Coming up shortly is a debate in the U.S. Senate about a bill which passed through the House extending background checks to all transfers of guns. At the same this issue wends its way through Congress, another approach to reducing gun violence is going through the courts in the form of the lawsuit against Remington brought by some of the parents of victims killed at Sandy Hook.
These two initiatives represent different methods for making us safe (or at least safer) from a type of behavior which kills and injures more than 125,000 people every year. This behavior which is referred to as gun violence because it occurs whenever someone picks up a gun, aims it at themselves or someone else and goes – bang!
I happen to believe that the latter approach is a much more effective method for dealing with this problem. My proof for that statement lies in the fact that the gun-control method embodied in the DeSoto v. Remington case aligns itself with the way in which other countries deal with gun violence, which is the reason why other countries have gun-violence rates far below our own.
We are the only advanced society which has decided that the most effective way to regulate a consumer product known as a gun is to regulate the behavior of the consumer who owns the gun. Therefore, in order to be a legal gun owner in the United States, you have to prove that you do not fall into a particular behavioral category which prohibits owning or buying guns. These categories are all listed on the 4473 background check form which is filled out when someone buys a gun, but they apply equally as well to owning a gun, no matter how that ownership status came about. The background check bill currently before the Senate basically extends the certification of ‘good’ behavior to any way in which someone gets their hands on a gun. But like the current system, it is still regulating how people behave with a particular consumer product, not how the product is designed or sold.
The majority opinion in DeSoto v. Remington correctly understood that what is at issue in this case is not the behavior of the shooter per se, but the conscious effort by the manufacturer to advertise the product in a way that would attract consumers who wanted to use this gun to inflict injuries to other human beings. To quote from the decision: “The AR-15 and M16 are highly lethal weapons that are engineered to deliver maximum carnage with extreme efficiency.” Which is hardly how guns designed to be used for ‘sport’ can best be described.
On the other hand, as long as a gun doesn’t fire in automatic mode, it can be bought and sold by anyone who doesn’t have a behavioral history indicating that the person buying or owning the gun is at risk for using the weapon in a violent way. Adam Lanza, who shot and killed himself and 27 other kids and adults in Newtown, used his mother’s rifle but if he had waited a few months until he was 21, he could have walked into any gun shop in Connecticut and purchased the same gun himself.
I’m not saying that extending background checks to secondary sales won’t have an impact on whether or not guns end up in the wrong hands. But as long as we continue to regulate this consumer product by believing that purchase and ownership of products as dangerous as an AR-15 require only meeting minimal standards for lawful behavior, the number of such guns floating around in private hands will continue to increase. And as the number of such guns goes up, the number used to commit violent acts will also go up.
If a consumer product is dangerous because of the way it’s designed, either you change the design or the product can’t be sold. How do you make an AR-15 safer so that it can’t be used to mow down a classroom filled with kids? You can’t.