Is it possible to rationally debate US gun policy?

It has been some months since I have guest posted here at Kiwiblog. I have chosen to wade into one of the most contentious topics of domestic policy, that of suitable gun laws especially as America debates appropriate responses to the latest mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

I begin this segment with an observation as a kiwi now living in the US. It is very common for us kiwis to view much of what goes on in the US through our own cultural lens. This is particularly true of America’s gun laws and gun culture. Almost all New Zealanders of all political persuasions find America’s obsessions with to be at best, odd and disconcerting and at worse, pathological and dangerous. It is very easy to moralise from afar that such horrible incidents of violence are because of America’s unhealthy attachment to its 2nd Amendment right to bear arms and the seemingly pervasive influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the largest gun owners association in the US. Most kiwis simplistically maintain that if only America conducted itself like NZ (or other Anglophile countries where handguns are outlawed, and rifle ownership is more strictly controlled) that such mass murders wouldn’t happen, or at least not with the same frequency. I would ask that you read this post with an open mind and with the view that NZ’s gun laws will never be enacted in the US for reasons that will become apparent and that the issue is much more complex and nuanced than the simplistic and emotion-laden slogans indulged in by any who oppose the US gun ownership model and by the mainstream media in the US who heavily support stricter gun control measures. This post attempts to pierce through the rhetoric and partisan bias and tries to propose practical solutions that stand a chance of passage into law and likely implementation by law enforcement that can and should make a difference in reducing the carnage.

STATISTICS

First off let’s examine the statistics to put mass shootings into context. Mass shootings, whilst they commandeer headlines, are actually very rare, especially when you look at the totality of gun related deaths in a country as large as the US where there are as many guns as there are people (325 million). Mass shootings in terms of numbers of victims have not been increasing in the US and indeed, the level of total gun related homicides in the US has dropped to 15,000 in 2016 (latest full year when statistics are available from the FBI) from a peak of almost 25,000 in 1991. There are several US states where the homicide rate per 100,000 is not much higher than other Western Countries such as the UK, France, Australia and NZ as the national statistics are skewered by a minority of quite violent states. You also have to realise that as shocking as murder is, it is a relatively rare crime compared to other forms of violent crime. As a comparison, the overall US homicide rate per 100,000 in 2016 was 5.4. The non-homicide violent crime rate across the US in 2016 was 380 per 100,000 so violent crimes like rape, robbery and aggravated assault are 70 times more frequent than murder. This non-homicide violent crime rate compares to:
UK: 257

New Zealand: 348

Canada: 260

A little known fact is that 29 US States have a similar or lower non-homicide violent crime rate than NZ.

Secondly, the media focus on the use of semi-automatic weapons but the truth is that over 80% of weapons used in gun related homicides in the US are committed with handguns. The percentage of people killed in 2016 by semi-automatic weapons was only 1.2%, those by rifles 2.5% and shotguns 1.7%. All figures are from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) website.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM RECENT MASS SHOOTINGS

Many of the mass killings in recent years could have been avoided by complying with existing laws, law enforcement doing their job properly or with minor law changes that don’t infringe on 2nd Amendment rights.

1. San Bernardino, California, 2 December 2015.
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik (his wife) killed 16 (including themselves). The San Bernardino shooters identified themselves as violent jihadis several times on Facebook and yet their immigration visas were still granted. This is because the Obama Administration officials at the Department of Homeland Security specifically instructed those tasked with screening migrant visa applications to not even look at, or take any cognoscence of, postings on social media. This policy left analysts willfully blind to evidence that could have kept this couple from entering the country.

2. Pulse Night Club, Orlando, Florida, 12 June 2016
Omar Mateen killed 49 patrons of a well-known Orlando gay nightclub. Omar was interviewed in 2013 and 2014 by the FBI for expressing sympathy for suicide bombers and was placed temporarily on the terrorist watch list and then taken off due to no crime currently under investigation. Current law allows people on that list to still acquire firearms.

3. Blacksburg, Virginia, 16 April 2007
Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 fellow students at Virginia Tech University. Cho showed a disturbing pattern of stalking, self-harm and violent poetry. He was treated for mental health issues, but this information was never entered into any system than could be tracked so when he underwent a background check to purchase a gun, he was legally able to obtain a firearm.

