There is a solution to gun violence in America, though it's not what you might expect.
Question: of the total number of Americans killed by guns each year, what percentage is the result of mass shootings?
The correct answer is A: 4%
Of the 11,000+ Americans who are shot to death each year (excluding suicides), only about 450 are killed in mass shootings like last week's shooting in San Bernardino, or the previous week's mass shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, or the one that happened the same day at the restaurant in Sacramento, or the one the day before in Boston, or...
Next question: of the total number of gun-related homicides in America, what percentage is caused by rifles of any type, including assault rifles?
The correct answer is A: 4%. Handguns are the weapons of choice in 70%-80% of gun-related homicides
Last question: what percentage of guns used to commit homicides are purchased by shooters at gun stores?
The correct answer is A. People who kill other people with guns in America acquire only 3% of their guns at gun stores. The other 97% are obtained through other means.
In a rare front page editorial, The New York Times wrote "Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership."
It's the right sentiment, though an impotent call to action. Whenever a mass shooting happens in America, we invariably focus on three things:
1. Mass shootings must stop - Yes, they must, but if they did stop, nearly 11,000 Americans would still be shot to death every year
2. Assault weapons must be banned - Yes, they should, though banning assault weapons wouldn't make a dent in the number of American gun homicides
3. Were the guns used in the shooting purchased legally? - This is the wrong question. The right question goes to the root of the problem of gun violence in America, as well as a solution.
All guns used to kill people in America were purchased legally at some time, though very few of those guns are in the possession of their original owners at the time they kill. The problem that dwarfs the issue of assault rifles is that all firearms may be transferred in America without detection or accountability.
Though the sale of an automobile in America requires an official transfer of title, the sale of a firearm does not. Many, if not most, guns used to kill people in America are acquired through straw purchases -- purchases made on behalf of another person. This is how the underage Columbine shooters obtained their weapons. The assault rifles used by Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook in the San Bernardino attack were also purchased by someone other than the shooters.
Guns used to commit crimes are also acquired through other undocumented sales and trades, as well as theft.
So what would happen if the owner of record of a firearm were held accountable for crimes committed with his or her gun? It's easy to envision several immediate positive changes:
1. Straw gun purchases would plummet. If gun owners were held accountable for the crimes committed with their guns, they would be much less likely to sell their guns without a valid title transfer
2. Gun thefts would drop. If gun owners were on the hook for stolen guns, they would have greater incentive to secure their guns
3. Gun owners would be far less likely to loan a gun to a friend or relative, or sell one without a title transfer.
The concept of a national gun registry is not new, and polling has consistently shown support. In a 2001 Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates poll, a majority of Americans (70%) mistakenly believed a national registry already existed. The fact that it doesn't exist is thanks to a 1986 federal law prohibiting such a registry.
Not surprisingly, the NRA and its congressional supporters are chilly on the notion of a national firearms database. The absence of a national registry not only diffuses responsibility for gun ownership, it also makes tracing weapons used in homicides extremely difficult. When crimes are committed with guns, the ATF relies on low-tech gun store records and interviews to trace gun possession history. The results of those traces may not be shared with anyone outside law enforcement, thanks to the Tiahrt Amendment. The Tiahrt Amendment makes it impossible to know the precise scope of the gun transfer problem. Estimates have been assembled through various studies. Several can be found here.
Anticipating some common counterarguments:
• What if my gun is stolen? My recommendation is this: if you can demonstrate that thieves got your gun by blowing the hinges off your steel gun safe that was bolted to the foundation of your house, then you should get a pass. However, if your gun was taken out of a glove compartment or a glass display case, well, you're screwed. If that seems unfair, perhaps you can complain to the loved ones of the victim that was killed with your gun
• What about the hundreds of millions of guns already in circulation? It will take time for those guns to be siphoned out of the population as crimes are committed with them and the guns are confiscated. That timeframe can and should be sharply accelerated with buy-back programs. The net result is that gun homicides in America will drop significantly
• Big Brother is watching my gun. The Second Amendment may give you the right to own a gun, though it doesn't say anything about prohibiting the government from knowing that you own a gun. The government knows you own a car. It's ok if it knows you own a gun. If you're worried that the government is going to confiscate your gun, consider this: if congress can't block suspected terrorists from buying assault rifles, it's unlikely the government will be coming for your gun any time soon
• What about the little old lady who misplaced her gun? I agree that it's sad that she might do some jail time or community service, but the consolation is that she'll probably be a little less sad than the family whose loved one was killed by her gun.
This requirement would do nothing to impair perceived Second Amendment rights. Those who feel the need to arm up for the impending invasion of Texas by federal troops would still be free to do so. You could buy all the guns you want, though if someone gets hurt with one of those guns, you would need to be held to account.
Accountability is something we accept in our society. Most gun owners handle and secure their guns with care and fully expect others to do the same. Though America would likely be better off without assault rifles, the facts show that we could save far more lives simply by requiring all Americans to be as responsible with their guns as they are with their cars.
Author's note: the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence provided generous assistance with research for this article regarding federal gun registration and transfer laws. The organization is dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at 101 California Street, San Francisco, on July 1, 1993, and to their families. I encourage you to check out their website and consider making a donation to support their excellent work to make our citizens safer.