In the wake of Friday’s gruesome tragedy, in which a presumably mentally ill shooter killed 26 Americans in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut—including 20 children between the ages of six and seven—it has never been more evident that our nation’s gun laws are in desperate need of reform.Thanks to years of relentless propaganda by the National Rifle Association (NRA) the American people no longer care much for the phrase "gun control," but they do support specific policy proposals in overwhelming numbers. For example, swing-state exit-polling data from the 2012 election indicates that 90 percent of gun owners support requiring background checks on all gun sales, including private sales. Republican pollster Frank Luntz has conducted additional surveys showing broad support for common-sense gun laws even among NRA members.
This does not mean that the road to better gun policy is going to be easy, but it does suggest that progress can be made, particularly after President Obama’s inspiring remarks last night, in which he promised to use the full power of his office to ensure that mass shootings like Newtown do not occur again.
There is no doubt we need broad changes to our nation’s gun laws. Here are three ways to start reforming our policy.
First, every purchaser of a firearm should be subject to a background check through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Currently, an estimated 40 percent of guns sales are made by private individuals (at gun shows, over the Internet, through classified advertisements, etc.) who have no legal duty to subject purchasers to background checks or maintain records of sale. What is the purpose of having a NICS database with millions of disqualifying records if prohibited purchasers can simply circumvent the system? It would be the equivalent of having optional security screening at our airports, with a second line for folks who simply wish to bypass the scanners. In this Information Age, NICS checks are typically completed in a matter of minutes, and they can be administered by any one of the nation’s more than 50,000 federally licensed firearm dealers.
Second, while it is important to understand that the vast majority of those who suffer from mental illness will never be dangerous, a more effective approach to preventing persons that are a danger to themselves or others from acquiring firearms is needed. Under current law, only individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution or formally adjudicated as “mental defectives” (the law was written in 1968) are prohibited from buying firearms. This standard tells us little about who might be dangerous and allows people to acquire firearms who should never get close to a gun. Keep in mind, too, that firearms are used in half of all completed suicides in the U.S. It is time to bring mental-health providers, law-enforcement officials, and other experts to the table to see if there are new or additional criteria that will more fairly balance privacy and public safety concerns.
For instance, Indiana allows law enforcement to remove firearms from someone that they suspect may be a danger to themselves or others and a court will evaluate the situation in 14 days. California requires that a person subject to a 72-hour psychological hold because there is probable cause to believe the person is a danger to self or others be prevented from purchasing or possessing a firearm for five years unless the person can prove his or her competency.
Third, we need to renew the federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The ban expired at the end of 2004 and, according to an extensive analysis of mass shootings by Mother Jones, such events have increased in frequency since that time. Regarding the Bushmaster rifle used in the Sandy Hook shooting, while Connecticut does ban certain assault weapons, the breadth of the law falls far short of a state like California, where that rifle would have been strictly prohibited. California should be the model for a new federal law. There is no need for a weapon designed for battlefield use and easily outfitted with magazines holding up to 100 rounds of ammunition to be legally available in our neighborhoods.
Despite the conventional wisdom, I would argue that the National Rifle Association is not a significant obstacle to these reforms. The political equation had changed on guns. As this publication’s own Paul Waldman has shown, the NRA's ability to affect elections cycles is minimal and it should be completely evident to any student of politics that the NRA got its butt kicked in the 2012 cycle, in which it went “all in.” They were unable to defeat President Obama; lost seven of eight Senate races where they spent more than $100,000; and endorsed 17 of the 30 House incumbents who were defeated. In addition, NRA lackeys in Congress now have a well-funded opponent in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose new Independence USA PAC managed to knock off a handful of NRA-supported candidates.
The policies I have recommended will take time to work and they won’t stop every gun death (nor could any policy), but they certainly would put us on a path to a safer society. With our president now leading the way, it is time to stop making our children pay the ultimate price for our nation’s immoral gun laws.