The profane and painful events that occurred in Charleston recently once again bring the issues of firearms rights and appropriate public policy into the forum of public debate, and not without good reason. The crime was senseless, tragic, and horrific. At moments like these we wonder how members of our city on a hill are capable of such atrocities. We blame those with opposing ideological viewpoints for the role that their beliefs played in what we see as a broken system. We create cognitive defenses around our own world-views to defend our closely held, and occasionally incorrect, assumptions about the way the world works. Most saliently, we go on the attack. We simplify complex issues into single-solution silver bullets that are easily consumable on social media, and we fire those simple solutions at all opposition. We consume media that fits our view of the world to the exclusion of differing points of view that may contain more truth than our own, and we commiserate with like-minded compatriots to build defensible cognitive battlements in a vacuum. This pursuit gives us comfort, but it does little to provide durable solutions to complex problems. The tragedy in Charleston is nothing if not societally complex. The relevant dynamics include firearms rights and laws, race relations, issues of mental illness, religion, civil liberties, and a host of other topics on which our fellow citizens are deeply divided. At the center of the debate is the senseless loss of life and a passionate need to pursue policy changes that prevent these types of occurrences in the future.
It is worth stating that I am the CEO of one of the larger firearms training organizations in the country, a firearms safety trainer, and a person who carries a firearm for self-defense regularly. This being said, I am also a social scientist who is dedicated to help craft policy that fosters a society where the use of firearms against others is far less necessary. I believe that there are significant areas of commonality that can move the conversation forward, rather than leave us bickering at the same intersection with so much at stake.
Myths About the Gun Community
As a member of the gun community, I can confidently say that no person, even the most staunch firearms supporter, ever wants a situation to arise in which they are forced to use their firearm in self defense. In fact, most of us who carry daily do so because we value our personal security and tend to be far more cautious than the general population about placing ourselves in situations that may require the use of deadly force. We are far from the oft-slanted public perception of the reckless, gun totin’ survivalist. More often, we are your mechanic, attorney, nurse, or restaurant owner who is willing to bear the significant burden of carrying a loaded firearm in order to protect ourselves, and those around us.
The Gun Problem
One of the simple scapegoats at a time like this is always the gun. An easy, early thought is “If the perpetrator had not had access to a firearm, surely this horrible course of events would not have happened.” It is a simple but powerful argument against private firearms ownership that, when spoken amongst the ideologically congruent, becomes a rallying cry for the pursuit of well-meaning policy change. While this sentiment is not without merit, it fails to give credence to the complexity of the issue. “Let’s do away with all the firearms” prematurely ends a needed conversation with the proffering of a nearly logistically impossible task, instead of furthering movement toward a more harmonious dynamic.
Take Away the Guns
There are currently over 250 million firearms in the country, making a broad effort to take them out of private hands nearly impossible. Further complicating any logistical issue is the paradox of the criminal. If measures to collect and destroy firearms were implemented, only the law-abiding element of society would comply en masse. Firearms belonging to criminals would slowly find their way in to the hands of law enforcement, but the process would likely take a hundred years if not more. Even with the goal of taking the amount of firearms in private hands to zero, the criminal element will likely still find ways to manufacture and steal the guns they desire to make their ill mark. The criminal element has always found a way, even in areas with moratoriums on private ownership. If demand were to spike due to sweeping policy that outlawed private ownership of firearms, those desiring to commit crimes for which a firearm would aid them will get what they need by stealing or manufacturing them themselves. What you end up with is a disarmed law abiding populace and a still-armed criminal element.
The Police Will Protect You
With very few exceptions, police forces in the United States are competent and well trained. Mistakes are made, and occasionally systemic issues do arise, but the overwhelming majority of citizens live in jurisdictions where they feel they can trust those that protect them. Without question, it is the goal of every sheriff and police captain to bring crime rates down to zero in their areas of responsibility, however our system is not designed (or budgeted) to allow this to happen.
Police officers operate as a deterrent to crime through their presence, and a solution backed with deadly force when necessary. Their mission is not to protect the singular person, but rather to protect all people under their jurisdiction. The protection of the individual is limited to those who can afford private security and public figures. According to American Police Beat, the average police response time in the US is around ten minutes, while situations when an individual’s life is threatened frequently unravel in less than one.
