Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat. Nobody’s seriously talking about getting rid of all of the nation’s guns, at least nobody who’s spent more than a scintilla of time looking at the issue of gun violence in our country.
The horrific, senseless violence visited last week upon the innocent children of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., defies easy answers. Yet confronted with tragedy such as this, two questions naturally follow: Why did it happen, and how to we keep it from happening again?
The first question is still being unraveled, bit by bit, as investigations continue. We may never know exactly why gunman Adam Lanza killed his mother a week ago and then massacred another 26 people at a local elementary school. And any reason offered or discovered will not soothe the pain or bring back the young lives so callously snuffed out.
The second question has consumed the nation’s pundits and politicians since the first news of the shooting. We’ve seen too much tragedy, the president said last Friday night. He’s right. We’ve watched in shock and horror as gunmen attacked a theater in Colorado, a mall in Oregon, a college in Virginia and far too many schools across our nation. So how do we prevent more heartbreak? Is it even possible to prevent the next attack?
Getting rid of guns won’t solve the problem. First of all, it’s hardly even realistic. There are about 300 million guns in the U.S. We couldn’t throw them all away even if we wanted to. Secondly, millions of gun owners legally own their weapons and the overwhelming majority are conscientious about their safety. Punishing the vast majority for the sins of a few – heinous as those sins may be – is not the answer.
As gun owners often point out, getting rid of guns because of a shooting would make as much sense as banning cars because of a traffic fatality. The comparison is an apt one. What’s needed is not a wholesale ban on guns, but more regulations on their legal use. Drivers must pass a test of their ability before being issued a license to drive a car, yet many states, including South Carolina, require no proof that gun owners can handle their weapon safely and responsibly.
We set speed limits for cars and age requirements for drivers, require seat belts and airbags, prohibit drunk driving, require insurance and more. South Carolina laws alone on motor vehicles fill almost 500 pages. South Carolina gun regulations, on the other hand, total only about 30. In short, while neither cars nor guns alone are to blame for the deaths they may cause, we seem to be much more willing to regulate our cars than our guns.
It’s past time to at least begin the conversation about changing that, and the terror in Newtown may be giving our nation the push it needs to do just that. The National Rifle Association, after observing a respectful silence for days, said this week that it intends to “offer meaningful contributions” on Friday. The group’s involvement is welcome and necessary, for the conversation about how to approach our nation’s gun laws cannot be one-sided.
Many worthy proposals will likely be floated in the coming weeks. They could include closing the private sale loophole that lets up to 40 percent of gun sales avoid a federal background check, reinstituting a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, creating a stricter background check, instituting a longer waiting period for buyers or requiring owners and dealers to report lost or stolen guns.
All of these changes would be good for our nation, and none will take guns out of the hands of the millions of responsible and sensible owners who already handle their weapons safely for self defense, target shooting and hunting. Would any of these changes, or others proposed, actually prevent another Newtown-like massacre? Perhaps not. Lanza did not purchase his guns and never had to submit to a background check. Even if the Bushmaster assault rifle he was carrying had been banned, he had two handguns with him as well (though perhaps fewer would have been killed without his high-capacity clips).
We would also be remiss if we ignored the needs of our nation’s mental health programs, many of which have suffered drastic cuts in the recent recession. It would be too simplistic to say that every such calamity could be averted by better mental health treatment. Experts have repeatedly pointed out that we cannot predict who will perpetrate such cold-blooded horror. We cannot hope to treat or lock up every would-be school shooter. The tragically unfortunate truth is that we cannot prevent every twisted act of violence committed by every troubled soul.
But there is hope that we can save some lives. Because while mass shootings like that in Newtown grab our attention by their size and horror, thousands more die every year in the U.S.
According to the Brady Campaign, in the United States, more than 12,000 people die in gun homicides every year. More than 18,000 kill themselves with guns. Almost 600 are killed in gun accidents. More than 66,000 are injured by guns.
Many of those deaths are caused by those who never had to undergo a background check or complete any training before picking up their weapon, those who might have criminal backgrounds or be mentally ill. Changing these laws is no threat to responsible gun owners and should be a no brainer.
Criminals and disturbed individuals will likely always be able to find a gun if they really want one. But we can at least make it harder to do so, and especially so for the most lethal of the weapons (which truly belong nowhere except in war). We may never be able to prevent every school shooting, but we can do something. Doing nothing is not an option.