Guns: Can America Finally Address this Epidemic?

Already in 2018, there have been more than a dozen school shootings in the United States.  We are only in March.

In November 2017, a little over a month after the Las Vegas shooting, we asked “Where is the Outrage?  A Call to End America’s Gun Epidemic.”  Even though almost 60 people died in that massacre, with some 500 plus injured, Congress lost any momentum it had to regulate devices like bump stocks.  America fell into its usual pattern after a shooting: shared grief, thoughts and prayers on social media, and calls for regulatory action that eventually fizzled out.  Advocating for this status quo was the National Rifle Association (“NRA”), the primary lobbying group for all things guns, who stuck to their typical mantra: “do not give an inch on gun regulation, for if you do, the government will take a mile.”  Accordingly, Congress could not agree on sensible regulation banning bump stocks, which were used in the Las Vegas shooting, permitting that shooter to fully automate semi-automatic rifles and mow down innocent people trying to enjoy a concert.

Shortly thereafter, 26 people were gunned down at the First Baptist Church, many of them women and children.  President Trump sent a few tweets about mental health being the issue, and he even expressed thanks that someone was shooting in the opposite direction.  These statements undermined the fact that current federal controls failed when the Air Force did not enter the gunman’s criminal record into a federal database, actions that could have prevented his gun purchases.

At the beginning of 2018, we asked the question again: where is the outrage?  America had moved on from the gun debate.  We stopped asking ourselves how we could prevent another mass shooting, and how we could make public places safer.  Instead, Congress engaged in divisive immigration rhetoric that almost resulted in a government shutdown.

Now we all live with the consequences of the school shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida on February 14th, which left 17 people dead and many asking why this same story plays over and over again.  Almost a month has passed, and already, the public can sense the same pattern playing out.  In fact, the Florida Senate recently rejected a proposed ban on assault weapons and instead voted to arm some teachers (even though the bill was largely watered down, the NRA still filed a lawsuit, primarily against Florida’s raise of the minimum age to purchase a gun, from 18 to 21).

With the arming of some teachers, the state of Florida made its priorities known: it would prefer to fight fire with fire and force some teachers to make life and death decisions in the classroom.  This action evades the core problem: a lack of gun control.  The shooter in the Parkland tragedy:

  1. Was not allowed to purchase a handgun in the state, but could buy an AR-15 rifle;
  2. Had a history of violence and abuse that was known in the community and by the police, but was permitted to keep his arsenal of guns (there were no red flag laws permitting the police to confiscate them); and
  3. Was reported to the FBI for the disturbing comments and images he posted on social media (the FBI did not act on the warnings)

Arming some teachers to combat these types of people is a reactive solution that poses a number of problems, all of which should be self-evident, but are apparently difficult for some people to grasp:

  1. Life and Death Decisions.  No longer are teachers responsible for molding the minds of the next generation, but they would now be forced to fight for their safety too.  This may create scenarios where teachers have to decide whether to shoot a child, depending on the threat or risk they pose to the safety of others.  There has to be a better solution than putting some teachers (and children) in that position.
  2. Escalation.  If a school shooter knows that some teachers are armed, they may bring bigger guns.  If Mrs. Jones, a Social Studies teacher, is packing heat in the form of a 9mm, a school shooter may bring an AR-15.  Do we really want to create the risk of bigger firefights in America’s schools?
  3. Mishandling.  What happens if little Johnny gets his hands on Mrs. Jones’ 9mm?  Perhaps she forgot to lock her gun safe in the classroom.  Alternatively, what happens if Mrs. Jones thinks she hears a gun shot, when in reality a number of balloons popped, but in a defensive maneuver she decides to return fire?
  4. More Accident Prone.  When a firearm is present, there is a greater risk for accidents occurring.  Many disagree with this premise.  However, it is difficult to comprehend how a classroom environment with guns is safer than one without them.  Even if Mrs. Jones is well-trained, she is not infallible.  There is a risk she could accidently discharge the weapon and injure herself or others.

Aside from the four reasons above, if there is a live shooter at school, do we seriously expect teachers to fire potentially into a crowd of students?  Are we comfortable with collateral damage?  Not all situations lend themselves to arming people in public settings.  For example, even if everyone at the Las Vegas concert had been armed, how would that have mitigated the threat in that situation?  Would we have expected them to fire back at the Mandalay Bay Hotel where the shots were coming from?  Would we want them to guess the hotel room the shooter was in, potentially endangering the lives of many more people?  We need to be thoughtful about these types of proposals before implementing policies that could potentially do more harm than good.

And the fact remains: the one person with a gun at the Parkland school stayed outside the entire time and did not even use it.  A trained security guard could not thwart the threat, but we expect teachers to be able to teach and fire?  Would you want your child going to a school where there are more guns?

The current state of gun control in America cannot persist.  How many of the parents or family members of shooting victims are content with current gun laws?  Did any opinions change after they personally experienced it, waiting anxiously for their child to text them back confirming they’re safe?

President Trump has recently expressed a desire to strengthen federal background-checks, but this action alone is not enough.  There needs to be comprehensive reform, which may include background checks, red flag laws (that require authorities to confiscate guns if owners pose a credible threat, while not violating anyone’s due process rights), bans on certain types of guns (nobody needs a fully automatic weapon), and training requirements.  It is mind-blowing that America requires people to obtain a driver’s license to operate an automobile, but no training or license is required to own and fire a gun.

Public sentiment is strong and change could be just over the horizon.  The high school students who survived the shooting in Parkland have been articulate and persuasive, but their momentum will not last forever.  Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) have proposed legislation to enhance federal background checks, which would create a nationwide database with incentives for states to report and penalties for those who do not.  Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) have proposed a bill that would expand background checks to online and gun show sales.  The fate of these efforts, however, depend on one man: Donald Trump.

The President is arguably more popular than the NRA in many places across the country.  He is in a position to do something that could effect change and create a safer environment for everyone.  As Governor Jay Inslee (D-Washington) suggested though, he needs to do “A little less tweeting, a little more listening.”  The government cannot be impulsive and push through policy that could infringe on due process rights (in the case of red flag laws) or the second amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.  Governor Inslee, for example, led a successful state level effort to ban bump stocks.  Small steps like those on the federal level would be better than nothing.  Trump will need to be steadfast in his resolve, however, for if he does challenge the NRA, the conspiracy theories and personal attacks against him and his administration will abound.

The country needs better gun control.  The majority of Americans support it.  President Trump, thoughts and prayers will not prevent another mass shooting.

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