4. Newtown, Connecticut, 16 December 2011
Adam Lanza stole his mother’s guns and killed 28 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The FBI interviewed a person who regularly communicated with Lanza online. Over the course of nine pages in the FBI’s exhaustive post-event report, this interview unearthed Lanza’s obsession with mass murder and the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting. He displayed serious mental disorders and a neighbour had complained to police that he had threatened to kill his mother. Another unidentified woman said she was in contact with Lanza for more than two years on a gaming website dedicated to the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. She told investigators that Lanza kept a “spreadsheet, meticulously documenting the details of hundreds of spree killings and mass murders”. Nothing was ever done about these disturbing reports.

5. Sutherland Springs, Texas, 5 November 2017
Devin Patrick Kelley kills 26 at a First Baptist Church. Kelly served in the US Air Force from 2010 to 2014 when he received a bad conduct discharge for beating his wife and step son and was court martialed. The Airforce failed to pass on this crucial information to the FBI database as they were required to, and he passed a background check and acquired a gun. His domestic assault conviction alone should have also been sufficient to prevent him from obtaining a firearm. Significantly, Kelley’s shooting spree was abruptly halted when a local resident engaged him with rifle fire and he fled the scene and was found dead in his car down the road.

6. Parkland, Florida, 14 February 2018
Nicholas Cruz kills 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It would be fair to categorise the Parkland shooting as the most imminently avoidable of all these horrific incidents. The fiasco of how Nicholas Cruz was left alone to acquire guns and carry out his oft and publicly expressed fantasies of mass murder begins some years earlier with the Broward County School District that administers MSD High School. The Obama Administration used a number of measured via the Federal Department of Education to reduce what it saw was discrimination against minorities because of the disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic high school students who were being suspended or charged with crimes. One method was to incentivise school districts to stop being the instruments of seeming discriminatory discipline policies by promising additional Federal funding to schools who had a lower incidence of reported crime. In the case of Broward County Schools, a decision was made at the senior level to work with the BC Sheriff’s Office, primarily through the Deputies who had been assigned to the individual high schools to enhance security and enforce school rules and the law, to relax the enforcement of more serious offenses committed by unruly students. This meant that the most serious of crimes committed by students either on or off campus (so-called felonies), such as aggravated assault, sexual assault, shootings and serious drug dealing, were deliberately ignored. Indeed, the now infamous ex-Deputy Scot Peterson, who stood cowering behind a concrete pillar outside the school building where Cruz was murdering kids, was in fact the very person who drove this policy at MSD High. Much has been made of the 39 times (estimates vary between 29 and 44) that BCSO Deputies were called to the Cruz home over incidents related to his violence, threats, intimidations, beatings, use of knives on campus and other worrying incidents. The reason why nothing ever came of all Cruz’s prior incidents that should’ve seen him arrested and charged with felonies even as a minor and thus be entered into the Federal Crimes register which in turn would mean he’d fail a background check when he went to obtain the weapons he used to carry out his mass shooting fantasy, was because it was a DELIBERATE POLICY to ignore such criminal behaviour to keep the additional funds flowing. The negligence by the BCSO’s was compounded by the FBI failing to act on not one but two detailed credible tips from people close to Cruz who described in detail what he planned to do.

IMPEDIMENTS TO HONEST DEBATE

There is a lot of dishonesty, dissembling, manipulation, distraction and at times hyperbolic hysteria engaged in by supporters of gun control each time a mass shooting event takes place. Let me give an example of each tactic.

1. Dishonesty
There has been dishonest use of statistics. The billionaire former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg has lavishly funded various anti-gun crusades including an information clearing house and lobby group called Everytown for Gun Policy. In the days following the Parkland, FL shooting, Everytown heavily pushed what was later proven to be a bogus statistic deliberately designed to exaggerate the extent of school shootings. They said that the Parkland shooting was the 18th school shooting in 2018 alone making it look like such shootings were an epidemic. What Everytown failed to point out was that they counted as a shooting a variety of incidents that were anything but an actual shooting: one was an accidental discharge of a weapon on a street out the front of a school, another was a shooting incident that occurred in the car park of an abandoned and disused school whilst another was a suicide, all these incidents were reported as a school shooting. You’re on thin ice when even the liberal pro-gun control Washington Post pings you for distorting the stats.

