Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Another School Shooting: Is Rigorous Gun Regulation Even Possible?

In Murdock, FL, ca. May, 1986, with a Colt AR-15. It is doubtful these weapons can be controlled unless the private market (as exemplified in Gun show sales) can also be regulated.

With the news of another school shooting, this time by a 12 year old using a semi-automatic weapon in Sparks, NV, attention once more turns to gun control. Make no mistake the damage in Sparks could have been much worse had a courageous math teacher, Michael Landsberry, not stepped in front of the young shooter, impeding him from firing on other classmates. According to one student interviewed by John Blackstone as reported yesterday morning on CBS Early Show, the shooter yelled: "You ruined my whole life!" - likely referring to a bad math grade.

Now, as reported this morning, the parents may have to accept responsibility for the kid getting the gun, and take the consequences for his actions.  But is it even reasonable? Perhaps, given it was their duty to ensure the weapon was secure. Once a weapon enters a home, the parents are the last line of security ensuring a kid doesn't get his mitts on the merchandise, load it up and go out with a chip on his shoulder to settle scores.

But outside of the home venue,  is rigorous gun control even possible? According to James B. Jacobs, writing in the January-February 2003 Legal Affairs ('Off Target', p. 18) all the regulations in the world  won't help unless we finally get smart about what is practical and what isn't. It's also clear that other nations (e.g. Canada) with high numbers of guns owned per capita don't act like we do. In Jacobs' words:

"it's clear that there is much more going on than unchecked access to guns. The United States has much more violent crime, with and without firearms, than any other Western democracies. America, it seems, has a disproportionate penchant for violence."

Why? One can surmise any number of reasons. My own, as given in 'The Elements of the Corporatocracy',  is the presence of pervasive free floating anger - even rage - endemic in so many citizens. This arises because of their powerlessness in the face of the power brokers, who play with their lives and basic security like a deranged kid might "play" with ants using a magnifying glass.  A guy is one week from collecting a pension from his company which would ensure long term security, and he's fired. Make sure if you do such a deed, you batten the hatches. The guy  dumped will not go gracefully or easily into that good night !  A working mother, meanwhile, has to leave her job to take care of her sick kid and is fired on her return. Another mom with an autistic child to care for is happy to get the news of her promotion, until she learns she will no longer be able to get the Medicaid care needed - the higher salary now disqualifies her! 

All of these disclose possible reasons for the endemic anger  in much of U.S. society, but let's be honest and admit the easy access to weapons makes going over the precipice to violent action easier. Why not in Canada which has more guns per capita? Because there are more social support safety nets in place to catch people who are cut off from their life lines. Canadians enjoy a truly single payer health insurance system as well as other social insurance protections that U.S. citizens don't. Hence, there's a higher threshold of pain that can be tolerated before they go whacko.

This is something to bear in mind, as the Neoliberal politicos ponder "entitlement" and other cuts in some "bipartisan grand bargain" to try to right the U.S. debt situation..

Anyway, back to Jacob's piece. He notes that the "practical effect of gun control is severely limited". For example, the regulatory system itself appears to defeat its own efforts. Purchases made through Federal Firearms Licensees are heavily regulated but purchase by private individuals, say at gun shows, are not. So long as occasional gun sellers don't declare themselves FFLs, there's no federal requirement they run background checks.  Jacobs compares this to "a house with six deadbolts locks and one open window."

Jacobs adds it ought to surprise no one that most criminals get their weapons through the secondary market, i.e. at gun shows. As he points out:

"If the law doesn't require background checks at gun shows, then it's at gun shows that criminals know they need to get their guns."

Hence, no gun regulation law that leaves out the private market can work.

The other practical problem, as Jacobs shows, is that even if a gun regulation "forbids" selling guns to certain categories - say illegal aliens, or mental patients - there's no way to ascertain a buyer falls into these prohibited categories.  "It serves only as political agitprop not as policy".

He adds that even after the Columbine massacre here in Colorado, the U.S. Congress refused to pass the "Gun Show Accountability Act", and there's no reason any new congress would do so even after Aurora, Newtown and other school shootings such as the one in Sparks.

What about a national handgun registry - say to cover weapons such as Glocks? Jacobs argues that this would "mean little unless nearly all of the 250 million guns currently in circulation were all listed with the government."

What about laws regulating assault weapons such as the AR-15 I am holding in the photo? Jacobs acknowledges states have passed laws mandating regulation of such rifles but "for reasons ranging from ideology to laziness these laws have been overwhelmingly ignored". He adds that even given such laws, "a black market would inevitably crop up where unregistered weapons would be peddled."

He adds that "unlike with cars - where drivers without license plates can easily be spotted by police- those who choose to carry an unregistered gun would likely go undetected until after they commit a crime."

As he further asks:  Even if we overcame the political, logistical and financial impediment to passing a practical and cogent law for the secondary gun market, would a new generation of criminals obtain unregistered handguns? And - would the gains in controlling guns be worth it?

Jacobs concludes that prohibition of civilian ownership of firearms "is not a feasible option".

But he does assert some things can still be done. These include:

- Ballistic fingerprinting: requiring manufacturers to test fire new guns and supply the government with samples of the bullets and shell casings.

- Restricting handgun sales to one handgun per buyer each month. ("Very few legitimate users would be inconvenienced by the limit")

- Imposing a defined waiting period, say from 48 to 72 hours. This would prevent a person in a murderous rage (say just after being canned 1 week from getting his pension) from running straight to a gun shop - buying a gun- to discharge his frustrations.

- The easiest solution (to strengthen firearms policy)  is to "provide severe punishment for every defendant who uses a gun to commit a crime." No serious interest groups would oppose tough treatment for gun offenders."

The one little problem with the last? It takes no account of the 'Stand Your Ground' laws such as in Florida, which allow a gun toter to blow away his opposition if he "feels threatened with deadly force".

One wonders what Jacobs would have thought of such laws, given Florida's only came into existence 5 years after his article. I believe if he'd been cognizant of them, he'd have argued they're a bad idea because of undermining the punishment aspect by applying too general conditions for use of deadly force. Think George Zimmerman and Tavon Martin.

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