In the aftermath of Orlando and Dallas, Gun Violence Prevention advocates find themselves coming face-to-face with the veritable elephant in the living room, namely, how to prevent someone from using a gun who acquired the weapon legally? Expanding background checks to private transaction, a worthwhile goal, wouldn’t have made any difference in these two tragedies at all. For that matter, instituting a permit-to-purchase requirement for handguns or highly-lethal assault rifles also wouldn’t have prevented either shooter from getting his hands on a gun.
Of course Gun-nut Nation has a ready-made answer to this problem, consisting of eliminating all ‘gun-free’ zones and convincing every ‘law-abiding’ citizen to walk around with a gun. So even if a law-abiding citizen like the Orlando shooter yanked out his AR and started shooting up a club, there would be a few armed citizens in the crowd who would immediately respond and bring things under control. If you actually believe that there’s any truth whatsoever in the previous sentence, do me a favor, okay? Go lay brick.
Now back to reality. The problem we face in this respect is both very simple and very complicated. It’s simple because what we are looking at is an aberrant form of behavior which every year costs more than 30,000 Americans their lives and another 60,000+ Americans their health because gun injuries happen to be the most medically devastating injury of all. That’s the simple part.
The complicated part is that trying to control or (God forbid) change human behavior through imposing new rules or regulations can work, but only if the rules reflect a collaboration of a large and diverse group of stakeholders, all of whom agree that something needs to be done. Who had to jump on the bandwagon to cut the fatality rate from auto accidents? Try government, manufacturers, insurance companies, school systems, law enforcement, and most of all, the driving public. Can you imagine a similar conglomeration of stakeholders sitting down to come up with a set of comprehensive mandates to make it more difficult for Mister Average Joe Gun Owner to do something stupid or destructive with his gun?
And even if you could convene these relevant participants, and even if they could produce some new mandates that might alter the current regulatory environment in a positive way, how could such changes create any kind of barrier to a law-abiding individual who wants to own a gun? Which is why I said above that the Gun Violence Prevention community is looking at an elephant in the living room when it comes to figuring out how to prevent an otherwise harmless-looking and harmless-behaving fellow from taking his gun and going to the extreme.
But I also have a suggestion that might actually make a difference in terms of identifying the elephant and bringing him under control. And it’s a suggestion that doesn’t need any mandates or regulation at all, just the ability of some concerned individuals or organizations to communicate the following idea.
And the idea is based on what appears to be one thing that most law-abiding, mass shooters have in common before they committed their dreadful acts, namely, that in the run up to their destructive behavior, they divulged their plans to at least one other person who then made the conscious decision not to intervene. This was true of the shooter at Charleston, true for the shooter who walked into The Pulse, certainly true of the shooter at San Bernardino, I suspect it’s true of so many more.
What we really need is messaging which tells people they need to get involved and alert others if they learn that someone is planning to use a gun in a harmful way. Conversations, Facebook posts, emails, I don’t care how the possible mass shooter announces his plans. If you know a gun owner who tells others that he’s going to do something ‘big’ with his gun, don’t just dismiss it as a harmless gesture. Ask yourself whether you want to be around if and when he moves from words to an act.