Those readers who follow me on Twitter are likely already very aware of where I stand, politically. To put it bluntly, I’m very liberal. One area where I disagree strongly with many other liberals is in my stance on guns.
As it is a wedge issue, there are always going to be kneejerk reactions to opposing viewpoints when it comes to gun control. In fact, one of the biggest problems, as I’ll discuss below, is the outright refusal of conservatives to give any ground on this topic.
The United States has a serious problem with gun violence. This fact is well substantiated by data and attempting to deny it is just plain foolish. While some would quickly state that the best way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns, such arguments are no more productive in solving the issue than the counter argument that everyone should have a gun. Neither sentiment is realistic and neither is productive in addressing the issue of gun violence. Regardless of how you feel about guns, the United States will not be removing the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution during our lifetimes.
So the dilemma is this: How do we resolve our gun violence problem in a way that preserves the 2nd Amendment?
This summer, the Democratic Party posted its party platform (PDF document) outlining its stance on a number of topics. Regarding gun control, the plaform says the following:
Ending the Epidemic of Gun Violence
Gun violence is a public health crisis in the United States. Over 100,000 people are shot and nearly 40,000 people die annually from guns—devastating countless families, friends, and communities. We can and will make gun violence a thing of the past. Addressing the gun violence crisis requires supporting evidence-based programs that prevent gun deaths from occurring in the first place, including by making mental health care more accessible and supporting suicide reduction initiatives, funding interventions to reduce homicides and gun violence in neighborhoods, and strengthening protections against domestic violence. Democrats will also ensure the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have sufficient resources to study gun violence as a public health issue, including the ongoing health care, mental health, economic, and social costs that can affect survivors and their families for years.
Democrats will enact universal background checks, end online sales of guns and ammunition, close dangerous loopholes that currently allow stalkers, abusive partners, and some individuals convicted of assault or battery to buy and possess firearms, and adequately fund the federal background check system. We will close the “Charleston loophole” and prevent individuals who have been convicted of hate crimes from possessing firearms. Democrats will ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines. We will incentivize states to enact licensing requirements for owning firearms and extreme risk protection order laws that allow courts to temporarily remove guns from the possession of those who are a danger to themselves or others. We will pass legislation requiring that guns be safely stored in homes. And Democrats believe that gun companies should be held responsible for their products, just like any other business, and will prioritize repealing the law that shields gun manufacturers from civil liability.
I’d like to spend the rest of this post discussing my own personal views on the above. I’ll be addressing specific statements and avoiding fluff.
Before I begin, I’d like to highlight this statement to put this issue into perspective:
Over 100,000 people are shot and nearly 40,000 people die annually.
This claim is accurate. According to the data gathered by CBS,compared to 22 other high-income nations, the U.S. gun-related homicide rate is 25 times higher. Although it has half the population of the other 22 nations combined, among those 22 nations studied, the U.S. had 82 percent of gun deaths, 90 percent of all women killed with guns, 91 percent of children under 14 and 92 percent of young people between ages 15 and 24 killed with guns.
Addressing the gun violence crisis requires supporting evidence-based programs that prevent gun deaths from occurring in the first place including by making mental health care more accessible and supporting suicide reduction initiatives, funding interventions to reduce homicides and gun violence in neighborhoods, and strengthening protections against domestic violence.
This is the smartest thing mentioned in the entire section on gun control. For decades, Republicans have stood in the way of researching gun violence. In order for the United States to have any success in reducing gun violence, we need to research what causes gun violence and how to prevent it. This is a complex topic, intertwined with other sociopolitical issues and research into actionable approaches is sorely needed.
This is inline with what the Liberal Gun Glub calls “Root Cause Mitigation” which calls for addressing gun violence by seeking to resolve the underlying causes. For instance, suicide by firearm accounts for a large number of gun deaths in the United States. I’m concerned, however, that other mentions of “mental health” in the discussion of gun violence is a reductionist approach to explain away gun violence (especially mass shootings) as simply a mental health issue. That, in turn, can lead to the slippery slope of reducing the 2nd Amendment rights of people with mental health problems but who are not a danger to themselves or others. In any case, improving access to mental health care is a good thing, regardless of why.
Democrats will enact universal background checks, end online sales of guns and ammunition, close dangerous loopholes that currently allow stalkers, abusive partners, and some individuals convicted of assault or battery to buy and possess firearms, and adequately fund the federal background check system.
I think that universal background checks are a good thing. In a survey published by the New York Times in January 2017, a panel of 32 scholars of criminology, public health, and law rated universal background checks as the most effective policy to prevent gun deaths, ranking it #1 of 29 possible gun-related policies. In general, we need to ensure such a system is effective, well-funded, and that results are turned around quickly and reliably. We also need to close loopholes that allow firearm purchases to move forward when a background check takes too long.
