Common Sense, Please?

| FROM ACADEMY PRESS | BY SOPHIA WEDEEN | JANUARY, 2013 |

On December 14th, Adam Lanza entered a Connecticut elementary school and fatally shot 20 students and 6 teachers with a semiautomatic assault rifle. This mass shooting at Sandy Hook was not the first time that a major act of gun violence has captured public attention; the attempted assassination of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson and the shootings in an Aurora movie theater have likewise given the controversial topic of gun control a place in the national conversation.

In the weeks following Sandy Hook, both the proponents of gun rights and the advocates of stricter regulations have looked to these tragedies in an attempt to solve the problem of gun violence. Some see these tragedies as a call for further regulations, viewing organizations like the NRA as enablers. Others believe that firearms are necessary for self-protection and argue that these unprecedented killings illustrate the futility of gun regulation in preventing firearms-related violence.

I don’t recommend that President Obama travel door-to-door and pry people’s guns, bullets, and butter knives right out of their hands. Nor do I believe congress should enact a law requiring that all citizens purchase heat-seeking intercontinental ballistic missiles for self-protection. The problem of gun violence is a complicated one, and it won’t be solved overnight. However, I think there are a couple of sound and reasonable regulations that would make a huge difference.

To begin, let’s talk about semiautomatic assault rifles. Semi-automatic firearms are self-loading, meaning the user doesn’t need to manually cycle each round and can fire multiple bullets very rapidly. It is currently legal to manufacture and purchase semiautomatic assault weapons in the United States, and I find it insane that we have not reinstated a federal assault weapons ban. The previous decade-long ban expired in 2004, but because the majority of gun deaths in the United States result from handguns, it had a negligible effect on overall violence. That, however, is no excuse to make semiautomatics available to the public. Semi-automatic weapons were used in the shootings in Tucson, Aurora, and most recently, Newtown. The US Military currently issues several kinds of semiautomatic weapons, many of which US citizens can legally purchase. As Former US General Stanley McChrystal noted, semiautomatics are supposed be incredibly damaging because they are intended for military use and only military use.

The Second Amendment declared our right to keep and bear arms, but technology has made significant advances since 1789. We’ve already agreed as a society that we need to draw the line at certain weapons. Obviously, citizens aren’t allowed to purchase tanks or surface-to-air missiles. And once people figured out that armor-piercing bullets can be used for, well, armor piercing, they enacted a federal ban on those as well. We face this exact issue with semiautomatics, so we should acknowledge them as yet another unnecessarily dangerous weapon. This isn’t about gun rights – it’s a no-brainer about public safety.

Politicians, activists, and much of the national media view Sandy Hook as the root of the problem when it comes to firearms. But the reality is that shootings account for fewer than 100 deaths per year, a minuscule fraction of the 29,000 who are killed by guns in the US annually. And even though mass shootings are nearly impossible to predict, there still some regulations we can enact to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

Background checks are one example of a regulation that has not gone nearly far enough. It is currently illegal for licensed gun stores to sell to those convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, those residing illegally in the US, or those who have been committed to a mental institution. However, while licensed gun stores are legally required to perform this background check, private owners selling to individuals within their own State have no such obligation. According to a 1997 study, 35% of gun owners purchased their firearm from a family member or friend, 15% purchase from a retail gun store, and the rest obtain firearms from drug dealers (15%), on the black market (6%), from theft (6%), etc. In other words, only the 15% of gun owners who purchase from retail stores are required to meet the minimum standard of a basic background check in order to purchase a firearm.

While it is complicated and difficult to control illegal acquisition of guns, legislation requiring that private sellers perform background checks would increase the number of vetted gun owners by 35%. It’s completely insane that this isn’t already mandatory. The Department of Transportation set up the National Driver Register – a database that all sellers must consult before allowing someone to purchase a car. Why, exactly, does no such database exist for gun owners, even though they’re buying weapons?

What frustrates me most about the debates over gun control is that they fall so easily into hyperbole. As I’ve stated, there certainly are things we can do about gun violence, such as banning assault rifles and making background checks thorough and mandatory in all cases. But after each mass shooting comes an ideological mud fight in which panic reigns supreme and the only available solutions involve pointing fingers and radically undermining the other side’s positions. In 2013, the major problem we face isn’t finding some way to reduce gun violence, but finding a way to overcome the politics that surround gun violence. I honestly don’t know if the gun control debate bodes well for the future of the American political system or merely illustrates its failings. Either way, there’s a New Years resolution I encourage everyone to try out: when it comes to issues like gun regulations, calm down and use your head.  It’s surprising how far common sense will get you.

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