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Gun Control: It's Complicated

Sandy Hook pits the Constitution against public safety.

Events in Newtown, Connecticut, have put gun control and related topics at the top of the list for pundits, opinion columnists and Internet blog commenters. I am always hesitant to wade in too soon on such topics. It’s my tendency to go into “information gathering mode” before I start spouting off. I have been absorbing and researching and pondering for a while now, so I thought I would switch to my “spouting off” mode.

What can be said about the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that hasn’t already been said? One would typically have to go to a “holy” text to find such examples of horrific violence meted out upon the most innocent among us. At least the great human crimes of Attila the Hun*, Mao, Hitler and Stalin had [in their own minds] an enemy or obstacle to justify their actions. But 6-year-old kids?!?!  These are people that are still dreaming about being a fireman or a basketball star and who spill over with pride when they color without going outside the lines. These victims were all aspiration and zero malice. (*Atrocity Trivia: By percentage of the world population killed, Atilla the Hun is the hands down “winner.” All done with first-century weapons and transport!)

Of course the topic of mental health comes up. What surprised me is that there are some that are hesitant to label the shooter “insane” or “mentally ill." I am not a psychologist, and I understand that there is uncertainty and ambiguity in diagnosing mental health, but I think we can read the targeted killing of innocent children as being, irrefutably, in the “mentally ill” slot. That said; there will always be the likes of Adam Lanza and there will always be senseless violence. Some have suggested getting more aggressive in identifying those that might be psychologically frail and denying them access to guns. The problem here is that, to “catch” the possible offenders in a numerically useful way, the bar would be set so high that very few of us would pass muster. The rate of “false positives” would be intolerable.

Gun control, though, is usually the first thing that rolls off people’s lips. This pits the Second Amendment against everyone’s desire to keep our kids (and society generally) safe from gun violence. On one hand, we have the clear examples of countries with comparatively Draconian gun controls having far less gun crime. On the other hand, we have the Constitutional protection of the Second Amendment allowing private citizens to own firearms. The latter has been a contentious issue for some time and there is/was ambiguity in the text of the amendment. Was that right there to support our federal government to be able to assemble a ready fighting force to repel a foreign aggressor? Was that right there so that the citizenry could defend itself against our own government run amok? (Remember, it was by no means certain that our experiment in democracy would be stable and successful for the long term). I think there are passable arguments on both sides...though, for original intent, I lean toward “supporting the federal government”.

That aspect of the Second Amendment has been laid to rest though. As I often say; “The Constitution is only what the Supreme Court says it is.” In 2008, the supreme court ruled that gun ownership rights go beyond the need for the government to quickly assemble an army. Some amongst us may not be happy with that interpretation but, in a sense, we really can’t argue with that. The SCOTUS done spoke!

So...how do we maintain Constitutional rights and minimize the risk of gun violence for our kids and society generally? Like many issues, this is complex. Like too many issues, some factions like to claim that there are simple solutions...if that simple solution comports with their ideology or their pet interest. Everyone, by now, is aware of the NRA contention that the problem of too many guns can be fixed by even more guns. If we look at events like Newtown in history, that contention doesn’t really hold up (never mind the evidence that strict gun controls reduce net gun violence). More importantly; why would we care what such an obviously biased actor in this debate has to say? The NRA’s contention is well refuted by my nephew: “I can only assume the World Clown Association thinks school shootings can be prevented with more clowns in schools.” As soon as I heard the NRA statement I recalled how, when I see foreign news footage with armed guards/military everywhere, I think “I am sure glad I don’t live there!”.

Really...we can analyze the evidence on gun control and parse Constitutional rights just fine without the input of the NRA, thank you.

So....

What is a society to do? We know how to reduce gun violence based on the examples of other countries. Fewer guns mean fewer gun deaths. Unfortunately we have the pesky Constitution thingy that...rightly...gets waved around.

