Magann: Sensible Limits

It is time for reasonable firearms regulation.

by Matthew Magann | 2/27/18 1:30am

Will this time be different? One would hope that the senseless mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School would move America to action. But of course, this is a nation that saw 20 first-grade students gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School and did nothing. Even as the survivors of the shooting speak out in favor of gun control, the Florida House of Representatives refused to pass a ban on assault rifles. Yet this debate can be resolved without extreme measures on either side. Reasonable, widely-supported gun regulations can limit the chance of another mass shooting.

Yes, this nation has a problem with guns. The United States has a disproportionate rate of gun-related murders, 25 times that of comparable high-income countries. In 2016, over 38,000 Americans died in gun-related incidents. Not coincidentally, America has the world’s highest rate of gun ownership: 88 guns per 100 people per a 2012 United Nations report.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, though, some pro-gun politicians have seized on the issue of mental health. It makes intuitive sense — people imagine that mass shooters must be mentally disturbed. But if mental health issues lay at the root of America’s gun violence, statistics should indicate higher rates of mental illness in the U.S. compared to other nations. And that’s not the case; research indicates that severe mental disorders are no more prevalent in America than in other developed countries. A 2015 study found that just 4 percent of American gun deaths resulted from mental illness. Another commonly cited factor, crime rates, cannot account for America’s gun violence. Our rate of property crime is similar that of comparable nations, but with guns added to the equation, that crime becomes far deadlier. Although New York and London have similar levels of property crime, those crimes end in murder 54 times more often in New York than in London. The difference is gun use. Permissive gun laws, not mental health or crime, account for our extreme rate of gun-related deaths.

Debates on gun control need to account for another critical element: the Second Amendment. Only three nations — Guatemala, Mexico and the U.S. — have a constitutional right to gun ownership. But whatever one thinks of the Second Amendment, it remains, and is likely to remain, in the Constitution. Americans have a right to keep and bear arms, and any gun control legislation needs to respect that.

However, the Second Amendment does not grant an absolute right to any American to bear any sort of arms. In the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which struck down Washington’s handgun ban, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion explicitly stated that the Second Amendment is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” The right is subject to reasonable restrictions. Scalia gave the example of concealed carry bans, restrictions on gun purchases by criminals and the mentally ill and regulations on gun sales as examples of lawful restrictions per the amendment.

The Second Amendment allows for restrictions on certain classes of arms. Even the strictest pro-gun advocates would agree that the amendment comes with caveats; after all, private citizens clearly do not have the right to nuclear arms. The Second Amendment accommodates restrictions in the name of public safety on certain weapons so long as those restrictions do not infringe upon the overall right to bear arms. Firearms have multiple legitimate, lawful uses, including hunting, self-defense and target shooting. Those uses constitute Americans’ right by the Second Amendment, and any regulations on weapons must not infringe on that right.

This brings us to one of the most commonly suggested sorts of gun regulation: a ban on assault weapons, including most semiautomatic firearms. Take the AR-15, the weapon used in the Parkland shooting. Some people use it to hunt, but it is primarily used for military purposes. The gun is meant to be used in the context of war. Banning the possession of AR-15’s would in no way restrict individuals’ ability to hunt or defend themselves. Other guns are still available, and the right to bear arms remains intact. Anyone who wanted to use a military-style assault weapon at a firing range could use one there, but the weapon would remain on the premises in secure storage. Prohibiting assault weapons would not fundamentally violate the Second Amendment, but it would help prevent another mass shooting.

Despite the political gridlock around gun control, gun safety regulations have broad public support. Quinnipiac University released national polling data last Tuesday on a number of gun-related questions. Two thirds of Americans favored stricter gun laws while just 31 percent were opposed. A similar number supported a ban on assault weapons, with 67 percent in favor and 29 percent opposed. Other gun safety measures enjoy near-unanimous support. Eighty-three percent favored mandatory waiting periods before receiving a purchased gun and 97 percent of Americans supported universal background checks on gun purchasers. The American public wants to take action on gun violence.

Banning assault weapons does not violate the Second Amendment. The amendment is not absolute and so long as the fundamental elements of gun ownership, like self-defense, remain protected, certain weapons can be restricted to protect public safety. Assault weapons have little legitimate use outside the armed forces, but they cause immense tragedy. The public has the will to act on gun violence — if only our politicians would listen.