Lethal Responsibility: Reframing gun control as a public safety issue

The question of guns in society is often framed as an issue about “protecting good guys from bad guys.” The bad guys include not only criminals but also people with a tendency to deal with emotional problems by acting violently against their fellow citizens. Once you name the issue that way, all responses to the issue will be geared to forestalling criminal behavior.

In the conversation occurring across the country, this way of structuring the question appears to be winning. All the options under consideration seem to be aimed at preventing tragedies like the shooting in Newtown, Conn. It is a laudable objective, to be sure, but to adopt it as the only one, or even the primary one, would be a serious mistake.

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Why focus on situations that, however ghastly, occur quite rarely, when the number of gun injuries and fatalities occurring in the home—whether through sudden bursts of anger, domestic conflicts or children just playing around with their parents’ firearms—far outnumber those resulting from mass murders?

If we really want to diminish the number of deaths by firearms, we need to be clear that gun deaths are often not a matter of bad guys versus good guys; they are more frequently a matter of careful gun owners as contrasted with careless ones. Both have the right to possess guns. Most gun owners are responsible in exercising that right. But many are not, with fatal consequences—and they are neither criminals nor people with mental problems.

Instead of focusing on criminal behavior (which many believe will have little effect, simply because criminals can always beat the system), we need to institute policies that define responsible gun behavior and attach serious consequences for those “good guys” who are not criminals but who behave without any sense that their behavior diminishes the well-being of the rest of society. The dominant issue is not one of criminality but of public safety. The overarching goal is to diminish the number of deaths due to irresponsible behavior.

How might that be accomplished? I propose a three-pronged strategy.

1) A single registry of all gun owners. The aim of this registry is not to constrain lawful citizens unfairly but rather to supply public officials with the information they need if they are to fulfill their responsibility for safeguarding the citizenry.

For this discussion, the trajectory of our country’s response to automobiles is an illustrative one. Ninety years ago anyone could buy a car and drive it. No license was required. A driver was simply expected to use the car in a responsible way. The invention was so new that people did not yet know, experientially, how hazardous it could be. But the occurrence of serious accidents soon showed the wisdom of requiring some form of driver identification. Then gradually we learned that even with clearer expectations people did not take the trouble to learn how to drive responsibly. That led to the requirement of drivers’ education programs. We became aware of physical impediments, like impaired vision, and developed strategies for recognizing them. Today a vision test is mandatory. We also instituted quality controls in the manufacturing of the vehicle itself.

For any of these improvements to occur, evidence-based data were needed. The same thing is true with data on gun ownership. In the absence of a national database, no policy decisions can be evaluated.

Over a reasonable period of time, all gun owners should be required to register their firearms with a government agency. After that period anyone possessing an unregistered gun would be subject to penalty. Obviously not all guns would be registered in that first period, but we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Over time the expectation would be taken for granted—like other forms of certification—as part of responsible citizenship.

2) Mandatory training before a permit is issued. Experience has proven that many owners simply do not appreciate what it takes to use a firearm safely. A loaded firearm is an inherently hazardous object. Its potential toxicity respects no difference in psychological status; it simply is dangerous. (An interesting byproduct of mandatory training would be the emergence of a new industry: officially certified training programs, which would also generate new jobs.)

Since experience shows that as we age our competences diminish, there would be provision for periodic recertification (just as your eyes are tested each time you renew your driver’s license).

3) Penalties for abdication of responsibility. This is the necessary linchpin. A citizen might be able to show evidence of recent completion of training and have the required license, but accidents still happen. People—many people, according to statistics—die from guns in the hands of the “good guys” who happen to act irresponsibly and carelessly.

A father leaves for work; his 6-year-old son gets into the closet, plays with the gun and kills his sister. A licensed owner gives his gun to a friend who has a fight with his wife; the fight escalates; he grabs the gun and she dies. An owner needs money and sells his gun without leaving any record; it passes through many hands until it lands in the hands of a criminal.

Our traditional response to such deaths is, “How sad! What a tragedy.” Instead, our law should say to the original owner, “When you bought that hazardous object, you became an agent of society, responsible to your fellow citizens for its proper custody and use. You were trained to fulfill that responsibility. You have failed to live up to it and society exacts a penalty for that abdication. As long as you remain the licensed owner you retain responsibility for what happens. ‘Accidents’ are no excuse.”

