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Woman mourns victims of gun violence

Tirza Clarke listens as the names of victims of recent mass shootings are read aloud during a vigil at the Sunrise Amphitheater on May 28, 2022 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Getting From "Thoughts and Prayers" to Common Sense Gun Control

With a ban on assault weapons sales and strict regulations on guns already in private possession, we would more closely resemble other democratic societies to which we like to compare ourselves.

Jan Dizard

There is no need to recite the litany from Columbine to Uvalde. Nor do we have to add up the dead and the far larger—uncountable—number of wounded and traumatized children and adults who have been directly affected by the slaughter. Thoughts and prayers, whether offered sincerely or cynically, no longer soothe. In the face of Second Amendment zealots, appeals to common sense falls on deaf ears and Republican intransigence.

Seeking common sense regulations has invariably led to advocates negotiating with themselves to come up with policies that are unlikely to alter the siege we are all under. Even if weak measures like universal background checks or waiting periods between purchase and possession get through Congress, the current Supreme Court will likely rule the laws unconstitutional. The “well ordered militia” that the founders intended has, in the tortured Heller decision, produced a profoundly disordered society.

The opponents of restrictions on access to and carrying of guns outside the home are partly right in saying these laws are unlikely to reduce mass murders. It’s important to note that few of the shooters acquired their guns illegally—they passed background checks. Criminals can and do acquire guns illegally but they are not the ones who shoot up supermarkets, churches, or schools. Waiting periods are unlikely to deter school shooters, though waiting periods do probably reduce impulsive gun suicides. School shooters, church shooters, and supermarket shooters more-or-less carefully plan their attacks and even advertised their plans on social media. Waiting a few days to get the AR-15 is not a deterrent to a person intent on creating mayhem. The result, if there actually is a legislative result, will scarcely be more effective than thoughts and prayers.

So enablers of the Second Amendment zealots, after offering their thoughts and prayers, suggest all sorts of proposals that would be laughable were it not for the seriousness of the problem. Good guys with guns to the rescue—most mass shooters kill themselves before the “good guys” even fire a shot. Equip local police with military-grade weapons and vehicles, all of which has yet to prove effective. Arm teachers. Why expect teachers to be better prepared to confront someone with an assault rifle or a large-capacity semi-automatic handgun than a trained law enforcement officer? “Harden” schools. Great—make schoolchildren grimly aware each time they enter or exit the school that they face danger. And how do we harden supermarkets, places of worship, or outdoor country music festivals? Face it: we’re living in a society that is fast becoming a shooting gallery. Harden everything? Let freedom ring: but only behind double-locked, bullet proof doors?

To be truly free means accepting some limits—observing speed limits, wearing shirt and shoes in restaurants, turning 21 to purchase alcohol, getting vaccines to protect oneself and others—the list is long. But in the aggregate limits such as these are the basis of the laws and norms that allow free people to flourish. Yes, all this can sometimes be irritating but they promote the common good. It should by now be perfectly clear that what’s become in many states—largely unrestricted access to guns that are specifically designed to be used against people—does not by any measure promote the common good. These guns don’t deter crime, and it’s clear that they make homes less, not more, safe. And it is clear that they are the weapons of choice for shooters intent on killing lots of innocent men, women, and children.

So what should be done? For starters, we need to stop selling assault rifles and large-capacity semi-automatic handguns. Period, full stop. And to deal with the large number of these guns already in private possession, they should be confined to the owner’s home. These guns have no place in public. Permits to carry them to and from monitored shooting ranges and organized shooting contests may be issued by local authorities as long as the gun owner can demonstrate that he or she carries liability insurance. If the owner leaves the house without a permit, the guns will be confiscated.

Next, all gun owners need to be licensed and the license, much like a driver’s license, must be regularly renewed for a modest fee. A “good guy” this year may encounter a bad patch—a divorce, loss of job, a bout of depression—and become a “bad guy.” This could be dealt with by red flag laws but, presently, a red flag depends on porous mental health screenings or the willingness of family, friends, and associates to report their concerns. Mental health professionals are bound by privacy rules and friends and family are constrained by the understandable reluctance to report their concerns. Indeed, in many cases, family members appear to have been unaware that their son or brother or husband was plotting mass murder.

Red flag laws need to be bolstered by registering all gun and ammunition purchases that are monitored to detect purchases that suggest potential trouble—many guns purchased in a short period of time or unusually large amounts of ammunition purchased in a short period of time. Yes, this would be a hassle. So is going to the DMV. Get over it. Preventing a child being killed is worth a small hassle.

Rights entail responsibilities, another word for limits. When the Constitution was written and for decades afterward, militia weapons were typically stored in armories. People could own their own musket or pistol for hunting and personal protection. Military grade muskets were a different matter—access to them was generally limited to members of the local militias and local militias routinely complained that they didn’t have enough heavy muskets.

So, being faithful to the originalists, let’s agree that people who are of age and can pass a background check and obtain a license can purchase a shotgun or a deer rifle, or both or even several of both, each matched to the quarry being hunted. And, perhaps with greater scrutiny, a person can purchase a handgun that is not convertible to large capacity magazines.

Will this end gun violence? No. There will be criminals with guns holding up liquor stores and there will be gun-related suicides. There may even be an occasional mass murder. No law and all too few people are perfect. But were measures such as I describe enacted, we would more closely resemble other democratic societies to which we like to compare ourselves. Let’s make this common sense.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Jan Dizard

Jan Dizard recently retired from Amherst College where he was the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of American Culture.

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