I grew up around rifles, shotguns and handguns. My family lived on the outskirts of a small Mississippi town near a hospital. Once in a while, an inmate receiving medical treatment there would escape, causing some excitement among those listening to the police scanner until the inmate was caught. As a child, an escapee knocked on our door one night, asking to use the telephone. My aunt declined to show hospitality. The inmate bolted, probably into the woods. Soon enough, the police knocked on our door, too, as they tracked the escapee. (They caught him.) Though my aunt never touched a gun that evening, she certainly had ready access to plenty of options, and the incident impressed upon me why it could be helpful to have one in the house.
But the Parkland shooting in Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was the culmination of several troubling years of legal guns winding up in the wrong hands, and I am now convinced that those of us who have previously been Second Amendment absolutists — myself included — should support common-sense gun control. The American government is so broken it is literally killing people, as well-funded bureaucracies fail to keep guns out of the hands of men and women who are not fit for the awesome responsibility.
In the five years since a gunman slaughtered 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., at least 438 American men, women and children have been shot in school shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Seventeen of them were killed in the second mass school shooting of this year, by a 19-year-old with a legally obtained AR-15 rifle.
The ease and accessibility with which the murderer in Parkland obtained his rifle and committed a massacre at a high school reminded me of a memory that was once funny but is now troubling. A decade ago, while I was in Afghanistan working at the NATO/ISAF headquarters, I bragged to my late father about shooting an AK-47, and he decided he wanted to buy one himself. One evening at around midnight, the phone rang and my mother groggily answered. The man on the line apologized for the late hour but told her he was on parole, and it was the only time he could call without getting caught by his mother. He had seen my father’s want ad for an AK-47 and had one to unload. My mother told him to never call our home again.
More recently, another relative purchased an AR-15 in a legal person-to-person transaction with no oversight or paper trail whatsoever. The seller even threw in several rounds of ammunition and an extra 30-round magazine for good measure. It’s shocking that Americans in many states can obtain a weapon designed for soldiers in combat situations. The process is even easier than obtaining certain kinds of skin medication.
Consider the regulation of Accutane, a highly effective but risky drug that can cause depression and severe birth defects. In 2000, Rep. Bart Stupak’s 17-year-old son committed suicide while taking Accutane, and the bereaved Congressman championed greater oversight and regulation of the drug. By 2004, an advisory committee recommended that the FDA construct a mandatory national patient registry, but agency leadership and Accutane’s manufacturer Hoffman-La Roche argued against such a system, claiming it would “increase black market profiteering” and harm patient privacy. The agency delayed implementing the measures, but the threat of a bipartisan bill to pull the drug from the market finally led to the creation of the patient registry, which required patient, pharmacist and doctor participation.
In 2009, Roche suspended sales of Accutane in the U.S., partially due to personal injury litigation costs, though the generic version is still available. It’s extraordinarily annoying to obtain the drug, but I went through the process of procuring it — going to monthly doctor’s appointments, getting blood drawn and taking a quiz over the phone to make sure I wasn’t pregnant — because it was important to me.
I found the steps to get Accutane a bit maddening at the time, and my father made fun of me for the expenditure. He considered it vanity. And yes, I probably needed a skin drug that can kill you as much as he needed an AK-47. But that’s the beauty of America — we should be able to get both, if we go through reasonable measures to do so.
How then do we restore a measure of sanity to the regulation of firearms without sacrificing our Second Amendment freedoms? Before implementing gun control that is likely to work with an estimated 310 million guns floating around the country, there needs to be comprehensive universal background checks and no more loopholes for gun-show sales and person-to-person transfers of firearms. A recent study published in Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that one out of five gun owners purchasing a weapon during a two-year window starting in April 2015 did so without undergoing a background check. For individual vendors — enthusiasts like my father who enjoyed trading and selling guns — the law should require that private sellers conduct a criminal background check and be held criminally negligent if they fail to do so.
President Donald Trump can brand universal background checks for gun sales as his domestic version of “extreme vetting” — and most Americans would support him. A recent Quinnipiac poll indicates that 97% of Americans support such legislation — up from the normal level since Sandy Hook of around 93%.
Even Trump’s strongest supporters would stick with him on certain gun control measures. I observed an evolution in viewpoint similar to my own this month during Ashcroft in America focus groups in Memphis, Tennessee, and Oxford and Jackson, Mississippi. The majority of our participants were gun owners who strongly believe in the right to bear arms, but are open to banning bump stocks and high-volume magazines, stricter background checks and increasing the age limit to 21 for buying an AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles. They also reject arming teachers as a solution to the school shootings that have become commonplace in the country and their own communities.
The gun owners we spoke with would rather work for a solution than fight change that they consider necessary, and it is these men and women who are the gun lobby’s biggest constituency. If it does not start listening to what they actually want, it will risk ceding its influence during a moment of major societal change as more radical ideas — like repealing the Second Amendment — gain steam among gun-control advocates.
I am part of this underserved constituency. As a libertarian, I don’t want to surrender individual liberties to a government that failed at so many pivotal points of the Parkland shooting — from at least 39 calls to local police to come to the murderer’s home since 2010 to the more recent detailed warnings of the FBI. Congress needs to fix a system that lets legal guns reach the hands of these shooters. Just like after the Las Vegas concert and Sutherland Springs church and Orlando Pulse nightclub shootings, nothing will really get done unless voters — including those of us who support the Second Amendment — push Congress toward reasonable gun control. These are my new thoughts and prayers.