2. Dissembling
Democrats in particular have been past masters at dissembling on the subject of gun control always bleating for stricter gun control and yet when the time comes to implement actual legislation to give effect to their angry and hyperbolic rhetoric, they usually run and hide. Obama faced mass shootings in his first two years in office. He and Congressional Democrats talked big on gun control in the 2008 election and yet when they had a huge House majority, a filibuster proof Senate and a pro-gun control President in the White House, they never used this unprecedented power to pass anything of substance.

Why is that do you ask? The answer is simple. Whilst anti-gun people point to generic polls that state that good majorities of America voters favour gun control, when substantive and precise measures are polled, support dries up. Democrats know that strict gun control of the type they REALLY want is not popular in the swing districts and States they need to win (or hold) to control Congress and so they back off and implement meaningless measures such as trying to outlaw magazine clips of a certain size or ban so-called assault weapons.

3. Distraction
Chasing after so-called assault rifles is a classic distraction. AR 15’s are merely semi-automatic rifles that have meaningless cheap attachments to make them resemble army style weapons. These are cosmetic accoutrements that do nothing for functionality. President Clinton even instituted a Federal ban on assault rifles from 1994 and it remained on the statute books for 10 years before its eventual repeal because, during that time, weapons related homicides actually went up slightly. In other words, the ban was meaningless and didn’t work. It was meaningless because so few weapon related homicides are carried out by so-called assault rifles. The vast majority of gun deaths are carried out by handguns. There are more people killed in America each year by pipes and hammers, assaults with bare fists or from knives than by assault rifles! I used the term distraction because the measures loudly proclaimed are halfhearted measures that will never work because the long-term agenda of the anti-gun left is to repeal the 2nd Amendment. They want all guns to be banned and confiscated but they know that Americans will never vote for such extreme measures, so they hope to implement it by stealth, eating away at the 2nd Amendment and hope that eventually they can stack the Supreme Court with liberal judges who will effectively rule away the right to bear arms by upholding litigation brought by anti-gun groups.

4. Manipulation
One of the more egregious tactics used is one that was on full display after the Parkland, FL shooting and that is of using children as tools of manipulation. There is no denying the grief and anguish that the students felt but it became quickly apparent that the mainstream media were really only interested in talking to the eloquent and telegenic student victims who were heavy supporters of gun control. 18-year-old Senior David Hogg has been given wall to wall coverage on CNN and MSNBC because he is a strong supporter of gun control and was prepared to use inflammatory rhetoric against Republican politicians such as Marco Rubio and the NRA. When CNN ran its famous town hall broadcast days after the shooting, the audience was clearly stacked with anti-gun parents and almost all those who spoke were strongly in favour of gun control especially the negligent Broward County Sheriff Israel who spent the night deflecting attention away from the fact that his deputies cowered outside the school and refuse to engage with the shooter AND that his department had attended dozens of call outs for troublesome incidents involving Nicholas Cruz and done nothing about it. Within days, students like Hogg had a website up, were able to book many media outlets, were prepped and primed for media interviews with talking points and that seemingly spontaneous marches were able to be organized on the Statehouse in Tallahassee, FL, local schools and eventually in DC; stuff that no high school senior can rustle up even if politically savvy. It turns out the spontaneous looking movement got plenty of funding and assistance from known liberal organizing groups such as Move On.org, Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety as well as generous donations from Planned Parenthood and various unions. There is a term for this and it’s called astroturf and it is a time honoured tactic of the left. Students like 17-year-old Junior Kyle Kashuv who supports gun rights never got anywhere near the same media coverage even though he suffered the same as Hogg and his anti-gun fellow students.

5. Hysteria.
Some of the things that are said about those who support 2nd Amendment rights are just outright over-the-top hysteria. In an attempt to capture public emotion and outrage on the issue of a mass shooting in a school, proponents of stricter gun laws portray the NRA as having blood on their hands, of any public person who supports the 2nd Amendment as being complicit in the killing of children and ipso facto, Americans who own guns for their own protection are knuckle dragging red necks akin to the Ku Klux Klan of the 30’s and who need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern enlightened world. Many such people are quick to label the 2nd Amendment as an anachronistic carryover from the colonial frontier era of 18th century America when it was written. Others try to limit the right to bear arms to a standing militia conflating the two operative clauses of the Amendment. Such inflamed rhetoric is having the opposite effect – it hardens the resolve of gun owners to protect their patch and never vote for anyone who would force them to give up their guns and every time Congress moves to even consider legislation to infringe rights or if a high profile perspon like Nancy Polosi or President Obama (when he was in office) begins to talk about gun control, the sales of guns and ammunition goes through the roof. It was said that Barak Obama was the greatest salesman of weapons in recent US history. After the NRA was so thoroughly attacked during the CNN Townhall broadcast, it added tens of thousands of new members within days. Such extremist positions make it much more difficult for legislators and indeed even the President, to find common ground from both sides of the debate to formulate realistic policies that might actually work. The emotive polemic and invective is utterly counterproductive.