Can we just keeps  guns out of the hands of the bad guys or the mentally ill? I doubt it. As I mentioned earlier; the bar would have to be set so low to make an appreciable difference that very few people would qualify to purchase a firearm. Plus, we are probably all aware that the weapons used in Newtown, Connecticut were legally acquired and registered by his mother.

What if we ban assault weapons? First we would have to define an assault weapon...and that is harder than it sounds. Is it just scary-looking rifles? There are handguns that hold upwards of 17 rounds that can probably inflict more carnage than some of those assault rifles. It’s all physics. Guns are about converting chemical energy (gunpowder) into kinetic energy (a flying bullet) and then transferring that energy to a target (let’s say a tin can on a fencepost).

I would suggest that there is a compromise that will not satisfy either camp...so it’s probably pretty good. What if we somehow put a cap on the killing power of weapons that are publicly available. Let’s have every firearm ranked in terms of its ability to unleash death and destruction. I’ll call it the “Death and Destruction Rating” (or DDR). The open-ended DDR would be determined by analyzing the following:

  • How many rounds can be fired in a set period of time (i.e. 30 seconds) as determined by an independent testing agency.
  • The size and mass of the projectile
  • The charge size (how much “gunpowder” is in each round)
  • The useful range
  • Physical size / ease of concealment


Somehow those factors would be distilled into a single number that would generally correlate with how many people it could kill in given period of time. With the DDR, you could have a rifle that could take down a buck at 1000 feet, but you might not be able to get off a round or two before you were forced to pause through some design feature.

