THE BLOG

Time to Find Common Ground on Reducing Gun Violence

12/13/2013 10:08 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014
  • Paul Helmke Professor, Indiana University's School of Public & Environmental Affairs

It has been one year since 20 young children and six of the adults at their school were senselessly massacred, most riddled with at least 10 bullets each from the killer's high-powered guns. While some states have taken steps reducing easy access to such weapons, as a nation we've done nothing.

At least the U.S. Senate had a rare debate on what to do to reduce gun violence for a few hours in April. But while there was majority support for requiring most gun sellers to do background checks (since approximately 40 percent of all gun sales are completed legally without anyone checking to see if the purchaser is a felon, or has been found to be mentally dangerous), this provision (and others, like putting restrictions on access to many semi-automatic weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines) failed to get the 60-vote super-majority that the Senate requires to take action. Similarly, efforts by "gun rights" advocates to require nationwide reciprocity for concealed carry gun permits also fell short.

The political reality is that nothing is going to be done nationally on the gun violence issue until our elected officials work to find common ground. This shouldn't be as hard as we've made it. The U. S. Supreme Court decision in 2008 which declared that the 2nd Amendment provided an individual right unconnected to a "well-regulated militia" also made it clear that this right, in the words of Justice Scalia, "was not unlimited" and that some restrictions on who can get guns, how guns are sold, where guns can be taken, how guns are stored, and what kinds of guns are available are all "presumptively lawful."

Using this framework, we could review the current list of "prohibited purchasers" initially outlined in the Gun Control Act of 1968 to see if there should be additions or clarifications (add violent misdemeanants? eliminate non-violent felons? better definitions of "mental defective" or "drug user"?). If there are some people we have a pretty good idea are predisposed to violence, let's work together to tighten up that list.

Of course, it doesn't do any good to have a better list of people we don't want to have guns if those names aren't put into a data base that can be accessed by gun sellers and if many of those who sell guns aren't required to check who they're selling to. These are primarily operational, not policy, issues. If there is a strong argument that some sales shouldn't require a background check because of a family relationship, or have a different type of check because of access to the data base is not readily available in some parts of the country, then let's work out those specific issues and keep moving on overall improvements to the background check system.

The fights over an "assault weapon ban" show that it may be harder to reach an agreement on what guns should not be readily available to the general public. Here, the example of what we did in the 1934 Firearms Act to deal with machine guns should be instructive. Fully-automatic weapons were not banned, but access to them is strictly regulated. Firearms have come a long way in the last 90 years but our laws haven't been updated to reflect the new levels of lethality that can result from modern weapons. Let's see if we can figure out what should be regulated more like machine guns and what doesn't need special restrictions.

How we treat those with state-issued permits to carry loaded weapons in public is another area that has generated a lot of conflict. The U. S. Senate has narrowly blocked attempts by "gun rights" advocates to get national reciprocity for these permits. The concern of many has been that this would gut some existing state and local restrictions. However, if gun enthusiasts were willing to agree to some minimal national standards for who gets to carry concealed weapons, maybe a broad compromise could be reached on national reciprocity in exchange for agreements on what kinds of guns are available and how to strengthen background checks.

While common ground shouldn't be that hard to find, the political reality is that this won't happen until our elected officials feel the pressure from the public, and the NRA feels the pressure from its supporters, to be willing to compromise.

There are a lot of things that need to be done to help stop the all too frequent killings -- and no single thing is going to make the difference. Coming together to find common ground decisions that reflect gun responsibilities and risks, as well as gun rights, is the first step.

(This column was originally published in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on December 8, 2013).

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