GELFAND’S WORLD - The Republican approach to mass shootings is to turn the United States into an airport -- more armed guards and locked doors and metal detectors.
They are quite explicit in prescribing this for our public schools. They aren't so explicit regarding our movie theaters, bowling alleys, supermarkets, churches or places where we work, but that is the implication.
You may argue that this is an exaggeration, but let's consider what the pro-gun side has actually been saying these past few days:
At Uvalde, the back door of the school was open, or left unlocked, or ajar. There weren't enough armed guards, and the police did not respond with lightning swiftness, and they made an error in judgment in not going into the school immediately to attack the armed invader. And the shooter obviously had mental health issues that we should have done something about.
And so on.
No matter what bad thing happens, you can always find some weakness or error after the fact. There is a whole literature on how the United States could have better defended itself in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the case of the latest massacre, we are hearing about the back door. Suppose the killer had broken a window to get in? Would Ted Cruz be telling us that our schools shouldn't have windows on the ground floor?
For Republicans in the Senate and for the NRA, it's always some other issue, someone else's fault. It's never the guns.
Lately, the gun lobby is blaming mental health issues. I guess everyone in this country enjoyed perfect mental health up through the 1960s and 1970s, because I don't remember a lot of mass shootings in those years. And when one guy went up a tower at the University of Texas, it really was an unusual incident, unlike the near-weekly events we've been enduring recently.
Approaches that attempt to bridge the gap
In a recent article in these pages, Dr. Ken Alpern suggests that both sides are being hypocritical and that there is a better approach to gun violence. You can find it here. Alpern makes the case that there is a liberty interest in gun ownership but points out, logically enough, that the rest of us have a strong liberty interest in staying alive. I can agree with that.
What I don't agree with is the idea that there is some liberty interest in being able to own high power semiautomatic rifles and to buy all the high powered ammunition to make those guns into truly effective machines of death. Whatever a modern, extremist Supreme Court may say, this is not what the Second Amendment to the Constitution was about. But if we are going to view the widespread possession of the AR-15 and its ilk as a given, then it becomes a problem if we also want to limit the number of mass shooters who succeed in arming themselves, making their way to the target, and killing a lot of people.
Sen. Cruz wants us to lock all our back doors and make sure there is only one way into any public school. Dr Alpern takes a more medical approach, which includes the following:
"Psychiatric evaluations for virtually every graduating high school student, particularly after/during this COVID pandemic, should be mandatory"
Wow. We skip right past the TSA agents patting us down, and get right to the ultimate violation of our privacy, namely the privacy of our own minds and thoughts. I wonder how all the organizations devoted to religious liberty would take that one?
No, this part of the Alpern prescription is not going to fly, but I can admire his attempt to deal with the unhappy reality of the situation, namely that you cannot solve the problem of unhappy and deluded people becoming mass murderers without somehow identifying people who are unhappy and deluded.
This approach also contains a much more rigorous approach to background checks, more extensive than even the anti-gun people have suggested. There would be an investigation of the applicant's social media postings (the issue of people posting under pseudonyms is left untouched). But "those deserving of owning a gun will get that gun." I honestly don't understand how anybody but law enforcement would be "deserving" of owning an assault rifle, although I do understand that a lot of people in this country want to have one.
There is, however, a third point in the Alpern approach that we should consider:
"Alter the gun sales protocols for AR-15s (or any other weapon of choice for mass shooters) from other classes of firearms. Those trained and able to use (or NOT use) a given firearm will get them"
This is part of the way towards what anti-gun activists have been saying, that battlefield weapons shouldn't be easy to buy and own. The devil is in the details -- would most of the AR-15 style weapons in the hands of the American people be considered OK, or would the assault rifle become a rare object in the civilian population? Would this remain as a decision of individual states, so that Texas would remain the way it is? Alpern's article does not get into such details, but there may be room for discussion.
I spoke to a man who is an acknowledged expert in firearms and ammunition, a man who is a marksman, former rifle club coach, and one-time employee in the arms industry. His view goes something like this: Forget about the guns, because the guns are out there and aren't going away. Even if you were to limit or prohibit retail sales there is a private market where people can get their guns.
