A Nation at War with Itself: America’s Gun Violence Crisis

Aurora, CO. Charleston, SC. Newtown, CT. San Bernadino, CA. The mention of these cities brings certain memories and emotions to almost every American’s mind. Sadly the list could continue almost indefinitely, and our country is experiencing this phenomenon alone from every other advanced nation. The almost daily addition to this list of communities affected by a mass shooting has begun many conversations all circling around one point: How can we stop this violence?

There are many culprits that citizens point to: mental health, violent video games, radicalization, and guns. We all scramble to figure out what could have possibly caused these murderers to do such things and how it was possible for them to carry out those acts. Once we individually settle on the pushing factors, we try to figure out how to prevent those factors from affecting more at-risk people.

However, let one thing be clear: nothing will prevent every single tragedy from occurring in the future. That is a cost of liberty. If we were to forego our liberty in order to be secure, we would no longer have a nation worth defending. Nevertheless, we should not do anything to try to prevent this violence merely due to the fact that we will not be able to prevent every single tragedy. If we can save one life with our actions, then we have been successful.

Now, the difficult question comes in how to go about doing just that. At this point, groups tend to run to their battle stations. Some people argue for more mental health funding. Others argue that citizens need to be armed to be able to fight back against these shooters. Still others argue that gun laws should be stricter either by banning weapons or by making them more difficult to obtain by the wrong people.

The elevated discourse tends to break down at this juncture. We begin to yell past one another rather than to listen together. It is a logical fallacy to say that the extreme opinions are never correct and that the right decision must lie between the two poles. However, concerning this issue, we will need to take a multi-faceted approach combining the proposals of all sides, yet that is only possible if we start listening to one another. We need to discuss across camps in order to understand the pros and cons of each proposal if we truly want to make progress and prevent further violence. Living in echo chambers does not solve anything, and that is all too frequent concerning these issues.

Add onto this layer of discord the powerful interests preventing our politicians from engaging in those respectful discussions themselves. We have gun safety activists, gun rights activists, concerned parents groups, law enforcement unions, mental health groups, and others all donating their money to our elected officials. For this very reason, corruption is stalemating all legislative progress. If we want to be able to have an earnest discussion about these issues and frankly any political issue, we need to remove money from politics. As long as our politicians can be bought and influenced by powerful interests via unlimited campaign donations and lobbying, our politicians will not honestly debate issues based on their merits. Therefore, to go forward with this issue or any other, it is crucial that we take actions to overturn the decision of Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission (2010) and to prohibit the lobbying of our elected officials.

Until that time comes through hopefully citizen-led referenda and court battles, we can put greater pressure on our local officials to take action. But first, we must discuss what that action should be.

Some people argue that we are in the midst of a mental health epidemic. We continue to slash funds for mental healthcare and are not identifying every person who qualifies as mentally ill. Therefore, even if we have laws prohibiting the mentally ill from obtaining weapons, we need to ensure that all people who are actually mentally ill are recognized as such by the government. Therefore, we need to increase funding, improve our laws, and also educate people on the symptoms of mental illness so that we can improve identification.

However, it is important to note that the mentally ill have a greater probability of being victims of such violence rather than the perpetrators of such violence. Furthermore, experiencing this violence makes a mentally ill person eleven times more likely to commit violent actions in the future (source). Therefore, we need to do more to protect the mentally ill in the first place, and that will then hopefully drive down the amount of violence they may commit.

Going along with preventing the mentally ill from obtaining a weapon, we need to ensure that criminals do not obtain weapons either. Gun shows are commonplace around the country, which would be fine except that these gun shows are often not required to run background checks on purchasers, therefore, leaving a “gun-show loophole.” A new study has confirmed that 40% of gun purchases are completed without a background check. This gap in legislation is allowing essentially anyone to purchase a weapon and then potentially sell it on the black market or commit a mass shooting with it.

So, our first question can be: why isn’t legislation being passed to close this loophole? Well, there have been numerous efforts to no avail because of the gun lobby’s massive power. On top of this lack of legislation, gun sellers currently have the ability to sell a weapon to anyone if the government does not respond in a given period of time with the completion of a requested background check. Therefore, one step to alleviate some of this problem can be to hire more government workers to respond to these requests and complete these background checks. President Obama recently announced this request for funding from Congress. Congress has stood still.

We may then ask: what if a would-be mass shooter has never committed a crime beforehand and, therefore, would have a clean background? This is perfectly possible and does happen. Some say that this problem warrants that we increase surveillance of citizens. We definitely want to encourage friends and family to speak out to law enforcement when they notice a potential problem, but beyond that we begin to hit a constitutional wall–the Fourth Amendment. Surveillance is perfectly constitutional in public places. The police are allowed to monitor all public places and roads. However, the government has an interest in seeing into people’s private lives, especially their social media accounts. However, just as we have the right to a warrant for searches of our homes, we deserve a right to a warrant for searches of our online data. Some in government want to trade off our constitutional protections for safety, but I remind you that giving up liberty for security will mean that we eventually have no liberty left worth protecting. Therefore, we need to strike a fine balance here on what we can surveil and what we need to leave as private–at least without a warrant proving reasonable cause.

So, if we cannot catch future criminals with a background checks and if we do not have reasonable cause to search through every Americans’ private data, then how could we possibly prevent future violence?

