Friday, December 21, 2012

A Commission of My Own

Here are some cold facts. There are almost as many guns as people in the United States of America. The Second Amendment is a part of the Constitution for a good reason, and the Supreme Court has recently upheld the rights of the people to own firearms, with the caveat that those firearms can still be subject to government regulation. The majority of firearms homicides and suicides in the US are caused by handguns, while the most high profile mass shootings are often associated with assault weapons. Even the term "assault weapon" is so loosely defined it could cover almost any firearm with a semi-automatic firing capability.

And then you get to the human factors: the vast majority of firearms owners in this country are law-abiding citizens, who have done everything the state requires them to do to ensure their weapons are owned legally, stored safely, and are used correctly. On the other hand, individuals who live outside the law in this country can too easily get their hands on firearms. Finally, it is difficult to reconcile these two factors when there are babies dead inside a school and church bells toll in mourning.

Furthermore, you can't take the racial and demographic aspect out of it, because babies have been getting shot for decades in certain neighborhoods this country has been too willing to write off. Many of those neighborhoods are populated by the same demographic groups that were historically and legally forcibly disarmed by the very real slavery and Jim Crow regimes that this country doesn't like to think about, so they might provide easier targets for violence from terrorist groups and harassment at the hands of authorities.

Lastly, if you advocate complete disarmament of the American citizenry, how do you do it? Who do you send to seize the guns from a population that does not want to give up their guns? Other people with guns, right? So, how many police, law enforcement, veterans, active duty military and national guard are you willing to put in harm's way to this end? How many police, law enforcement, veterans, active duty military and national guard are also legal and trained weapons owners and operators, who would be tasked with giving up their own personal weapons first? That's simply not going to work, and the gun control and gun rights crowd both need to come to grips with that.

So when you're making gun control policy in the United States of America, both gun control and gun rights activists have to take the emotion and the mythology out of the conversation. There is a lot of Constitutional space between "no guns for anyone, ever" and "no regulations, whatsoever."

Familiarize yourself with existing gun laws at both the state and Federal level. You have to realize that there are a limited number of things that can be done at the Federal level, for a reason, and that a tremendous amount of policy can (and should be) made and enforced at the state level. Municipalities can get in on this policy, too. Courts will also be important, as they've always been, as they serve as the referees on how far regulations are allowed to go before rights are violated. At that point, you can start thinking about where to go from there.

Considering all that, here are some of my ideas (if these aren't already being done) at the Federal level:

  1. A reaffirmation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and a reaffirmation of the government to enact reasonable regulation of arms.
  2. A Federal definition of assault weapons, with a list of guns on the market that qualify. It may not cover every single in-practice assault weapon, but it establishes a baseline. States can add to this definition, but they cannot reduce this definition.
  3. A national licensing and registration structure for assault weapon owners. This would include a background check, training and qualifications requirements, and a licensing fee. The license could be renewed annually, biannually, or on a time frame otherwise determined most effective, at the time of mandated training and qualification with the weapon itself. Training and qualification would have to include a safety component for locking and storing the weapon when not in use.
  4. A national licensing and registration structure for every single assault weapon. That's right, not only do assault weapon owners have to have an individual license, these weapons should be registered individually. This would also include a fee.  
  5. Additional licensing requirements, taxes, and fees for any firearms dealer who wants to sell assault weapons as defined. Licensing requirements would require additional insurance, mandates for background check and reporting of suspicious activity, providing information to law enforcement, and waiting periods. These would be the only points of sale for Federally defined assault weapons. Individuals could still sell to other individuals, but they would have to do so through a Federally licensed dealer.
  6. No more gun show loopholes. Every firearms purchase or gift requires a background check. Gun shows could invite licensed firearms dealers to support the show with their resources, and hold any weapons for their waiting periods if necessary, or gun shows themselves could apply for Federal licensing, and could even consider Federal and state participation to ensure compliance. 

These fees and taxes will be used to establish and maintain:

  1. A national registry of assault weapons and assault weapon owners.
  2. A national background check database. This will be a database maintained by the Feds that develops information provided by the states and territories. This will exist so firearms dealers and law enforcement from any state or territory can check applicants for firearms licenses or firearms purchases against someone's background and determine eligibility to own or acquire.
  3. A national assault weapon buyback program. While this would likely need to be assisted by additional budgeting from the Federal government, this would be needed to fairly compensate those gun owners who currently own Federally defined assault weapons, but do not wish to go through the licensing process. This would be best administered through the states, and functional weaponry would be stored and used to augment National Guard armories within the states.
  4. Funding support for an expanded national school safety / resource officer program. This would send money to the states to help schools offset the budgetary requirements of having police officers assigned to every school in the country. This would include grants to the states to support additional training for resource officers in threat assessment as well as the use of lethal force in chaotic and emergency situations. 

And that would be the extent of Federal action. It would simply focus on the assault weapons making them expensive and highly regulated without outlawing them, and compensating owners who do not wish to participate in the registration and licensing program; and gun shows.

Long guns and hand guns would still be regulated mainly by the states. Where I would advocate my state enact the following registration and licensing requirements for handguns:

  1. A state licensing and registration structure for handgun owners. This would include a background check, training and qualifications requirements, and a licensing fee. The license could be renewed annually, biannually, or on a time frame otherwise determined most effective, at the time of mandated training and qualification with the weapon itself. Training and qualification would have to include a safety component for locking and storing the weapon when not in use.
  2. A state licensing and registration structure for every single handgun. That's right, not only do handgun owners have to have an individual license, these weapons should be registered individually. This would also include a fee.
  3. Carry concealed training is already in place in my state, but due to the nature of carry conceal, additional training requirements, safety qualifications, and licensing fees should be required. The renewal schedule should be at least biannual if not annual.
  4. All gun crimes should be felonies and should remove an individual's eligibility for firearms ownership. Additionally, all domestic violence or child abuse convictions remove an individual's eligibility for firearms ownership. (This is probably already in place in my state.)  

