Score another win for the gun-sense team. On Monday the Governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, signed into law a bill that basically requires background checks for all gun transfers in the state. The measure is similar to the I-594 initiative that now requires universal background checks in neighboring Washington State. So now, with a few exceptions, anyone living on the West Coast between Canada and Mexico must undergo the NICS background check process in order to buy, sell, or transfer a gun.
I wouldn’t necessarily take the short odds against background checks becoming law of the land, if only because although we usually think our country was settled east to west, in fact much of our culture has moved west to east. California was already settled by Spanish conquistadores and their descendants while Virginia, Massachusetts and the other colonies were still largely woods, and much of our modern culture first appeared on the West Coast in the form of movies and tv. I first heard of ‘health food’ when I went from New York to teach at Berkeley in 1976. And let’s not forget where Starbucks got started, ditto Ronald Reagan and the ‘modern conservative movement’ along with half-and-half.
I have no issue with the notion that background checks keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’ I also don’t believe the nonsense thrown around by so-called 2nd-Amendment ‘absolutists’ that background checks are a violation of their constitutional rights. But we shouldn’t just assume that because the FBI says that slightly more than 1 million NICS transactions have been denied since the system became operational in 1998 that this somehow translates into one million guns being kept away from the ‘wrong hands,’ which means kept away from people who will use those guns to commit violence and crimes.
We really don’t know why violent crime rates, particularly gun crime rates, have dropped by 50% over the last twenty years. And because we don’t know why this has occurred, it’s not clear that any of the solutions, including background checks, will result in gun violence dropping any more. I’m not suggesting that we should stop strengthening gun regulations just because, to parrot the NRA, criminals don’t obey laws. If we used criminal response to laws as a criteria for judging the effectiveness of our legal codes, we would never pass a single statute at all. What I am suggesting is that if we continue to define gun violence as a preventable public health issue, which is how we have been defining it since 1981, we should set realistic goals for reductions in gun violence and use these goals to judge the effectiveness of the policies and strategies that are espoused.
In fact, the CDC has adopted what they believe to be realistic goals for reductions in gun violence over the next five years. These goals call for a 10% reduction by 2020 in gun homicides, non-fatal shootings and children bringing guns into schools. I think the time has come for activists who are working to end gun violence to sit down, en masse, and figure out whether the CDC numbers are realistic, or need to be adjusted, or need to be replaced by a different set of criteria and a different set of goals. And the gun industry should be invited to participate in this discussion as well.
The gun industry used to count on the fact that the upsurge in concern about gun violence which followed every high-profile shooting would quickly run its course. Frankly, I thought the groundswell provoked by Sandy Hook would be over by the time the first anniversary of the tragedy rolled around. But recent events in Washington State and Oregon have proven me wrong. And when it comes to public health policies, things have a way of taking on a momentum and a life of their own. As I said early on, I wouldn’t take the short odds against more gun regulations down the line.