Although very capable, police assistance is frequently too late, assumes that the individual who needs help is able to call for it, and requires that the officers not put themselves in harm’s way to assist. Furthermore, reliance on others for protection assumes equal treatment by law enforcement to all races in all areas, an assumption that has come under fire in recent months. As with one’s health, or financial well-being, or professional growth, the first line of responsibility for safety has always been, and will always be, oneself. It is not that those tasked with defending you are not willing and able; in most cases they are. The issue is that modern police forces are not funded or designed to protect the average individual at every hour of every day. If they were, civil liberties would be severely constricted, and citizens would be heavily taxed to support a one-to-one ratio of police officers to citizens.
The Common Ground
It is at this point in the evolution of our culture that we need to find what the political parties and media have worked so doggedly to hide from us, our common ground. We agree more than we think we do, and there is too much at stake to give up and walk away.
Passionate partisan bickering in the last two decades has slowly displaced thoughtful public conversation on the topic of firearm rights in the United States. The battle lines are drawn, and entrenched parties who irresponsibly and knowingly dole out inaccurate information in order to defend their position fuel the debate. We are all guilty of reading an irresponsibly written article that points a finger at the other side and allowing it to anger us, despite it being completely wrong or unrepresentative of actual events. Unfortunately, very little thought is given to the significant areas of common ground that exist on the topics of firearms. From both sides of the ideological spectrum, there are commonalities providing confidence that the issues plaguing our society can be dealt with as we move forward.
Unquestionably, individuals on both sides of the aisle agree that mass shootings are intolerable, and need to stop. Additionally, all agree that we wish using firearms in self-defense was unnecessary. Nearly all also agree that firearms are useful in the correct context, but shouldn’t be in the hands of individuals intent on committing crime. Finally, nearly all agree that because firearms are to be present in the US, gun safety training is important, whether as an informal passing of knowledge from mother to daughter, or in demonstrable coursework from qualified professionals.
Toward the Solution
It is my sincere desire to live in a society where the individual does not need to be vigilant about their personal safety, but we do not. In fact, one has never existed. We learned as children that it was important to defend ourselves, and the lesson is no less important as adult members of this great society. To move toward a solution where the tragedies such as recently occurred in Charleston happen far less often, we need to strip away the ideological flights of fancy that result in prematurely ending the conversation and talk logically about solving the issue. There are several places to continue the dialogue.
The first conversation concerns the care and custody of the mentally ill. Our growth as a society toward caring for those with psychological struggles has only barely reached its adolescence. We must retool the legal system, which underpins the ability (and financial means) for authorities to retain custody of citizens who are a danger to themselves or others. Our lack of understanding of the treatment of the mentally ill has led our society to simply give up the fight, to the detriment of us all. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m sure there are those in the field of mental health care with better solutions than simply giving up on the mental well being of those who need help, many of whom come from the most vulnerable subpopulations in the country. Our system is currently structured to err on the side of the rights offered in the Constitution, and rightfully so, however public policy has not kept up with gains in our ability to determine who among us is a threat to law abiding citizens. An individual willing to commit mass murder upon strangers would almost certainly rise to the level of defined anti-social behavior, although a causal link between mental illness and mass murder with firearms continues to elude researchers (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). What we know is that many who perpetrate random murders with firearms are mentally ill, but most mentally ill individuals do not commit such acts. This makes it a challenge for us to adopt policy that keeps firearms out of the hands of those who have a high likelihood of using them to commit violence. We could do better, and understanding the mediating social variables present will almost certainly help us get there. More research by our best and brightest, and better access to raw data are necessary, but I am confident that better understanding will help lead to better public policy.
The second conversation regards firearms access, specifically the proper storing of firearms to protect them from those who may use them for criminal reasons. This issue relates to those who gain access to firearms through legal means, such as acquiring them from a friend or family member. We can do a better job of restricting access. To deter individuals from acquiring firearms from familiar sources, gun owners should bear more liability when their gun is used in a crime. If a crime is not committed in order for an unauthorized person to gain access to a firearm that is then used in a crime, the legal owner should then share some of the culpability for the crime. More specifically, unauthorized users should virtually have to commit a crime to gain access to the firearm. If this is not the case, and access is easy, the legal owner should share some of the culpability for the crime. We in the gun community should be responsible for what our firearms are used for unless a crime is committed to gain access to them.
It is my belief that the vast majority of those on both sides of the firearms argument are far closer to workable solutions than we give ourselves credit for. We will find a solution that makes occurrences like the Charleston tragedy a less common occurrence, but the lines of communication and logical public discourse must remain open.