Giving Gun Safety A Shot

by Joe Thomas

I apologize for the large gap between posts. As I mentioned previously, I started school again recently and am finding less and less time to sit down and write about things in which I am actually interested rather than things I have been assigned. Even as I write this, there are other things that I really ought to be doing. I have been working on this post for several weeks now, and am finally ready to offer it to you, the reader. Before you comment or write me an angry e-mail, I only ask that you read the entire piece first, take a few minutes to think about what you have to say, and then I will be happy to talk with you about what I wrote.

I want you to imagine, if you will, an alternative beginning to our nation.

Imagine that before the American Revolution, the King of England decided, as he did with most other colonies, that the residents of the American colonies would not be permitted to keep weapons in their homes. No muskets or pistols. How would our present be different? Would our attitudes towards firearms be different? Would Americans be as passionately attached to guns as they are today? Would the Second Amendment even exist?

As the Internet exploded with reactions to President Obama’s proposals for stopping the horrifying rash of gun violence that our country has seen, I thought about this alternative history and decided that yes, things would be very different today. And then I realized that whether you wish that had happened or not, the reasons that America has the most well-armed citizenry in the world really don’t matter. There are, I believe, ways that we can address gun violence creatively that enable those of us who enjoy firing guns as a hobby, or grew up hunting with their families, or simply feel better with a handgun in their bedside drawer, to do so. We are far too intelligent a nation to let the vitriol of the extreme right or extreme left prevent common-ground solutions from being found. I have, over the past few weeks, had conversations with folks with far different perspectives on gun violence. None of these conversations contained the poisonous language of the NRA PR machine, or the judgmental accusations of some liberals. Most people I know want to have a real conversation about how we can stop horrible crimes from being perpetrated with firearms, and most people I know want those who wish to own guns responsibly to be able to continue to do so. So we come to a question: how? How can we make guns not illegal, but safer. How can we make sure that gun ownership, while a constitutional right, is also recognized as a great responsibility? A responsibility that requires commitments to responsible use, the same as voting, free speech, and so many of our other rights as Americans. I have some ideas, and I hope to use this a place to start honest dialogue free from the calculated PR moves of the gun lobby and the federal government, where real citizens can have a real conversation about solutions to gun violence which, I think we can all agree, we would be better off without. In no particular order here are the things I would like to see happen:

Scrap calls for an “assault weapons ban” as defined by the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that expired in 2004.

The previous assault weapons ban had an unclear and inconsistent definition of what an assault weapon was. The defining characteristics in the bill were largely cosmetic and not related to rate of fire (fully automatic weapons have been illegal for some time now). The fact is, there were weapons not covered under the bill that were far more “dangerous” than ones that were. This misguided bill created the sentiment, accurate in some cases, that proponents of increased gun safety do not understand what makes guns dangerous. Logically, any sort of legislation along these lines would need to focus on rate of fire to reduce large numbers of people being shot in a short period of time, and I’m not convinced that that is necessary beyond the current ban on automatic weapons.

Require background checks and waiting periods for all firearms purchases.

This should be something on which everyone can agree. There is no debating that firearms, when obtained by the wrong person, can do horrifying harm. While a background check cannot guarantee that a purchaser won’t commit a violent crime, if it deters ONE person from committing that crime, then it is a success. When you commit a felony in this country, you lose some of your rights. There should be no question that if you have committed a violent crime, you should not be able to purchase a gun. For this reason alone, background checks should be mandatory for gun purchases. Furthermore, a waiting period serves as further deterrent to a crime of passion, desperation, or insanity. Every moment a person considering this type of crime has to wait is a moment for them to change their mind, or be redirected, or otherwise stopped. Could they just go kill someone with another weapon? Yes, it’s possible. But this effort is about making it as inconvenient as possible to commit violence.

Ban gun shows and resale of firearms.

This is a difficult one for me. Between the time that I became convinced that this was a viable proposal and now, I heard a story from Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie. Kevin is opening a new restaurant in my neighborhood, called Gunshow. In an interview, he was asked about the name and about whether he was worried that it may be controversial. He explained that when he was a kid, his family was fairly poor and his father worked a lot. As a special treat, when he could get off work, Kevin’s father would take him to the gun show at the local flea market. This was precious time for that family, and I suspect that there are similar stories like that across the United States. While I was not raised in a house with guns, I know enough about the people I grew up with and the people from Georgia that some, indeed many, of the activities that we do transcend the activities themselves and center on quality time with loved ones. If that includes going to a gun show for you, than who am I to judge?

But here’s the thing.

