In the days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, there was one thing that all of us — gun owners and non-gun-owners, Democrats and Republicans — did the same.
We watched our little girls as they skipped into school in their sparkly headbands and princess sneakers, backpacks banging against the backs of their legs because they themselves were so tiny. We watched our boys at their basketball games, forgetting the scoreboard and just watching them, their knobby knees and puppy energy, their exuberant fist-bumps and crooked grins.
We held them on our laps until they protested, pulled them close until they gave us funny looks. When we hugged them, we could feel their tiny shoulder blades; it was like hugging a fairy.
We were struck by how big they wanted to be, and how small and fragile they really were.
And we tried to figure out what to do — what to do about gun violence in America.
Judging from some news outlets, you might have thought there were only two choices, each on furthest outposts of the spectrum: a) arming every man, woman and child to the teeth with as much hardcore weaponry as possible, or b) piling every single gun in America onto the USS Kum-Ba-Yah and sinking it at sea under a wreath of daisies.
Both of which are, of course, ridiculous. But it’s easy to be distracted by the shouting between the outermost fringes, and not see the acres upon acres of reasonable, fertile ground between them.
Which brings me to a few important truths that keep getting lost in the hoopla.
Imagine you’re at a gun show, standing in line behind four guys: a recently released felon, a terrorist on the FBI’s terrorism watch list, a man convicted of beating his wife unconscious, and a guy muttering about “hearing voices” who has been legally designated mentally ill.
Right now in many states, all four men could take their pick of sophisticated weapons, plunk down their cash, and stride out the door without looking back.
Would that freak you out? Yeah, me, too. And we’re not alone: Ninety-two percent of Americans, including 85 percent of NRA members, agree that every gun sale should require a universal background check, no matter where you buy it.
It’s a non-partisan thing, so obviously logical that many people think it’s required already. But it’s not: More than 6 million guns were sold last year without any background check at all. (Think about it: If you’re a suspected terrorist, you can be pulled off an airline flight, but if you want to buy a gun, hey, no problem, here’s our fine selection! Seriously?)
The key to background checks is making sure the national database is complete, accurate and up-to-date, and making it a federal crime to buy guns on behalf of people who wouldn’t pass background checks on their own (aka gun trafficking).
The database is spotty now — many states send information sporadically, if at all — but it could be a robust, lifesaving tool if the public and Congress demand it.
Think of the impact that could have: Thirty-two people were shot and killed on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 by a gunman who had been declared legally mentally ill by a judge, but whose records were never sent to the federal database. If they’d been sent, that shooting might never have happened at all.
2. Nobody is coming to take anybody’s guns. No, really.
Somehow this basic truth keeps getting lost in the shouting: Nobody is coming to take anybody’s guns. Not one of the laws or proposals under consideration involves taking away the legally owned guns of law-abiding citizens, whether they fit the description of a future banned weapon or not. Whatever you own legally right now, no matter what it is, is grandfathered in. You keep what you have.
There really is no gun grab, no takeover, no Hitler-esque anything. The only thing at issue is the kind of guns people should be allowed to buy from here on in.
Members of Congress are falling over themselves telling hunters how much they love them. President Obama wants everybody to know he goes skeet shooting at Camp David. Most Americans, whether we own guns or not, are more than happy to congratulate you on your eight-point buck. It should be crystal clear by now that this is not about hunting or sport shooting, or even personal protection.
It’s just about drying up the supply pipeline of the guns whose primary purpose is to murder lots of people very, very fast.
Yes, that kind of ban takes time to show results. (Just think if you tried to curb smoking by banning the manufacture of cigarettes: Smokers would keep lighting up for quite some time, until they used up all their reserves.)
But consider this: There was a 55 percent drop in the number of assault pistols recovered by the Baltimore police from criminals and crime scenes, after Maryland created a more stringent ban on assault pistols in 1994. And by nine years after the passage of the federal 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, the use of assault weapons in crime nationwide declined by more than two-thirds.
Today, on a state-by-state basis, gun deaths are significantly lower in states with stronger gun safety laws, specifically those that ban assault weapons, require trigger locks and mandate safe storage of firearms.
3. A few seconds don’t matter much. Except when they do.
Two years ago, a 9-year-old girl with dark brown eyes and long brown hair got to skip school so she could hear her congresswoman speak at a local event. Christina Green was a sparkler of a girl, bright and funny, tough enough to be the only girl on the boys’ baseball team, but a sweet kid, too — the kind who always wanted to help.
While she was there, a gunman opened fire on the crowd using a gun with a 30-bullet magazine. When he stopped to reload, bystanders took advantage of those few crucial seconds to tackle him to the ground, stopping the horrific carnage.
