How to improve gun policy

Nick Kristoff has been writing great columns on gun policy for years now.  It the wake of the latest mass shootings, he’s got an excellent piece today looking at what policy changes would make the most difference and what might be the most achievable.  Very good stuff (you should read it all– gift link):

In many facets of life, we’re accustomed to screening people to make sure that they are trustworthy. For example, consider the hoops one must jump through in Mississippi to vote or adopt a dog:

How to vote

1. Have your Social Security number or driver’s license 
2. Complete six-question voter registration form 
3. Mail or hand deliver 
4. Do this at least 30 days before Election Day 
5. Go to polls 
6. Produce a photo ID 
7. Vote

How to adopt a dog

1. Fill out 64-question application 
2. If renting, landlord is contacted 
3. In-person meeting with entire family 
4. Yard fencing and security assessed 
5. Sleepover visit with pet 
6. Pay $125 adoption fee 
7. Adopt the dog

And now consider what someone in Mississippi must do to buy a firearm. For a private purchase from an individual, nothing is needed at all, except that the buyer not be obviously underage or drunk. For a purchase from a gun store, here’s what’s required:

How to buy a gun

1. Pass a 13-question background check 
2. Buy a gun
Note: Question counts exclude basic demographic details and contact information. Sources: Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office and (voting); Desoto Animal Rescue (adoption); Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (gun purchase)

Why should it be easier to pick up military-style weapons than to adopt a Chihuahua? And why do states that make it difficult to vote, with waiting periods and identification requirements, let almost anyone walk out of a gun shop with a bundle of military-style rifles?

If we want to keep dangerous products from people prone to impulsiveness and poor judgment, one screening tool is obvious: age. We already bar people from buying alcohol or cigarettes before they turn 21, because this saves lives. The same would be true of imposing a minimum age of 21 to buy a firearm, even in private sales.

This may be more politically feasible than some other gun safety measures. Wyoming is one of the most gun-friendly states in America, but it establishes a minimum age of 21 to buy a handgun…

To keep ineligible people from buying firearms, we need universal background checks. (One study found that 22 percent of firearms are obtained without a background check.) But the even bigger problem is that there is no comprehensive system to remove guns from people who become ineligible. If someone is convicted of stalking or becomes subject to a domestic violence protection order, that person should be prevented from owning or having access to firearms — but that rarely happens in fact. California has some of the better policies in this area, and its overall smart gun policies may be one reason — despite the recent shootings — its firearms mortality rate is 38 percent below the nation’s overall.

A pillar of harm reduction involving motor vehicles is the requirement of a license to drive a car. So why not a license to buy a gun?

Some states do require a license before one can buy a gun, and researchers find this effective in reducing gun violence.

In Massachusetts, which has one of the lowest gun mortality rates in the country, an applicant who wants to buy a gun must pay $100 for a license, be fingerprinted, undergo a background check and explain why he or she wants a gun. If the permit is granted, as it typically is after a few weeks, the bearer can then go to a gun store and buy the firearm. There is then an obligation to store it safely and report if it is stolen.

In effect, Massachusetts applies to firearms the sort of system that we routinely use in registering vehicles and licensing drivers to save lives from traffic deaths. Gun registration unfortunately evokes among some gun owners alarm about jackbooted thugs coming to confiscate firearms, which is another reason to work to lower the temperature of the gun policy debate.

Personally, I am all in on gun licensing and think it works and makes a ton of sense, but, obviously, this is a complete non-starter in most of the country.  That said, I do think this could be an issue where liberals could focus and try and shift the debate.  The “we license cars, why not guns?” take is one of this super-simple political formulations that can be very compelling.  And, of course, we have the example of Massachusetts where jackbooted thugs have not come to take away guns and plenty of responsible gun owners still exist.  What it does is cut down on irresponsible gun owners.  

Harm reduction will feel frustrating and unsatisfying to many liberals. To me as well. It means living with a level of guns, and gun deaths, that is extremely high by global standards. But no far-reaching bans on guns will be passed in this Congress or probably any time soon. Meanwhile, just since 2020, an additional 57 million guns have been sold in the United States.

So as a practical matter to save lives, let’s focus on harm reduction.

That’s how we manage alcohol, which each year kills more than 140,000 Americans (often from liver disease), three times as many as guns. Prohibition was not sustainable politically or culturally, so instead of banning alcohol, we chose to regulate access to it instead. We license who can sell liquor, we tax alcohol, we limit who can buy it to age 21 and up, we regulate labels, and we crack down on those who drink and drive. All this is imperfect, but there’s consensus that harm reduction works better than prohibition or passivity…

Public health mostly is not about one big thing but about a million small things. To reduce auto deaths, seatbelts and airbags helped, and so did padded dashboards, crash testing, streetlights, highway dividers, crackdowns on drunken driving and zillions of tiny steps such as those bumps in the highway to help keep dozing drivers from drifting off the road.

Likewise, we need countless other steps to address gun violence, and many of these have been under discussion for decades. One promising approach is background checks to purchase ammunition, and this should be possible without creating burdens for gun owners who have already gone through background checks to buy weapons. California under Gov. Gavin Newsom has led the way in this, and early results are encouraging. People often have tried to buy ammunition when they weren’t allowed to own guns, suggesting that plenty of unauthorized people have firearms and that ammunition controls may impede them.

Red flag laws are also promising, particularly for reducing gun suicides — which get less attention than homicides but are more common. Red flag laws allow the authorities to remove a gun temporarily from those who appear to be a threat to themselves or others. One academic study found that over 10 years, the Indiana red flag law reduced gun suicides by 7.5 percent. There’s less evidence that red flag laws reduce homicides.

One study found that each murder costs society about $17.25 million in policing, courts, incarceration, lost productivity and insecurity. If each handgun and AR-15-style weapon had an additional 20 percent sales tax, that would significantly reduce demand and would begin to pay for some of the costs of crime.

Or what about insurance? Automobile owners must buy insurance, and pool owners and trampoline owners may pay higher premiums, so why shouldn’t gun owners pay higher rates for higher risks? And why should the gun industry be protected from many liability suits?

Yes, to an “all of the above” strategy guided by harm reduction.  The reality, though, is that the politics of guns are so toxic that all of the above gets really hard and it’s difficult to know what to prioritize.  That said, overall, I do think Kristoff lays out a compelling policy approach to reducing gun deaths in America that is clearly Constitutional and generally quite cognizant of political realities.  

%d bloggers like this: