The People, Places and Things of Gun Sanity

Categories to contain gun violence.

Where does it end?

Photographer: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

There are three main ways to regulate firearms: by person, by hardware and by location.

In the first instance, for example, federal law prohibits felons from purchasing firearms. In the second, it restricts access to machine guns (while also making it difficult to keep an intercontinental ballistic missile in your backyard). In the third, despite the insistence of Republican lawmakers that guns make everyplace safer, "good guys with guns" must leave their wares outside Donald Trump’s White House and Paul Ryan’s U.S. Capitol.

The battleground of virtually all gun politics in the U.S. comprises these three categories. The National Rifle Association and the militant gun movement that it variously nurtures, exploits and serves have worked for years to systematically dismantle laws and undermine norms across all three areas.  

The movement's successes are incomplete but numerous, including a recent victory expanding access to guns by people too mentally incompetent to manage their affairs; continued access to deadlier, more destructive, bullets; and the growing trend in Republican states to permit guns in churches, bars, college buildings, public thoroughfares and elsewhere.

If the U.S. is ever to rise above its debilitating gun nuttery -- and the more than 100,000 annual shootings that it facilitates -- we’re going to have to find the most effective regulations and figure out how to enact them over the objections of vested interests and dedicated fanatics. And we have to overcome public cynicism -- fanned by the gun lobby, the Republican Party and others -- about the efficacy of regulation in a land with an estimated 300 million guns and a culture of extraordinary permissiveness toward owning, carrying and firing them.


One pretty obvious place to start is the categories of people who are prohibited from gun possession. If you restricted ownership of firearms to women, you’d have a dramatically safer society. But prohibiting possession by men obviously won't fly in a culture where guns are intricately tied to masculine self-esteem. In addition, the Second Amendment and a body of related court opinions simply can’t be ignored.

Yet there are small categories within larger ones: Some men are decisively more dangerous than others, and we have many clues about who some of these men are. We should probably start there.

A growing number of states restrict legal access to firearms by domestic abusers. Even some especially gun-friendly locales, such as South Carolina, have made at least partial progress in this regard, based on research linking intimate-partner violence and subsequent shootings. The logical foundation -- that violent men are also more likely to be violent with a gun -- appears to hold fairly broadly.

A study led by Garen Wintemute of University of California at Davis found that men with previous convictions for misdemeanor violence were many times more likely to commit acts of violence, including firearm violence, than men who without such convictions. Yet misdemeanors are currently not a bar to gun possession.

Alcohol abuse is another telling trait. Studies have established a strong link between alcohol abuse and both suicide and homicide. Another study led by Wintemute, who is director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, found that among legal handgun owners in California, a prior DUI or other alcohol-related conviction increased the risk of subsequent arrest for a violent or firearm-related crime by a factor of four to five.

Mark Kleiman, a crime and drug policy expert at New York University, is especially pointed about alcohol’s contributions to violence. “If you really wanted to measurably reduce gun homicide nationwide over the next year, you have precisely one option: Raise alcohol taxes,” he emailed. “Tripling the federal alcohol tax from a dime a drink to 30 cents a drink would be expected to reduce total violent crime by about 6 percent. There’s no reason to think gun homicides are different from other violent crimes.”

Kleiman’s analysis is based in part on research by Duke University professor Philip Cook, who contends, essentially, that cheap alcohol has proved very expensive to society.

If you were more committed to curtailing gun violence, you would fund research into who is most likely to commit it. (The gun lobby, of course, has effectively squelched government funding for such research precisely because it wants gun violence to appear to be an inexplicable mystery beyond the ken of public policy.) You would begin to lay down policies that made legal firearm purchases more difficult for people with past histories of violence, and histories of alcohol abuse.

Of course, there would be well-maintained databases, and comprehensive, universal background checks, to ensure that such people did not purchase guns without legal scrutiny. When I emailed David Hemenway, a health-policy researcher at Harvard University and an early advocate of a public-health approach to gun violence, about his wish list, it began with licensing and universal background checks.


In addition to scrutinizing more people, more things would be subjected to a similar cost-benefit analysis. That’s basically what’s happening now with bump stocks -- the gadget used by the killer in Las Vegas to increase the number of rounds he could fire per minute. Is there a legitimate purpose of bump stocks other than to enable a legal semi-automatic weapon to mimic an illegal automatic weapon?

No, there isn’t. They should be banned, along with other accessories designed to accomplish similar aims.

Some things just need to be better identified and readily traced. If guns employed microstamping technology to identify cartridges, the police would be able to trace found cartridges to a specific gun. If, as in Hawaii, which has a relatively low level of gun violence, all firearms were registered, matching the cartridge to the gun would quickly lead to the person who had purchased the gun. We make crime fighting harder by catering to the whims of ideologues and paranoids. There is nothing in the Second Amendment that says guns can’t be purposefully regulated. Even Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged that.

To make safer guns, you would require trigger locks and promote digital smart technology that restricts usage to the owner -- so that when a reckless adult leaves his gun lying on a night table, the price of such negligence would no longer be a child’s life.

If, after some years of increased regulation and declining gun violence, American culture seemed ready to scale back its embrace of firearms, you could consider a ban on semi-automatic weapons or other high-powered fare.


If you enact rational policies regulating the people who can gain access to firearms, and the kinds of firearms that can be sold, the problem of places largely takes care of itself.

The only reason that so many recent laws have been enacted to enable guns to be carried in bars and on campuses and in other plainly absurd locations is that a nihilistic gun movement is eager to make guns ubiquitous, inescapable and beyond the reach of law. Intimidation is intended as prelude to domination. ("Look, I got a gun and there's nothing you can do about it.")

When you are afraid to yell at the driver who cut you off in traffic because you fear he has a gun, the gun lobby is winning. When you reach the point that you buy a gun yourself out of such fear, the gun lobby will have won.

Fortunately, we're not there. More people are not owning guns; more guns are owned by fewer people. Nor did we need the mass murder in Las Vegas to prove that the “good guy with a gun” philosophy -- if a quasi-religious tenet derived from B-movie outtakes qualifies as philosophy -- is absurd.

When a gunman assassinated two New York City police officers in a department vehicle in 2014, he killed armed, professionally trained law-enforcement professionals in their own specially equipped sanctum. John Hinckley Jr., a hapless young man with mental problems, shot the president of the United States when Ronald Reagan was surrounded not only by trained and armed police officers but by the Secret Service, the most highly skilled armed defenders at the president’s disposal. Good guys with guns abounded that day in 1981, yet they were no match for an unskilled, unstable assailant.

Guns should be banned from specific public places -- schools, parks, churches, bars and so on -- in part because they introduce an unnecessary threat. (According to one study, people who carry firearms are more likely to believe others are armed as well, a belief that can lead to tragedy.) But they should be prohibited also as a statement of values, particularly the value that life and liberty are precious, and their protection is essential to the social contract.

Living in a maxi-armed NRA dystopia is incompatible with liberty, and it would pose a daily threat to life. With a targeted approach to regulating the right people, things and places, we can avoid that grim fate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Francis Wilkinson at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at

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