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.
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