I don’t think we can realistically change the Constitution on this matter (nor would would I necessarily want to). Nor do I don’t think we can write off the high level of U.S. gun violence as the “price of freedom”. Compromise is pretty foreign in today’s politics, but if events like Sandy Hook can’t get us to think about it, then we are in a pretty bad place.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mike Bruno January 02, 2013 at 05:38 PM
If we could pinpoint those divisions at a neurological level, there would certainly be some telephone calls from the Nobel committee. I am, actually, empathetic to the second amendment arguments that the right to bear arms is there to protect the population from government run amok. Of course it used to seem merely and abstraction when we weren't so hot-headed, vitriolic, and divided. Now, with the likes of Ted Nugent and pretty much every Fox talking head claiming the collapse of our society under a socialist despot (and people believing it), I begin to wonder how abstract the idea of an armed insurrection might be. Like you, I don't have too much patience for those that ignore a problem or don't offer solutions or rely on faith-based thinking. That sense of power with guns shouldn't be dismissed. I've not shot any gun so speak of but, as an engineer, I like guns as precision machines, but would never consider buying one. There is a far greater likelihood of my killing a family member than an intruder is what the evidence says.
Colin C. January 02, 2013 at 08:07 PM
Mike, you have offered one approach. How about something like this? To obtain a license to own a firearm one must be of age, pass a rigorous course on safety, security, law, responsibility, and practical use; also a thorough background check and psyc, exam. All guns will have a title, just as cars do. The title must be transferred whenever ownership of a gun changes. Titles, licenses, and ownership are databased. Guns and their owners can be identified quickly. Owners will be held legally responsible for the security of weapons that they own. If a gun is stolen, lost, or goes missing the owner may be held legally liable if it can be demonstrated that the gun was not properly secured. If an unsecured, missing gun is later used in a crime the owner may face a civil suit by those injured as well. Any unlicensed person caught with a gun would face serious prison time; say 15-20 years. Anyone carrying a gun during the commission of a violent crime would face life. Result: licensed owners can own any firearms that they wish but will be held legally responsible if they fall into the wrong hands. Unlicensed persons face such stiff punishment for possession that only the truly stupid or the deranged would take the chance. It would take several years for a plan like this to be implemented and become effective but I bet that it would seriously lower gun deaths in the US without violating the Constitution, which calls for regulation.
espo January 02, 2013 at 08:44 PM
It's wonderful to see 2 of Patch's great minds, Mike and Colin, combine forces to solve gun violence. I think we can combine the best of both ideas. Let's set up a Government Agency and employ thousand of new bureaucrats to evaluate every firearm and score it it using a complex algorithm that takes into account magazine capacity, reload speed, projectile velocity, projectile mass, caliber, concealability and overall 'scariness' which can be judged by a congressional committee (so lobbyists can have some input). Once the PMGS (Potential for Mayhem and General Scariness) score has been determined for each firearm ever made - we can go to work making laws that impose different levels of restriction and punishment based upon each weapon's PMGS. Then we can implement Colin's idea of mandatory classes in safety, responsibility, law (which would all be Government run, of course) as well as Psychological exams (more Government employees). Of course if someone is wrongfully diagnosed and prevented form exercising his Constitutional right to gun ownership, there will be a a lot of new fodder for ACLU lawyers. Sounds like a win-win. More jobs for government employees, more lawsuits - everyone wins! Except of course for the victims of gun violence. Which wouldn't be reduced one bit by this massive bureaucratic circle-jerk.
Mike Bruno January 02, 2013 at 09:25 PM
@espo: So what solutions do you offer? While we wait, consider that, with the exception of maybe the testing of firing rate, anything I suggested is already known and can be readily provided by the manufacturer for free. It's not a Ouija board. It's a math formula. Look at all the massively complex and expensive testing we demand of auto manufacturers to meet safety standards. This isn't 1/1000th of that burden. There is nothing subjective (like "what constitutes scary?"). How much energy can be transferred from gunpowder to targets in a given period of time over what distance is all that is involved. I am pretty sure the ATF already has Excel.
Mike Bruno January 02, 2013 at 09:54 PM
@Colin: I am on board with assigning real responsibility to registered gun owners. If a gun you own is used in a crime, then you are kinda screwed. If you can't secure your weapon and it gets into the wrong hands, you will be taken to task for how it happened. If you don't have good answers or documentation (i.e. police report of theft), you would be facing serious penalties. Annual registration might help, but I think psych evaluations are rife with problems.
Colin C. January 02, 2013 at 10:04 PM
