As Mass Shootings Become Routine, So Does Legislative Inaction

Horrific D.C. Shooting Temporarily Rekindles Discussion on Violence

As more facts emerge in the aftermath of the horrific Navy Yard shooting, issues relating to guns, mental illness and access to sensitive locations by armed unstable individuals have resurfaced. News reports indicate that Aaron Alexis, 34, was allowed to maintain his previous reservist position, security clearance and access to weapons and the D.C. Navy Yard grounds despite a checkered work and arrest record involving firearm discharges. More recently he reportedly descended into severe mental distress that included rantings about being slighted by the Navy as well as being targeted by microwaves and mysterious voices through hotel walls.

After such events, gun rights advocates correctly recount the following points:

  • the Second Amendment protects an individual right to private gun ownership;
  • most gun owners are law abiding;
  • gun violence overall is declining;
  • and that efforts should also focus more on unstable individuals and violent media than on guns, which after all can't fire themselves.

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Ron Reagan and Brian Levin discuss mass shootings on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Sept. 17,2013

Second Amendment Protections Are Not A Blank Check

Some in the Second Amendment community, however, incorrectly believe that any regulation, no matter how reasonable, is an unconstitutional affront to liberty and a first salvo in an attempt to ban guns completely despite the fact that courts, Congress and the public do not support this supposed looming total ban of "Obama taking away our guns."

Second Amendment advocates are correct that most gun owners are law abiding and the Constitution indeed protects their right to individual gun ownership, though the exact parameters have never been fully delineated. In the historic decision of District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), a divided Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote struck down a near total ban on handguns in the District. The court, led by Conservative Reagan appointee and Harvard graduate Justice Antonin Scalia, rejected some long standing court decisions that that the Second Amendment only protected states' rights to maintain an autonomous militia and those serving in it. Instead Scalia cited the right of an individual to be armed in one's home by a handgun for defensive purposes as one of the protections afforded by the Constitution's Second Amendment. The amendment, along with nine others was ratified on December 15, 1791 as part of a package of restrictions that generally protected individual and state rights from encroachment by the federal government. The amendment reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

While upholding gun rights Justice Scalia also contended in the majority opinion that there are limitations as well:

Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment 's right of free speech was not, see, e.g., United States v. Williams, 553 U. S. ___ (2008). Thus, we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.... Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. (Citations Omitted). Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. (Emphasis added).

Reasonable Limited Regulation Saves Lives

Indeed, one such reasonable prohibition on gun ownership may have saved lives this week in D.C. The New York Times reported that Alexis was prevented from purchasing a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, used in other mass shootings, from a Northern Virginia store because of the commonwealth's prohibition on such sales to out of state residents. Semiautomatic weapons fire a round as fast as an individual can consecutively depress the trigger until the magazine is depleted. Instead, Alexis legally purchased a shotgun, which sprays lead pellets at a wider target; while still lethal, particularly at closer ranges, this was arguably less effective for the type of killing spree he sought to undertake. Alexis could purchase the weapon because he was not an adjudicated felon, nor was his spiraling mental distress documented in the required manner to legally block the sale. Bipartisan legislation by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham aimed at limiting access to firearms by those with mental illness failed earlier this year.

Whichever way the debate ends up, it is clear that reasonable regulation for waiting periods, certain types of weapons and ammunition, the capacity of magazines, as well as restrictions to ineligible people should be on the table. If the horrifying spate of mass shootings shows us anything, it is that preventing unstable people from having immediate access to military style firearms, ammo and magazines capable of rapidly firing hundreds of rounds in short durations, while not a panacea, can be effective. As police in the post-Columbine period now respond to confront active shooters, limiting the lethality and rapidity of these mass shooting barrages is critical.

Recurring Horrific Mass Murders Buck Overall Violent Crime Decline

Gun rights advocates are correct that assault rifles, while often in the news, are actually not responsible for a large proportion of killings, or most mass killings (those with four or more deaths). They also point out that murder overall is experiencing a steep decline. Crime data, however, paints a more complex figure than what they suggest. Indeed, all murder, including those by firearms, in the United States is actually undergoing a long-term decline. In 1993 there were 24,526 murders and non-negligent homicides in the United States with a rate of 9.5/100,000 people, while by 2011 that dropped to 14,612 and a rate of 4.7. This decline is true for workplace homicides as well, which dropped from 1080 in 1994 to 518 in 2010. Moreover, mass killings are a fraction of our overall murder rate. As steep as the decline is, however, the United States still leads the West in gun violence, surpassed only by Russia, Estonia, Brazil and Mexico. Even America's lower murder rate of 4.7 is still far higher than many other nations: 0.8 for Germany, 1.0 for Australia, 1.1 in France and 1.2 for Britain.

However, as Nick Wing's excellent HuffPost article illustrates, mass murders have bucked this decline, and handguns, arguably the most legally difficult to regulate, account for the overwhelming majority of gun homicides. This is also true even for mass killings where semiautomatic handguns accounted for 71 of the 143 weapons used in mass shootings from 1982-2012. By contrast rifles were used 28 times and shotguns 21 times. It appears that the Navy Yard shooter had a shotgun and handguns taken from armed security. Debate exists as to whether mass shootings are actually increasing. Northeastern's James Fox states that there have been consistently about 20 per year with an average of 100 killed annually for some time, but even this consistency is stark among an overall steep decline in the overall murder rate.

In 2011, handguns accounted for 6,220 homicides of the 12,664 events for which weapon information is available, or 49 percent or almost half of those committed in the United States, while shotguns accounted for 3 percent or 356 deaths, and rifles only 2.6 percent at 323. Deaths from firearms were 8,583, or over two thirds, a clear majority of the total. In contrast, only about one in four or 3000 people were killed from knives, blunt objects, and hands and feet.

If we take a longer lens and look at mass shootings, which include how many are shot as opposed to killed, the numbers become more stark, and handgun violence becomes more visible, it is clear that the problem of violence in this country is related to the ubiquity and ease of access to guns in general, rather than just assault weapons alone like the AR-15, which has been used in some of the more notable sprees.

With this in mind, we can take reasonable Constitutional measures to decrease the ability of mass shooters to kill greater numbers of people while still affording law abiding citizens their rights. This can be accomplished by limiting access to certain types of high capacity magazines, certain types of military style weapons and armour piercing ammo, institute waiting periods, and develop more effective information systems to prevent unstable people from owning guns at all.

However, the NRA's successful infusion of money into state and Congressional district races and their unrealistic warning of a pending all out ban on guns will likely be successful for the foreseeable future as they count on new headlines to obscure the issue.