A way out of the gun madness

New York TimesJuly 26, 2012 

The national conversation about guns, since James E. Holmes shot 12 people to death and wounded 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., has been a dialogue of the deaf. Unless gun-control advocates and gun-rights supporters stop screaming at each other and look for common ground on how to deal with gun violence, the next massacre is only a matter of time.

Liberals have to deprive the National Rifle Association of its core argument, that the real aim of all gun-control measures is to strip Americans of their right to have and use firearms.

Gun-control supporters must make clear that they accept that Americans have had this individual, common-law right since Jamestown and the Plymouth Colony, that this right was recognized in the Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 and that the Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality in 2008.

Liberals should accept that the only realistic way to control gun violence is not by keeping guns out of the hands of as many Americans as possible, but by keeping guns out of the hands of people we all agree should not have them.

Gun owners and their advocates must, in turn, stop insisting that gun ownership is an absolute right. The Second Amendment is not a law unto itself. Before and after 1791, the right to keep and bear arms has been inseparable from civic responsibility – originally, the duty to answer a call to carry arms in defense of community or country as part of militia service. Today, with 30,000 firearms deaths a year, half of them suicides, the civic duty is to find ways for gun ownership and public safety to better coexist. Yet the N.R.A. continues to act as if gun owners have no responsibility to anyone but themselves and their families.

So far liberals and centrists have done more to adopt a reasonable position. The president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has lately begun to emphasize that it accepts the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Second Amendment, which also upheld “longstanding prohibitions” on gun ownership by felons and the mentally ill, and on gun bans in schools and government buildings.

Meanwhile, the N.R.A. has frightened lawmakers into giving it credibility it does not deserve. Even after President Barack Obama tried to start a dialogue on gun violence last year, stating, “I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms,” the N.R.A. flatly rebuffed his overture and urged its members to vote against Obama so that he couldn’t try to deprive them of gun rights through Supreme Court appointments in a second term.

What kinds of measures might have helped prevent the Aurora massacre? Some have no connection with gun control: mental-health outreach and screening might have detected that a doctoral student in neuroscience was headed into a dark corner of the mind. That might have resulted in his failing the background checks he passed when he bought his guns.

Another possibility: restrictions on the purchase of large volumes of ammunition. Who, besides a soldier in battle or a policeman in a siege, needs 6,300 rounds, or a 100-round “drum” magazine like the one in Holmes’ AR-15 – a modified semiautomatic version of the military full-automatic M-16 – that allowed it to fire as fast as his finger could squeeze the trigger?

Shooting sports are important recreation for many Americans, so an outright ban on bulk ammunition purchases or on “assault” weapons like the AR-15 would be a nonstarter. That was the constitutional flaw the Supreme Court found in 2008, when it overturned the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns for self-defense at home. The 1994 ban on purchases of new assault rifles and extended magazines, which was allowed to lapse in 2004, was similarly overbroad.

New York City, where I live, has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws. I probably couldn’t get a permit to carry a handgun on the street even if I thought I had a clear justification. Only 37,000 New Yorkers have them. But keeping me and as many other law-abiding citizens as possible from having guns does little to prevent criminals or misguided youths from illegally buying them elsewhere, or having confederates buy or steal them.

Gun-control supporters need higher-precision instruments than the federal assault-weapons ban in their arsenal if they want legislators to discuss and debate their proposals instead of dismissing them. A law requiring membership in a shooting range or a gun club for bulk purchases of ammunition or extended magazines would be a reasonable start.

Vigorous enforcement of existing federal laws that criminalize buying guns, under a false pretext, for somebody else who can’t pass the federal background check – a favorite ruse of criminals – would be a good next step. Here we should take the NRA at its word: It keeps saying that laws on the books should be enforced.

Maybe someday we could even require people who buy guns from private owners, online or at gun shows to pass that same federal background check. We’ll never know, though, until we begin seriously talking to each other about our gun-violence problem.

The New York Times

Craig R. Whitney, a former reporter, foreign correspondent and editor at The New York Times, is the author of the upcoming book “Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.”

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