espo: From my side, cars are titled and that does not create any major problems from government or for society. The government requires licensure for drivers but driver training is left up to private enterprise. Gun dealers and the NRA could give the courses. The background checks are already being done; they need vast improvement but again it's an incremental step up, not the creation of huge, new bureaucracies. A lot of it probably could be done by private business. The psyc exam idea is a problem. We simply cannot predict human behavior. But I would like to see some sort of screening. The whole point behind my idea is that legitimate, trained gun owners do not present a threat, at least according to the NRA. It is those who have obtained guns illegally and intend to use them that way that present the biggest problem. By making guns instantly traceable to their legal owners and by setting an extremely high penalty for illegal possession I believe that we can almost eliminate the illegal gun market. Owners would very quickly learn that it will be their responsibility to secure their guns at all times. Again, the NRA says that the majority of legitimate owners already do this. But this idea would eliminate "straw buyers" and the major sources of todays illegal gun traffic without denying ownership of any kind of weapon to legitimate owners. BTW, your attempt at sarcasm and attacks on Mike and me demean your argument. Give us a better solution.
Colin C. January 02, 2013 at 10:23 PM
Mike, you are right about the psyc. exam. And requiring treatment professionals to report people who might pose a threat is about as accurate and reliable as predicting earthquakes. Plus it violates every tenet of professional confidentiality and would cause great harm to the treatment profession as well as to all those who are "falsely" reported and then have to carry that stigma. Nah---on second thought, scrap the psyc. exam and simply train and hold legit owners responsible for security. I think that if owners had held their guns in locked gun safes Columbine and Newtown might never have happened. If guns are titled and traceable, and if one is required to pass a comprehensive and rigorous course on safety, security, knowledge of the law, and practical procedures of using a gun before being able to purchase it I think that most of the other mass shootings might have been avoided. I also think that a program like this would cut way down on the biggest problem: the number of gun murders in our cities.
Mike Bruno January 02, 2013 at 10:27 PM
I'll throw this out just for blue-sky thinking (it is guaranteed to get some vitriolic responses). I am not proposing this, just thought it would be fun for discussion: Use high-speed laser etching in bullet manufacture to mark *every* bullet (not the casing, the [usually] lead slug) with a unique or near-unique identification. Bullets would be registered in the same manner as guns are. Assuming we could get an appreciable number of those markings to survive firing and impact; it could be a real deterrent to the criminal element. It wouldn't do anything for the Sandy Hooks where the shooter is expecting to be dead though. Obviously, expensive and complex, but then we wouldn't need to find the gun, just the bullet.
Rudy January 02, 2013 at 11:02 PM
Whats to keep you from making guns, ammo in your basement? A lathe and a mill is about all it takes. I used to reload ammo all the time. To Collins point you can be in the US illegally break numerous laws and the police won't even hold you over night! Be caught with a constitutionally legal piece of hardware and spend 15 years in jail WOW I don't know why our country is so divided? Guns DON't Kill people People Kill people! just saying the triggers don't pull themselves.
Mike Bruno January 02, 2013 at 11:24 PM
I figured home-made ammo would be a loophole. I could see licensing stamps like a Notary Public that the home-reloader would press on the back-end of the slug maybe playing a role. Stiff penalties for having ammo that wasn't serialized might play a role. Again...that is just blue-sky stuff. And, in fairness, Rudy.... Colin's point was that you would be "caught with a constitutionally legal piece of hardware" that was INVOLVED IN A VIOLENT CRIME or out of the control of the registered owner. Just a weee bit of difference there. Nobody cares if you have a legally owned car, but they care if you use it run over a group of people at a bus stop. I'll present the same question to you, Rudy. Given that the U.S. is such an outlier in the amount of gun crime, what would your solution be to address gun crime? At least a few here are trying to offer or brainstorm some solutions.
Paul Bryant January 03, 2013 at 03:31 AM
This country was founded by men with muskets, was expanded by men with pistols and rifles, is protected by men and women carrying arms. It's in our nature and in our constition and that will not change. Illinois has some of, if not the strictest gun laws in the country, yet Chicago is the murder capitol of the country. Try fixing unemployment, the entitlement mentality, mental health care. Those are the real problems.
Colin C. January 03, 2013 at 04:04 AM