Long guns:

  1. Background check (non-eligibility). (Probably already required.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012


This is not an easy thing to talk about. Especially the politics of it. Heaven help us if we allow these families time to bury their dead before we begin trying to co-opt their grief for our own personal political point scoring. But that train has left the station. This is one of those events that is so rough and so emotional that the outrage isn't being held back.

There is also the fact that tragedies like this are inherently political, because decisions we make as a nation, as states, and municipalities guide the policies that factored into this event. As a matter of fact, in this country it seems that the ONLY time we talk about politics or policies that factor into tragic situations is immediately following one that has just happened. And half of those conversations involve being told to shut up and not talk about it "so soon." As if there is ever a good time to talk about situations that leave us with gunshot victims or elderly folks who drowned in a flood, or whatever it is we aren't supposed to talk about this week. Maybe it would be healthier if we kept some conversations going during whatever counts as "normal" time in this society anymore. Then again, maybe we'd never talk about anything that way.

There are a lot of ways to talk about things today.

We'll dispense with some of the sillier and more useless talking points first. If you think this happened because "God isn't allowed in schools," then you're part of the problem. I bet you think hurricanes cause floods because of gay people, too. Besides being completely wrong - as long as you don't disrupt others' academic activities or force people who don't share your particular religion to say your prayers, students can pray as much as they want - this line of thinking completely ignores the very real steps we humans can take, regardless of creed, to address situations such as these. Now, if you find comfort in the teachings of your religion, please find comfort where you can. But when it comes to policy, we simply do not have to wait for a supernatural being to do something about our collective problems, and outsourcing the very important work we must do as a society to any supreme being works about as well as ignoring the problem completely. 

Next up come those folks who are repeating the social media line about "my right to send my kids to school without getting shot is more important than your second amendment rights, so screw off." Look, I understand that folks saying this are probably parents of beautiful little children. I also know this is an emotional time for each of them that I can't understand, since I don't have kids of my own. Maybe I should just ignore this kind of statement as an emotional catharsis that it is, but I've seen it repeated too many times on Facebook to think it is something that will just go away. And since we're talking about a very important issue, this kind of ignorance and fear must require a response.

This is going to sound very, very cold, but you do not, in fact, have a "right" to perfect safety in this country. That is not a political belief, folks, that's just stone cold reality. Rights, as codified and understood by law, do not - and cannot - work that way. Laws can try to work that way, but even then we run into problems. Connecticut has stricter gun laws than most states. I'm sure they have a law that makes it illegal to bring firearms onto school grounds. I know for a fact they have laws stating that it is illegal to murder other people.  None of those laws mattered, and the rights of those children and adults to go about their day unmolested by gunfire were taken away in the most brutal of fashions. That is because the perpetrator in this instance, as with so many other instances, did not care about the laws or the rights of his victims. Just like we can't outsource our collective problems to the supernatural, we can't legislate away every bad thing from happening.

But we can take very real steps to mitigate risks against bad things happening, and this is where policy conversations need to start.

Of course, understanding that doesn't mean we automatically start communicating effectively. The vast majority of folks I know had two political reactions to yesterday's events. The first was to demand the end to gun ownership in the United States. Most of them don't really think this (though enough of them absolutely do), and the statement actually falls somewhere between cultural or political criticism and emotional catharsis to rage against a big and seemingly intractable problem. When challenged, it boils down to general support for more regulation of gun ownership and more safeguards against guns falling into the wrong hands. Keep that in mind, because we'll get back to it in just a second.

The second political reaction to yesterday's events was for individuals to say they were "going to the gun store" or otherwise indicating that this year's shootings should not be used politically to limit their rights to purchase the firearms of their choice for personal protection, hunting, or simple law abiding sport. Many expressed the personal, law abiding steps they had taken - including registration, training, and safety - in support of their right to bear arms, and additionally expressed their desire that laws and enforcement are needed to keep weapons out of the hands of felonious criminals and the legally adjudicated individuals deemed unfit for firearms ownership due to mental health issues.

In effect, both intractable "sides" that have emerged in this conversation have some very important common ground, which will be necessary for any policy changes to be made legislatively and culturally. Both support, in words or by action, some form regulation of gun ownership. Both support, overwhelmingly, more safeguards to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands. The problem is that, in "discussing" this issue with individuals from the other "side," the only things they hear are: "No guns, for anyone, ever," or "No restrictions on gun ownership, whatsoever." Those two statements, repeated back and forth between each "side," and exploited for political gain by lobbyists and pundits, have kept this nation from exploring where we can get with that common ground when it comes to firearms policy in the United States. Throw in a healthy dose of fear, emotion, and ignorance of the law, and you have the current unsustainable state of affairs.

The US Constitution, and subsequent decisions by the United States Supreme Court, affirm the right to ownership of arms at the same time they allow for regulation of firearm ownership, especially at the state level. Seeing this as an "either - or" issue only keeps the issue intractable politically. States determine their own regulations restricting concealed carry of pistols; states determine their own age limits regarding who can own what; states determine which felonies disqualify individuals for firearms ownership; states determine the level of training required to own a firearm; states determine the state tax on sale of firearms; states determine the registration requirements for certain types of firearms; etc. States have tremendous power to affect this issue, and I think the majority of American voters could find some common ground on reasonable regulations and enforcement mechanisms to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.

Because you know who elects the representatives who make state law? The People.