On the ground level, we need a culture that reinforces the value of respectful discourse and civil society. We need to make it clear to one another that killing other people when they disagree with you in unjustifiable. We need to elevate our discourse of ideas and realize that a difference in a opinion–whether that be concerning politics, religion, etc.–does not warrant causing harm to the other person. When we hold that value, we create a civil society that is then able to establish legitimate institutions, and we can then utilize those institutions to make social change. Without a civil society, we are left with chaos.

On the policy level, there are laws that can be implemented that will keep guns out of the wrong hands. While we are attempting to go about this, we ought to keep in mind the Second Amendment and the rights it awards to our citizenry. In 2006, the Supreme Court decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment awards individuals the right to own a weapon. Now, of course as with every other Amendment, it can be reasonably limited. One cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or incite a riot, even though we have a constitutionally protected right to free speech. There are limits that are needed in order to maintain a civil society.

Those reasonable limits have unfortunately been halted by the gun lobby. Most of us can agree that there is reason to keeping a firearm in the home for reason of self defense. We wish to protect our families against any potential intruder. At the same time, it may not be wise to keep a firearm in the home for fears of children having access to it, the risk of it being used in a suicide, or the risk of it being used in domestic violence. If a person disassembles a weapon and keeps it locked up in the home, then it may not even be able to be used in time in order to thwart off an intruder. States with higher gun ownership also have higher firearm-related suicides. Therefore, a gun may not even be a safe item to keep in the home for various reasons.

I am not arguing against private ownership of weapons at all, but our goal should be on decreasing the need for weapons rather than increasing the total amount of weapons. That is especially true when we see that having more legal weapons allows for more to be stolen and then be used in crime. We can pass laws like concealed carry–which has very mixed data on its effectiveness–but we primarily need to be focused on keeping guns off black markets and out of the hands of criminals, especially since in many cases concealed carry holders are not trained to react calmly in a crisis situation as law enforcement is. Even law enforcement often misfires while trying to shoot a suspect and accidentally hurts a civilian. What is to say that we should expect even better results from citizens? Furthermore, often someone who attempts to be the hero is shot by the suspect. Yes, concealed carry has prevented some crimes, and for that it should be lauded. However, we need to examine all its consequences, and regarding that the data is far from clear. Therefore, I argue that we should be focusing on keeping criminals from obtaining weapons rather than arming every citizen in the country.

Many weapons that are, for example, used in the gang wars of South Chicago are purchased on the black market after being purchased at gun shows in places like Indiana next door. Since the black market reaps great profits for sellers, there is an incentive to buy up weapons and then sell them to youth on the city streets. However, if we created a national gun database, we could then obtain those weapons after a crime occurs, track them to their original purchaser, and convict that person of engaging in a black market. We could begin to take guns off the streets of Chicago.

Our goal is to also tackle the ever-occurring tragedy of mass shootings that are not related to gang violence. We want to prevent a depressed or enraged teenager from obtaining a weapon and taking it to a school, movie theater, or mall to kill tens or hundreds of people. Many times such weapons are taken from family members, such as in the case of Adam Lanza and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. We could potentially pass laws to mandate fingerprint scanners on triggers to make weapons useless when stolen. This could also prevent a home intruder from turning a weapon on a homeowner. However, one fallback is that such a weapon could be used on a spouse who does not have the fingerprint access to the weapon. Therefore, possibly we could require fingerprint access for all legal, mentally stable adults in the home.

Even if we cannot prevent all crime or all mass shootings, there are steps we can take to bring down the death tolls of such tragedies. For example, we do not allow citizens to own bazookas or nuclear weapons as that is unreasonable for non-military use. If citizens have a right to protect themselves and to hunt, then we have reasonable justification to limit excessively powerful weapons that only exist to kill multiple people in a short period of time. Honestly fully automatic assault weapons and extended magazine clips are not needed to hunt a deer or neutralize an intruder. We then have reasonable justification to ban such weapons from legal purchase. Furthermore, a criminal with a knife or handgun will kill far fewer people than if he or she had a fully automatic assault rifle or extended magazines.

Now some critics will say that criminals by nature to not follow laws and, therefore, such bans will have no effect on crime. However, that is a fundamental misunderstanding of economics. When legal demand for weapons declines, gun manufacturers will cut off supply. If there cannot be legal manufacture of such weapons anymore, then only already-existing weapons are able to be traded on the black market. Due to this vastly cut supply of assault weapons, the black market price would drastically increase making purchases impossible for many potential criminals. Never mind the fact that black market are difficult to find in the first place.

That is why solving our gang violence and mass shooting problems are largely intertwined and can be solved by many of the same solutions. We can mandate universal background checks, increase mental health funding and regulations, ensure that all background checks are able to be completed, put research into smart gun technologies, require far greater safety tests for concealed carry permits, establish a national gun database, and ban unreasonable weaponry that is nothing but a danger to our society. There are solutions to our crises, but we have to be unafraid to take them and unafraid to stand up to the powerful gun lobby that paralyzes and merit-based discourse. We have to agree with each other that our goal is not to take guns away from lawful citizens but to save Americans’ lives. I am not saying that I have all the answers or that these ideas will solve all crime, but they sure could save lives, and because of that, these steps are worth taking.cropped-new-logo.jpeg

*These sources from Vox explain just how severe America’s gun violence problem is and how we can go about solving it: https://www.facebook.com/Vox/videos/485420381645569/ and http://www.vox.com/2015/10/3/9444417/gun-violence-united-states-america

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