Friday, January 18, 2013

Buying A Gun Is Like Adopting A Tiger

It takes a big man, a strong man, a man secure in his place in the intellectual universe, to admit when he's wrong, and while I am clearly none of those things, I admit it: I was wrong. I have declared both in this space and on Twitter that the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, would never so much as speak the words 'gun control,' much less pursue it in any form, and over the last few weeks, to my great surprise, they have decisively proven me wrong: Obama enacted a series of executive orders and introduced (probably doomed) legislation to try and reduce the number of senseless mass slaughters taking place in America.

The politics of gun control are difficult, to put it lightly. So difficult that no one in a serious position of leadership even bothered trying anything of the sort when someone shot up a movie theater, or when someone else shot up a Sikh temple, or when someone else shot a sitting member of Congress. But the pointless massacre of a kindergarten class seems to have moved people in a different way. It's certainly moved me: I find myself tearing up every time I think about it, including right now as I type this, and I didn't have that reaction to Aurora or Virginia Tech or any of the way too many other incidents like this that seem to be coming more and more frequently.

It's almost (I repeat: almost) like the Newtown shooter was a deep undercover gun control advocate, and he did what he did because only by going so far beyond the pale -- shooting a roomful of 5- and 6-year-olds -- would anyone actually do anything about this problem. (Some people seem to think that that's exactly what he was doing, that the Sandy Hook Massacre was just a big stunt designed by Obama to soften the public for his comprehensive gun control plan that's been waiting in his top drawer for just such a moment as this. THAT IS INSANE.) And even then, it's highly doubtful (in my opinion) that anything meaningful is going to come from any of this.

In any case, Obama has introduced some new legislation that would ban assault rifles, ban ammunition clips that hold more than 7 rounds, institute background checks on all gun buyers, including those at gun shows and buying from private sellers, among other measures. (Let's take a moment to reflect that everything meaningful here will have to pass Congress, and is thus far from a power-grab or rule by fiat or anything remotely like the shrieking cable news/talk radio outrage machine would have us believe.)

These measures, in my opinion, get it about half right. I won't lose any sleep if the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines goes through, but I also don't think banning hardware is the right approach to the problem. I don't see any reason that licensed, law-abiding citizens shouldn't be able to purchase or possess whatever kind of firearm they want, be it semi-automatic, fully automatic, rocket launcher, or flying drone. If they jump through all the hoops they have to jump through to prove their trustworthiness, I think that trust, once earned, should be absolute.

Having said that, I think they ought to jump through a lot more hoops to earn that trust. Closing the gun-show loophole on background checks is long overdue, and a good start, but I think there are a few more things we can and should do in order to preserve law-abiding gun owners' right to shoot while also preserving law-abiding citizens' right to not get shot. I don't know exactly what a 'background check' consists of, but I'm guessing it's a glance at your criminal record and, with these new measures, a look at your mental health record, if one exists. These are fine as far as they go, but let's face it, they don't go very far. Background checks wouldn't have stopped the Sandy Hook shooter, because he didn't buy his guns; he borrowed them from his mother, who passed all her background checks and is by all accounts a law-abiding citizen. Nor would they have stopped the Aurora shooter, who had no criminal record.

When you want to adopt a dog, you don't just get to go to the shelter and take the dog home. You have to go through a thorough background check, which includes the shelter sending someone to your home to determine whether it's a suitable place for the animal. Where's it going to sleep? Does your yard have a fence? Do you have rat poison on the bottom shelf of the pantry? Who's going to feed it if you leave town?

I humbly suggest that similar safeguards should be built into the background check process for firearms, sort of like if you were adopting a tiger. Where are you going to keep them? Who else lives there? Is that person over 18? Has he also passed the background check? If he hasn't, how will you keep the guns secure when you're not home? Had the Sandy Hook shooter's mother had to jump through all these hoops, 22 more kids in Connecticut would be getting bored of their Christmas presents right about now.

Furthermore, I think that if a gun is registered to you and it's used in a crime, even if it was stolen from you completely without your knowledge, you should be subject to prosecution. If you kept a tiger in your house but didn't chain it up or anything, would you be liable if it busted through the front door and ate the mailman? You absolutely would. Had a similar liability for weapons been in place last month in Connecticut, the Sandy Hook shooter's mother might have kept her arsenal behind lock and key, safely out of reach of her Satan-spawn. Nothing motivates quite like the possibility of liability and jail time.

