Colorado has an intimate relationship with mass shootings. Cynical as it is, you can argue that Columbine pioneered the school-shooting motif, subsequently copied by many disturbed souls. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when the grocery store I frequented every week for more than 10 years became the latest example.
Mass shootings are part of ‘normal’ in America. If Sandy Hook wasn’t enough to change the conversation, the Boulder shooting certainly won’t register for more than five news cycles. Nowhere is our political gridlock more evident, or more tragic, than with respect to gun regulation.
Mass shootings get all the press, but they aren’t the real tragedy because they account for only a miniscule fraction of gun deaths. Some grim statistics bear repeating. In the U.S. guns kill more than 100 people each day, on average. Despite Covid, 2020 was a banner year for gun violence, with nearly 20,000 homicides or accidental deaths and 24,000 suicides. Non-fatal gunshot injuries also rose to a record of nearly 40,000. These figures suggest that banning assault weapons, the go-to policy debate after every mass shooting, will have little impact on the public health crisis that gun violence represents.
Despite the posturing of folks like Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, who agitates provocatively for Second Amendment rights, the primary cause of this health scourge is simply the ubiquity of guns in our society. There are an estimated 380 million guns in circulation in the U.S., or roughly 46% of the global inventory of firearms outside military control. No other country even comes close to the massive civilian arsenal that is part of our social landscape. In June of 2020, in response to a summer of social unrest, a record 2.5 million guns were purchased in a single month.
The only reliable way to fundamentally change the availability of new guns would be to amend the Constitution, and even if we managed that feat there would still be more than one gun in circulation for every American. The boogeyman of potential gun seizures also fuels a doomsday narrative that allows the NRA and its die-hard activists to credibly label most gun regulation initiatives ‘the camel’s nose poking in the tent’. In addition, 44 state constitutions also separately guarantee their citizens the right to gun ownership. Even if the Second Amendment disappeared tomorrow, the legal reality on the ground would effectively be unchanged. Logic therefore suggests that reducing the number of guns in circulation is not a realistic remedy.
Perhaps it is time to pursue a different dynamic. Instead of trying to ban assault weapons, bump stocks, and certain types of ammunition (and fanning the flames of gun seizure paranoia), why not regulate gun operation and ownership the same way we handle automobiles? Cars are treated as a necessary part of society that nonetheless represents a serious public health risk. More than 37,000 people were killed in car crashes in 2016, a death rate roughly equivalent to guns, and yet the regulatory framework surrounding these two products could not be more different.
Car companies are liable for defects in their product design and manufacture that result in death or injury to the user. Gun makers are immune from liability for the way their products function. Cars require a license to operate, and that license must be frequently renewed. Drivers must prove that they are capable of operating a motor vehicle safely, and that they understand the rules for doing so. Guns do not require anything equivalent, nor is there any mandatory process in place to universally teach and test knowledge of gun laws and safety practices. Drivers go through a background check in order to receive a license; all gun purchases should require the same. Your driver’s license can be revoked when criminal conviction or failing physical or mental health capacities signal a public safety concern. Though a few states have introduced ‘red flag’ laws to effect similar regulation of firearm operation, they should be universal.
Finally, there’s a scandalous lack of government funded research on gun violence and product safety, largely because the NRA is hostile to such research and Congress rolls over. When the CDC did try to research gun violence, Congress responded by cutting its funding. The National Transportation Safety Board does this type of research and receives more than $110 million in annual funding. We should be engaged in continuous research in an effort to make gun ownership and operation safer, just as the NTSB does for autos.