America has a grave gun violence problem. Gun deaths are approaching 40,000 per year, mass shootings are occurring daily and they are becoming more lethal. Three of the five deadliest mass shootings in modern American history (Las Vegas, Orlando, and Sutherland Springs (TX) have occurred over the last 18 months. The Concealed Carry Reciprocity bill, currently making its way through Congress at the behest of the National Rifle Association, represents a complete disregard for public safety and the desire of the public for tighter gun laws. This bill would make it lawful to carry guns across state lines, even if the state issuing a permit has very weak requirements for permit holders relative to the state the permit holder is visiting.
The US needs stronger not weaker national laws. Studies show that states with more permissive laws tend to have higher, not lower, gun death rates than states with more stringent requirements. Rather than concealed carry reciprocity we need another national law, but one that raises screening and training requirements for gun owners, rather than one that undermines public safety in states that have made more serious attempts to regulate in this area.
Many groups are proposing that we expand background checks so that all gun purchasers, including those buying at gun shows and online, are subject to a background check to ensure they do not fall in some prohibited category (e.g., convicted felons, the mentally ill, domestic abusers). Such a reform is important as is the desire to close the “Charleston loophole”, which allowed the sale of a Glock pistol to the mass shooter Dylann Roof to proceed after 72 hours when the FBI could not find the drug conviction on his record even though there was a flag in the NICS system. Other improvements to the background check system are also necessary, such as the need for the military to share the misconduct of one of its members with the FBI—something that might have prevented the recent church massacre in Sutherland Springs (TX).
Expanding and tinkering with our current system of background checks is the low-hanging fruit with regard to reform as 95% of Americans support such actions. Unfortunately, the obsession of gun safety advocates with this system has led us to lose sight of fundamental flaws in the way we screen prospective gun buyers.
Virtually every other advanced country has a national licensing system that is substantially stronger in vetting gun owners than the standard checks undertaken in a matter of minutes in the US at the point of sale. Just over a dozen states have some form of licensing requirement. In addition to the current federal prohibitions on gun ownership for minors, felons, the mentally ill, domestic abusers, and those dishonorably discharged from the military, an effective national licensing system would involve the following:
- A comprehensive screening process undertaken by a designated law enforcement agency, including an in-person interview. Currently, there is no licensing requirement at the federal level and the typical background check at the time of sale, appropriately referred to as an “Instant Background Check”, involves a search of three FBI databases and takes just minutes to complete.
- Sign off by the applicant’s current or former domestic partner (where applicable) attesting to his stability and lack of violence.
- Successful completion of gun safety training (through written and performance-based tests), including training in the operation, safe use, handling, and storage of firearms (including child access prevention) and in laws relating to the appropriate use of force;
- Reference checks in which the applicant’s mental fitness and use of alcohol and drugs would be probed;
- Certificate of mental aptitude from a psychologist or other accredited professional if he or she is under 26 years of age.
- A waiting period of 10 business days for receipt of the license would allow those bent on harming others or themselves to let their anger or self-destructive feelings dissipate.
- The license would be valid for 5 years.
Some readers will look at this proposal and think it represents government overreach or violates the Second Amendment. It is neither. Many other advanced countries have requirements that are at least as exacting, if not more so. Aside from carefully screening the population, such a licensing system sends the message that handling lethal weapons is a serious matter. Some will object using the tired argument that criminals will circumvent the licensing system and obtain weapons illegally. Such an argument can be used to object to all laws and, is incorrect, as many license applicants and those undergoing background checks are denied each year in the US and other countries.
Such a licensing system would be consistent with the most recent judicial interpretations of the Second Amendment. In the context of a Supreme Court ruling that for the first time recognized an individual’s right to possess a firearm unrelated to militia service, Justice Scalia wrote in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that the Second Amendment right was not unlimited and that the Court’s opinion did not cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by individuals at risk of firearm misuse or on laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the sale of guns.