Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Loving Our Guns with Common Sense

The murder of 27 people, in Newtown, Conn. is an event so horrible that it can’t be ignored. And hopefully we will not revert back into the roles previously assigned in the debate over guns.

So far the politics has been sadly reactive, one-sided and simplistic. Anti-gun activists waving the bloody shirts of Newtown are as shameless as the chicken hawks who waved the bloody shirts of September 11. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker called gun rights advocates "the child killing lobby.” Does he realize he’s calling about 80 million people child killers? Probably not.

Both the left and the right in this country are more than willing to trample the Bill of Rights when it’s politically feasible. This latest horror has proven to be no exception. We don’t have to look far back in our history to see how the politics of horror lead to decades of error, suffering and the loss of freedom.

Owning guns is a right guaranteed to us by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. It’s the Second Amendment, top of the list, second only to the right to free speech and the freedom of religion. That was not a mistake. We didn’t shutter the gun stores on Dec. 15 for the same reason we didn’t shutter the mosques on Sept. 12. We’re a better country than that.

Pro and anti-gun forces agree: way too many of the wrong people have easy access to guns, and something must be done about that.

And many of us on the side of gun rights have been our own worst enemy when faced with this fact. For years we’ve only said no to proposed gun restrictions without proposing ideas that would work in keeping guns out of the hands of those that shouldn’t have them. And the idea of arming teachers as a way to prevent school massacres is a sign that our side is out of real ideas.

What’s going to solve the problem is dealing with the people who own the guns and how they keep them, not on what kinds of guns the law abiding can keep. The guns used in the Newtown massacre were all legally owned by the mother of the murderer who was herself victim. I want know how they were kept. Were they in a locked gun locker like they should have been? Why did a non-owner have access to them? How did he get that access? And most importantly: what warning signs about the shooter were ignored?

Regulating access to guns by people with mental illnesses would have been a more reliable way to prevent many of the recent gun massacres in the U.S. It means tackling issues of medical privacy and the sad state of the country’s mental health system, but if we ignore the issue of mental illness, we will have missed the point, and have massive school stabbings at best.

The N.R.A. and other gun rights groups should work to develop a system that allows the government to stop dangerous people from getting guns. This means that owners have to keep their guns safely and dealers have to know who not to sell guns to. Many of the guns used in these attacks were used by people already known to be dangerous but who went without any government sanction on their access to firearms. The shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre had been found by a court to be a danger to himself and others, but there was no effective system in place to keep him from obtaining guns.

If you think regulating what kind of magazines are legal or how many of what gun you can have will make a difference, think again. That’s been tried before. Many high capacity magazines are already illegal in many places. Gun manufacturers will stay ahead of the game to make guns that blur the lines between hunting rifle and assault weapon. (Historical note: some of the large loopholes in the 1994 assault weapons ban were placed there by Democratic representatives from Connecticut, home to the Colt firearms company. The assault weapons ban expired in 2004).

What has been working is the waiting period for handguns. That allows for gun dealers to make sure that the potential buyer did not have a criminal record. We need to make sure that the dangerously mentally ill are kept away from all guns in the same way.

Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the insane is what everyone agrees on. Trying to outlaw guns outright or place excessive constraints on gun owners tramples very real and important freedoms and fuels a culture war that has no winners. 

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