How can ordinary Americans move the debate about guns and gun violence forward, when it seems our legislators cannot?
We thought a conversation might be the right way to start. We paired readers with differing perspectives about guns and American society and asked them to discuss gun violence and legislation. Specifically, we asked them to reach across the aisle and see what areas of agreement they could find, if any.
Take a look at the result, and we invite you to continue the discussion in the comments.
Angela and Tom: Are AR-15s the problem?
Angela: AR-15s have been used in numerous mass murders. They’re weapons designed for the battlefield. I’m surprised that you don’t support a ban.
Tom: If I thought a ban would be useful, I would turn in anything I own. The practical solution is the control of magazines. I got my first semiautomatic rifle in eighth grade, a graduation present. If there were a high-capacity magazine, something with more than 10 rounds, in it, it could do just as much damage as an AR-15. If I built a 30-round extended magazine for your Sig, it could do the same. But ARs are black and scary looking, thus feared by the uninformed and loved by kooks who decide they want to shoot people.
Hunting with a 10-round mag is no handicap. Thirty-round mags are offensive implements and should be controlled. But most restrictions on weapons of war came with the National Firearms Act of 1934. (1934!) We need a modernized version of that law.
Angela: I’m stunned at your level of knowledge. I had no idea that these additional weapons and modifications were available. And you’re right, our current legislation hasn’t caught up to what is actually being purchased, modified and used by U.S. citizens.
But our current situation — and your arsenal — seems to go way beyond what the forefathers may have intended. I’m shocked that anyone would need 20 guns. It’s like we are all preparing for a war. And with our ineffective Congress, I don’t expect much to change.
Tom: How ironic is it that all of my guns, except one, are used for hunting, but the gun you own for defense is meant to be used on people? I own various target guns, small guns for small game, larger guns for larger game and at least six that are family heirlooms handed down for generations. Your military characterization of my collection as an “arsenal” feels judgmental.
Angela: I didn’t mean to offend you, but as you described your guns and what you could do with them, a chill ran up my spine and “arsenal” is the first word that came to mind.
Tom: No offense taken. What has come across to me powerfully in this conversation is that most of the public is relatively uninformed, and that this is pretty much an emotional issue for both sides. To make progress, we need to have informed people negotiate new laws that increase scrutiny, based on the reality of what sort of guns are out there actually doing the killing.
Angela: I’m more convinced than ever that offensive tactical weapons, like ARs, and extended-capacity magazines should only be in the hands of the military. But, yes, our federal legislation and state regulation of gun ownership is outdated and needs to be revised ASAP.
Gabby and James: Civil rights don’t have to be sacrificed
Gabby: What a powerful background. I imagine a lot of your views on guns come from the experiences of your family?
James: Partially. My family is still angry at the L.A.P.D.; we blame them for causing the riots. They also beat up Rodney King and caused decades of animosity toward minority neighborhoods.
A cop should not have any more legal rights than a civilian, other than the power to detain. In most other states, civilians can own the same weaponry and equipment as the police. California, with their overly restrictive gun laws, has made the police into a far higher social class than they should be since these laws specifically exempt cops from those restrictions.
Gabby: I see your point on unchecked powers, but I believe there needs to be some sort of check on gun ownership. Violent felons and domestic abusers who have been convicted or people who have been involuntarily committed for mental health issues, or those on terrorist watch lists, should be prevented from easily purchasing guns.
James: I agree for the most part, but I’m against the broad labeling of huge sectors of society. Those on watch lists, particularly the “no fly” list, have had no due process; a federal agent can add a name to the list regardless of the reason, which could be influenced by racism. The person doesn’t have to be notified, which prevents them from making an appeal. These are violations of the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
Gabby: I actually didn’t know that about the no-fly list. But there are other considerations beyond the law. For example, I also believe many suicides could be prevented if guns weren’t so easily accessible.
James: Increased funding for mental health care and ending stigmatization of those with mental health issues will be the key to reducing suicide rates. I know Marines — gun owners — who suffer from mental trauma. They’re afraid of seeking treatment because they fear losing the ability to use a weapon and, potentially, their careers. Labeling someone a potential danger or a “ticking time bomb” only discourages them from seeking help.
Gabby: I also hope that we do much more for the mental health of our military, but for those who are suicidal and have been diagnosed as a threat to themselves or others, taking their guns, even temporarily, could save lives. We still have about 22,000 people kill themselves with guns every year. States also need to have better communication when it comes to records (mental health, domestic violence restraining orders, misdemeanors) and we need to close gun show loopholes.
