Tragically, fellow Americans, this time in Parkland, Florida, have once again been slaughtered ruthlessly by a young man wielding a weapon of war. This is well past the time to discuss how these events can be prevented. One does not need to be an expert to conclude that military-style weapons that can receive external magazines capable of holding 10-100 rounds of ammunition have no role in civilian life, other than to murder as many people as possible in the shortest time span.
Aside from banning these weapons, we need to do much better in screening individuals for their fitness to possess, own, or carry firearms. In a January 8th post, I laid out some preliminary ideas for a national gun licensing system, although such a system could also be established at the state level. The rationale is simple: People operating a variety of forms of machinery and in many occupations require a license to ensure they meet certain requirements and maintain their qualifications to continue to engage in those activities. In Florida, for example, licenses are required of motor vehicle operators, barbers and cosmetologists, mold remediation services, contractors in the construction industry, and many others. If those operating cars and construction machinery need a license, it stands to reason that those owning and operating lethal weapons also ought to be licensed.
I mentioned in the previous post that expanding background checks to all gun sales and tinkering with our current system of 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. Searching FBI electronic databases is not sufficient as, aside from clerical errors (seen in the lead-up to the Charleston church shooting) and the failure to forward data to the FBI (seen in the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting), every criminologist knows that official criminal records represent just the tip of the iceberg with regard to someone’s criminality and will miss troubling warning signs. I therefore propose a comprehensive screening process including:
- An in-person interview with law enforcement;
- Reference checks;
- Where applicable, notifying a current or former domestic partner of a license application;
- Successful completion of gun safety and skills training provided by law enforcement or security firms;
- Certificate of mental aptitude for applicants under 26 years of age; and,
- A waiting period of 10 business days.
The shooter at Stoneman Douglas High School, just like many previous mass shooters, obtained his weapons legally. The proposed licensing system may have prevented him from obtaining his weapons at four different stages of the process:
- The in-person interview may have uncovered some troubling attitudes on the part of the shooter in relation to guns. He may have even been deterred from pursuing a license due to the need for an interview. With the private sale loophole closed, he may have either given up the idea of purchasing a gun or been forced into the illegal market. With an accompanying assault weapons ban, the supply will eventually be reduced dramatically, substantially elevating the price of an illegal AR-15, which can cost $1,500 with all the accessories when purchased legally. An illegal purchase might cost several times that amount, making it inaccessible to most young persons.
- Reference checks with peers, family (in this case surrogate family) members, school personnel, and social media checks would have uncovered his troubling behavior, statements, and threats.
- The psychological evaluation done for the certificate of mental aptitude may have uncovered disturbing attitudes and intentions.
- Even the requirement that he receive rigorous safety training—something not required to purchase a gun in Florida—may have raised some red flags for instructors.
No system is foolproof but experience with licensing in virtually every other advanced country with far better outcomes than the US indicates that it is time to develop such a regulatory system. A national system is preferably to state licensing, as porous state borders mean that individuals who would be denied a license in one state can obtain firearms in nearby states that have lower standards.
Tom Gabor, Ph.D.
Criminologist and Sociologist
Author, Confronting Gun Violence in America (Amazon’s #1 new release in Criminology)