What might we expect from the implementation of such a strategy? Responsible gun owners should applaud it. It adds extra protection for them and their families, while affirming the contribution they make to society by taking their responsibility seriously.

As implementation begins, we should anticipate a slow learning curve: “Are they really serious?” But as new cases result in convictions, the public at large will begin to be more aware that ownership brings with it serious consequences. (It is assumed that a dramatic educational effort would accompany the implementation.) Each potential new buyer would be compelled to weigh the slight risk of a criminal break-in against the far greater risk of becoming responsible for an “accidental” tragedy. Some present owners might even find it more attractive to eliminate that personal risk by participating in a gun buy-back program.

Careful or careless? It is not simply a personal choice; it is a social responsibility—even for the good guys.

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Darrin Snyder Belousek
4 years 7 months ago
Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I agree that a focus on rare, if traumatic, events will be of limited benefit even if it does issue in sensible gun regulation. Focusing on the everyday reality of guns in the home is necessary. One item I would add to you list: mandatory gun liability insurance. Keeping with your automobile analogy (an apt analogy, I think), most (if not all) states require that car drivers, in addition to registering their vehicle and passing a driver's test, purchase a minimal policy of liability insurance. The same should apply to gun owners, not only for the reasons you cite but also for the reason that accidental gun shootings impose literally billions of dollars of direct and indirect costs on the American public each year. Gun owners whose irresponsibility leads to social costs via accidental shootings should be liable for such costs the same as car drivers whose irresponsible driving leads to accidents that harm others and add costs to society. A policy of mandatory liability insurance for gun owners would likely lead to widespread implementation of gun safety measures--imposed, not by government, but by the market as insurance companies either require them of their policy holders or offer incentives for safety through lower premiums. Mandatory insurance for gun owners would no more violate constitutional rights than would a city's requirement that a private organization holding a mass demonstration in a public park have liability insurance to cover costs of damages or injuries violate free speech. It would, above all, reinforce the principle without which no civil society can long survive--that rights entail responsibilities and that society itself has a right to expect and enforce the responsible behavior of its members as they exercise their individual rights.
Ray Hamilton
4 years 7 months ago
Interesting article. Mr. Wilson does not show where he gets the data to support his arguments. I checked the CDC web site and found the following: Unintentional gun deaths for the 3 years 2008-10 averaged 584 per year. In the 12 years including 1999 through 2012 the average was 695 per year. So there has been some recent improvement. These are the kinds of deaths training potentially would affect. So why does this rise to a public safety issue? By contrast there were 35,498 accidental deaths in motor vehicle accidents in 2010. All the people driving cars are supposed to be trained and are periodically retested. Wilson may want to write about getting more training on driving in the interest of public safety. Concerning a governmental registry, it is the perfect way to identify law abiding gun owners. It will not identify any illegal gun owners. It gives the government the easy way to confiscate guns when the mood of the country changes and I oppose it for that reason. The government cannot be trusted. Just look at how the Affordable Care Act is resulting in mandates that will deny conscience rights to those opposed to contraception and abortion. I believe we need to have sever prison sentences for using a gun in a crime and a public awareness campaign in high gun crime areas to increase the likely hood that the criminals would know about it. That would solve much of the gun crime problem. Concerning his idea for penalties for abdicating responsibilities. They are available now. An injured party can sue the care less party. If the injury rises to a standard that the local prosecutors have good reason to prosecute then they should. The example he gives about the negligent father would seem to rise to that level. We don't need more laws. Too many people believe that the government should provide solutions for every imperfection in society. It is odd that they want the most incompetent organization to do this. Just look at the governments program of encouraging the sale of guns to those sending them to Mexico. The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms department has a scandal now known as Fast and Furious. I wonder how many Mexicans were murdered with those guns provided at our governments instruction. I don't want to bother commenting on all of his points, but I do agree that someone selling, or transferring a gun should keep a record of who they are selling to and the serial numbers and types of guns transfered. The CDC web site is at http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate10_us.html The site is easy to search and you can do your own research on Fatal Injuries and their causes.

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