Monday, Mother Jones reported how Bernie Sanders allegedly derailed efforts that would have held gun manufacturers and dealers liable for facilitating illegal gun sales, following a robust exchange between Hillary Clinton and Sanders during the last Democratic debate. After appearing on “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper over the weekend and alleging Sanders had flip-flopped on the issue, Clinton continued by saying he had voted “with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times.” Sanders countered that his rating with the NRA is a D-minus but last Friday’s New York Times reported a number of centrist organizations saying Sanders is on the wrong side of the issue.
Recently, Pew Research found a growing majority of support for gun rights but while the idea of gun control has become less appealing in the abstract, people are generally open to specific regulations.
Most gun control advocates understand Australian-style confiscation is a non-starter. If they have a “hidden agenda,” the chances of it coming to pass are negligible. Likewise, few gun rights advocates expect unfettered access. Despite rhetoric from the NRA that is often inaccurate, most concur with the Supreme Court and Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote in Heller v. D.C., “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”
A couple of points before framing potential solutions:
Mass shootings make news and gun injuries are regularly promoted in liberal blogs, but they are hardly our most lethal vice.
Violent crime and gun violence have actually been on a steady decline since 1991 and tobacco is by far the leading preventable cause of death in this country—16 times greater than guns. If we’re truly serious about saving lives, we’d make tobacco control a higher priority than guns.
Effective legislation to curb gun violence needs to be sold to garner support.
The right has been woefully inept at selling conservative ideas as a means for the betterment of all. Likewise, the left has allowed the idea of gun control to define the debate and done more to boost gun sales than the NRA. It’s not an effective strategy.
Differing interpretations of the Second Amendment shouldn’t preclude other options.
There are a number of things we should do before proposing legislation that affects law-abiding gun users. It makes no sense to start with the latter.
With that understood, here are ideas that make sense:
1. Harsher penalties for gun crimes
There is confusion at the federal level about how to handle gun crimes and after peaking during the Bush administration, prosecutions have sharply declined. That scenario must be reversed.
Further, while mandatory minimums are controversial and could be costly, there is no reason we can’t encourage prosecutorial discretion and tougher sentencing.
2. Focus on the illegal gun trade
Estimates of how many guns used in crimes are obtained through legal channels range from 3-21%, meaning the vast majority are committed with guns obtained illegally. Curbing guns used in at least 79% of these incidents will make the most impact and might help corral the perpetrators of the millions of guns obtained in burglaries. Illegal gun trafficking must be addressed, starting with better access to dealer inventory and more stringent rules for who can sell guns. We have a constitutional right to bear arms, not to be a dealer.
A gun registry is not an option but there is no reason a warrant shouldn’t grant access to information with that manufacturers and dealers are legally required to keep.
3. Improve mental health access and treatment
Because we are struggling to ensure access to affordable mental health care, this should be a priority and should include drug and alcohol rehab — especially insofar as it relates directly to violent crime.
4. End the War on Drugs
While the exact numbers are difficult to isolate due to the intermingling of drug use and related crimes, homicides related to illegal drug trafficking are significant, with estimates as high as 50%. Noah Smith illustrates via The Atlantic how illegality means no regulation, resulting in disputes settled by turf wars and shootings. Changing that, as well as focusing on rehabilitation over incarceration would reduced the demand.
5. Prison Reform
With one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, largely full of hapless drug addicts and a prison population that’s increased by a factor of 8 in the last 30 years, we are perpetuating a broken society. Stephanos Bibas points out via The National Review:
“The criminal-justice system and prisons are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guards’ unions…and cities’ avarice tempts police to arrest and jail too many people in order to collect fines…. That approach poisons the legitimacy of law enforcement, particularly in the eyes of poor and minority communities.”
This weaves a complex web of intergenerational failure by destroying families and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on policies that make the situation worse.
Fortunately, this is one issue with support from different camps we rarely see. Both President Obama and the Koch brothers have declared prison reform a priority and are joined by the Justice Action Network, a coalition of strange bedfellows including the ACLU, the NAACP, the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Grover Norquist.
Recent state reforms have lowered imprisonment rates and seen a corresponding drop in crime rates while reducing costs, so well beyond reducing gun violence, this is a critically important agenda.
6. Background checks
While broad calls for gun control have helped polarize the debate and legal gun sales are not the primary problem, congressional Republicans appear tone deaf to one measure the overwhelming majority of Americans support. A recent Quinnipiac poll indicated “92 percent of voters, including 92 percent of gun owners and 86 percent of Republicans, support background checks prior to all gun sales.” This could also provide important data on those who are not allowed to buy a gun but attempting to do so.
Increased gang intervention, continuing research on gun violence and even a wealth-building system to replace Social Security could reduce crime and if someone could hurry up and invent a phaser we can set on stun, that would probably solve everything.
IVN contributor Ricky Gandhi observes, “Talk of effective gun laws gets muddled in partisan rhetoric and overly-simplified (or outright false) data. Gun violence in America consists of a plethora of socioeconomic factors that simple solutions cannot solve.”
The measures above, aimed at a broader range of related issues, have strong support publicly (if not politically) and only one is related to routine legal gun purchases. These would yield major benefits so it makes no sense to start with other restrictions.
If the Justice Action Network can bring together polar opposites for the common good, there’s no reason we cannot demand the same from the two parties running our government.