Plan B for Ending the Gun Epidemic

Federal firearm laws are unlikely to change, so it’s up to states and localities to lead a societal effort.
November 2015
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

As a young man, I never thought twice about using guns. In my mid-teens, I got rifle training from the National Rifle Association in a highly organized, professional program that stressed safety above all else. In the military, the weaponry saved me from terminal boredom. I fired M-16 assault rifles, an M-60 machine gun, a .45 revolver and even a bazooka. It was fun. Later, on my first-ever day of hunting, I shot a deer as it ran by me in the West Virginia woods. I had to shoot it again as it lay writhing on the forest floor. It was then that I realized that I’m not a gun guy, and I never fired a gun again.

Now we face the perplexing question of what to do about the flood of firearms coursing through our society -- a question made more difficult by last month’s shooting at an Oregon community college. The simple and obvious remedy is to outlaw them, but the Second Amendment -- or its current interpretation -- makes that impossible. We could pass federal laws making it harder for people to get guns if they are not licensed and carefully screened, but that’s not going to happen either.

The only answer I see at this point is far from perfect, but at least it’s a start: States, cities and counties can begin weaving together a patchwork of restrictions that someday may result in a pattern of policy. Some governments already have acted; others are considering it. But the problem is that firearms are like candy or soda pop, or even drugs: If you can’t purchase what you want close by, you can just cross a jurisdictional line and buy it someplace else.

My hometown of Washington, D.C., faces that predicament. The guns that are ubiquitous in many of our neighborhoods pour in from neighboring Virginia and other states that do not have strong restrictions. And the courts are no help. A federal appeals court in D.C. recently struck down a city law prohibiting residents from purchasing more than one gun per month and requiring that they be re-registered every three years.

Virginia repealed a similar requirement three years ago, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been unable to revive it.

The consequences of what we have done -- and failed to do -- are stunning. On one recent night in D.C., 10 people were shot, two of whom died. Over the same weekend, 34 firearms were seized. Police Chief Cathy Lanier expressed her frustration to The Washington Post: “It’s like they are freaking dropping out of the sky.”

The same thing is happening in Chicago, another city that has tight restrictions but is surrounded by states with weak or nonexistent laws. Guns from outside the city account for the vast majority of firearms plaguing Chicago.

The rate of murders involving guns is rising in many of the nation’s cities. Unpredictably, Milwaukee has seen the greatest surge in the past year, followed by St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington.

Those increases follow many years of improvement, so one can debate whether this is a blip or the beginning of a dangerous trend. In the longer view, though, the magnitude of the carnage is almost unfathomable. According to federal statistics, the number of people killed by guns in the U.S. over just the past quarter-century exceeds that of Americans who have died in combat in all of the nation’s wars. A total of 836,290 civilians were killed by guns during those 25 years, compared to 656,397 troops killed in battle since 1776.

In the wake of the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., in October, President Obama lamented that mass killings have become “routine.” Following the church massacre in June in Charleston, S.C., he told NPR that he didn’t foresee any real action against gun violence “until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and they say to themselves, this is not normal.”

For a time, it appeared that public opinion was moving toward increased gun regulation. A Pew survey from eight years ago found that 60 percent of those polled advocated increased control, while only 32 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights. But in a more recent Pew survey, perhaps as a reaction to the recent surge in homicides, the numbers were reversed, with 52 percent favoring gun rights compared to 38 percent who wanted increased controls.

So what to do? In the absence of stricter national gun control laws, states and localities will have to reform both their law enforcement and criminal justice systems, addressing why we lose track of so many violent criminals, allowing them to remain free when it’s clear that they are serious threats.

But if states and localities can weave together some loose national pattern of laws controlling firearms, then they also must focus on broader societal problems: mental illness, the booming drug market and, most challenging, how they can change the course of the lives of young men living in poverty with little hope and no direction. The latter will not happen just because of new gun regulations, but as part of an ambitious and innovative public effort. We not only have to get guns off the streets; we also have to decrease the number of people who want to use them.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com