I disagree with the proposal to end online gun and ammo sales. Online sales are convenient and provide greater access to a broader range of high quality products than may be available in the buyer’s home market. As it stands right now, online retailers are already required to abide by the firearms sales laws in place for each state into which they ship products. For instance, in the State of Maryland, you cannot purchase certain types of weapons. Online retailers are forbidden from shipping those weapons to buyers in Maryland. Furthermore, online sales must be handled by a local intermediary, known as an FFL. In other words, while some states are more (or less) restrictive than others, online sales aren’t the problem so much as the lax purchasing requirements in some states.
As for reducing access to violent people (“stalkers, abusive partners, and some individuals convicted of assault or battery”). I say go for it. Owning a firearm is a massive responsibility. For example, even “weaker” cartridges like a .22 can still be lethal at 500 meters. Although the effective range of a .22LR is only around 100 meters, at 500 meters the bullet is still travelling 150 meters-per-second. Any person who handles a firearm has the lives of every single person in a minimum of 500 meter radius in their hands. Any person who cannot – or will not – take that responsibility seriously has no business handling a firearm.
Democrats will ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines.
This statement alludes to the Federal Assault Weapon ban signed by Bill Clinton in 1994 and which expired in 2004. The definition of an “assault weapon” was driven largely by cosmetics and this ban was shown to be ineffective in reducing firearm fatalities. However, a ban on high capacity magazines is likely to be more effective.
One of the problems with such bans is that there are often workarounds available due to incomplete regulations. For instance, during the Federal Assault Weapon ban, you could not buy a rifle that had a folding stock. However, you could still buy a folding stock on its own and convert your weapon to use the folding stock. The same goes for other banned features like large capacity magazines, bump stocks, hell-fire triggers, trigger cranks, and so on.
It seems obvious that reducing the ability for firearms to fire large numbers of rounds in a short period will reduce the fatalities during mass shootings, like the massacre in Las Vegas in 2017. To this end, the United States should seek to close such loopholes.
The Democratic Party platform closes with the following:
We will incentivize states to enact licensing requirements for owning firearms and extreme risk protection order laws that allow courts to temporarily remove guns from the possession of those who are a danger to themselves or others. We will pass legislation requiring that guns be safely stored in homes. And Democrats believe that gun companies should be held responsible for their products, just like any other business, and will prioritize repealing the law that shields gun manufacturers from civil liability.
All of these things make sense but are largely either unlikely to happen or unlikely to be effective.
On the topic of safe storage, I personally agree with the importance of storing one’s firearms safely. In fact, Federal law requires all gun sales also must come with a “gun storage or safety device”. In practice this tends to be a trigger lock or cable lock that locks the action open. This law does not mandate safe storage by the owner, however. That said, some states do require guns to be locked up in the house. The usefulness of such a requirement appears to be logical, but so far unproven and, as I mentioned mich earlier in this post, research is needed.
Not good enough?
Given the amount of panic this seems to have spawned on the part of conservatives, what the Democrats have proposed so far amounts to little more than a series of inconveniences for responsible gun owners. Mandatory background checks, waiting periods, and the like aren’t going to deter me from buying a gun, but will hopefully put a measurable dent in gun violence.
That said, there’s actually a lot more that we should probably consider and such approaches should be based on rigorous research. Countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland have pretty strict regulations on firearms and ammunition and, as a result, have significantly lower gun crime. Switzerland is often cited by the NRA as an example of a country with relaxed gun laws and low crime. However, that’s not entirely accurate. The Swiss do have pretty strong regulations on a broad range of weapons, including guns.
Switzerland, in my opinion, is a target for emulation. In general, they have a culture of responsibility around guns. As a country, the citizens see gun ownership – and proficiency with those guns – as a patriotic duty. This also tends to blend into an overall view of ensuring safety. The Swiss are very thorough in requiring licensure, performing background checks and are quick to prevent someone who is violent or unstable from buying a gun. Furthermore, there are strict record keeping requirements as well as regulations on the safe use and transportation of firearms and ammunition.
While we certainly cannot easily transform the culture’s often unhealthy view of guns here in the United States, I cannot personally see anything offensive in their regulations and think that we should investigate the adoption of similar regulations such as:
- Applying the same background and license checks to ammunition purchases as apply for purchasing firearms
- Applying a tiered system of background and licensing checks based on the type of firearms and ammunition being purchased
- Paperwork, permit, and contract record keeping requirements for private sales
- Limitations on the types of ammunition that can be purchased
As a whole, I’m both unthreatened and unenthusiastic about the Democratic Party’s platform. As a gun owner, none of the proposed changes will serve as anything more than a minor inconvenience if I choose to buy a new gun. At the same time, most of the things in the platform also seem like they’ll be ineffective at achieving the goal of reducing gun violence. Of everything in the platform, I’m most looking forward to seeing the country actively researching the issue and offering evidence-based policy making on this issue.