His approach would be to put a high excise tax on the ammunition. "Make the purchase price prohibitive." He makes reasonable exceptions for hunters and people who are serious competitive shooters.
It's not clear that this approach would have kept the Uvalde shooter from arming himself and shooting all those children. Even if the tax were a dollar a round, the killer only fired about a hundred rounds. I suppose that a tax of ten dollars a round would have been effective, but it seems to me that such a tax would be unlikely to pass. But it is possible that limiting ammunition sales the way we limit cigarette sales -- by taxes -- might have some long term effect on the use and ownership of high power rifles.
There is of course another variation of this approach, which is to put a high licensing fee on high power semiautomatic weapons. An initial fee of perhaps $2000 on a rifle, with an annual license renewal of $200 would limit the number of rifles in private hands. The annual fee of $200 without the initial fee might also work, admittedly to a lesser extent
Taking a longer term view
I don't know how well the approach of taxing ammunition would work to limit mass killings, but it is an appoach which limits its effects to gun owners. It might be worth a try, particularly in the absence of other efforts.
I would like to compare Dr Alpern's approach to the simple prohibition of assault rifles.
The Alpern approach contains, among other things, the following:
Recognition of gun ownership as a liberty interest
Background checks which include the government studying your correspondence and social media remarks
Mandatory psychiatric evaluation of essentially all Americans as they finish high school (I imagine this would be extended to tracking down all the high school dropouts and giving them a psychiatric exam too)
Training teachers in the use of firearms and expecting them to be armed in the classroom
The expectation that people will "report troubled young men and teenagers" to the authorities
The simple prohibition of certain firearms includes the following:
Making it illegal to buy or possess certain kinds of firearms based on the power of the round, the caliber, the muzzle velocity, and the capability of firing large number of rounds in a short period of time
Comparing the two approaches and the current Republican Party approach
The Republican Party approach is, in essence, to do nothing, unless it is to demand that the entire country fortify itself against every 18 year old male who buys a gun. Every time we have another mass shooting, they will point what we could have done but didn't. They will never mention gun control except as a slur.
The Alpern approach is, to my mind, a serious limitation on the civil liberties and privacy of the entire population. The idea of mandatory psychiatric evaluations is, by itself, a deal breaker for a large part of our population. If you don't believe me, ask them. I don't believe that the approach, in total, would work all that well, because it demands too many intrusive acts against too many people and institutions. I suggest that in effect, it is still a Republican approach.
Finally, the idea of seriously limiting the purchase and possession of certain classes of firearms is an infringement on the desires of a certain fraction of our population, but leaves the majority of us unaffected. Whether it is also an infringement on some Constitutional right is arguable at best, but we recognize that the gun lobby is making that argument.
A parting shot
The Vox website provides us a chart that, at least in their view, summarizes the core of the argument in one picture. You can find it here. Deaths due to gunshot wounds are predicted pretty well by the number of guns in the hands of each population. We can agree that there could be other explanations, but the correlation is certainly there, whatever the ultimate cause.
My personal view is fairly simple. People vary in temperament and mental stability. Some people lose their tempers and badly lose self-control. Sometimes this results in a fist fight and sometimes this results in a shooting, depending on whether a gun is available. Other people are so abnormal that they plot and carry out a mass shooting. A current interpretation is that many of these mass shootings are done as dramatic ways of committing suicide. But the underlying pathology doesn't really matter to the victims. It's the easy availability of the weapons that is determinative and predictive of such events. The easiest way to limit such mass shooting, and the least intrusive on all of our liberties, is to regulate the sale and possession of battlefield weapons. The logic is simple, even if the politics is next to impossible. We can hope that mass shootings as a fad eventually die down, and that perhaps 5 or 10 years from now, our country will be able to adopt a more rational stance.
There is a report you can find here that in response to one of the mass shootings, Donald Trump wanted to support an assault weapons ban, but got talked out of it by his advisers. I suspect that this story will be revisited in the coming weeks. At this week's NRA convention, Trump read off the names of the dead, but then, in response to the closing music, did a little dance.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])