IX. Gun control advocates often seek major alterations in our gun laws, but our politicians are not ready for such changes. We can only hope for incremental improvements in gun safety, but enough of them might add up to a real difference. Increasing the age to buy assault rifles will not by itself make a huge difference in gun violence, but perhaps it will lessen gun deaths and injuries a little bit. Requiring all who buy guns to have background checks will not make a huge difference, but perhaps things will improve somewhat. Improving state reporting of felony and domestic violence convictions will not make a huge difference, but it might help some. Limiting the size of magazines will not make a huge difference, but perhaps some lives will be saved. If we could make enough little changes, we might end up strides ahead of where we are now.
Here’s my suggestion for an incremental improvement: Make it a crime to carry a gun while intoxicated. Of course, carrying a gun is not the same as using it, but even carrying one while drunk should be prohibited because the decision whether to use a carried firearm should not be made when a person is intoxicated. The consequences should be similar to drunken driving. Perhaps a first conviction would only be a misdemeanor, but just as driving licenses are suspended for a period for a DUI, the right to possess guns would be suspended for a period and all guns owned by the person placed in police custody during that time. A second conviction would be a felony, and the person could no longer possess guns. . . and might even go to jail
Frequently after a car accident, the driver gets tested for intoxication. The same should happen after gun accidents. Each year at least a few people are hurt or killed in hunting accidents when there has been too much drinking.
X. How much, if any, difference, would various incremental changes to our guns law matter? We do not know. In fact, we know little about most aspects of gun violence, and the federal government and the NRA want to keep it that way.
A study funded by the Centers for Disease Control was published in the early 1990s. It found that having a gun in the home was correlated with an increased risk of homicide. Those conclusions, of course, undermined the NRA message that guns are needed for protection and the defense of liberty. In response to that study, the NRA pushed what is known as the Dickey Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1996, it stated that CDC funds available for “injury prevention and control” could not be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” Of course, while the offending study may have led reasonable people to think about gun control, the study did not advocate gun control, but Congress not only passed the Dickey Amendment, it also reduced the CDC budget by the exact amount the guns-in-the-home study had cost. The message became clear: no studies of guns. (The Dickey Amendment was expanded to other government funding agencies in 2012.)
The result has been that we have almost no research into gun violence. Periodically, noises are made to repeal the Dickey Amendment, but they have all been quickly beaten back. John Boehner, when Speaker of the House, memorably dismissed any such repeal by saying, “The CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect the public health. I’m sorry but a gun is not a disease.”
He’s right, of course, but injuries are caused by more than diseases. Cars and roads are not diseases, but extensive research, much of which has been government funded, have made cars and roads and driving practices safer. Workplaces are not diseases, but research has made many of them safer. Guns are not diseases, but if we care about lessening gun deaths and injuries, we need to know more about gun violence.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Experience informs us that the first defense of weak minds is to recriminate.” When gun reforms are proposed, the opponents recriminate. Wayne LaPierre recently called the reformers “socialists,” but the usual recrimination is to say that the reformers are out to destroy a precious constitutional right so that the government can oppress us all. But maybe Coleridge was not entirely correct. The first defense of weak minds is to stay ignorant, and that is the official stance of our government about gun violence. A great country cannot seek to maintain ignorance, but that is what the United States does.
XI. “[P]eople with interests to protect expect to be challenged and demand the right to assert themselves, to hold guns and fear minorities, and they call it liberty.” Adam Gopnick, Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York.