Under the gun

Gun Rights

Last Sunday’s column about the lack of gun legislation got a lot of response. I’ve read everything, but I’m a slow correspondent who is gainfully employed. Giving every one of those messages the attention they deserve will take awhile.

Earlier this week I had received 303 messages that supported what I had to say, and more than a few of these were from gun owners and collectors. Three were from Joe Biden fans who seemed not to understand what “hapless” means (it doesn’t mean ineffectual or incompetent; it means unlucky) but who otherwise agreed with the column. Two disagreed, of which only one was a vaguely violent, incoherent threat. The other was civil but disingenuous, suggesting that people angry about the failure of state legislatures and Congress to enact laws designed to curb gun violence never make any viable proposals. (Keep readin’, hoss.)

This is a core sample of opinions of people inclined to read and respond to such a column. It’s not a poll; it’s not indicative of the relative percentages of people in this country who favor some restrictions on the gun trade in this country and Second Amendment absolutists. But it’s safe to say that a majority of Americans want legislation that will make their schools, churches, nightclubs and streets safer.

The reason this isn’t happening is because the gun lobby resists even the mildest regulation. It has made a business model of the myth of large forces looking to confiscate Americans’ guns. Because the gun industry is so mature and well-cared for, just about everyone in this country who wants a gun already has two or three, so gun manufacturers need these scares to drive new sales. Every attempt to inject sanity into the argument about guns and their place in our culture is hyperbolized as an existential threat to private gun ownership.

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Our lawmakers, by and large, work not for us, but for these gun manufacturers who pay them through campaign contributions funneled through groups like the National Rifle Association, which only pretends to represent its rank-and-file members.

Were things not this way, we might see any number of common-sense non-confiscatory laws enacted. Here are a few:

Strict liability for gun owners: We could enact legislation that holds careless or apathetic gun owners strictly liable if their lost or stolen handgun is used in the commission of a violent crime. Current tort law largely leaves victims of gun violence and their families without a mode of redress against irresponsible gun owners whose negligence plays a significant role in a victim’s injury. If your kid takes your gun to school and shoots his teacher, you might face consequences.

The gun lobby opposes these laws because they tend to make guns more expensive to own; a prudent person might take out an insurance policy to protect themselves in the event their stolen or borrowed gun is misused. These premiums might dissuade a purchaser from buying a certain kind of gun, or any gun at all.

But given the damage and destruction guns cause in this country, it is only fair that gun owners bear more of the cost of their ownership, rather than having these costs borne by the victim, the victim’s family, and taxpayers. Extending existing principles of liability to gun ownership would incentivize the use of gun safes and trigger locks and promote safety training.

Secure firearm storage laws: A more narrow proposal than strict liability, these laws would require people store their firearms securely, and hold a gun owner responsible if someone does harm with a weapon the owner has failed to lock up. While 23 states have adopted such measures, Arkansas does not require guns to be locked up. (We do have a child access prevention law which makes it a misdemeanor for a gun owner to leave a gun within reach of a child under 18 if the child uses the gun to cause injury or death to themselves or another person. )

As many as 4.6 million children in this country live in homes where at least one gun is routinely loaded and unlocked. Studies have shown these laws to be effective in reducing unintentional shootings and firearm suicides. One study found households where both firearms and ammunition were locked up were at a 78 percent lower risk of self-inflicted firearm injuries and an 85 percent lower risk of unintentional firearm injuries among children and teens.

“Red Flag”/Extreme Risk laws: These laws create a legal process by which family, law enforcement, and, in some states, school officials can petition a court to temporarily prevent a person from possessing guns without going through the criminal justice system when there is evidence they are at serious risk of harming themselves or others.

Everyone knew 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz was mentally troubled and exhibited violent tendencies; law enforcement had interacted with him dozens of times. Yet he was able to legally buy the gun he used to murder 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

Gun violence restraining orders can be issued only after it’s legally determined that a person poses a serious threat to themselves or others. Once an order is issued, a person is required to relinquish any guns they have and is prohibited from buying new guns for a period generally lasting one year.

These laws are effective. A California study found 21 cases in which these orders were used to prevent mass shootings, including five instances where schools or children were targeted. In Maryland, the Sheriffs’ Association says there have been at least four cases where the laws were invoked involving “significant threats” against schools. In Florida, which passed its law after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, the law has been invoked multiple times in the cases of threats against schools and, in one instance, where a student was accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill himself.

Efforts to pass a Red Flag law in Arkansas have failed.

Raise the age to purchase semi-automatic weapons: Under federal law, in order to purchase a handgun from a licensed gun dealer, a person must be 21. But in most places in this country, an 18-year-old can legally buy an AR-15.

Universal background checks on all gun sales: Current federal law requires background checks at the point of sale whenever someone attempts to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer, to ensure that the prospective buyer is not legally prohibited from possessing guns.

But current federal law does not require background checks on sales between unlicensed parties, including those at gun shows or online. So people who would otherwise be ineligible to own a gun can circumvent the background check system by purchasing a firearm online or at a gun show.

At the very least, we ought to require online sellers and gun show vendors to obtain a federal firearms license, ensuring that they are subject to the same regulations as licensed dealers.

I got more. But I’m out of space. And out of patience.

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