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Dennis Santiago Headshot

Reducing Gun Violence Must Ultimately Be a Partnership Between Government and Gun Owners

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Sometimes you have to step back from horror to look for solutions to it. In the United States, we have seen a pattern of violent behavior emerging for a number of years. It's become "common" enough that "active shooter" scenario training is now part of the annual cycle of training of most police departments. Like a piece of shock music, the location changes but the refrain is always the same. Somehow, a mentally unstable person falls through a crack and acts out violently targeting victims who are easy prey. The carnage is sensational and stuns the senses universally to the point that we all grasp at anything we can to help soothe our shock.

What is important to remember about the United States in such times is that though the individual responses are artifacts of a vast plurality of views on how to react, the universal commonality of the American People is we are not content to accept such losses as part of the status quo. We seek the common outcome that our society be less susceptible and less vulnerable to such threats. We do it noisily like a cacophonous horde wielding placards and pitch forks demanding something be done. We look to government hoping it may have a panacea and bicker when it cannot deliver.

So I thought I try a different tact. What if we challenged ourselves, like a huge collective non-government mass of humanity, to solve it. What are the things we need to bear in mind to manage our expectations and guide our pragmatism?

So let's define a mission. Let's posit that what we want is to find an immediately implementable set of actions that can tangibly reduce society's susceptibility and vulnerability to sudden emergence mass killing violence.

There are four points of interdiction that are available,
1. The available inventory of weaponry that a perpetrator might access.
2. The point of sale where a specific weapon passes from general inventory into individual possession.
3. The junction in the timeline where the at-risk person gains active control of the weapon to commit the crime.
4. The interdiction of the "active crime" itself to limit the extent of any damage done.

On the first point, guns are not going to go away in the United States for a variety of legitimate reasons. The inventory of firearms in the United States is vast and it is overwhelmingly used for both recreational and defensive purposes. There is a clear consensus emerging particularly among lawmakers that the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights is real and has importance that goes beyond any single issue of the moment. It was placed there to help stabilize and perpetuate the Union and no matter what anyone says it's doubtful that the country could survive without it. Given this, we need to look at the remaining potential points of interdiction.

This gets us to point of sale controls. Being pragmatic, this is government's most practical role in the process. Access control at point of sale is about as good as it gets no matter how many laws are passed by Congress or activated by Executive Order. It's where manufacturing licensing, eligibility rules, background checks, transfer processing infrastructure and pretty much everything else to do with buying and selling a gun takes place. For each gun going from legal possessor to legal possessor, the bulk of government's apparatus starts and stop as the firearm is handed from seller to buyer. From there on, the burden of control rests upon the individual gun owner.

Many people, including myself, are appalled at the inadequate state of the government's infrastructure with regards to managing this category of risk at the point of sale. Mental health records in the present background system are full of holes you can drive a truck through. Mental health care for severely ill persons is a national disgrace. What else can you call a system where state run institutions are long gone, health care providers and their insurers more than anything else "wall off" these inconvenient individuals from the system. In the meantime, individual families will remain forced to shoulder almost 100 percent of the burden of being care giver and watchdog of their troubled loved ones.

But given the magnitude of the systemic disaster we have perpetrated upon ourselves, mental health reform will not happen overnight. It takes years to find the funding for, let alone settle upon the rules and train the people who would operate a new system of facilities where observation and treatment of severe risk individuals can be done. Jails are not the answer. It's wrong to punish sick people for being sick. Regardless, this is not an active path to a solution that will yield immediate widespread results in terms of lowering the number of mass killing incidents we will see in the next twelve months.

This gets us to interdiction point number three.

Once we get here, government is no longer the main gatekeeper. It's now up to the individual legal gun owner to ensure that weapons in his or her custody do not pass into the control of an at risk person at the moment that person intends to commit a crime. That's a very narrow but extremely mission critical circumstance in the overall universe of how people own, store and use firearms in this country. So rare an event that we don't have very good rules of engagement about what people need do when they sense such a control junction is imminent. It's narrow because the vast majority of gun owners will never encounter the problem. It's the very small minority of gun owners who are in at-risk households that quite honestly need guidance and help.

