What more is there to offer amid the voluble discourse of this sad week, when violence took the place of order and justice? The United States: will the terrorism of Charleston and Orlando diminish them? Will we descend to the habit of a shrug when children are murdered in our schools, when movie-goers are gunned down in a theater, when a cafeteria worker is shot to death in the middle of a routine traffic stop, when a sniper decides to channel his anger into killing police officers?
Sadly, we may grow indifferent if the spiral of unjustified violence continues much longer. We may shun the news for fear of having to look at the latest, outrageous use of quick-murdering guns. We may all cease to bat an eye at the latest victims, the latest place when guns were used to sort out human conflicts that deserved to be aired in the courts. And when that happens, we will have lost the semblance of unity that has kept us going until now. We will be just another war-torn country, with battle-lines too subtle to stay on the right side of.
Congress, endlessly preoccupied with the 2nd Amendment, has forgotten the larger purposes that, according to the Constitution, justify our federal government, particularly its charge to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ and ‘promote the general Welfare.’ Will Congress act, in whatever ways it sees fit, to promote the internal peace and safety that Americans of all races crave, and that, by right, we are all entitled to expect? Or will Congress forget its obligation to the nation, its members cravenly priding themselves on dedication to some lesser cause or party?
Changes in law are needed, but America also needs something more that’s harder. Americans need to look into their hearts and examine whether they are living up to the potentialities of our civic culture, a culture that has allowed us to dwell with one another in a relatively open and unfettered way. Americans need to recall the great civil tradition that has inspired generations to grow into a society where people who differ from one another nonetheless co-exist, enjoying ‘the blessings of Liberty’ and fitfully recognizing in one another our mutual humanity. We have striven according to an Americanness that is deeper than either religion or skin. This cultural effort will be imperfect always, but without it we will be condemned to grieve forever, anguishing over the most precious republican virtue lost.
We seldom talk about the responsibilities that positively accompany owning a gun. “Gun control,” the issue we argue about instead, quickly organizes itself around several fixed and immutable nodes, in which the same few phrases—”individual rights,” “2nd Amendment,” and “semi-automatic weapons”—invariably feature. If people from opposing camps talk about the issue at all, conversation quickly becomes so dichotomized it stalls. We need new ideas to get beyond the strategic and ideological stalemate. We need to stop focusing on inanimate objects (guns) and start talking about people.
We can’t even come to the point of agreeing that gun violence is a problem. People who have seen gun violence up close understandably want to rein in irresponsible use, but they too often fall into the trap of assuming that if gun ownership were limited, the problem of gun violence would go away. On the other side of the issue are law-abiding and responsible gun-owners (who make up a majority), who bridle at proposals that essentially criminalize and stigmatize their activities.
The huge population of Americans who own and use guns responsibly is not the problem. Gun violence results when guns are used irresponsibly: when a person is careless, criminal, crazy, or enraged. A gun is a tool. How guns are used in our society is a function of our culture as much as our laws.
While the Second Amendment makes it difficult to regulate gun ownership, we can hope to change how guns are used and treated in our culture. As Clarence Page has pointed out on the McLaughlin Group, some countries with high rates of gun ownership have low rates of gun violence. Becoming such a society should be our goal.
Is there something to be gained from “normalizing” gun ownership, while at the same time expecting at least as much from a gun owner as from a person who owns a car? The parallel is useful, because car ownership offers a positive instance of incorporating a potentially lethal instrument into our culture in a way that minimizes risk and maximizes safety.
Like guns, cars, though useful, can be dangers to their owners and to other people. Which is why we, as a society, require that cars be registered, and that their drivers be educated and licensed. Moreover, to ensure that those who wish to own and drive cars do so without cost to others, we require that owners buy auto insurance. Auto insurance companies ply a flourishing trade, because they have discovered just how to assess all the various risks and costs associated with a particular individual owning a particular car.
No one questions our “right” to own an automobile. There are millions and millions of vehicles and drivers on American streets. Meanwhile, however, a structure has evolved around car-owning intended to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, we do it safely.
Get the insurance industry involved
Treating guns like cars, and insuring them, could have many benefits. Some of the benefits would accrue to gun-owners; others to society collectively. In particular, insurers could place an actuarial value on the specific hazards involved in the ownership of a specific gun. Individuals wishing to buy semi-automatic weapons would be free to do so, but the insurance costs would provide an incentive to think twice and go easy.
Individual gun owners would have an incentive to see that guns insured in their name were not used in the commission of crime. They would have a stronger incentive to report the loss or theft of a gun promptly. Nearly half of all firearms used in the commission of felonies are lost, stolen, or borrowed. Drawing a sharper line between criminal gun use and legal gun ownership would in itself encourage more personal responsibility.
A more market-oriented approach to reducing gun violence would open up a whole new field for the insurance industry, and might gain more support among lawmakers than does the state-heavy approach that most liberals tout now. This approach might also foster an alliance between legal gun owners and other law-abiding citizens, an alliance that is essential if we hope to minimize gun violence in our time.
Top Image: Where felons get their guns, from this source.
(If you know of a more recent version of this figure, please contact me.) Bottom image: World map of countries by number of guns per capita, from this source.