Can Americans cure themselves of gun addiction?
It''s a daunting assignment, and raises a question about coping. Gun addiction may be insoluble, and there may be no way for individuals to cope with the malady that infects so many of their fellow Americans as to make no place suitable as a refuge.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution appears to be one of the bulwarks of the addiction. And insofar as Americans tend to view their Constitution as holy ground (altered only 15 times since 1804), a change by constitutional amendment seems an unlikely avenue for reform.
However holy, the Second Amendment is not an absolute barrier.
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
It remains an open question as to whether the weight of that language protects "a well regulated Militia" or "the right of the people to bear Arms." Moreover, "infringed" also lends itself to interpretation. It is clear from the history of federal, as well as state and local enactments that the Second Amendment does not stand in the way of regulation, even of the most severe variety.
The catastrophe of Newtown, Connecticut might be one of those events that spurs action. Barack Obama was at his best in demonstrating his own feelings, and testifying to the need for change. We''ll have to see how his concern interacts with the Republican House, a number of Democrats lawmakers also part of the gun culture, ongoing emphasis on the fiscal cliff, and the certainty that other crises as yet unknown will also compete with gun control for a place on the agenda.
One can quickly drown in the debate about guns as dangers or protections against danger. The intensity of belief and the power of anecdotes overwhelms any rational capacity to argue from reliable data.
What is missing are statistics showing the incidence of life and property actually protected by privately owned guns, in comparison to the lives lost by having a gun in one''s home.
There are studies, which I interpret as showing that the dangers outweigh the benefits. However, they have invited critical responses from sceptics, at least some of whom express themselves as pro-gun ideologues.
It is not difficult to identify lacunae, reservations, and other limitations in the research that shows the dangers from guns being greater than the protections. However, if 50 years as a social scientist have convinced me of anything, it is that no social research (and perhaps no research in medicine or the natural sciences) is without blemish.
What the gun advocates have not produced, as far as I can tell, is research showing a relative benefit from gun ownership on the measures of protection vs danger. Time spent on the NRA web site did not convince me that its material or its links would supply answers.
Coping via a call for action or partial treatments may be the policymaker''s last line of defense in the face of a problem without a complete or quick solution. For the politician wanting to demonstrate activity, it is possible to
- Call for change in the national spirit
- Create a task force to deal with the issue, with someone prominent designated as its chair
- President Barack Obama has called for change, and has named Vice President Joe Biden to head his effort
- Among the ideas that may come from such a task force are defining national regulations under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. The possibilities include
- Demand significant screening of a customer before a gun may be sold
- Require licensing of gun holders, with a national registry used to limit the number of guns and the amount of ammunition in an individual household
- Outlaw the sale of automatic weapons capable of firing more than one shot at a time
- Create severe penalties for gun sellers who violate the regulations
- Offer a period of amnesty for turning in weapons that have been outlawed, to be followed by penalties for those not taking advantage of the amnesty
Insofar as the news from Washington is that the President is thinking beyond gun control to addressing mental illness and violence in popular culture, he may be casting the net so broad as to lose the chance of catching any fish.
KISS (keep it simple, stupid) is a useful guide to making policy, but may be beyond an administration that produced a 2,700 page bill meant to bring American health insurance closer to international norms.
Keeping guns out of the hands of an enthusiast who passes all the tests, but has a relative on the border of something dangerous--as in the case of Nancy Lanza--may be beyond the range of what can be implemented in a society that balances public safety with personal privacy.
Coping is far from perfect. We must remember that it involves dealing with a problem that won''t go away. Chronic illness and irrevocable bad habits may condemn us sooner or later. Old age is a sure killer.
Other than moving to Canada or some other place that is relatively free of the gun culture, individual Americans have fewer ways to cope than do policymkakers concerned about the big picture. Getting a permit to live and work, and health insurance in a better country may lie beyond one''s capacity. Unless regulation moves far beyond where it has been to date, staying away from guns may be impossible in a population that has already acquired almost one gun for every resident.