Thursday, April 26, 2007

Safe, Legal, and Rare- A Perspective On Gun Control

“Safe, Legal, and Rare”, is the quotation we often see attached to the debate about abortion, but I contend that it is perhaps better applied to the whole discussion about gun control. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, those in favor of stricter gun control laws are bringing to the forefront of the national discourse the inconsistencies of the national policy towards gun ownership and use. The only way, in my opinion, to make sane legislation in the US regarding gun ownership and use is to approach it with this framework in mind. Our goal in this country should be to make sure that guns are used safely, the right to own guns is protected, and the real and perceived need to own guns is greatly reduced.

First, efforts should be increased to ensure the safe ownership of guns. A clearer national standard as far as who may and may not purchase guns needs to be instituted. Notice, I never said “stricter”. Frankly, you can’t legislate for every contingency, as far as who might be a “good” candidate for gun ownership, as opposed to a “bad” candidate for gun ownership. Overly strict restrictions on who may and may not purchase a gun only invite circumvention, and make enforcement much more difficult. The federal government, then, should concern itself primarily with: 1. A unified age for gun ownership (I would suggest 18); 2. Proof of satisfactory completion of a gun safety education course; 3. Clear rules about who may be barred from gun ownership (felons convicted of violent crime, or gun-related crime, and people who have been ruled to be mentally incompetent are obvious groups here); and 4. Proof of citizenship or legal status. States, of course, should be able to legislate more restrictive standards, but the federal standards should act as the minimum baseline. There need to be clear standards regarding how states report information to the national database, and a clear timeframe for them doing so. I also believe it is time to demand more accountability from gun and ammunition manufactures, and clear federal standards should be enacted to make all guns and ammunition more easily traceable through microindentification marks.

Secondly, we need to be sure to respect the constitutionality of gun ownership. Like it or not, the constitution is very clear about the right to own guns. Though the core reason for the amendment- the notion that people should be able to defend themselves against tyranny- is not particularly relevant today (not to say the danger of tyranny has abated; rather, the ability of even a well-armed populace to resist it has), there are clearly other reasons why gun ownership is still relevant in a modern society. The use of guns for sport, the use of guns in certain professions, collecting guns for their intrinsic value and artistic merit, and the use of guns for personal protection are all legitimate reasons for modern citizens to own guns. It is also important to note that the state should not be second-guessing the capacity of rational, law-abiding citizens to make decisions about what is or is not appropriate for them to own when no imminent threat of harm or actual harm to society has been established.

Finally, we come to the “rare” part of the equation. The sanction of violence and belligerent behavior that pervades our culture makes gun ownership and gun use much less well examined than it ought to be. Though there are several perfectly legitimate reasons for owning a gun, many people own them because they mistakenly believe that it makes them look “tough”, or that gun violence is the only sure way to resolve conflict. Unrealistic portrayals of how easy—and accurate—guns are only serves to encourage people to buy and use guns irresponsibly. It is the duty of educators, the media, and other concerned citizens to counteract these destructive messages with honest information about the high human cost of gun violence, positive messages about self-esteem that are not linked to stereotypes of “toughness”, and honest messages about the difficulty of using a gun well, especially in adverse conditions. In addition, non-lethal modes of self-protection need to be made more widely available and better understood. None of this, of course, will be able to change the culture of violence overnight, but these steps are perhaps the most important and long-lasting forms of “gun control” available to this society.