I suppose that a lot of people just don’t find that gun violence is that much of a problem, and I’m not sure they are even interested in talking about this or listening to anyone else talk about it. But I have a lot of friends who are responsible gun owners who would like to see less people die by firearms. There are also a lot of us who don’t own guns and also don’t want to limit the freedom of responsible gun owners, but do want to see us take some kind of collective action. To that end, it might be helpful to think about the problem in a different way—just to see if there is any common ground that might lead to the goal of fewer gun deaths.
It seems to me that there are many reasons that one might have for wanting to own or possess a gun. Some of those reasons are perfectly, well, reasonable. Others are rather less reasonable if we still hold to the notion of the common good. That’s where the problem in the discussion over gun violence and gun control gets hung up—when challenging any reason for owning a gun is equated with challenging all reasons for owning a gun, or, when one professed reason for wanting a gun hides a much less reasonable and acceptable purpose. It’s also true that each reason for wanting a gun brings with it certain qualifications in terms of what kinds of guns and ammunition to which that person wants unlimited access.
Let’s imagine the reasons that someone might have for wanting/needing to own one or more firearms.
First of all, let’s agree that reasons 1 through 5 are completely valid reasons for having a gun and that we do not want to interfere with the freedom of those individuals to do so. That’s a huge start and probably accounts for the vast number of responsible gun owners in this country. Though we might also note that those with reasons 1 through 5 would be the least challenged by things like a reasonable background check and a permitting and registration process. Hunters usually are not trying to buy a rifle at the last minute in time to kill a deer. Legitimate hunters don’t need assault rifles and high capacity clips and armor piercing ammunition for firefights with woodland creatures. Since I’m easily willing to concede that there is such a thing as a responsible gun owner and to agree that I have no interest in taking his or her gun away, it does not seem so onerous to require gun owners to take some kind of reasonable safety training.
We can also all probably agree that reasons 8 through 10 are not socially acceptable reasons for wanting/needing to own a gun and if we could find some combination of ways to reduce the number of people with those reasons from getting guns, that would probably be a good thing. The answer here might be better mental health screening or closing loopholes in how guns can be transferred between individuals or better background checks or better enforcement of existing laws or some other new answer, but whatever the answer is can we agree that the answer should not unduly punish or restrict those with reasons 1 through 5?
That’s already a lot to agree on, but where it gets tricky is that you might have more than one reason checked or you might have one of the 1 through 5 reasons checked and then wake up one day with reason 8 or 9 swirling around in your head. Mental health professionals tell us after the fact that many of our mass shooters exhibited signs of mental illness long before they acquired their guns and committed their crimes, but it’s also possible that you might be a responsible hunter or gun owner who just loses it in an emotional moment and commits murder. Honestly, there is probably no way to prevent this kind of crime short of measures that are too limiting to the vast majority of responsible gun owners not about to commit murder.
Where this also gets tricky and where the argument seems to get most heated is around the middle reasons 6 and 7. It’s tricky because those that have this reason for needing assault rifles and high capacity ammunition clips are unlikely to see their rationale as paranoid or problematic. It is also tricky because some people with reasons 1 through 5 might also share a little bit of the ideological stance of the conspiracy theorists and vigilante groups or they might be generally suspicious of government. It is really only those whose primary motivation is reasons number 6 and 7 that “must” be opposed to all forms of permitting and registration and background checks because, from their perspective and despite all evidence to the contrary, that always leads to government confiscation of all guns from everyone (in fairness, those with reason 10 also aren’t too keen on registration, but for a different reason—not wanting their guns to be traceable to some crime).
Those whose primary or even secondary reason for wanting a gun is number 6 or 7 see anything that simply slows down the process of purchasing a firearm with being the same thing as confiscating all firearms. They have, unfortunately been able to infect a fair number of responsible gun owners with that fear. Their paranoid worldview does not allow for middle ground or compromise and they do a good job of playing on the fear of responsible gun owners. Gun advocates whose primary motivation is either reason 6 or 7 are also the only ones really advocating for weapons purely designed for killing other humans and increased firepower. There is a certain fantasy mentality operating in the belief that if the government decided to bring it’s firepower to bear on a particularly violent or dangerous group that any amount of handguns or semi-automatic assault weapons would be much more than a nuisance, but it is a persistent mythology for this group. And if the fear of an oppressive government is legitimate why limit “the right to bear arms” in any way? Why not let civilians purchase fully automatic weapons, tanks, mortars, and anti-aircraft weapons?
Of course we haven’t yet mentioned the other player in this discussion—a gun industry that doesn’t care what your reason for wanting to own a gun is. Selling anyone and everyone as many guns as possible is just good business. Big industry lobby groups like the NRA, have no moral agenda. Their primary motivation is ensuring that nothing interferes with gun sales and gun profits.
Gun advocates often say that the answer isn’t gun regulation but some kind of social change. If they are not careful, however, they may find that the social change that happens is not one they expected. If a voting population finally gets awakened rather than anesthetized by the regular occurrence of mass shootings, we might find that we are enacting legislation that does restrict the freedom of responsible gun owners. If the composition of the Supreme Court shifts only slightly, they could return to the interpretation of the 2nd amendment of the Constitution that did not guarantee an individual’s right to own a gun. This interpretation only became the law of the land in the 2008 Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller. It could easily be reversed with a less conservative court.
I’m willing to concede and even embrace that social change is important, maybe even the most important thing. It seems, however that both social change and regulation may be necessary when you look at the problem this way. The root problem with drunk drivers is the drinking, but while we are figuring out how to solve the drinking problem, let’s take the car keys away.
As a people, I don’t think we can get any more outraged and intolerant of mass shootings AND I don’t want to limit the freedoms of responsible gun owners. This is where compromise comes in. We’ve always made compromises between freedom and public safety or welfare. That is what has made America a great county. One social change might be for those responsible gun owners with reasons 1 through 5 to publically distance themselves from the ideology of reasons 6 and 7, at least enough that they are willing to tolerate and even advocate for a reasonable permitting and regulation and background check process (which might help reduce—not end—the gun violence caused by those with reasons 8 through 10). Yes, criminals will find ways to get guns and the mentally unstable, the paranoid, and the fanatic ideologues will as well. But, as a society, it seems like it’s time to grow up a little and at least make it more difficult.