Once again, Americans are confronted with the dilemma of relinquishing their claim to gun ownership and acting responsibly when it comes to firearms control. The battle of gun rights versus gun control always appears to be framed as a win/lose confrontation and almost invariably causes proponents for either position to become entrenched in their beliefs. This unfortunate reality is that there is no need to turn the debate into one of absolutes.
Most countries have enacted laws and regulations to control the use of guns, and many to limit ownership of guns. Advocates of less regulation of firearms may cite statistics that show that violent crime still exists in countries like Canada and England, where gun laws are more restrictive than in the USA. However, while violence is prevalent in every country, death by gunfire is less common in those countries that place limitations on the use and sale of guns. While the American right to bear arms has its origins in the British Bill of Rights from the 1600s, England gradually ahs restricted that right. Canada has vascillated between greater freedom to won guns and greater restrictions.
In Great Britain, police still do not carry guns as a routine practice, yet law enforcement works remarkably well. One of the reasons may be that every criminal knows that he will not face the risk of being shot while committing a crime. Certainly, the victim of a crime may wish he had the ability to defend himself, but his life is in less jeopardy, since the criminal does not begin in a life-and-death defensive position. In the USA, the need to defend property often is justification for deadly force. It is neither wrong or right in comparison to Canada and the UK. It simply is a different perspective. Property is paramount in the USA, while safety and civil calm seems to be paramount in some other jurisdictions.
However, the current vociferous debate on gun control is a misplaced argument. It is true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But it is also true that people without guns are far less likely to be able to kill than those with guns, so guns become enablers in the hands of the wrong people. A problem arises in defining who the wrong people may be, and the right to bear arms is not qualified in a rider that defines restrictions. This is where reasonableness enters the picture.
A second issue in this debate involves authority. While the federal Congress contemplates gun control laws, it is relatively powerless to require each state to enforce any regulations that Congress passes, since the authority remains with individual states. Thus, cooperative effort will be required to not only devise appropriate laws, but to get all states to act upon them. This will be an onerous task.
The prevailing opinion, both of the NRA and the anti-gun lobbyists, appears to be that it would be reasonable to restrict access to guns by those with a serious, relevant mental disability or incapacity. That is the basis, for example, in Canada’s screening process for gun acquisition permits. But, as shown in several gun violence incidents in recent years, keeping the hands out of a mentally unstable person is an onerous task. Just because there is a mental problem does not mean that the perpetrator of violence is incapable of creative actions to acquire a gun, legally or otherwise.
The only choice that remains, then, is to make owners more accountable for their firearms, while not restricting the right to own. Ownership also can be extrapolated to gun manufacturing, which is not protected by the Second Amendment.
First, let us look at gun manufacturing. Currently, no citizen has the right to own nuclear weapons, yet are they not arms? Laws that protect against threats to the public reasonably disallow us to manufacture or own such weapons of mass destruction. Those companies that manufacture armaments are tightly regulated. However, the USA has chosen not to limit, for the most part, the type of guns that can be constructed and sold to the public. If firearms manufacturers were barred from selling specific types of guns to the public (and only to law enforcement), then part of the concern over assault weapons would be eliminated. (However, since millions of assault rifles currently are legally owned by citizens, this tactic would have minimal effect). Congress could, however, be proactive by restricting the sale of new lines of weaponry that have similar effect, and by limiting the types of ammunition used. So, restricting gun manufacture will have limited impact.
The second, and most viable option for effective gun control would be to work with the individual states to enact “responsibility” laws regarding the handling of weaponry. Under the “public peace” concept of common law, the federal government would have more jurisdiction, particularly where interstate travel that violates the legislation is involved.
Instead of limiting gun ownership more severely, make each owner individually responsible for his or her guns. The concept of individual rights is an integral component of the American psyche, and the logical extension of rights is obligations.
One way of doing this would be to require that no gun be transported loaded (without special permit, not special reason), and that every gun, concealed or otherwise, be protected by an effective trigger-locking mechanism that enables only the owner to access the lock. Ideally, a fingerprint activated lock, or a unique, restricted keying system should be required. In the case, for instance, of the Newtown killings, the son would not have been able to use his mother’s guns readily if they had been protected in this manner. Those owners that violate the proposed laws should be subject to automatic incarceration (not unlike many states’ drinking-and-driving laws) for a period of time, with very strenuous jail time as the ultimate penalty.
Laws governing how we handle and store guns do not interfere with our right to bear arms, and offer a reasonable compromise on access and availability. They still provide us with the ability to protect ourselves from crime, but also protect us from our own knee-jerk reactions that may cost us injury or death at the hands of someone committing a crime against us. Other, less lethal options like pepper spray and immobilizers already provide us with the ability to create the delay between intent and action on the part of a criminal, and allow us the ability to respond with gun use, if necessary. A fingerprint-activated lock, for instance, would be able to open with a second or two when needed by the owner, but would be unavailable to other users indefinitely.
It is time, not for compromise, but for reasonableness that echews dogma and arbitrary positions on gun ownership. Making owners responsible and accountable is reasonable and doable. Few should cry out against such actions, and perhaps we can start on the journey to reducing unnecessary violence and death at the hands of irresponsible and incapacitated violent actors.