That help has to come from other gun owners. It's only other gun owners who are familiar with the concepts of firearms safety and the proper storage of firearms who have the necessary skill to assist at-risk households. There are expectations that gun owners have of each other about making sure firearms and ammunition are kept separate except at one's assigned live firing point; and that designated firing point in a defensive posture could be on one's person. Regardless, when the firearm is in condition to fire the expectation is that it is under the control and supervision of the legal possessor.

In an at-risk household, the legal owner has a heightened need to be learned of and ensure an elevated level of storage and control. That means locks. It could mean disabling everything except the defensive gun in use by taking parts out. It could mean making and maintaining friendships with other trustworthy gun owners who can take custody of weaponry, when needed, to create additional physical distance safeguards. People need those friendships to add to their support group for those times when the stress levels of care giving may be so high someone has to be there to let them know they are not alone and abandoned. These measures -- and I'm sure others that will come to light as people focus on this -- are common sense prudence, require no government action other than positive encouragement, and can be done tomorrow to cause an immediate state change in the degree of danger posed by this type of threat.

Bolstering infrastructure admittedly takes money. Some at-risk households may be financial impaired in being able to improve their risk management profile. It's Christmas. Not a bad time to buy a friend in need a safety present. It's a good way create the kind of grass roots support groups this country needs. I've been involved in such people to people solutions in the past and I continue to believe it is the true strength of the United States to overcome anything.

A quick side note about managing unintended consequence risks. I must point out that I am rather uncomfortable with non-gun owners who lack training being an integral part of in the field firearms management. If one does not know the how's and why's of firearms, you're frankly not qualified. Gun owners actually see details of procedure and have a culture of correcting each other that's a little hard on the egos of the uninitiated. I'm very much of the opinion that while one does not have to own a gun to care about this public safety issue, there are minimum skills required and if you don't have them you'll likely do more harm than good. America has plenty enough gun owners to implement a better form of interdiction point three once we have declared the national resolve to do so. In the longer term, perhaps it may be prudent that even non-gun owners take the time to at least learn the skills so they can be better equipped to be part of the very one-on-one nature of this aspect of a national safety strategy. But it's not a burden I would advocate forcing upon people.

Finally we get to interdiction point four. In the last few days I have lost count of the number of off-the-cuff ideas I've seen on this. The myth that gun free zones offer greater protection has suffered the "mark to model" failure the mathematics of operations research has always said it would. It's been replaced by lively diatribe about arming teachers. I've seen proposals for combat veterans to form guard companies kind of like the Air Marshall Service and other what not. Everybody's got an idea to fight the zombies. Some may actually have powerful merit. Some are just too much caffeine at midnight. All must be vetted in turn. It is critical that we deliberate such things in these United States because they are in fact heartfelt responses by Americans seeking to cope with the unthinkable. The only wrong thing to do here is to close our minds. What is important to remember about the dynamics of criminal events is that they are fluid. They are to put it bluntly, predator vs. prey events. Every offense has a counter. Every defense has a flaw. Nothing will work all the time and doing nothing will fail all the time. I admit that I do see the merits of self-defense in the case of mitigating the amount of damage caused by mass killers. The answer about how to do it right remains elusive. But whatever that answer this is the one area where government and gun owner must learn to work far more closely together to get it right.

Wrapping Up

If government does a better job of managing interdiction point two and gun owners do a better job of managing interdiction point three, we will likely need interdiction point four a lot less. What's a good measure of less? First let's not kid ourselves. One cannot entirely eliminate the reality that "slip through the cracks" incidents will happen. However, pursuing a comprehensive strategy of layers of defense could very well mean that instead of filling the airwaves with the acrimony of rhetoric several times a year we can get to only seeing it happen once every five years or even once a decade. It's up to all of us to set aside difference to make that happen.