A new model for dealing with the issue of gun violence has emerged over the last decade. The problem is that most journalists, politicians, and pundits do not understand the new policy literature. When you add the power of the gun lobby and the ideological zealotry of gun rights advocates it is no wonder we have had such a difficult time passing sensible gun laws.
The first point to make is the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis that guided policy a decade ago has been effectively discredited. The evidence points in the opposite direction. Regions of the country with higher levels of gun ownership actually have higher levels of gun violence. There are an estimated 300 million guns in America, so any solution to the problem of gun violence must start with the facts on the ground — we need policies that work in an environment in which there are plenty of guns. Polling data consistently shows that most gun owners favor sensible regulation; it is only gun rights fanatics who oppose reasonable laws. Guns are also used for many lawful purposes including hunting, target shooting, collecting, and self- defense. The goal of any sensible policy is simple: Reduce gun violence at the lowest possible cost to gun owners.
Two other points follow from this. Any public policy choice imposes some cost, and no public policy choice produces perfect results. The best analogy is automobile fatalities. We could reduce them to zero if we got rid of cars or reduced speed limits to 10 miles an hour. Neither of these is practical or desirable, so we try to figure out the costs and benefits of dropping the speed limit from 90 to somewhere between 55 and 65. We can argue over which of these figures produces the better trade-off between safety and social cost but this is not the type of argument we have with guns. Debates about guns quickly degenerate into slogans, and nobody does a slogan better than the NRA.
We need to move beyond arguments designed to fit on bumper stickers to a calm, rational public policy debate. The main goal of the new regulatory model is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those with psychological problems.
One often hears that criminals will not obey laws so new laws are beside the point. Actually, this criticism misses the mark. The point of sensible gun laws is not simply to prevent criminals from obtaining firearms by legal means, but to use market forces to influence behavior. By definition, criminals don’t obey the law, but most criminals are economic actors who respond to the laws of supply and demand. If you make guns more expensive in the black market, criminal behavior changes.
The most glaring problem in our current system is that background checks do not apply to private sales and gun shows. This makes for a cheap supply of guns streaming into the black market. There is absolutely no reason not to require a background check for every gun sale. Are we safer as a society if we allow some people to avoid background checks? Mental health records also need to be fully incorporated into all background checks. Currently only a few states limit the number of handguns you can purchase to one gun a month. (Yes, that is a dozen a year.) This makes it easy for so-called straw gun purchases — someone who can pass a background check buys a bunch of guns and then sells them to people who can’t pass a check. The potential profit on these transactions is huge. If fewer guns enter this market that means the price goes up and once again we use the market, not respect for the law, to achieve our primary goal.
Every sensible gun owner knows you lock up firearms when you have kids in the house or when there is a troubled person in the house. Yet Connecticut’s safe storage law applies only when there is a child 16 years old or younger in the house. We ought to raise this age to 21 and require that the same rule apply if there is someone with a serious psychological problem living in the home.
We also need to deal with the problem of assault weapons. It is true that semiautomatic hunting rifles are functionally very similar to assault weapons, but military-style weapons do have several features that make them the weapons of choice for deranged mass murderers. We need to ban them or at least make them much harder to obtain.
Finally, we need to require serious training for concealed weapons permit holders. The amount of training most concealed weapons permit holders have is woefully inadequate to allow them to function in an emergency. We would not allow a police officer to carry a firearm in public after taking a basic pistol course. Connecticut requires 80 hours of firearms training at a minimum for police officers, so why on earth do we think we are safer allowing civilians with minimal training to travel armed? Making it harder to get a permit will mean that we have a better trained cohort of permit holders.
None of the measures listed above will put us on some imaginary slippery slope to gun confiscation. Nor do any of these policies make it impossible for law-abiding citizens to have access to guns. What the new gun regulation model does better than the old gun control model is to bring some sanity to a largely unregulated system that results in over 30,000 deaths a year and over 100,000 injuries.
Currently gun owners are imposing a tax on the rest of us and expect us to absorb the social costs for a lax system of regulation that costs Americans billions of dollars a year in medical bills, police time, and an incalculable amount of suffering to those touched by the horror of gun violence.
Although these measures impose a cost, none of these policies would impose an undue burden on gun owners. They would make it harder and more expensive for guns to wind up in the wrong hands. The new model simply asks gun owners to pay their share of this cost — each gun owner would pay a little more so we all pay a lot less.
We hear a lot about gun rights. We hear very little about the responsibilities and obligations that come along with owning a firearm. We don’t need to take people’s guns away, but we do need to create a reasonable and comprehensive system of firearms regulations.
Saul Cornell is Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History, Fordham University. His research and writing on the Second Amendment and the history of gun regulation have been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Kentucky Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court of Oregon.