Until mid-July, few Americans expected the words gun control to be spoken during this year’s presidential election campaign. But when James E. Holmes fired his weapons, including a semiautomatic rifle with a 100-round capacity, in a packed movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the issue of gun control pinged back into the nation’s consciousness, at least for an instant.
Why is it so easy for a killer to stockpile an arsenal of guns and ammunition without anyone’s notice until the rounds rip into a crowd? Our society asked that question in 2011 after Jared Loughner’s rampage in Tucson, Ariz. We are asking it again with the arrest of Mr. Holmes for allegedly killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. Is society powerless to prevent incidents like these? Or could a strong national ban on semiautomatic weapons plus a centralized system of record-keeping, background checks, licensing and monitoring of purchases have prevented this slaughter of innocents? If some say that gun violence is the cost society must pay for citizens to exercise the constitutional right to bear arms, then others must insist that the cost is too high. Constitutional rights like freedom of speech, press and assembly are subject to limits, and so should the right to be armed.
Gun control requires strong leadership and a supportive electorate, both currently in short supply. Several states (including California, New York and Massachusetts) ban assault weapons. Although Mitt Romney opposes gun control now, he was governor of Massachusetts when that state’s ban was made permanent. Barack Obama vowed as a presidential nominee to reinstate the ban on semiautomatic weapons. During the Holmes case, however, he has not reaffirmed his vow, because tightening gun laws will not win him votes. Blaming politicians, though, is insufficient. As “the self-governed,” we Americans should admit that no citizen needs a semiautomatic weapon. Catholics ought to champion gun control because restrictions would promote life, as they do in the case of abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia.
The national ban on military-style assault weapons, passed by Congress in 1994, expired with mixed results in 2004. The ban, neither clear nor strong enough, allowed too many exceptions, and foreign imports flooding the market offset the gains. Efforts to reinstate a ban have failed. So have such proposals as regulation of gun-show sales (which are lax on background checks and third-party buyers) and a ban on clips that hold more than 10 bullets. While the proposals might inconvenience gun owners, they offer significant gains to law enforcement and public safety. And if gun manufacturers were required to stamp shell casings for semiautomatic weapons, the police could identify the guns used in crimes—a major step forward. The gun lobby, however, has successfully fought each of these proposals.
In the weighing of rights, a gun-owner’s “freedom” ought not to trump all the societal benefits to be gained from limiting it. That view is no longer popular. Instead, gun ownership has increased; the National Rifle Association has become a more formidable political force; some states have expanded gun rights; and the portion of Americans who favor gun control has shrunk. Even support for the assault weapons ban is at a record low.
After a massacre, questions about the collective good are typically raised. Yet they are put aside once the gunman is portrayed as a lone actor among millions of law-abiding gun-owners, whose constitutional rights ought not be infringed because of one oddball’s misbehavior. Thus society allows individuals to build an armory, heedless of the rights of all Americans to live in safety.
Those who find legal limits intrusive and ineffective make comparisons to diminish the toll of gun violence; each year more people are killed by cars than by guns, they point out. Yet automobiles are not only licensed, but registration must pass from buyer to buyer; and every car owner must buy liability insurance. Society has a duty to hold car owners accountable, because cars can (and do) cause serious injury and death. That duty extends to gun owners as well.
Extreme individualism underlies the tendency to extend personal liberty at society’s expense. That attitude also distorts other public policy debates, like those over taxation and health care.
Until society’s preference for the unlimited exercise of individual rights over those of the common good is tempered, our nation will remain hostage to the gun lobby. And our politicians will be reduced to offering victims condolences rather than solutions to gun violence. Is this the society we want?