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‘A well regulated Militia …’

Posted by Ron George on February 17, 2018

USA Gun, by AK Rockefeller

First, an assumption: Politics are not evil. The fundamental political interaction is my trying to persuade you to agree with me; therefore, what follows is a political argument, and it pertains, formally, to the art and science of government.

Another assumption: Firearms are not evil, but all firearms are assault weapons. Some are more effective for assaulting wildlife. Others – most, perhaps – are designed to be effective for assaulting people, some with targeted specificity and others for mass shooting; i.e., killing lots of people quickly. There ought to be no debate, therefore, about banning so-called “assault rifles.” The debate is not whether but how to regulate all firearms.

It is simply nonsensical to argue that society has no interest in regulating the ownership and use of all firearms – inherently dangerous devices designed to do harm, to maim, to kill (all of which is without doubt true of the murderous Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle).

Firearms and their use are political topics, per se. One doesn’t “politicize” a mass shooting by discussing the weapons used to perpetrate these crimes. The use of firearms is political by definition, because society is affected every time someone pulls a trigger. Moreover, the Constitution makes firearms a political matter by assuring the people’s right to keep and bear arms.

And, for the record, firearms have been “politicized” for decades by the National Rifle Association. It is disingenuous for lawmakers enthralled by NRA political power to warn piously against “politicizing” mass shootings in order to divert attention from the principal problem in all mass shootings – the virtually unregulated availability of firearms in America.

As with all political issues, making society safe from firearm harm is enormously complex.

Yes, as President Trump has said again and again, mental-health issues must be addressed; but, sir, your party has done more than any other to reduce and dismantle mental-health resources in the United States. Just as it doesn’t believe in government participation in the nation’s healthcare, so it also has waged war against government participation in the nation’s mental-health systems; moreover, your administration recently made it easier for mentally disturbed persons to obtain firearms.

Parkland, Fla., Valentine’s Day massacre: Ask a mother about regulating firearms.

Weaving a safety net for the mentally ill that will at once protect their rights and care for their infirmities is not simply a matter of rounding up likely shooters and keeping their hands off firearms. Mental-health care is therapeutic not punitive; and, it is expensive, requiring long-term investments for which politicians are notoriously impatient. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have an especially proud history with regard to mental-health issues. It is not something that can be fixed within an election cycle. Given our nation’s wretched history in the matter of mental health, I doubt there is political will on the right or left for truly addressing this political issue.

America, moreover, is beset by the cultural meme that firearms are “equalizers,” which misleads angry, broken people to believe that firearms can heal their brokenness by bestowing the power to kill. The ready availability of firearms enables broken people to entertain this fantasy; and, as we know from bitter experience, some actually act out their fantasy by killing vulnerable (viz., unarmed) people. Adding to the Gordian complexity of “mental health” is the underlying issue of mass murder as a means of suicide: Shooters, more often than not, lie among the victims of a firearms massacre.

U.S. citizens who own firearms have a legitimate concern about government efforts to regulate firearms; however, no one has ever seriously proposed confiscating firearms from citizens who lawfully own them. That is an NRA political slogan rooted deceit. Regulating firearms is a legitimate interest of the United States government, and it must be done as a matter of public safety: Citizens who own firearms – and, especially, those who sell them – must be accountable to society for their safekeeping and, when borne, for their use.

Government regulation must not infringe on firearm owners’ constitutional right to keep and bear their own weapons. What U.S. society lacks, however, is accountability for the presence of these dangerous devices in our midst. The hallowed Second Amendment itself calls for militias to be well regulated; and by “militias,” the founders meant the armed population of the United States, exclusive of state and federal police and military forces. (The founders, of course, could not have anticipated that the manufacture of firearms would produce hundreds of millions of weapons for Americans to keep and bear.)

Oct. 1, 2017: Victims of firearm violence lie strewn in a Las Vegas NV parking lot.

Firearm violence is a public-health issue. Our government has a legitimate interest in supporting scientific research toward recommending rational policies designed to reduce incidents of firearm harm in America, especially incidents that cause death. Such policies would not be limited to firearm regulation, but would likely cover all manner of mental-health and sociological issues. Congress has blocked such public-health research into firearm violence for more than 20 years. We have the NRA to thank for that – and for the dramatic increase in mass shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

Owning a firearm or even many firearms is neither stupid nor monstrous; indeed, promoting responsible firearm ownership has been a hallmark of NRA programming since it was founded in 1871 primarily to promote marksmanship. Call it firearm competence, and there is no question that firearm owners tend to be competent, especially with regard to safety. (That’s been my experience, anyway: People I know and care about who use firearms respect how dangerous they are.)

The problem is not responsible firearm owners; the problem is the sheer, overwhelming number of firearms in America and the fluid and profitable means of their distribution. All too often, firearms find their way into the hands of irresponsible owners – and some, far too many nowadays, turn out to be homicidal as well.

Surely responsible firearm owners would agree that something must be done to inhibit the possession of firearms by the incompetent, irresponsible and homicidal.

What to do? Damned if I know. Research is the answer; but first, Congress must get off its duff and undo restrictions on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, permit me to think aloud.

Firearms: Inherently dangerous devices designed to kill

Because firearms are devices designed to kill – be it animals or people – we simply must know who owns them, where they are and whether their owners are qualified to use them. We do that and more with machines designed for transportation. Why? Because there are huge costs associated with automotive transport; and, in the wrong hands, cars are dangerous. American society has a legitimate interest in the registration of firearms as well as automobiles; and, again, this is not about confiscation, and it’s not a so-called slippery slope to that end. It’s about accountability; and, frankly, it supports an NRA value – firearm competence.

Because firearms are dangerous devices designed to kill, there are social and financial costs associated with their use, legitimate and otherwise. Somehow, those who exercise their constitutionally-protected privilege of keeping and bearing arms ought to bear a weighted share of the financial costs of the privilege. Two-thirds of Americans don’t own firearms, but all of us are bearing the costs of firearm misuse.

Government has a legitimate interest in levying an excise tax on firearms in addition to any sales tax collected by states. Funds generated by this tax would be earmarked for alleviating financial costs associated with firearm violence and mishaps – including law enforcement – and for public-health research into firearm harm. An excise tax also ought to be levied on ammunition and be put to the same use as a matter of federal policy.

Finally, firearm owners ought to be required to maintain liability insurance for each and every firearm they own. Smart firearm owners already insure their firearms against theft and other kinds of loss. Liability insurance would cover damages caused by mishaps and misuse of specific firearms, including personal injury to firearm owners and others.

Everyone – including firearm owners – benefits from providing support against the social and personal costs associated with firearms. Yes, the apparatus for reasonable regulation of firearms would be extensive and expensive, but if it keeps just one shooter from killing another high-school student, it will be worth all the time, effort and resources required to harness the firearm problem and tame it.

Think not? Think again – but only after talking to the parents of a child killed by schoolhouse gunfire.


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