What practical steps, within the protections of the Second Amendment, can we take to reduce mass killings and gun violence? Can such an effort even begin to make a difference in saving lives and preventing heartbreak?
Yes, it can. And we have a model of success to draw upon.
By 1982, more than 21,000 Americans were dying each year in alcohol-related accidents. Yet somehow by 2010, the number of fatalities caused by drunk driving had fallen to 10,228, a decline of more than half. We didn’t solve the problem, but clearly we have made substantial progress. We are saving more than 10,000 lives a year and preventing tens of thousands more from being crippled or maimed. Almost as important, over the years we have prevented tens of thousands of drivers from ruining their own lives by killing people while under the influence.
We did not achieve that progress by banning automobiles. We did not ban alcohol. In fact, no single dramatic change produced the turnaround. It was achieved through a broad, concerted legal effort backed by a fundamental change in what was deemed culturally acceptable
We required automakers to make their products safer, including then-controversial steps such as requiring airbags. We mandated use of seatbelts. We increased the legal liability of bars, taverns and restaurants that over-served customers, to ensure that those making money off the problem had some “skin in the game” in reducing it.
We instituted a national drinking age of 21, which reduced the number of minors involved in alcohol-related fatalities. In Georgia alone, the rate of such alcohol-related fatalities involving drivers under 21 fell by 63.7 percent from 2000 to 2010 We increased enforcement efforts, such as DUI roadblocks. We tightened licensing requirements and also nationalized databases, so that someone stripped of his or her license in one state for drunk driving could not be licensed in another state.
So how do you apply those lessons to gun safety? As with automobiles, you improve the safety of the devices themselves, for example by requiring the installation of trigger locks. (If Nancy Lanza had installed trigger locks in guns kept in a household with an unbalanced young man, she and 26 other people today in Newtown might still be alive.) You ban the sale, use or possession of high-capacity magazines, such as the 30-round mags that Adam Lanza used. And you ban altogether the sale or transfer of assault weapons. If someone wants to sell an existing assault weapon, they can sell only to the government.
As with automobiles, you require evidence that individuals know how to operate certain weapons before they can be licensed to use or possess them. The National Rifle Association points out, correctly, that those who go through gun-safety and marksmanship courses to qualify for concealed-carry permits in many states are rarely involved in crime. Why not extend that successful model to gun ownership in general? (Georgia, by the way, requires no gun-safety training and no evidence of gun-handling ability before granting permits to carry concealed weapons.)
In addition to licensing gun owners, you register weapons. (With some 200 million guns in private hands, the fear of a government effort to go door to door confiscating registered weapons is ludicrous paranoia.) If a registered weapon is used in a crime but was not reported stolen, the person to whom it is registered can be held civilly or even criminally liable. That’s responsible gun ownership, and would curtail the black market substantially.
One of the bigger deterrents to drunk driving is the significantly increased cost of auto insurance for those convicted. Bars and liquor stores with a history of over-serving also have to worry about increased insurance costs. If you make gun owners and sellers financially liable for any damage done with their weapons, you create a market-based incentive to be responsible.
None of those steps violates the Constitution; none prevents honest citizens from obtaining firearms for personal defense, hunting and other legitimate purposes. But together, they have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of deaths caused by firearm misuse.