The tragedy at Oregon’s Umpqua College last week is yet another diabolical example of the all too common mass shooting that seem to grip the nation with unfortunate regularity.
Predictably there is the expected fallout. One side will argue for greater gun control as panacea while the other with do its best to negate such a stance. Such posturing from both sides only distorts the issue and detracts from the essence of the problem.
While it is critical that individuals be allowed to defend themselves it is also important that due diligence be carried out to safeguard against the acquisition of weapons by those whose motivation and psychological profiles could potentially pose a risk to society. While no predictor test is perfect, requiring those, who are intent on purchasing a firearm, to pass a background check system makes sense.
Such a system currently exists in the US and goes by the acronym NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System). It was launched by the FBI in 1998 on a mandate from the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993).
When researching this topic I was under the impression that the background system itself was not thorough enough. In fact one often hears about how easy it is to acquire a gun in the US (Michael Moore loves this meme). This all begs the question – Who in fact is a prohibited person? Or on what grounds is the Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) rejected?
Both the NICS and Brady Act are very clear on this issue.
A prohibited person is one who:
· Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
· Is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
· Is a fugitive from justice;
· Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
· Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
· Is illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
· Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
· Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship;
· Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner;
· Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence
· In addition persons are prohibited from:
· Shipping or transporting any firearm or ammunition in interstate or foreign commerce;
· Receiving any firearm or ammunition that has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.
So indeed the Act appears to be fairly exhaustive on the surface and should with all intent of purpose deny a firearm to those with problematic backgrounds. Why then does it appear to be failing?
Well for one its practical application is subject to the foibles of human oversight and poor implementation at the grassroots level. Both the Charleston Church shooter and the Lafayette killer appeared to have slipped through its systems of checks.
Also the law is not universal in that it does not impact the sale or transfer of guns between private parties. Nor does it appear to prohibit the stockpiling of weapons by a singular person for distribution at a later date. It also has limited efficacy in the transition of legal weapons to the illegal kind, which in turn fuels the criminal market.
So what is the solution? Its not easy. Human error in background checks seems to be a function of processing volume which in turn relates to overall demand. The same is true of the flow through to criminal elements. So the bigger question is how does one reduce demand? Levelling higher taxes on guns make partial sense, but it has the potential to be drastically undercut by the black market and if not handled properly will needlessly impinge on legitimate gun owners. Combining this with greater restrictions on third party sales is a better option, as is the establishment of a tax refund program for the return of weapons. Required gun training upon the purchase of a new firearm is an avenue which should be looked at as well.
Despite the rhetoric gun deaths across the US have dropped overall in recent years (although it still stands at over ninety deaths per day) but the frequency of the mass slaying by ‘wannabee’ fame seekers’ is on the rise.
This reflects more of a deeper rot in society that although made easier by access to gun does not capture the broader issue. What most certainly drives these killers is anger, vengeance and the personal failure of an individual to place in perspective their unique struggle. Couple that to a society built on the trappings of crassness, contempt for the other, perceived victim hood, a glorification of violence and its virtual legitimization (in some quarters) and you have a recipe for such unfortunate incidents.
While it is easy to blame guns this often side steps the more important (although not currently in vogue) notion of human responsibility. The individual committing the crime must be called out. At the end of the day these killers made the conscious choice to pull the trigger and the fault, although aided by externalities, should be placed squarely at their feet.
These incidents will continue to occur so long as both sides focus obsessively on guns as the key driver. What is most needed is a realization by all parties that each needs to moderate their polarizing positions and allow greater flexibility for meaningful discussion and action on an issue that is crying for compromise and a greater depth of useful analysis.