But Christina had been shot and killed by the 13th bullet. If it had been a smaller magazine, Christina would still be alive.
Gun lobbyists say that banning high-capacity ammunition magazines won’t help anything because “it doesn’t take that long to change one.” But that’s precisely the most elegant argument for banning them: It doesn’t take that long (i.e., it’s not that inconvenient for sport shooters), but it takes long enough (giving bystanders those crucial seconds to intervene in a shooting).
Most Americans wouldn’t mind a few seconds of inconvenience if they realized it could save lives. And banning them makes a difference. During the 10 years they were prohibited, the percentage of firearms equipped with high-capacity magazines seized by police agencies in Virginia dropped, only to rise sharply once the restrictions ended in 2004.
As a friend said recently, if a guy needs a 30-bullet magazine to take down a single deer or a couple of intruders, proposed gun laws aren’t the problem. The problem is his aim.
4. The U.S. doesn’t have the market cornered on crazy people.
Of the 25 worst mass shootings in the world in the past 50 years, guess how many happened in the United States. Five? Six?
How about 15. (And the country that came in second — Finland — had two.)
Most of us agree that better mental health care will help make our society safer. And most of us also agree that American movies and video games have become too violent.
But there are people with mental illness all over the world, and the entire planet is awash in American movies and video games.
Yet somehow we seem to have a monopoly on mass shootings, and the number of gun murders in the U.S. is more than 19 times higher than that of other developed nations.
If every nation has unbalanced people, and every nation has access to violent American video games, it doesn’t make sense to place all the blame on those two factors.
We differ from other developed nations in one important way: Our gun laws are far more permissive, by a long shot. We aren’t a more violent people per se, but when we do feel violent, it’s so easy and handy to get our hands on a gun — and then what could have been a simple assault winds up being a murder, or a double murder, or much, much worse.
5. The Second Amendment is going to be just fine, thanks.
I can’t legally walk down my street waving a grenade launcher. I can’t carry a fully automatic machine gun to the store (or anywhere; they’re kept in locked armories). I’m not allowed to park an F-16 fighter jet in my driveway.
The Second Amendment isn’t a mandate to open up the weaponry candy store and let everybody have at it. It already has limits, and it should. (Ask conservative Justice Antonin Scalia — even he agrees.) So scooting the line this way or that shouldn’t be a big existential deal. We should be able to adjust the line between what we can and can’t have without losing our minds.
Even traffic laws are technically a limit on our freedom, but they’re a tradeoff we make for greater safety. We have to balance the right to bear arms against our children’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” … and they can’t pursue happiness if they’ve been shot by a mentally unbalanced felon who didn’t have to pass a background check.
(As a side note to folks stocking up on guns for any reason involving the word “tyranny,” I just have to gently tell you that no arsenal of assault weapons would help you if the U.S. Air Force decided you need to go. And if you really are fighting for “the American way of life,” keep in mind that that actually refers to a safe, free, civil society where people create change by voting.)
6. The NRA is not God.
I used to think — as many of us did — that the NRA was basically God in terms of political omnipotence, able to make the heads of Congress members nod up and down at will like bobblehead dolls, and willing to crush like a bug any fool who dared cross them.
But the NRA ain’t what it used to be. In the 2012 elections, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund spent more than $11 million, yet less than 1 percent of its money went to candidates who won. Of the 16 contested Senate races, the NRA-backed candidates won only three.
Sure, they’re loud, they love attention, and they spend a boatload of money. But a 1 percent return on an $11 million investment? Perhaps our members of Congress need not be so afraid.
(You also have to wonder about their attention to detail: The NRA spent a great deal of money on TV ads that criticize the president for opposing school security guards, which could have been a real lightning rod, except that the president’s directives actually do include provisions for school security guards. Oops.)
7. The lack of a single elegant solution is not a valid excuse for doing nothing.
Yes, bad people will do bad things, and we can’t always stop them. But if someone had walked into a school and detonated a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t sigh and say nothing could be done. As the inimitable John Oliver put it, “One failed shoe bomber and we’re all still taking our shoes off at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine, and no change in our gun laws.”
We know we can’t stop every car accident, but we’ve made driving vastly safer with seat belt laws, DUI penalties, car seat requirements and more. We pass laws to make our food supply safer, even though we know something could still slip through. And it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that we shouldn’t search for a cure for childhood cancer just because more kids die of car accidents, yet you hear that kind of statement about gun violence all the time. Why?
When it comes to guns, we’ve done almost nothing, but there are many reasonable, effective things we can do, and despite all the shouting, we actually agree on quite a few of them. The low-hanging fruit is right there.
We can’t give our children an absolute promise that we will keep them safe. We can’t halt every shooter or stop every tragedy. But we certainly can stop some of them.