Every bullet that is fired at a human being signifies a failure.
It may be the shooter's failure—a failure to resolve their own inner conflict, or a conflict with someone else. It may be the target's failure—a failure to resolve their own conflict in a way that does not pose a danger to others, forcing the shooter's hand. It may even be both the shooter's AND the target's, in some combination or another.
It could be the failure of an abusive parent to manage their own inner conflict appropriately, and keep their child out of harm's way. It could be the failure of a teacher or principal to spot the seed of violence in one of their students. It could be the failure of a police officer to de-escalate and resolve a situation peacefully. It could be the failure of community leaders to provide for the health and welfare of their community, to keep people off the streets and out of gangs. It could be the failure of a world leader to chart a peaceful path forward for their nation.
But make no mistake—every bullet aimed at a person represents a failure somewhere along the line. Every. Single. One.
In the US, there are a lot of bullets being fired at a lot of people. We own more guns per capita, by far, than any other nation. We have more gun deaths per capita, by far, than any other high-income nation. The only countries with higher death rates are countries with active war zones or countries in South and Central America with serious drug-related violence problems. [CNN]
The NRA believes that, "to stop a bad guy with a gun, you need a good guy with a gun". By shooting back, the theory goes, the killer can be dispatched more quickly, and fewer lives will be lost. And they have a point—I think we all can agree that, in an active-shooter situation, having a good person with a gun is better than not.
But the NRA is solving the wrong problem.
The problem is, people are shooting at each other. The question before us is not: "How do we respond to an active shooter?", but: "How do we stop them before they ever start shooting?"
The NRA has no answer, because answering that question requires them to set aside everything they stand for. The answer cannot be more guns.
Why not? Guns are not an effective deterrent. Anyone willing to employ lethal force is either rational enough to know full well that they can expect the same in return, or irrational enough not to be thinking about the consequences. The irrational shooter will not stop to think about the fact that someone might shoot back, and the rational shooter might minimize the risk in their own head, or decide to plan for the consequences accordingly (to the detriment of any "good guy with a gun").
If someone is passionate or cold-blooded enough to say, "I am willing to use lethal force", it's a safe bet they are strongly-motivated enough to follow it through, no matter what.
Second, and more importantly, having more guns creates more opportunities for their misuse. It creates more opportunities for passionate and/or irrational actors to do something they may regret later. It creates more opportunities for premeditated murderers to get their hands on tools of destruction. And it opens the door to more "innocent" mistakes—accidents which, while free of malice, still have permanent consequences.
Now, I don't realistically think we will be able to eliminate gun violence entirely. But I do think we can make a big dent in the numbers, and the easiest way to do that is to make some systemic changes which reduce those opportunities for misuse. Focusing on individuals or specific situations isn't going to work, because we have no way to identify them before they become a problem. Sweeping, systemic changes are needed.
We made some of those changes before, temporarily, with mixed results. We should revisit some of these experiments on a more long-term, or even permanent basis—long enough and comprehensive enough to definitively prove or disprove they work.
And as always, we need to make smart trade-offs between personal freedom and public safety. I think it's reasonable to give up a small amount of individual freedom for a large gain in public safety, and I also think it's reasonable to give up a small amount of public safety for a large gain in personal freedom (either a large gain for a few individuals, or a small gain for many individuals). I also recognize that, within reason, there are many who feel guns are an important part of their lives and personal-safety strategies.
Keeping that balance in mind, there are some experiments we should try ASAP:
- Permanently reinstate the assault-weapons ban, and require private owners of assault weapons to surrender them to law enforcement. IMO there is no legitimate reason (apart from "for funsies") for a private citizen to own a weapon of mass destruction, but there is a large increase in collective safety in removing access to these weapons.
- Permanently fund voluntary weapon buy-back and surrender programs nationwide. There is no loss of individual freedom here, but it does create an incentive to get more weapons out of circulation, increasing collective safety.
- Require comprehensive background checks for all weapons and ammunition purchases, and require all states to submit comprehensive data on convictions for violent crimes to the background-check database. This limits individual freedom only to the extent that it prevents people with a prior pattern of violent behavior from obtaining tools to carry out violence. There is a correspondingly obvious benefit to public safety—seems like a good trade-off to me.
- Require a waiting period for all weapon and ammunition purchases. Eliminating that "spur of the moment" decision to buy a weapon can help to reduce accidents and crimes of passion, but doesn't actually prevent anyone from getting guns and ammo they couldn't get otherwise. In this case, forcing someone to plan ahead can literally save lives.
- Limit the number of weapons and rounds of ammunition a person can buy over time, across all sellers. This is a stop-gap should all other mechanisms fail. If someone has a clean background, plans ahead, and is still hell-bent on causing destruction, this will help to limit the carnage. The limits would have to be tuned carefully to balance typical use cases for guns (target practice, hunting, etc.) against the potential for any one buyer to get enough guns and ammo to do a lot of damage. Not being a gun owner, I don't know what those limits might be, but there should be limits.
If we try these out, and find strong evidence that these experiments don't reduce gun violence? That's okay; we've learned something new, and we can try something else. But let's focus on solving the right problem.
Many lives are at stake—maybe even yours.