Our fifteen-month pandemic experience gave us intensified problems with gun violence. We do not know the precise cause of the rise in gun violence that plagues our country. We can see very clearly, however, that we have made a significant—but hopefully temporary—step backward. At the same time, we also see rhetoric encouraging political violence and fearful perceptions of personal insecurity driving record-setting rates of gun purchases, including many first-time buyers with no firearms training. In light of our pandemic experience and the continuing post-election rhetoric calculated to inflame conflict, we have no reason to believe that we will soon return to “normal”—certainly not with respect to gun violence.
As if that isn’t bad enough, news reports keep reminding us of other dimensions of gun violence and related policy debates that continue to pose significant challenges for our society. Several of these reports have been especially eye-catching and disturbing.
Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, among other groups concerned about the dangers posed by unsafe firearms policies, promoted June 4th as national “Gun Violence Awareness Day.” Ironically, on that very day, Judge Roger Benitez of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California issued his opinion striking down California’s restrictions on ownership of military-style rifles (Miller v. Bonta, 2021). Judge Benitez concluded that those restrictions violate the Second Amendment.
“Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle [a civilian version of the M-4 rifle used by the military] is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. Good for both home and battle, the AR-15 is the kind of versatile gun that lies at the intersection of the kinds of firearms protected under [Supreme Court decisions defining the Second Amendment].”I think we can all understand why victims and family members from the mass shootings at Las Vegas, Parkland, Orlando, and Newtown are outraged that weapons of war are endorsed as ordinary and desirable in the hands of untrained civilians. Elsewhere, the opinion praises the AR-15 as a great weapon for stopping burglars and alludes to the desirability of the weapon in case civilians need to overthrow the government.
In my view, the opinion improperly assumes that owners of the weapons are skilled marksmen, downplays the velocity and power of their ammunition that can travel great distances and pass through walls, and endorses disturbing, fear-based fantasies of civilians’ need for military weapons to fight against regular armed forces in the United States. This is essentially the “dream opinion” that Second Amendment extremists have always wanted. Unfortunately, it may help set the table for a later decision by the new and increasingly pro-gun Supreme Court which has already decided to rule next year on possibly expanding the Second Amendment right to include carrying firearms outside the home. Imagine three years from now if the Supreme Court were to endorse this view of military-style rifles AND combine it with an expanded constitutional right to carry firearms. I shudder to think about it. I don’t know if it will happen, but it’s not impossible to imagine at this point.
Other troubling news items:
Remember the St. Louis lawyer who became (in)famous for running out of his house with his military-style rifle in order to threaten Black Lives Matter protesters who were peacefully walking past on their way to protest outside the home a public official? Not only did his apparent threat to initiate a mass killing of unarmed people gain him a speaker’s slot at the Republican National Convention, he now believes his actions qualify him to be a candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri. Hopefully, he will never have the opportunity to influence gun policy in the United States. But who knows? He still faces criminal charges for the incident, but the governor of Missouri has already promised to pardon him if he is convicted (Holpuch, 2021).
A 12-year-old and 14-year-old in foster care ran away from a youth home and broke into a house where they “found a handgun, two shotguns, an AK-47 and ample ammunition” (Knowles and Kornfield, 2021). They fired on law enforcement officers who came to the house and officers reluctantly fired back, seriously wounding one child. Commentators are appropriately asking questions about how to improve the child welfare system so that such children may be less inclined to commit desperate acts. The other question that we ought to ask is about safe storage of firearms. Laws and policies that encourage safe storage might help to prevent this kind of situation. If the guns were locked up, it would have been much more difficult for these children—or any burglars—to obtain them. Do people really need to keep their firearms unlocked when they are away from home?
If you watch carefully, here and there you will see news reporters giving increasing attention to the problem of “ghost guns”—do-it-yourself firearms assembled from parts ordered on the internet and therefore outside of many current gun regulations. This has become an easy way for teenagers and those legally forbidden from purchasing guns to acquire untraceable firearms that have no serial numbers. Many cities in California have recorded a rapid increase in the use of these weapons in crimes (Clayton, 2021). There is a dire need for legislation to address this issue (Wintermute, 2021), yet the U.S. Senate has yet to act on any gun legislation, even the strengthening of background checks—a policy that enjoys broad support among the public.
So much of this news is bleak and risks making our gun violence problems even worse.
Is there any good news?
The University of Michigan just announced that it is launching an Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention in which researchers will focus on studying firearms violence (Jesse, 2021). Their studies should contribute to the development of policy proposals to reduce risk, injuries, and deaths from guns. More research is desperately needed, especially because gun rights groups have been so successful over the years in blocking federal funding for studies of firearms violence. This commitment by the University is a small ray of light in a moment when it seems exceedingly difficult to initiate constructive dialogue about aspects of gun violence, let alone move forward in even small ways to reduce risk and harm.
What can we do?
Try to remain informed about the various aspects of gun violence problems. Look for research-based information about beneficial laws and programs in operation elsewhere. Keep public officials informed about your concerns and views. Whenever they believe the public has lost interest in an issue, it is easy for them to turn their attention elsewhere. News reports can alert us to matters of concern. We cannot assume, however, that our policymakers are paying attention unless we remind them—again and again—about our policy priorities and concerns.
Abene Clayton, “Ordered Online, Assembled at Home: The Deadly Toll of California’s ‘Ghost Guns,’” The Guardian, May 18, 2021 (theguardian.com).
Amanda Holpuch, “St. Louis Lawyer Who Pointed Gun at BLM Protesters Announces Senate Run,” The Guardian, May 20, 2021 (theguardian.com).
Jesse, David, “University of Michigan Launches New Institute of Firearm Injury Prevention,” Detroit Free Press, June 4, 2021 (freep.com).
Garen Wintermute, “Ghost Guns: Spookier Than You Think They Are,” Injury Epidemiology, Vol. 8, p. 13 (2021).
GUNS DON'T BELONG IN THE CAPITOL.
The Michigan Capitol Commission voted unanimously to support a limited prohibition on citizen-carried firearms inside the state Capitol. However, this ban does not apply to the Capitol grounds or to individuals with conceal carry permits. While an important first step, the Capitol Commission has a long way to go. Show your support and urge your representatives to ban all citizen firearms on the Capitol grounds!
Let’s make our voices heard and put an end to this dangerous practice!