One week after the Aurora theater shootings in Colorado and our government has been utterly lackluster in its response. Will Americans be safer going forward? Likely not. Why? Because while President Barack Obama has mentioned that assault weapons belong in the hands of US soldiers and not on the streets of America, he has left it to Congress to move forward on an assault weapons ban or a ban on high capacity magazines like the ones allegedly used by James Holmes.
That's too bad because Congress isn't remotely close to doing anything beyond a resolution condemning the violent act. In fact, Senate Democratic Party leader Harry Reid has eluded the debate entirely, even dismissing the Senate's revisiting of the issue one year from now. House Republican Party leader John Boehner acknowledged this week that he welcomes "other" ideas around gun control, which means that the ones on the table -- e.g. bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines -- are null and void in his opinion.
The few in Congress who have been vocal -- from US Senator Frank Lautenberg to US Representatives Jim Moran and Mike Honda -- are to be lauded for their courage at a time when even the progressive pundits are reticent to talk about the need for more gun safety in society. If more Members of Congress would be like New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, who has been vocal in the last week about the need for tighter gun laws and better background checks. It is remarkable to see Mayor Bloomberg as the leading progressive voice on this issue.
Given the near silence in Washington, what should be done to stem the tide of nearly 100,000 firearm-related injuries each year, 30 percent of which result in death? What should be done to ensure registration and licensing on the nearly 300 million guns in the US (a figure which grew from 200 million in only 15 years)? What should be done to ensure that there are reasonable limits on handgun purchases per month so that we can stem the gun running and gun trafficking, which are rampant in the US? What should be done to ensure that states are giving mental health data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) so that shootings like at VA Tech -- where Seung-Hui Cho was on Virginia's list but not on the national list because the state failed to provide the data -- are more preventable?
Here's what should be done. First, since there's the consensus around background checks, let's start there. Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently polled gun owners, many of whom were National Rifle Association members, and a good 80 percent of those polled support background checks. The problem with the existing background checks is that they primarily detect criminal records, missing important warning signs that fall short of what's criminal. On the mental health front, furthermore, it relies on states to provide data, which many fail to do, and the data is narrowly defined. Someone like James Holmes wouldn't be on that list because, despite having mental illness and despite encouragement by his family to have psychological treatment, he wasn't institutionalized or clinically diagnosed. That needs to change. We need better data on anyone who wants to buy a gun. Before the Virginia Tech shootings, the state of Virginia wasn't giving NICS its data, which is what ultimately allowed Cho to buy a gun. Thankfully, since that awful incident, Virginia is changing its laws on that front but more is needed.
Second, we need better gun data. We know more information about the interstate trafficking of bananas then we do about guns. Some basic registration, permitting and licensing would go a long way to ensuring better data on gun purchases and trafficking. We do all of the above for automobiles -- which are part and parcel of our American rights and freedoms but which can also be used as weapons -- and we should require this for weapons as well.
Third, it is reasonable for US policymakers to ask for a renewal of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, as well as ban on high-capacity magazines. As Congressman Moran put it, Americans also have a right to live in a safe society. We must balance that right with the 2nd Amendment's right to bear arms. Anyone who claims that if we were all armed all the time that we'd be better able to defend the public against attackers is promulgating a fallacy. During the mass shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' public event in Arizona, there were persons in the audience who were armed but even they failed to prevent the shooting. It took several persons tackling the shooter to eventually disarm the assailant. Perhaps a better tactic is to train everyone in martial arts.
Fourth, we must get the money out of American politics. Currently we have the best democracy money can buy, which is why the NRA has kept Congress largely quiet on this issue. While it is known that the NRA gives millions of dollars each year to Congressional campaigns, elected officials should follow a different financial equation. The cost of each homicide -- and keep in mind there were 12 in Colorado -- is $1.3 million according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's what it costs taxpayers in terms of medical, court and police costs. Never mind the longer-term costs of this violence to our society, in the billions of dollars, in terms of lost economic productivity, as those persons killed are no longer in the workforce.
Lastly, there's the question of social capital, which is harder to quantify than anything aforementioned. James Holmes was an isolationist. There were few people close to him to detect warning signs. Without question, and the data show this, more peaceful American states and cities have higher rates of social capital. That means levels of trust in the community are higher, perceptions of criminality in society are lower, and community involvement is higher. That's what we need to focus on. Any policies that improve the likelihood that any American doesn't feel marginalized or disenfranchised -- socially or economically - is critical.
That is where we need to head. It's not too late to lead one week later and we'll have a better America for it. Leaders, lead.
Michael Shank is the vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace.
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