Gun regulation: Dr. Saul Cornell offers myriad ‘sensible’ ideas for change

Dr. Saul Cornell spoke about gun legislation and steps that could be taken for changes at an informational meeting on Monday evening at the Redding Community Center. —Susan Wolf photo

It was nearly a standing-room-only crowd at the Community Center Monday night, with more than 125 people listening attentively to Professor Saul Cornell’s talk on the history of the Second Amendment and gun regulation. He offered practical solutions to address gun regulation in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.

The talk was prompted by the horrific shooting in Newtown on Dec. 14 by a gunman who killed 20 young school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Six local women organized the event as an effort to answer the question “What can we do?”

Dr. Cornell, a Redding resident and one of the nation’s leading legal scholars and an expert on the history of gun regulation, told the audience its interest and commitment on the issue is needed for change.

He has debated “almost everyone in the gun rights community,” he said, pointing to how much common ground he believes is in this debate.

“What we know about these regulations has a meaningful impact,” he said, with the goal “to have a meaningful impact on reducing the problem at the lowest possible social cost.”

Every available public policy tool needs to be used, “not just one silver bullet,” said Dr. Cornell. Among the areas he addressed were the need to “take the handcuffs off law enforcement.” He later explained that the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and  Explosives) is not allowed to have computers for record keeping, but must use written records, and it has had an unfilled director’s position for quite some time.

“We shouldn’t make it easier for guns to move into the black market,” he said.

Dr. Cornell pointed to the money spent by the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, to promote their issues. He said “a zealous minority” is promoting its issues to get what it wants, adding that 70% of gun owners favor sensible regulations.

“There is no grassroots movement [for gun regulation] … no peace lobby, and you are that lobby,” Dr. Cornell said to his audience.

Later, he said that there “has to be a grassroots peace movement.” Gun rights people are single-issue voters, he said. “We have to level the playing field. We have to become single voters, and you must be willing to do this, or there will be no change on this issue.”

People have to educate themselves about the issue, he said, “to inspire hope and cultivate reason.”

Among the other things he discussed were universal background checks, limiting the number of guns purchased at one time, requiring that guns be locked up and stored safely, requiring more firearms training, and taking steps to make selling guns on the black market far less lucrative. He also advocated for the mandatory inspection of gun shops, which he said now do not have to provide an annual inventory.

Citing the Second Amendment, Dr. Cornell said it does not create a barrier to sensible gun regulations, “it compels it.” Later, he said the Founding Fathers believed that liberty without regulation is anarchy, and the only way to have freedom is with laws.

Ever since the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller court case in 2008, there have been more than 600 challenges to gun laws and 99% have stood the constitutional test, said Dr. Cornell.

The prescription

For the last 15 to 20 years, some of the top economists and epidemiologists have studied illegal gun traffic and violence, Dr. Cornell said. The prescription is universal background checks and limiting the number of guns that may be purchased at one time.

Background checks do not now apply to private sales and gun shows. Dr. Cornell believes mental health records also need to be incorporated into all background checks.

Most states don’t have limits, and once a background check is passed, by law, the record has to be destroyed within 24 hours. So there is no record of multiple purchases.

“Don’t expect criminals to obey the law, but supply and demand,” Dr. Cornell said later.

The point of sensible gun control, he said in a recent Pilot commentary, is “to use market forces to influence behavior.”

While answering a question Monday evening, Dr. Cornell said the goal is to get rid of every illegal gun sale “and let supply and demand work for us,” making guns on the black market more expensive. He also said the ATF must be given the tools it needs for enforcement.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has proposed background checks on those buying ammunition, said Dr. Cornell, later adding it is a good idea.

“We have to lock up firearms,” said Dr. Cornell, who said he is a proponent of more training in the use of firearms. He also said if guns are not locked up, they pose a safety threat to minors and those with psychiatric issues in the home.

While gun ownership is dropping in the United States, some buy more than one gun, said Dr. Cornell. He added that 1% of federally licensed gun dealers are responsible for selling guns used in 50% of the crimes in America.

“How do you compile a serial pattern of gun purchase if there is no database?” he asked. The ATF has to use written forms, not computers, and there is no federal regulation for gun stores to do an inventory, he said.

In addition, Dr. Cornell said, all research on gun control by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health was “stopped by the NRA.”

He talked about large-capacity ammunition clips and the modern-style hunting rifles, which “we call assault weapons.”

Big problem

“The big problem is semiautomatic weapons of all kinds,” said Dr. Cornell. The 1994 assault weapons ban was so watered down, it is surprising it got any benefits, “but the number of banned weapons dropped significantly in crime recovery, he said.

What defines an assault weapon is cosmetic, he said, and guns are symbols that “meet all kinds of psychology needs. … Cosmetics are not insignificant in who wants the gun.”

A semiautomatic gun rifle is for aim, while a modern sports rifle is an assault weapon designed for warfare, Dr. Cornell said. He added that the best weapon for home defense is a shotgun.

During the question-and-answer period, Nancy Lefkowitz of Fairfield, one of the organizers of March for Change, said the grassroots movement was started four weeks ago.

March for Change wants the General Assembly to pass legislation that bans large-capacity ammunition clips, limiting them to 10 rounds. Ms. Lefkowitz said the group advocates for a ban on assault guns and favors background checks. It plans a rally in Hartford on Feb. 14 at 11 a.m.

“We want legislators to know our hearts are broken, and we want change. With no change, we will not vote them back into office,” she said.

Several in the audience decried the fact that there is no onus on the gun industry in terms of liability. Once man proposed a tax on guns and ammunition to sufficiently cover the cost of harm associated with them.

“We would have to overcome the best-financed lobby in the country,” said Dr. Cornell. “We could do a tax, but we would have to summon the political will. … I think licensing requests and taxing are better”

An audience member suggested having gun-free zones.

Dr. Cornell said there have been a few horrendous shootings but said schools are much safer than almost any other place in America. He said President Ronald Reagan was well-guarded and was still shot.

“I agree we need to make schools safer, but be careful. Public policy has to be made on the best information we have, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything to make people safe,” said Dr. Cornell.

In a later discussion on taxing guns, Dr. Cornell said he prefers non-legislative bans, but he would tax someone to keep a gun.

Responding to another question, Dr. Conrell said a holistic resolution is needed. Until Newtown, he said, there hasn’t been a serious conversation on gun regulation is 15 years.

Meeting with legislators

Ron Wendschuh drew applause when he said now is the time for the town’s state representatives to make known their positions on gun regulation, and whether to vote for them again should be decided now.

There is a plan to have another meeting and ask the state legislators to take part, said Dr. Cornell.

State Sen. Toni Boucher said the General Assembly is putting together a bipartisan working group to deal with gun laws, policies and procedures for school safety and mental health issues. “We are putting together a fairly comprehensive package,” she said.

As the meeting was concluding, Dr. Cornell said, “We need to bring together the best minds we have. We can do this.”

The organizers of the meeting were Margi Esten, Posie Morgan, Lestina Trainor, Heather Whaley, Mary Ann Carman, and Alice Smith.

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