February 4, 2013

Guns out of control

With mass shootings in the news, immediate public action is required to fix gun policy nationwide.

Sixty-two mass shootings—that is, “multi-victim shootings where those killed were chosen indiscriminately”—have taken place in the United States since 1982. Last year’s record-breaking 16 accounted for a vastly disproportionate 18 percent of them, leaving at least 88 dead, including at least 25 children.

But while mass shootings are a problem, as 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton’s death last week has so horrifically and unfortunately pointed out, they are far from the only problematic consequence of our country’s weak gun laws. In fact, the daily death toll of firearms in the United States is almost exactly equal to the total number of people who died in mass shootings throughout all of 2012. Unless something is done immediately, this trend is almost certain to continue.

I realize that you’re probably tired of hearing—seeing, reading, and talking—about gun violence. I realize that Hyde Park is a very safe neighborhood, and that we are not as immediately impacted by gun violence as are students at schools in more dangerous areas. But even if we are unlikely to be directly affected ourselves, we cannot accept that our leaders have so long failed to deal with such a pressing, pervasive, and high-profile problem. This is too important of an issue to abandon for reasons of boredom, habituation, or perceived distance.

Digging deeper into the issue only reveals more problems. For one, convicted felons and violent offenders are regaining their rights to own firearms at an alarming rate. Though the great variation in gun laws between states makes it difficult to calculate a national figure, in the state of Washington—which falls “somewhere in the middle on the scale of strictness” —more than 3,300 felons and violent offenders have regained their gun rights since 1995. (However, this statistic comes from 2011: If this trend has continued, the number is now at least 3,600.)

Ditto for the mentally ill. Despite having been declared mentally ill by a judge just one year before murdering 32 people, Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho passed the required background check because the state of Virginia had failed to pass his mental health records to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). In fact, a recent federal investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that 23 states and the District of Columbia had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the NICS. Of those, 17 states had submitted fewer than 10, and four states had submitted zero. These mentally ill individuals pose an even greater threat to themselves than to others: Just under two-thirds of gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides.

Mass shootings also highlight major loopholes in our federal gun laws. In the past two decades, semi-automatic handguns have become the unfortunate weapon of choice for most murders and massacres in the United States, in large part because they are light, easy to conceal, powerful, and can be used with high-capacity magazines. Though most guns used in crimes are stolen, most guns used in mass shootings—in fact, more than three-quarters of those used in the United States since 1982—are obtained legally.

Though gun buyers do face a waiting period, its length is only three days, and doesn’t even apply to (perfectly legal) secondary markets such as gun shows, at which some 40 percent of today’s gun sales take place. thirty-three states don’t even require secondary sellers to perform background checks. Though last year’s media coverage of the Aurora shooting fixated on shooter James Holmes’ ability to acquire the entirety of his devastating arsenal in just a few weeks, he could have obtained identical equipment at a gun show within hours.

All in all, these facts strongly suggest that unnecessarily powerful guns and ammunition—like the high-explosive incendiary/armor-piercing bullets that are still, somehow, legal—are too readily available, that obtaining a gun has become too quick and too simple, and that our system has failed to collect the data necessary to distinguish between legal and illegal gun sales.

Though critics rightfully point out that motivated criminals can find a way to acquire guns no matter what kind of law is passed, and that no law can ever guarantee us safety, basic supply and demand also tells us that a decrease in legally owned assault weapons will correspond to a comparable decrease among their illegal counterparts. Perhaps more importantly, the pervasiveness of legal weapons in our country’s massacres suggests that stricter and actively enforced firearm regulations could help prevent them.

President Obama’s 23-point plan is a strong start. Gabrielle Gifford’s heartfelt testimony is another. But if the history of the last two major gun control initiatives of our era—the Brady Bill of 1993 and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994—is any indication, it is not enough. Just as was the case then, today’s legislators will be tempted to riddle any bill introduced with a range of excessive changes, earmarks, and amendments that render it unrecognizable. Only the vigilant, passionate involvement of the people has a chance to prevail over such practices. In other words, do not stop talking about gun control: It’s now or never.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.