Why Gun Control Can’t Eliminate Gun Violence

Advocates push measures that might reduce everyday crime, but absent a ban on ownership, no recent tragedy would have been averted by regulation.

**ADVANCE FOR WEEEKEND, APRIL 12-13** A row of weapons is seen at the Richmond Gun Show at the Richmond International Raceway on Sunday, March 30, 2008.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Sept. 18, 2013, 1:32 a.m.

Noth­ing that gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates are push­ing for in Con­gress would have pre­ven­ted Monday’s shoot­ing ram­page at the Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard. And un­less this coun­try bans all per­son­al own­er­ship of guns, an­oth­er mass shoot­ing will oc­cur.

This is the greatest hurdle for the gun-con­trol move­ment. They seek changes to the law that a ma­jor­ity of the pub­lic sup­ports — ex­pan­ded back­ground checks, an as­sault weapons ban, and lim­its on high-ca­pa­city am­muni­tion. But they are up against for­mid­able op­pon­ents in the gun-rights groups. And the only time they get to talk about it is after a splashy, tra­gic in­cid­ent that does not rep­res­ent the bulk of gun deaths — sui­cides, street crimes, ac­ci­dents.

“You have to base the push around more than the out­rage on any one tragedy. It has to be based on our col­lect­ive de­sire to make this be the coun­try we all want it to be,” said Dan Gross, pres­id­ent of the Brady Cam­paign to Pre­vent Gun Vi­ol­ence. “In or­der to cre­ate the most mean­ing­ful change, we have to look at the gun vi­ol­ence that hap­pens every day.”

Pre­vent­ing every­day gun vi­ol­ence is hard, and it’s not go­ing to hap­pen overnight. Curb­ing gun vi­ol­ence from crim­in­als would re­quire ser­i­ous at­tempts to un­der­stand how guns get in­to their hands in the first place. Crim­in­als have only a few ways to get a gun, as­sum­ing they can’t pass a back­ground check — buy­ing it at a gun show or on­line, buy­ing it on the black mar­ket, or steal­ing it.

Stop­ping that is like a game of Whack-a-Mole. For each way that a crim­in­al gets a gun, you need a dif­fer­ent rule to stop it. Back­ground checks at gun shows are an ob­vi­ous way to get rid of one of a crim­in­al’s op­tions for get­ting a gun. But that doesn’t stop him or her from buy­ing a gun privately from straw pur­chasers. There are oth­er ways to pre­vent that kind of gun traf­fick­ing, but those laws in­ev­it­ably will have loop­holes or no one would be able to buy a gun at all.

Stop­ping gun traf­fick­ing is even harder if it has to hap­pen state by state. A now-ex­pired Vir­gin­ia law that only al­lowed people to buy one gun per month dra­mat­ic­ally re­duced the num­ber of Vir­gin­ia-pur­chased guns re­covered at crime scenes. That’s be­cause “crime guns” are of­ten pur­chased il­leg­ally by someone who buys them in bulk from a le­git­im­ate deal­er. But even when Vir­gin­ia’s law was in place (it ex­pired in 2012), the num­ber of “crime guns” from oth­er states in­creased.

And then there are the mass shoot­ings, which are even harder to pre­vent. “A de­ranged crazy per­son, largely in sui­cid­al range, de­cides to take out as many people as pos­sible — that’s the most dif­fi­cult of all,” said Richard Feld­man, pres­id­ent of the In­de­pend­ent Fire­arm Own­ers As­so­ci­ation.

To wit, the Navy Yard shoot­er Aaron Alex­is had a his­tory of vi­ol­ence, some brushes with the law, and a his­tory of neg­li­gence with a gun. But the cur­rent back­ground check laws couldn’t stop him from buy­ing a gun be­cause he wasn’t de­creed by a court to be men­tally in­com­pet­ent and he wasn’t a con­victed felon. He even had a se­cur­ity clear­ance that gave him ac­cess to a mil­it­ary com­pound, cour­tesy of an em­ploy­er that didn’t know about his stan­doffs with the loc­al po­lice or his prob­lems in the Navy Re­serve.

Back­ground checks have to ac­tu­ally de­tect prob­lems or they’re not go­ing to work. “This was a guy with a his­tory of vi­ol­ent be­ha­vi­or and reck­less­ness with fire­arms,” said Ladd Everitt, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the Co­ali­tion to Stop Gun Vi­ol­ence. “There is no oth­er civ­il­ized so­ci­ety that would al­low him leg­ally to own a gun and carry it in pub­lic. “¦We have a reg­u­lat­ory sys­tem in this coun­try that is riddled with loop­holes and a joke.”

Some call them loop­holes. Some call them le­git­im­ate pro­tec­tions of gun own­ers’ rights. Either way, the pro­cess of cre­at­ing and us­ing any rules to curb gun vi­ol­ence will take gun rights in­to ac­count. That means com­prom­ise, and that means ex­cep­tions to the rules that could al­low an­oth­er vi­ol­ent in­cid­ent to oc­cur. It’s in­ev­it­able.

Does that mean the gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates should give up? They cer­tainly show no signs of it, al­though Gross thinks they should start talk­ing about the is­sue more hol­ist­ic­ally. “We need to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about guns like we have a con­ver­sa­tion about everything else in so­ci­ety that presents risks and re­wards — auto­mo­biles, swim­ming pools,” he said.

And even though the gun con­trol ad­voc­ates couldn’t muster the sup­port to pass a Sen­ate bill that ex­pan­ded back­ground checks in April, that only ad­ded fuel to their fire.

“Sarah Brady, after the Sen­ate vote, turned to me and see­ing how up­set I was — this was my first big policy fight — she said, ‘Some­times it takes a good de­feat,’” Gross said.

Sarah Brady ought to know. As the wife of Re­agan White House spokes­man Jim Brady, who was shot in an as­sas­sin­a­tion at­tempt 1981, she spent more than a dec­ade try­ing to get the first hand­gun back­ground check bill to pass. It took six votes in Con­gress over sev­en years.

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