Likewise, when you want to drive a car, you need a license for it, and we wisely require the same thing for prospective gun owners. But drivers don't just have to get a license, they have to renew that license periodically, prove their eyesight is still okay, pass a written test. I think in addition to passing a gun-safety test and criminal background check, each prospective licensee should be subject to an interview and psychological evaluation initially and, in the case of the already licensed, at every renewal. I'm not talking about a grilling on political views or personal habits or anything like that -- just a check to make sure you can sit still in a chair and answer a few softballs (name, address, date of birth, hometown, opinion on the Red Sox bullpen) without foaming at the mouth, pulling your hair out one at a time, or shouting out violent threats. The thrust of this interview is basically "are you visibly untethered?"

The NRA and its very vocal membership seem to believe that the proverbial jack-booted thugs will be coming any minute to take away their guns, but they (specifically, their fundraising arm)  may be disappointed to see that there's nothing remotely like that in Obama's proposal. I would be in favor of an amnesty/buyback program, though, so that people in possession of unlicensed weapons would have an incentive to bring them back voluntarily and get them off the streets. These programs already intermittently exist at the local level, but it would be nice to see some coordination and escalation to see if we can't get as many untraceable weapons back into safe hands as possible.

I was born in Missouri, and I've spent more than half my Christmases in a very small rural town where every house has at least a couple of rifles and every truck has a shotgun rack in its back window. When my family all gets together we always make a point of getting out for some target shooting or, even better, breaking some clay pigeons. I learned gun safety when I was 9 or 10. Both my uncle and my dad are licensed gun dealers -- my uncle professionally, my dad recreationally -- and they go to several big gun shows a year. (I hope I am still invited for Christmas dinner next year.) I am more sympathetic to the people who oppose gun control than most folks of my political profile. The vast majority of gun owners out there, even the ones foaming at the mouth in opposition to this or any other form of gun control, are law-abiding citizens who pose no threat to anyone.

So it's particularly confusing to me that so many of them are dead-set against taking any steps at all to make sure that it's only people like them -- trained, mentally stable, responsible -- with access to this most lethal of toys. (Because, let's face it: whatever gun enthusiasts might say, their enthusiasm is not for self-defense or a well-regulated militia, it's for making big loud noises and blowing holes in stuff from a hundred paces. There's nothing wrong with that, I indulge in it myself, but let's call it what it is.) These things are death machines. It's what they are. It's what they're for. It's a big responsibility to possess a death machine, and I think that just like with getting a driver's license, you should have to prove you're up to the responsibility.

The most common refrain of the no-reforms-ever crowd seems to be "criminals will always be able to get guns, regardless of the laws." This one is particularly frustrating to me, because it turns the issue into a binary argument: gun control will either work or it won't work. I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I mean, we can agree that 1,000 gun-related murders is better (or, more precisely, less awful)  than 10,000, can't we? If we can get a reduction in that number (whatever the true number is, it's too depressing to Google), what kind of society are we if we don't even try?

Would my proposals eradicate gun violence in America? Of course they wouldn't. Would criminals, and the criminally insane, still be able to get their hands on firearms? The anti-gun control folks say they will, and to an extent I'm sure that's true. But saying "criminals will always be able to get guns" assumes an across-the-board resourcefulness on the part of the mentally ill community that I don't think is warranted. Most of the mentally ill people I've known (and I have known a few) haven't had their shit together enough to get the rotting takeout off their bedroom floor, much less tap into an underground firearms black market. (A common corollary to "criminals will always get guns" is "if they didn't have a gun, they'd use a bomb." This similarly assumes universal bomb-building knowledge that's, at best, suspect.) I have a wife, a kid, two dogs, two jobs, and a mortgage, and I don't have the first idea how I'd get a gun if I couldn't do so legally. (Nor do I know how to build a bomb.) Maybe some of the murderous crazies out there would still figure out how to arm themselves despite these measures. I'm sure some of them would. BUT SOME OF THEM WOULDN'T. If we can keep even one innocent person from being murdered in the most senseless, gruesome manner possible while minding their own business, isn't that worth a little extra paperwork? Even with all my bright ideas, it would still be less hassle than, say, applying for a mortgage.

Speaking of which, Chris Rock had the best solution to this problem that I've yet heard, but it's every bit as unrealistic as my own, so I'll close with his remarks on the topic, given at a Television Critics Association roundtable last week:

"The gun lobby always says, well, people need the right to protect their property. Every mass shooting is done by a guy who lives with his mother. I honestly believe you should have to have a mortgage to buy a gun. No one with a mortgage has ever gone on a killing spree. A mortgage is a real background check. And you know if you go to jail for 30 years you still have to pay your fucking mortgage."

For shorter, equally trivial postings follow me on Twitter @alexcastle718.

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