James: The gun show loophole is a misnomer. From my experience, most of those sellers are licensed gun dealers and therefore are required to give background checks.
Gabby: My husband has been to dozens of gun shows in order to expose how easy it is to purchase guns from private sellers without a background check. I don’t understand why one person sitting at a table has to do a background check and the person sitting next to them does not. One out of every nine people looking to buy guns online has a background that would prohibit them from buying one at a store or from a licensed dealer.
I understand the desire for more private sales, but I imagine everyone would want to make sure they were selling their guns to someone who is not a convicted domestic abuser or felon. Why not just go to a gun store and ask them to run the background check if it could prevent someone who shouldn’t be buying a gun from getting one?
James: Because we fear registries and having our private information on a database. Showing a gun sale for all purchases would create a de facto registry and the government could use that for confiscation.
Gabby: I hear you about the fear of registries, but we are very far from that. None of the federal bills on the table have registries — in fact, almost all of them explicitly state that registries would be illegal.
James: These laws cost billions to implement, and that’s money that should be spent on reducing our prison population, establishing universal health care and funding public education. For centuries, minorities were denied equal opportunities. In some neighborhoods, the best chance for a living wage was through criminal activity. Without employment, the cycle of poverty, gang violence and recidivism continues. Increasing the amount of criminal statutes in a nation already plagued with the highest incarceration rate in the world and a livid animosity between minorities and the police could only make things worse.
Gabby: I think there are two sides to gun violence — the supply (access to guns) and demand (why people turn to guns in the first place). My family is very involved in a community-based organization in Chicago that targets behavior, specifically retaliatory shootings by gangs. Those organizations are incredibly important. But I also think that a simple background check — not banning, not starting a registry — is a good start. It won’t stop all gun violence, but it’s low-hanging fruit and could save so many lives.
Chris and Anne-Marie: Universal background checks should be convenient and inexpensive
Chris: If you could get any gun control law passed, what would it be? Would banning semiautomatics and large-capacity magazines be your “end game”?
Anne-Marie: I am most concerned about how we support safe, responsible gun ownership to better protects kids, victims of domestic violence and the mentally ill. Many gun owners seem to think gun control advocates want to take everyone’s guns away. I certainly do not. I’m interested in finding ways to make communities safer given the presence of so many guns.
Chris: The big push right now politically, both statewide and federally, is for universal background checks. While 90 percent of adults in the U.S. support them, where people disagree is the implementation: Currently, in most states, the only way to legally buy a firearm without a background check is through a private sale. The proposed federal law, which some states have already implemented, would require both buyer and seller to go to a Federal Firearms License (F.F.L.) dealer to complete the sale, including background checks, which would cost a small fee. The fee is the reason the current bill being pushed by House Democrats had opposition from gun owners.
I would like the background check database to be open to the public. Buyers could run their information through, get a code and bring it with a government ID to the seller. The seller would put in the code and see either a pass or a fail. It’s simple, inexpensive and convenient and makes this new F.F.L. plan seem purposefully onerous.
Anne-Marie: The system you describe sounds great to me. I don’t see a reason to make people go to a dealer. Would the buyer or seller’s activity in the system be recorded? I’m not saying that it should be, as I can see a constitutional negative in creating a government-accessible record.
Chris: The system can be set up essentially as it is now, where the only record kept is that a background check happened — no record of the gun sale, type of gun or serial number.
Anne-Marie: I do believe that most gun owners are responsible people. But in general, owning a gun for “protection” is a mixed bag. It’s dangerous and, in many cases, foolish. I hear what you’re saying about individual rights, though I think that the first phrase about a “well ordered militia” is often ignored by the right and a case could be made that it calls into question whether or not the amendment supports individual gun ownership separately from participation in a formal (recognized?) defensive body. Doesn’t society have a responsibility to children, or is that simply a part of the parents’ rights?
Chris: I am 100 percent in favor of helpful things that aren’t laws. When you buy a gun it comes with a large warning booklet that includes safe storage and how to keep them away from children. There are resources, too. But if people want government to do something, I think tax breaks on storage safes and locks would help. We could have negligence laws for parents who leave guns accessible to children, but they must have the right to due process.
Anne-Marie: There are laws that punish parents when they are found to be negligent. Sadly, it’s often the death or injury of a child which brings them to the attention of authorities. But you’re correct that the legal reality is that rights of adults in their own home will always supersede the rights of their children. Individual freedom means that society mostly stays out of the home, and while in general a good thing, it assumes a carefulness, maturity and attentiveness that not all parents live up to. A tax break on safes and locks is a great idea, though I admit I’ve always wondered how a gun locked away can be effective as a self-protection tool.
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