the 1960s, and the subsequent loss of funded community health institutions in the 1980s, those with mental health issues have been ignored by society at large; abandoned to their families - if they have families or relatives capable of caring for them – or to the streets.

As a nation it has been economically convenient to make their plight someone else's problem, but as the tragedies of the last decade and a half have proven, economic benefit has produced human loss on a scale that dwarfs dollars and cents.  It is time to recognize the magnitude of mental health issues that impact not only individuals suffering them and their families, but our nation.  If we continue to ignore this problem we will continue to pay for it - with the lives of our children and others who are blameless.

This country has changed in many ways since I was a kid. Change is inevitable, and there's no returning to the world I grew up in a half century ago.  But we have the ability to influence and to some extent shape our future through choices we make today.  Will we accept the increasing culture of violence in our society as inevitable, or will we choose otherwise?  Are we willing to protect our Second Amendment rights by acknowledging reasonable limitations on its scope?

Once, the National Rifle Association promoted gun safety.  It's been a long path from where they were then to where they are today, but it's not too late to retrace those steps and embrace once again their roots and tradition. 

There will be a change in this country's gun laws as a result of the Newtown massacre.  To the extent that the NRA is willing to be a responsible participant in the coming debate, it has something to offer in helping to reshape our gun laws.  The alternative is for it to become an outlier, the voice of a diminishing populace which believes that the ongoing slaughter of innocent children is just the price we pay for our Second Amendment rights.

It’s a new debate which is about to emerge in the aftermath of this tragedy of six- and seven-year olds and their teachers who will never see the New Year.  But it’s also an opportunity; a chance to break loose at last from the unwinnable trench warfare of the decades-old gun control debate.

Let us urge our representatives to have the courage to set this nation on a better course with respect to firearm violence. 

One that may lead us to a place that has some semblance to the one I roamed with my Dad and our guns many years ago.