Paul, are you saying that nearly 100,000 deaths and injuries to people, many of whom are innocent of anything but just happening to be in the line of fire, is not a real problem? If you really believe that then you have just nailed the real problem and it is people who think that way. The Constitution was written 220 years ago for a very different time. It is not a writ of holy scripture, it is a political document meant to be amended as circumstances require. We are protected from foreign invasion by the largest, most powerful army the world has ever known. They don't need our help, thank you. No matter how strict our state laws are they are useless because of the ease of buying guns in other states and bringing them here. If the laws that we have don't work that does not mean that laws can't work, just that our laws are too spotty, inconsistent, and easily avoided. We must have strong, uniform, national laws in order for them to work. I think that Mike and I are still waiting for some positive suggestions. All we seem to be getting are excuses, attacks, and the old "It can't be done. We can't change" nonsense. So please answer this for me. Why does anyone really need a semi-automatic, 15 shot rifle or pistol? For that matter, why does anyone in this Country really need any firearm besides a legitimate hunting rifle or shotgun?
espo January 03, 2013 at 04:06 AM
Colin, you and Mike are adorable.
Colin C. January 03, 2013 at 04:16 AM
espo, is that truly the best that you can do? How about a thoughtful, coherent suggestion on the problem that we are discussing? I'm sure that, since you joined this conversation, you might have at least some idea of how to reduce the number of illegal guns and of gun related deaths in America.
Rudy January 03, 2013 at 04:27 AM
I hate to trample free speech but, every time a terrible event like this happens it becomes a media circus with the news media cashing in on the misfortune of others. Unfortunately that's what most of these mentally deranged people crave attention. They need help guns are their tool of choice but they could just as easily steal a car and run a bunch of kids over with the same appalling result. I don't claim to have the answer. I know that by not enforcing existing laws we are breeding criminals.The main problem with passing more useless gun laws is that the only ones that the stricter laws effect are the law abiding citizens who aren't the problem anyway. Pass enough laws and it becomes easier to be a criminal than to obey reasonable laws. Like the disturbed Rahm Emanuel says and I quote You never let a serious crisis go to waste! And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. Rahm Emanuel In other words get them while they are down! These are our Leaders Really??
espo January 03, 2013 at 04:40 AM
Colin, I too feel the shock, anger and outrage of these innocent children being gunned down in cold blood. I feel that same outrage when I hear about child abuse. Or childhood cancer. Or drunk drivers killing people. Or young people dying from drug overdoses. The thing is, we can't just throw more laws at a problem and make everything better. I think you stated the problem yourself a few posts back: "Unlicensed persons face such stiff punishment for possession that only the truly stupid or the deranged would take the chance. " The problem, Colin, is that it is precisely those people who are killing innocents, and all your classes, courses and checks won't stop it. You and your friend Mike really seem like 2 really sweet men who are grasping for something, anything that will make sure this can't ever happen again, but your emotions are making you illogical, All the best, I'm checking out of this thread.
Paul Bryant January 03, 2013 at 05:42 AM
Here here, espo!
Mike Bruno January 03, 2013 at 02:26 PM
@espo: Nobody has ever claimed to try to "make sure this can't ever happen again". Crazy people will always cause harm...guns or not. Fact: U.S. per-capita gun violence only lags behind the third world (or near-third world) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate. We are dramatically more violent (and religious btw) than other first-world nations. Fact: The single biggest factor correlating with reduced gun violence is reduced availability of guns at the national level. Nobody here has even suggested banning public ownership of firearms. For myself I suggest inexpensive measures that would allow powerful weapons but limit their ability to cause mass murder. From the pro-gun side, we only heard "oh well, such is life" or "fix poverty, drug use and those suckling at the government teat [!?]". Poke holes in my arguments all you want. I like to be shown where I am wrong, but the few that have made their presence known on this thread offer *nothing* to address the level of U.S. gun violence. Dismissing a middle-ground is what is wrong with government today and the root of our divisions in the U.S. and on this thread (IMHO).
Mike Bruno January 03, 2013 at 02:41 PM
Are you surprised that events that focus the public attention are seized upon. That's not a partisan thing, that is pretty much how EVERYTHING is brought before lawmakers. Bringing up gun control after the mass killing of children isn't some nefarious trickery, it's just the way the human mind works and it is how politics work.
Kenny Banya January 03, 2013 at 03:13 PM
Wow, I leave Patch for a day and, Mike Bruno gets all uppity about statistics aggregation and twisting a comment to, once again, fit his limited comprehension. Mike, how can you keep your breadth of knowledge in your head, I mean, gosh, you must have a head the size of a pumpkin. Solution-allow concealed carry in Illinois. The opportunistic crimes will decrease dramatically, let the cops focus on major crimes. All these scenarios of Charles Bronson in the park are ridiculous. The scope of crime-ridden areas will shrink, Michigan Avenue will be safe to walk again, so will parking your car w/o having a gun in your back.