WHY A GUN BAN AND CONFISCATION WILL NEVER WORK IN THE US

First off in order to ban guns in the US, you’d need to repeal the 2nd Amendment. That is a monumental task because it requires both Houses of Congress to pass the repeal by a 2/3rds majority OR by a Constitutional Convention of the States also passed by 2/3rds of the States. If the repeal passes one of those hurdles, then the repeal must then be ratified by 75% of the States’ Legislatures. Right now, the partisan split of State Legislatures is 32 Republican/14 Democrat with 4 split. It is almost given that a Republican dominated legislature would not support a repeal of the 2nd Amendment. In order for Democrats (more likely to favour repeal) to reach the required 75% threshold, they would need to turn both lower and upper chambers in 23 States currently controlled by Republicans. This would take a swing to the Democrats not seen since when Roosevelt was swept to power in 1932.

But let’s assume that by some miracle the 2nd Amendment is repealed. It must be noted that it is only an Amendment to the FEDERAL Constitution. Many States have similar rights to bear arms enshrined in their STATE Constitutions and the loss of the Federal amendment does not automatically repeal nor even infringe upon the State equivalents. Repealing the right to bear arms in more conservative states like Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Utah will be next to impossible and those State rights to bear arms cannot be infringed upon even by a Federal 2nd Amendment repeal.

Then there is what to do with the 325 million existing weapons, assuming that the Federal amendment is repealed and then Congress passes gun confiscation legislation. How successful would a confiscation be? Fortunately, we can look at how similar such confiscations have fared internationally. Australia’s ban on semi-automatic weapons was implemented in 1996 after the horror of the Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre. This confiscation applied to only 20% of Australia’s total gun arsenal as normal rifles were exempt. In reality, whilst an estimated 700,000 semi-automatic weapons were compulsorily purchased by the Australian government, that only represented about 40% of the banned weapons thought to be in circulation. It proved to be almost impossible for State and Federal police in Australia to force total compliance with the new law. From a statistical point of view, gun related homicides in Australia were already steadily declining before the ban and the change in the law had a negligible effect on this trend in the homicide rate. Proponents say it stopped mass killings in Australia but mass killings, even in the US, comprise a tiny percentage of total gun related deaths. Examination of the current total Australian gun inventory shows that new weapon purchases made in the 20 years since the ban now exceed those of the confiscated weapons albeit with compliant weapons.

The international average successful gun confiscation rate in 72 countries studied in the 2007 International Small Arms Survey was a paltry 33%. In the US, that means even if the left were to prevail and abolish the 2nd Amendment, widespread mostly impossible to combat civil disobedience would still see well over 200 million guns remain in the hands of people. Stricter gun laws enacted in New York and Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting again saw compliance rates of below 30% with law enforcement not prepared to use force to remove existing weapons that became subject to the ban. Indeed, many commentators from the left and right agree that there would be a far more aggressive resistance to any attempt by law enforcement to enforce an Australian style confiscation. Those opposed to gun ownership to the extent that they’d support repeal of the 2nd Amendment (and all State equivalents) and then confiscation are advocating for something that is realistically an impossibility. Are they really wanting to promote measures that, if taken to the conclusion some control proponents desire, would lead to an effective civil war? I know gun owners in my community who would resist attempts to remove their guns by force and such intransigent sentiment is more widespread than you think. It would be far more productive to look at measures that might actually work.

PRACTICAL MEASURES THAT COULD BE PASSED INTO LAW TO REDUCE MASS SHOOTING

1. Banning bump stocks. These are attachments to semi-automatic guns that cause a jerk effect that forces the gun user to hit the trigger with much greater frequency thus more closely mimicking the effect of a fully automatic weapon such as a machine gun. It is not commonly known that fully automatic weapons are banned from general sale in the US and require a special and difficult to obtain license for anyone outside the military or law enforcement agencies. Bump stocks are what made the Las Vegas shooting so lethal as it improved the kill rate of Stephen Paddock the Las Vegas shooter. This law change is low hanging fruit.

