Murderers in High Places

Any politician who votes against gun control is complicit in murder—this includes President Trump and the many Senators and Representatives who have accepted millions of dollars from the National Rifle Association and who fear that a bad grade from the NRA could cost them an election.

While NRA-backed politicians do their thing in Washington, more Americans die from gun violence in the US than from terrorist acts or fighting overseas. More than 36,000  Americans are shot to death each year—more than those killed by alcohol (over 31,000) and almost as many as those who die in automobile accidents (38,000), though well below the roughly 60,000 who die from opioids and other drugs and the half million who die from smoking tobacco.

How to reduce gun violence? President Trump and the NRA are correct: Many if not most mass shooters have mental and emotional problems such as those that apparently drove Nikolas Cruz to shoot and kill at least seventeen pupils and teachers at his former high school. But authorities cannot lock up every person with mental or emotional problems. It would be far more useful and feasible to register every gun, large and small, and to require that every gun holder be licensed to use and/or own a firearm. A national registration and licensing system could be mandated under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.

Guns should be regulated like automobiles—both can be valuable but also dangerous. Every vehicle must be registered and, in most states, checked for safety and emissions. Every would-be driver must pass a test to demonstrate knowledge of the rules and his/her physical and mental ability to drive safely. There is no reason to pussyfoot with half-way measures such as limiting assault rifles or the gadgets that turn a rifle into a rapid-fire machine gun.

Guns can be turned against leaders as well as school children and concert goers.  Four US presidents have been assassinated while in office. Two others were wounded. There have been at least 20 attempts to assassinate sitting and former presidents. Republicans as well Democrats can be shot.

Possessing a gun does not necessarily improve one’s chances of survival. Residents of states with higher levels of gun ownership suffer higher rates of gun-related deaths. Many gun owners purchase weapons for self-defense, but they are dreaming. As the Washington Post reported on June 14, 2016,  for every person who uses a gun in self-defense, nearly six persons employ a gun to commit a crime.

Universal gun registration and licensing may appear utopian. But this approach offers a clear and relatively simple response to a severe challenge to public health. Defenders of gun rights will say that such measures would violate the Second Amendment. But such obligations would be no more onerous than the requirement to register every motorized vehicle and license every driver. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives could back gun registration as a way to improve the safety of legitimate gun owners as well as other Americans.

As for the Second Amendment, while the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a right to arms, the court also left the door open to gun regulation. A requirement to register arms and license ownership would not jeopardize Second Amendment guarantees.   Nor would such rules stop  hunters, sport shooters, or those who feel safer with their own weapons from owning guns. To obtain a license, however, an applicant would have to maintain a clean record and demonstrate an ability to maintain and use a weapon to prevent injury to themselves and others .

Yes, bad guys would be reluctant to register their weapons and seek a license. In time, however, the law would catch up with many of them. Given his medical record  and school expulsions, an individual such as Nikolas Cruz could not have obtained or retained a gun license under a national system to register guns and license gun owners. Nor could he have purchased a gun.

Every weapon registered should have a safety device to prevent firing by children or other unlicensed persons. Registration of large-bore and rapid-fire weapons that are more powerful than what can be useful for hunters should probably be limited to collectors who exhibit them or keep them under lock and key.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life comes first. Without it, there can be neither liberty nor happiness. If we demand international curbs on weapons of mass destruction, should we not also expect and demand regulation of weapons that kill thousands of innocents every year in America?

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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