The weapons sold at gun shows, flea markets, pawn shops, and on other secondary markets are INCREDIBLY hard to keep track of. While I support a person’s right to own a firearm, I also passionately believe that the system for obtaining one should be tightly checked, so as to make it as difficult as possible for those who would do harm to obtain one. I firmly believe that all firearms should be bought only from a state licensed dealership, regulated by state authorities, and registered in a national database.

Widen the availability of gun safety courses through partnership between the NRA, law enforcement agencies, and federal or state governments. Provide incentives to gun owners who choose to take these classes.

We have to end the combative nature of firearm safety conversations. Citizen gun advocates, their legislators, and the various law enforcement branches should be working TOGETHER to ensure that those who choose to purchase firearms do so in an informed and educated manner. By encouraging gun rights organizations (who, outside of their lobbying wing, are largely intelligent and passionate citizens concerned about their family’s and community’s safety) and local and federal governments to work together to teach people about responsible gun ownership and ways to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, we can end the explosive debates and loaded accusations that hold back our ability to make progress.

One way we can do this is to provide incentives to gun owners who take safety and home defense classes. We provide incentives to teenagers who take driver’s ed, and home owners who use green technology, why not folks who help promote responsible gun ownership? By working together, we can stop arguing past each other.

Improve mental health treatment and the availability of information.

Part of the fallout from the rash of mass shootings in the United States has been a re-examination of the mental health system in this county. The vast majority of Americans who suffer from mental illness are non-violent, wonderful people who work hard to overcome the challenges they face. That being said, because of the unpredictability in the ways certain mental illnesses can manifest themselves, certain steps should be taken to make it as difficult as possible for these individuals to access tools with which they may do themselves or others harm. I don’t know enough about these illnesses to know where these lines should be drawn, but I DO know that there are brilliant doctors and social workers in this country who, if given the resources, can make sure that those potentially dangerous patients can’t obtain firearms.

An important part of that last sentence was “if given the resources”. We have to improve the entire structure of the mental health system in this country. Improved availability of information, public health studies, increased funding of treatment facilities, and the END of the pervasive stigma that still surrounds those suffering from mental illness are all parts of the solution to not only stemming gun violence, but improving quality of life for all Americans on a larger scale.

Create a national model for school construction and retrofitting that controls access points.

Many of the things I’ve talked about have related to ways to prevent guns from being used to prevent violent crime. But how can we make it harder for the mass murderer to enter a school and start shooting? Proposals to arm more adults in schools should be rejected out of hand. The solution is NOT placing more guns in school. I do think, however, that more secure school facilities are something that should be looked at. When I think about the schools I attended through high school, the most striking thing I remember is how many ways to get in there were. With the advent of key card technology, any door that isn’t the front door of the school shouldn’t be accessible from the outside without a key card; it shouldn’t even have a handle. Bulletproof glass, separation between classrooms and the front entrance, and compartmentalized hallways with locking doors are all things that should be looked at (and may be already in place, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a public grade school). In addition, these should be standard components, not just for those schools that can afford them.

Provide people who own hunting rifles or other firearms with more options for storing them outside of their homes.

This is the idea that I had that I present with the most ignorance. I’m not sure if there are places where you can safely store your guns outside your home; I assume that there are. But given a gun owner who has say, a couple rifles and a shotgun for hunting, an antique pistol as a collectors item, and a handgun for home protection, giving that person at least a convenient option to store some of those weapons outside of their home would, I think, reduce the chance of an accident. Would people use this? Who knows? But it’s worth a try.

CONCLUSION:

These are ideas that I’ve been thinking about for several weeks, months, or even years. They are not snap decisions, and are honestly made with only the best intentions. I have no anti-gun agenda; while I wasn’t raised in a house with guns, I enjoy shooting them and respect those folks who wish to own firearms responsibly. I would love feedback and to talk to more people about new ideas for curbing gun violence while still supporting the right to bear arms. Here are my rules for that conversation:

1) Don’t yell at me or patronize me. I don’t claim to know everything. If I’m misinformed about something or you have some statistics for me, great! I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. But let’s have a conversation.

2) If you’re going to show me facts, make sure that they are facts. While I don’t have any problem with most of the members of the NRA, their lobbyists and PR machine drive me insane. I want independently verified information.

3) Try to offer other solutions. It helps the conversation progress and keeps it from becoming contentious if you have ideas rather than just tell me I’m wrong or that something won’t work.

Hopefully I haven’t offended anyone and that this came across as thoughtful and reasonable as it was intended to. Remember, we all love our families, our communities, and our country. We just want what’s best for them.

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