2. Mandatory reporting of all felony violence offences of a certain severity to the Federal Crime database so that people like Devon Kelly are denied permission to obtain a firearm during the background checking process.

3. Prevent anyone currently on the terrorist watchlist from obtaining a firearm by mandatory reporting to the FBI Crimes Database accessed during the background check procedure. Had Omar Mateen of the Pulse nightclub shooting been properly kept on this list and such a law was on the books, it is more likely he would’ve been kept from acquiring a weapon.

4. Beefing up resources and training of those who staff the FBI’s tip line so that legitimate tip offs of possible mass killers are actually actioned and not ignored. The FBI basically admitted that they received two detailed and credible warnings of Nicholas Cruz’s state of mind and intentions from people close to him and those tips were never actioned.

5. Mandatory reporting of certain categories of mental health issues where patients disclose violent fantasies, mass killing ideations and other such dangerous intentions. This will be controversial and so careful analysis and the advice of the very best mental health professionals with experience in forensic psychiatry and the mindset of homicidally violent offenders would need to be carefully followed. People with these issues should just not be allowed to obtain firearms. This type of reporting may have prevented Nicholas Cruz from obtaining a weapon legally.

6. Rescission of a previously granted background clearance AND temporary weapon confiscation for those deemed to be high risk for impulsive killing. Again, these powers will need to be very carefully enumerated and implemented with sufficient checks and balances to avoid law enforcement abuse and to preserve 2nd Amendment rights. A law like this may have enabled law enforcement to remove firearms owned by Nicholas Cruz and even possibly Adam Lanza although he used guns legally owned by his mother.

7. Allowing teachers and school/college administrators who have passed all valid Federal and State background checks and possess a valid concealed carry permit to lawfully carry on campus. This proposal does NOT mean School Districts/Colleges mandate concealed carry nor are they liable for any costs associated the certification of the faculty gun owner who has or may obtain a valid State concealed carry permit. The mainstream media don’t report the mass shootings at schools that have been averted by teachers or other staff who had a concealed weapon and who could shoot at/have shot at, or threaten to shoot at, a potential killer. Also, potential mass killers know that schools are usually gun free zones but if they knew that schools allowed staff to carry concealed weapons, they may choose not to enter that school.

8. End Federal programmes that encourage schools and school districts by way of higher funding for lower crime statistics by not charging and prosecuting students for violent crimes. What happened at the Broward County School District is just unconscionable.

9. This last one could never be legislated for due to the 1st Amendment right to free speech but if media outlets would voluntarily adhere to a code where the name and face of a mass shooter is not broadcast, this removes the imperative of a desire for fame that a number of mass murderers have admitted to being part of their motivation.

Proponents of gun control are asking US citizens to surrender their weapons and trust the very government agencies who have shown time and time again to not act on threats and to not respond quickly or thoroughly enough to protect the populace. Legal and lawful owners of guns reason that they rate themselves more capable of protecting the life, limb and property of themselves and their family rather than waiting for a 911 response that may be too late or to act as a responsible citizen and report worrying and suspicious behaviour only to be ignored and a killer allowed to go on a rampage. Criminals don’t obey gun laws and will always obtain weapons. This is true even in countries with strict gun control laws and a dramatic illustration of how this plays out in the US you only have to look at cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit and Washington DC, all cities that have enacted some of the strictest gun control laws in the US where it is difficult to obtain even a handgun and yet all four cities have horrendously high gun related violence and homicides because criminals can obtain guns and it is more difficult for law abiding citizens to obtain weapons. Either that or they propose meaningless cosmetic law changes that will do nothing to reduce the ability of the wrong people to obtain weapons.

This issue has become so fraught that rational debate has become difficult. A certain core of conservatives has become intransigent and won’t countenance any reasonable law change. Some on the right support the measures I have proposed but many would balk at the right of law enforcement to confiscate the weapons of a person convicted of a violent felony or crossing over a mental health threshold where they have become a danger to themselves and others. Many liberals on the other hand find gun rights and the 2nd Amendment to be an anathema and in reality, think the only way to reduce gun violence is to ban all guns and even confiscate existing weapons. Each extreme is not acceptable or practical. Hopefully, in the midst of all the anger and emotion, it may be possible to debate and pass laws and enact procedures that would have avoided most of the recent mass shootings.

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