Two years ago, I made the choice to pursue my gun license in Massachusetts — a journey, chronicled here, that I undertook because I wanted to compare it to my personal experience with mental health care. I wanted to learn more about how gun laws actually worked in the U.S., particularly in one of the states with the strictest regulations.
I’m a progressive person with a strong pacifist streak, but I was troubled by America’s demonizing fixation on mental health and gun violence. Why should someone like me, a peaceful and responsible person who happens to have a weird brain, have less of a right to protect themselves than, say, someone with a history of domestic violence ― a far more compelling predictor of future gun violence?
I emerged at the end of the process with surprisingly more support for guns than I expected. I still believe gun reform is necessary: Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries are, with an average of 27 Americans being shot and killed per day. But to truly develop an evidence-based and measured approach to this problem that doesn’t infringe on civil liberties, proponents of gun control have a lot to learn about guns and the culture around them.
In the aftermath of the massacre in Las Vegas, I argued with friends with whom I generally reach consensus on political and social issues. We share a desire to work toward ending the actual acts of violence through reform, but my newfound basic understanding of guns changed my attitude toward the approach.
I found myself saying things like, “No, that’s not what an assault rifle does,” and “No, mental health is not a common factor,” and “No, any new law that impedes civil liberties without a trial will end up hurting more lives than it saves, especially in marginalized communities” and so on.
The simple truth is that we’re never going to get rid of guns entirely, or stop every awful mass shooting before it happens. But if we’re truly committed to a gun reform model that has a meaningful impact, then we need to approach the issue in a rational, pragmatic and empathetic way. And here are a few places we can start:
1. We can’t restrict gun sales to people with mental disorders.
One in five Americans has a diagnosable mental disorder, including myself — but only 1 in 20 gun homicides are committed by those with mental health problems. So we’re significantly less likely to kill people, but one study shows we’re five times more likely to be killed. Remember: “Being a murderer” is not the same as “having an atypical neurological function based on measurable chemical and physiological factors,” and the toxic conflation of these two things just perpetuates negative stigmas around mental health. The truth is, there’s no reason that ADHD or bipolar disorder would affect someone’s ability to use a gun responsibility.
The one exception to this relates to those at risk for suicide. Suicides account for almost two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and nearly half of all suicides are gun deaths. Some gun sellers in America have already started taking the initiative to spot suicide warning signs in customers, using grassroots activism to empower more community intervention. If we want to focus our energies on saving lives, that might be a place to start.
2. We absolutely need to talk about toxic masculinity.
Of the two-thirds of gun deaths that are suicides, the majority of victims are men, often with military backgrounds, and mostly over the age of 45. And of the homicides that remain, 80 percent are gang-related killings, which affect mostly young men.
But the clearest indicator of a potential for gun violence is an established history of domestic violence. An American woman is shot and killed by her partner every 16 hours, according to the Trace, and more male shooters attack their own families than schools or public places. In terms of the sheer number of deaths, the money we spend on terrorism would be better focused on the threat of husbands.
A counterargument might be that this threat should be met with armed self-defense, but the opposite is true: The presence of a gun in the home increases the chances an abuser will kill his partner.
If we actually want to start saving lives, then we need to address the roots of toxic masculinity that plague our culture. We could start by believing women when they talk about abuse, and disarming for life anyone who’s ever shown any history of violence.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, of course, since not all acts of violence are reported, convicted or kept on legal record. While federal laws prevent convicted abusers from buying guns (gun show loopholes notwithstanding), there’s little oversight around surrendering or seizing firearms they might already own. States like Rhode Island, California and Washington have made some recent headway in creating legislation that would try to address this. Now we just need to encourage other states to follow suit.
3. Yes, we need better background checks. But not the way you think.
You’ve probably heard about the “gun show loophole” that enables 40 percent of firearms in the U.S. to be purchased without a background check. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the “default proceed” law that allows someone like Dylann Roof get a gun when they’re not eligible, just because the FBI’s “instant” background check took longer than three days to clear.
These are serious problems. But the solution is not, as some Democrats in the Senate suggested after the massacre in Orlando, to create a government watchlist. That “No-Fly List,” like many government watch lists, was based on arbitrary criteria that disregarded due process of law. Many innocent people ― especially those with Muslim-sounding names ― ended up on the list, among them children and babies and government employees. And as good as the Obama-era mental health gun restrictions may have sounded, they were similarly flawed.
In general, these kinds of laws disproportionately affect people of color, labor organizers and other marginalized and left-leaning groups — who have historically had to defend themselves from tyranny. That’s exactly why the Second Amendment exists, and while I certainly hope it never comes to that again, I wouldn’t want to leave those communities at risk, especially now. If, as progressives, we truly believe in liberation and equality for marginalized people, we can’t propose laws that continue to oppress those same groups.
So what can we do for background checks? Increase the default proceed wait time for the 10 percent of people who don’t automatically pass their background checks, for starters. We could standardize the information that states are required to send to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, too — which also means keeping better records of other than honorable or bad conduct discharges and domestic violence cases, to examine on a case-by-case basis.
4. We also need to focus our fear on handguns ― not assault weapons.
Sure, they might look like badass Rambo weapons, but AR-15s and their ilk are technically no more deadly than your average wood stock long rifle. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not fully automatic machine guns, but rather shoot one bullet per trigger pull. They’re also one of the most popular guns in the country, thanks in part to their versatility— which means they’d be harder to get rid of, too.
While it’s true that AR-15s are a common factor in mass shootings, it’s worth remembering that mass shootings only comprise a tiny fraction of gun homicides in the US. This makes them no less tragic, of course. But if someone is hellbent on mass murder, they can do it just as easily with a semi-automatic handgun.
In fact, handguns are already responsible for about two-thirds of the gun homicides in the country. They’re also easier to handle and conceal-carry than their long-barreled counterparts (which tend to have more practical application for rural gun owners in particular, plenty of whom lean left). Statistically speaking, if we wanted to save the most lives, it would make more sense to focus on handguns. The U.K. saw a huge drop in violence after banning handguns and semiautomatics, even though plenty of people still owned long rifles. Granted, this is a wildly unpopular idea here in the States, but maybe, just maybe, it’s something worth exploring.
5. Gun reform may hinge on experience with guns.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, gun owners are also significantly more likely to be politically engaged on gun issues than other Americans.
If we actually want to make any progress to stop or slow this epidemic of violence, it will have to be a partnership between gun users and those who want reform, which will require finding some common ground. I have come to believe that the assumption that all guns are bad because all violence is bad is the same blind reactionary tribalism that leads gun enthusiasts to fear the worst about the government stealing their guns.
Since getting my gun license, I’ve found it easier to discuss gun violence solutions with gun enthusiasts, who tend to be conservative and with whom I share few political convictions. It’s as if that little bit of knowledge I’ve obtained suddenly lends credence to my arguments. This makes sense, when you break it down: Why would we trust anyone to legislate an issue they don’t know much about?
We owe it to ourselves to do better than that.