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.
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.