The trouble with tragedies is that they fade over time. The shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown may have been exceptionally horrific but the challenges of daily life and the other problems we face as a nation will inevitably displace the urgency of gun control within weeks. From the fiscal cliff debate to the crisis in Syria, the news cycle and our attention spans will eventually wander.
That is why it is all the more important for the Democratic party to keep the pressure up on gun control. Under the most unfortunate circumstances, the Connecticut massacre has opened up a rare window of opportunity for our political leaders to push for stronger gun laws. Public support for gun control is currently high and even gun rights advocates are uncharacteristically silent on the issue. After all, how could any civilized nation not push for stricter gun laws in the wake of the murder of 20 first-graders?
The Democrats need to move fast in the new year if they want to get something done and I sincerely hope that this time they don't blow it. To accomplish this, they need to keep the debate firmly in the public spotlight and to focus on four key initiatives.
A New Assault Weapons Ban
Senator Dianne Feinstein from California vowed this weekend to reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban, which, before expiring in 2004, had banned 19 types of semi-automatic weapons with a mixture of features that mimic a military assault rifle (although that is fully automatic), including high capacity ammunition loaders. Since fully automatic weapons are already banned for civilian use under the National Firearms Act of 1934, the idea behind the AWB is to plug a glaring hole in our system - namely, the ability of gun owners to use semi-automatic weapons as instruments of combat rather than simple self-defense through the use of attachments. High capacity ammunition clips and ammunition drums are a particular problem since they make it logistically possible for individual gunmen to carry out massacres.
The AWB is a common sense law that deserves to be reinstated. The National Rifle Association and its cronies will no doubt trot out statistics to show that the relationship between gun violence and an AWB is tenuous, but just because such weapons are used rarely in crimes does not mean that they will not be used more liberally in the future. Both the Colorado and Newtown shooters used such guns to carry out their carnage.
Prevention, as they say, is better than a cure, and that is what the AWB is meant to accomplish. Even if the law prevents one such tragedy by making it harder for criminals to secure such weapons, that could mean 20 innocent children who, unlike the victims in Sandy Hook, will get to lead out their full lives. The real question here is not why an Assault Weapons Ban, but why not?
Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act
New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993, and New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, have a bill pending in Congress to effectively ban online and mail-order sales of ammunition to private citizens, as well as require dealers to be licensed, maintain sales records, and report the purchase of more than 1,000 rounds by any single buyer to the authorities. The bill, which is supported by Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, has been languishing for a lack of political support, but that must change.
Controlling ammunition flow, and tracking the ammunition that does get sold, is critical to America's fight against gun violence. Since weapons are useless without ammunition, this should be a natural second prong to the Democrats' strategy on gun control. Currently, ammunition sellers do not have to be licensed or maintain a record of their sales, and their customers do not require a permit or have to pass a background check to buy bullets. Given that pharmaceuticals and even cigarettes are highly regulated in our society, it makes no sense whatsoever that the sale of ammunition is a free-for-all.
As a matter of interest, prior to 1986, the reality was very different. Ammunition sellers had to be licensed, keep records, and could not sell their wares across state lines except to retailers or distributors. These sensible measures vanished with the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which Congress enacted under pressure from (who else?) the NRA.
Taxing Guns and Ammunition
The Second Amendment may give Americans the right to bear arms, but it does not mandate that the weapons or the ammunition needs to come cheap. Guns and bullets are commercial products and as such can be taxed by the government in much the same way that cigarettes can be taxed. Many states have employed high taxes on tobacco to "encourage" the reduction of smoking, and that is a pretty good model to apply here as well. By imposing large taxes on individual weapons and on ammunition, the government can potentially help to curb stockpiling, an insane practice that threatens the safety of our nation. I am not saying that taxes alone will dissuade every gun buyer but it will force many buyers to limit their purchases of weapons and ammunition due to the high cost.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (in Chicago), taking a page from the great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has advocated a bullet tax, but few others have suggested anything along these lines. That is a real shame. Not only would a high levy on guns and ammunition help to discourage casual purchasers and those looking to stockpile out of needless paranoia, but the additional revenues from these taxes can be applied towards stronger law enforcement and better mental healthcare services (a factor that gun rights advocates love to blame for gun violence).
Challenging the Second Amendment
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said this weekend that liberals need to acknowledge that the Second Amendment exists. Well, I don't think anyone is denying that it exists; the debate is over how literally the Second Amendment should be interpreted for our modern times, advanced technology, and violent landscape. As I said in my earlier piece, Moral Nation: Why Our Constitution demands Gun Control, this is a common area of misinformation and misconception.
The Constitution itself was a highly pragmatic act by our Founding Fathers to impose some control on a nation of disparate states with different interests and viewpoints. In fact, the ideas and laws codified in the document ran directly against the revolutionary spirit of the Declaration of Independence. The reason for this was not a desire by the Founding Fathers to become despots themselves but because, in their considerable wisdom, they recognized clearly that no nation could survive without cohesion and direction - even if that meant taking away some liberties to preserve others (the list is long, ranging from the assumption of state's debts to the legal and military primacy of the federal government).
The Constitution also gave Americans the right to amend it, which was a very clear signal by the framers that they foresaw a time when it would need to be amended to reflect a new reality, just as they themselves had created the Constitution to supersede the Declaration of Independence as a governing document. But that is conveniently ignored by pro-gun voices since it puts the Second Amendment squarely in the crosshairs of necessary change.
The Second Amendment may well have been drafted to give Americans the right to form militias or to keep as many guns as they want, but it is not incumbent upon us to interpret it that way today. The Supreme Court, in District of Columbia vs. Heller 554 U.S. 570, ruled in favor of the Second Amendment but deliberately narrowed its scope to the right to defend oneself, which is a far cry from wanting the freedom to buy assault weapons or stockpiling hundreds of guns. Justifying the latter by invoking the Second Amendment is not patriotism but exploitation of the Constitution, and the refusal to amend the Constitution to help prevent grotesque violence is grotesquely unpatriotic in itself.
Ultimately, Americans' right to live in a society free of gun violence, and where their children can attend school without the fear of being murdered, is far more fundamental to our freedom than the right to bear arms. Gun rights supporters may not like it but in denying it they are on the wrong side of humanity (and if things progress the way they should, they will be on the wrong side of history as well). Their cowardly silence (which is not respect, as they would like you to believe) after the Newtown shooting, conveys this more loudly than any words might have. If they were truly sympathetic, they would have come out immediately with condolences for the victims' families and offered to examine their own attitudes towards firearms, not hidden in the shadows "until it all blows over".
Let's not let it all blow over then. Americans are a smart, compassionate, and determined people who are capable of self-reflection, of admitting mistakes, and of correcting them, and despite my criticism of gun rights advocates, I also believe that it is possible for them to abandon their intransigence and show us that they care more for human life than they do for their guns. If they do that, it will go a long way in facilitating a healthy debate on gun control and finally getting something done that benefits the entire nation.
And if they still don't? In that case, the Democrats need to get this done on their own. As President Obama said, "What choice do we have?" None.
SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks and at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of a thriller titled "Merger", which Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Please visit www.sanghoee.com for more details.