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What We Need to Do About Guns and the Tragedies They Bring

We've made it far too easy for minor disputes to erupt into deadly violence. Rather than simply throwing more money at police, we need to get serious about mental health treatment, mediation and other approaches that can save lives.

I am not a scholar of the Second Amendment or the Constitution. I do believe that individuals have a right to bear arms to protect themselves. But having a weapon for protection and having one to threaten the lives of others are altogether different matters. Too often weapons are used offensively as a means of resolving conflict or in a fit of anger. This is one of the reasons violent crime has been on the rise everywhere, particularly in urban cities. This spike in crime, which hasn’t abated despite the reopening of society from COVID-19, should tell us we are doing something wrong.

A personal story helps to illustrate what law enforcement and public officials often encounter in dealing with gun violence. Recently I found myself in the middle of a dispute between two neighbors that could have turned deadly. One neighbor, a young man in his middle 20s, accused the other of blowing leaves and other yard debris into the driveway of his mother’s house, where he also lives. The accused neighbor, a man in his middle 50s, denied doing that. In fact, he said, he often blows off his neighbor’s driveway because he is aware that the young man’s mother is disabled.

Instead of the two sitting down like adults and talking it over, the older man said the younger man brandished a pistol and threatened to shoot him if it happened again. The older man said he carries a concealed weapon whenever he works outdoors in his yard and wouldn’t hesitate to use it to protect himself and his family. But, he added, “I would hate to have to kill him because I don’t want this on my conscience for the rest of my life.”

Thankfully no one was shot — yet. The tensions between the neighbors remain high. No one would think that a dispute over lawn maintenance would come to this. But too often minor disputes escalate into violent encounters, sometime leading to the loss of lives. I told the older man that he should report the incident to the police because I suspected that the younger man might be struggling with a mental health issue. Unless there is more to it than I have been told, the younger man’s reaction seemed extreme and not at all rational.

In unpacking this conflict, there are many angles to pursue. First let’s stipulate, and I believe we all would agree, that my older neighbor ought to be able to live free of the fear of violence. Then there’s the question of whether the young man is mentally competent. Federal and state laws prohibit the mentally incapacitated from possessing firearms. But mental competence must be certified by courts, boards or commissions, and this is where things fall apart. Given the large numbers of people suffering from mental health issues in this country, it is impossible to keep guns out the hands of all of them.

To make matters worse, a number of states, including my home state of Georgia, have relaxed their handgun policies to the point that individuals do not have to have a license to carry a weapon either openly or concealed. World Population Review lists 21 states with the most lenient gun laws. In the face of rising gun violence, these states justify their policies by citing the Second Amendment.

We need a better understanding of this amendment, but we also must have a better solution to the rise of violent crime other than merely increasing police funding. Toward this end, it may be wise to take another look at some of the solutions proposed by the Black Lives Matter movement. They advocate shifting some local-government resources to areas related to public safety but not policing per se. They and others suggest that communities need counselors, mediators and others who can help residents defuse conflict and resolve differences peacefully. Also, all of us, particularly young men, need a better understanding of the responsibilities of masculinity and of how to best protect our families. One cannot do that from inside a prison or, worse, from inside a coffin. We must help young people, who are the ones most inclined to commit violent crimes, to obtain the skills to resolve conflicts peacefully and understand how sacred life is — theirs and others.

This will require shared responsibility from family, public officials and educators. To begin with, public officials should stop making it easier to obtain or carry a firearm. They need to bring back or keep intact gun registration laws and get rid of state-level policies like “stand your ground.” Local officials need to stop prioritizing the funding of police operations as crime continues to climb. Some of this funding needs to go toward mental health professionals, mediators, structured programming in recreation and workforce investment. It will take guts to change the paradigm of funding police first, but in the end it will save lives and make our communities safer.

From President Biden on down to mayors and city council members, it is time for liberals to stop simply throwing money at law enforcement in an attempt to show conservatives how much they love the men and women in blue. It is time to focus on measures that bring about true public safety. Let’s reach more mentally imbalanced residents and get them the treatment they need. If someone like my younger neighbor needs a job, let’s help him obtain the skills of a high-demand occupation like welding or auto mechanics. And let’s encourage schools to teach character, civility and respect for all.

If we lose a neighbor to violence that could have been prevented with better public policy and smarter approaches to policing and governing, then we all must bear some responsibility. It is time we started doing the things that work to reduce violent crime and save lives.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management
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