Guns, Shootings, and Regulation: Ways to Stop the Cycle of Mass Violence

By Michael Degroff-Kirchgraber

The first few days after a mass shooting in the United States are full of conversations about ways to prevent the next one. Then, weeks or months later, and there’s another one. After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, two weeks ago that left 17 students dead, one such idea, put forward by none other than President Donald Trump, is arming teachers to act as immediate responders.

As a policy solution, arming teachers falls woefully short of an appropriate response. Adding more guns will not make schools safer, and there is not a shred of evidence that an armed teacher would be any more effective in stopping a shooter than armed security guards or police. In addition, the introduction of armed teachers to future cases of school shootings will inevitably make the job of first responders harder. Why should a teacher’s job include putting their life on the line in the case of a shooting?

It’s disingenuous to claim that arming teachers is the only reasonable solution to prevent mass shootings. Despite what the NRA might say, current calls for gun control are not a serious movement towards banning all firearms completely. Stricter gun control laws wouldn’t mean taking all the guns from “good Americans exercising their Second Amendment rights.” Instead, it would mean making the age to acquire an AR-15 and other long guns and rifles the same age as required to purchase a handgun. It would mean putting back in place regulations that make it more difficult for people with certain mental illnesses to acquire guns. It would probably mean instituting limits on clip size, or amounts of ammo that can be purchased at a given time. In this country, we regulate and track cough medicine more tightly than bullets.

I’d advocate for a federal gun registry, like what exists in some states and like we have for cars, to assist law enforcement with identifying the owner of a firearm used in a crime, thereby increasing gun owner accountability. Maybe we end up entirely banning guns like the AR-15, because any reason someone not in the military would truly need one is difficult to imagine. Or add some stricter and more consistent requirements for proof of competency with a firearm before letting someone purchase one. We have similar limits and requirements around cars, implemented in the interest of saving lives.

Will these regulations stop all gun-related fatalities? No, they will not. Will they stop all crimes committed with firearms? Again, obviously not. Without implementing something dramatic like a national gun buyback program like Australia — which is highly unlikely  — it will be tricky to reduce the number of guns out there. An “assault weapons” ban might bring the number of guns down, depending on how it was implemented. But we cannot, as a country, allow our inability to stop all crime prevent us from trying to limit how often school shootings and other gun-related murders happen.

I am sick and tired of “thoughts and prayers.” Of seeing people wring their hands and say “oh goodness, if only there was something we could do to stop these mass shootings,” or “well, this shooter was obviously crazy, and therefore let’s demonize people with mental illnesses,” or “the damn kids and their violent video games and aggressive music!” These explanations are either mistaken or intentionally misleading. The cause is the access to guns. It has always been the access to guns. Compared to most of the rest of the world, the U.S. has essentially unfettered access to guns, and the difference in number of mass shootings per year is dramatic.

Ultimately, the strongest defense those who refuse to consider new gun legislation can offer is the sanctity of the Second Amendment.  But why should the Second Amendment be untouchable? Essentially every other amendment has had subsequent fine-tuning since 1791, because the 18th-century world was so incredibly different than our world today. Even the First Amendment, with its promise of freedoms of speech, religion, and the press, does not provide unlimited protection  in the interest of public safety. Why should the Second Amendment alone be immutable?

Gun control is an issue fraught with tension and complications. In spite of that, most Americans agree that some proposed regulations limiting the right to bear arms would be acceptable. According to a recent Pew Research poll, the majority of respondents favor background checks at private gun shows, barring gun purchases for those on no-fly or watch lists, creating a federal database to track gun sales, and banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.  A broad consensus crosses the divide between gun owners and non-owners: something must be done, and adding more guns to the equation is not the answer. Some kind of reasoned action is long overdue, and the discussion about what to do should center on thoughtful policy changes that address the issue, instead of ill-conceived and performative blanket mandates.

Michael Degroff-Kirchgraber is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.