Mike Bruno January 03, 2013 at 03:34 PM
For what it is worth, here is what the National Academy of Sciences has to say about guns and violence (there is a good deal unsettled): http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10881&page=1 And here is a piece by statistics wizard Nate Silver on gun ownership vs party affiliation, education, income and more: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/in-gun-ownership-statistics-partisan-divide-is-sharp/
Kenny Banya January 03, 2013 at 04:28 PM
Mike Bruno, for what it is worth, you continually quote from liberal rags as if their opinion is fact. That is beyond disingenuous. Nate Silver is a wizard-a wizard at manipulating data to fit his agenda. This is all you need to know about Nate Silver: "Silver was born in East Lansing, Michigan, the son of Sally (née Thrun), a community activist...." Mike, you are a boor with a self-inflated ego and an obvious need to have others believe you possess a wealth of knowledge. Here's a tip for you-Anyone who writes, "that said," and then completely discounts anothers opinion (NRA) based on personal agenda is uninteresting.
snwbdrny January 03, 2013 at 04:45 PM
Far more people are killed every year in motor vehicle "accidents", many of these are a result of unlicensed drivers or vehicles. If we can't keep track of something as large as a car, how are we going to regulate a pistol? Just because something is illegal doesn't mean that people won't do it.
Mike Bruno January 03, 2013 at 04:45 PM
Nate Silver is simply a statistician. He doesn't even generate the numbers. He aggregates numbers from other sources. Numbers don't have opinions. Mr. Silver is the guy that totally nailed all but one federal election based on his poll aggregating. That you cite "Silver was born in East Lansing, Michigan, the son of Sally (née Thrun), a community activist...." as something damning speaks volumes of you, not Mr. Silver. That said [ ;-) ], I'll probably move on to another blog topic now should I find the time. I'll send you an email warning so you can avert your eyes from Patch. I do appreciate your driving up my readership!
Kenny Banya January 03, 2013 at 04:52 PM
Vacuous commentary continues...."speaks volumes of you....." Typical lib speak when presented with fact and probable bias. Please move on and continue writing, Mike. I just ran out of toilet paper.
Colin C. January 03, 2013 at 08:01 PM
I find it ever fascinating and puzzling reading comments from people whose thought processes seem totally unimpeded by facts or evidence. I guess that I was always taught that just saying that something is so, or wishing or believing it to be so does not make it so. Evidence and real life experience shows that strict, enforceable gun controls reduce gun related deaths. Like it or not, that is a fact. Anyone is free to dissemble, disbelieve or whatever they wish but that does not change the fact. I also find it interesting that Mike and I have suggested several possible approaches toward possibly addressing this problem and have repeatedly asked others to share their thoughts on how to address the problem. What we have received are ad hominem attacks, criticism without accompanying counter proposals, and a repeated denial of information and documented facts without any actual attempt to back up assertions with documentation. I have seen this same pattern on other blogs on the same subject. Mike and I may be wrong but no one has yet produced any actual evidence to demonstrate that. At this point I have pretty much lost respect for what I have seen on the "pro-gun" side of this discussion. I think I'll drop out of this thread too. It's become a waste of time since, aside from Mike's posts I have not learned anything useful and doubt that i will. Thanks for the discussion anyway.
John R January 03, 2013 at 09:00 PM
Interesting dialog and some good ideas and insight. But it's nothing but a bunch of chatter on the Patch. Get a group together, formulate some idea's, set up a meeting with Rep. Hultgren and pitch him. I'm willing to bet that he would sit down with a reasonable group of D14 constituent's to get input. Changing his position might be another question but I bet he would meet. I put together a group that met with former Rep Foster and it was actually well recieved and rewarding. Colin you have my email address if your interested. Rice
snwbdrny January 03, 2013 at 09:28 PM
Here is a "fact": Back in the day (and not in this state(originally from NY)), I used to take my semi automatic shotgun (actually faster and capable of more destruction than the weapons used in recent tragedies) to school every day, it was in the back window of my unlocked truck. This gun never killed anyone nor was it ever used in any crimes, so I guess a law abiding citizen IS capable of owning one of these awful death dealing weapons without incident. I think we need to start focusing on mental health issues rather than inanimate objects, years ago there didn't seem to be as many shootings even though guns were in abundance... what has changed? lets focus on that.
RjR January 05, 2013 at 04:01 AM
I'm curious to know if it's the Patch editor or Mr. Bruno who determines which comments are posted. Mine apparently did not meet the standard of approval. No obscenity, no personal attack - just pointing out a logical fallacy on Mr. Bruno's part.
Mike Bruno January 05, 2013 at 01:53 PM
I have no control over such things.

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