Practical Gun Control

After the Newtown shooting, gun-rights advocates were quick to point out that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” They are correct – to an extent. A gun is no more responsible in such shootings than, say, an automobile is responsible in drunk driving fatalities; both are inanimate objects that, when left unused or used in certain contexts, do no damage to humans at all.

But to say that “people kill people” is not entirely correct either. Just as a drunk individual without a car will likely be of no harm to society, Adam Lanza with no guns probably would have done little, if any, serious damage. One might then say, “people with guns kill people.” This, however, is overly broad. Just as sober and licensed adults behind the wheel of a car are not generally viewed as threats, responsible and mentally stable individuals who own and operate guns are relatively harmless. Of the millions of gun owners in the United States, only a small fraction uses their weapons to injure or kill others.

Rather, the individuals who perpetuate illegitimate gun violence tend to exhibit some combination of the following characteristics: young age, drug abuse, past criminal history, mental instability, radical ideologies, or use of psychiatric medications. The most accurate phrase, then, would be to say, “certain people with guns kill people.”

This phrase immediately suggests two general solutions, neither of which involves draconian restrictions on firearm availability. The first realm of solutions involves reducing the number of “risky” individuals. This may involve lessening socioeconomic pressures, creating more effective identifications of and treatments for mental illness, strengthening communities, and (in the future) genetic engineering.

Besides being controversial, these solutions are generally complex.  Is the diminished role of communities really a factor in producing socially isolated individuals, for instance, and if it is, how do we go about remedying it? Or even if we can properly diagnose and prescribe effective drugs for mentally unstable persons, how do we ensure that said drugs are properly consumed? There are no easy answers in this realm. I personally think that the increasing presence of technology in everyday life is creating new psychological problems that we are not prepared to deal with, but linking that to seemingly senseless killings proves futile – we can never get inside the minds of these killers, after all.

The second realm of solutions, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward: preventing certain individuals from obtaining access to guns. This realm involves concrete, immediate reforms that can be applied across a wide range of contexts. One such reform is improving the background check system.

It is no secret that in certain states it is dangerously easy to obtain a gun. The case of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, is telling. In 2005 he was temporarily detained in a psychiatric institution for being “an imminent danger to himself or others.” And yet, in 2007, he passed a federal background check (the NICS) and was able to purchase two handguns. As determined afterward, there was a communication gap between state and federal authorities. This, however, is no anomaly: since 1993, 19 states have submitted fewer than 100 names to the NICS regarding the disqualification of those deemed “mental defectives.” And background checks are not required for private sales, which account for roughly 40 percent of firearm purchases.

With so many recent mass shootings, it is easy to be cynical about the future of guns in the United States. Some of my peers have gone so far as to suggest that all firearms be banned. This approach, however, is too broad; to reiterate, the vast majority of gun owners have no intention of killing innocent people. Just as we need not outlaw cars to diminish drunk driving, we need not prohibit gun ownership to reduce the number of gun deaths. Instead, we should focus on sensible solutions that prevent at-risk individuals from possessing guns. My hope is that such reforms will be implemented and will prove successful.

It is not wishful thinking. To return to the case of drunk driving, in 1982, drunk driving deaths occurred at more than twice today’s rate. Since then, media coverage and advertisement campaigns have increased drastically, all states changed the drinking age to 21 and enacted zero tolerance laws, the legal BAC limit was reduced to 0.08, and more. And drunk driving may soon be eliminated almost entirely with breathalyzer technology integrated into ignition systems. This does not take cars off the road, nor does it prevent people from drinking. It prevents potentially dangerous individuals from mixing with potentially dangerous inanimate objects. Such an approach is the ideal way forward with gun control.

Send Adam your ideas for practical gun control at adamj11@stanford.edu.

About Adam Johnson

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.
  • pol_incorrect

    I liked this op-ed a lot. The only minor point I would raise that makes the analogy break is that while driving is not a constitutionally recognized right (it’s a privilege), individual gun ownership is. Since the 2008 Heller and 2010 McDonald v. Chicago decisions this is not anymore a matter of debate (or how to read the second amendment). The right is individual and neither the federal government nor the the states can abridge it except in very narrow circumstances and with appropriate due process. Put it another way, the second amendment is as fundamental in a United States context as the first amendment. So to make your analogy work, yes, communication between the states and the FBI should be improved so that the FBI database has the most up to date information, However, great care should be taken into the process of deciding who should be in the “no guns” list. Unlike other “no X” lists, such as the “no fly” list, we are talking about infringing a constitutionally protected individual right. The “no guns” list should be thought along the lines of being a censorship list.

  • Amandine Dupin

    My college roommate lost a son to a gun. Her son dropped out of the state university because of mental illness (schizophrenia). After treatment, he went back to school to finish his degree, but he was struggling. On his 30th birthday, his father found him dead of a gun shot wound. Lying next to him was a new rifle that had been purchased only days before. My friends’ husband had to endure not only the grief of losing his son, but two days of interrogation from police who initially considered him their prime suspect. After the father was cleared of any wrongdoing, my friend contacted her son’s psychiatrist to find out whether there had been any warning signs. The psychiatrist told her that her son had stopped taking his medicine to combat the schizophrenia. Had the parents known, they could have tried to get him back on his medicine. Why had the psychiatrist not told the parents? Because her son was over 18, and alerting the parents would have violated laws protecting the patient’s privacy.

    There are many aspects to the treatment of mental illness, and laws need to be examined to determine how to include the family in the treatment when appropriate.

  • pol_incorrect

    I do not want to question your story, but all that we know from the most high profile cases and other scientific studies is precisely the opposite, meaning, that the Virginia Tech, Aurora an Connecticut guys were on psychiatric drugs when they went on their murderous rampages. So did the guy who committed the 1989 Stockton massacre. In fact, the FDA forced Big Pharma to include a black box warning in all antidepressants because they increase the risk of suicide in those taking the drugs. You should read John Coyne’s entry where he argues that medical psychiatry is basically a scam http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/is-medical-psychatry-a-scam/ .

  • James

    In Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Supreme Court decided that people of African descent (both slave and free) were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. Then came the Fourteenth Amendment. So much for the permanence of Supreme Court decisions.

  • pol_incorrect

    Up until the second amendment is repealed (very unlikely) or the SCOTUS reverses itself (very unlikely as well as since it’s only in very unusual circumstances that such a thing happens as the Plessy v Ferguson or Roe v Wade cases show), you guys should get used to treat the second amendment as the first amendment and any “no guns” list as a censorship list.

  • Devin Guillory

    Your foolish article on racism directed me her, yet I agree with your intentions in this article. As gun owner, I am increasingly frustrated with the polarity of the “gun debate” especially from the perspective of pro-gun advocates. I completely agree with you that practical gun control measures should inevitably be taken, yet I disagree on what these steps should be. I believe the focus should be on gun sellers as opposed to blaming the problem on mental health. The majority of guns used in crimes come from a small minority of dealers, but laws over the past 30 years have made it laughably difficult for agencies to track and dealers have no accountability. Mental Illness affects approximately 1/3 Americans. Also interest that you didn’t note that most all perpetrators of mass shooting, which you set as the central issue, are White males. Maybe that just speaks to you priviledge