America's gun conversation, to the extent that there is one, is facile, extreme and led by monied interests on both ends. The NRA is awful and the vocal anti-gun left is little better—focused on superficial answers to a culture-wide problem. Here are some reform ideas that ought to be taken seriously.
But before the list, a finer statement of the problem. Gun people—and I have always considered myself one, regardless of how much the steadily degenerating paranoid right wing of the right wing disagrees—are right about one thing: Guns are greatly misunderstood. Hence the trouble with the so-called "gun control" lobby: It fixates on measures that are paradoxically toothless and easily spun as tyrannical by the industry-led NRA. One example is an assault-weapons ban, which is the least you can do: Assault weapons, gun people correctly point out, are as lethal as most other guns. The difference is aesthetic and cultural.
Those differences are worth addressing, but not necessarily with fast-enacted laws against cosmetic changes to a gun's stock. And they don't address the fact that some of America's darkest massacres—not just last week's USCB shooting, but Virginia Tech, still the deadliest mass-shooting on American soil—were perpetrated with semiautomatic pistols, which are common and useful both for recreational shooting and legitimate, limited self-defense.
It's worth pointing out that there are hundreds of millions of legal guns in America, while the NRA claims 4 million members... and there's no telling how legit that number is, since they push membership when you register for shooting classes locally, and they claimed my dead grandfather as a member for more than a decade after his passing. A vast majority of gun owners in America aren't represented by the NRA or its far-right alternatives. Nor are they effectively courted or consulted by the Bloomberg-funded gun-law groups.
Beyond the clichés, the cherished identities as freedom-loving gun-people or urbane intellects with little respect for the salt of the earth, there is nothing. There is on one hand a Second Amendment absolutism that sees any responsibility to a larger community than the self or the family as a dilution of a fundamental right. There is on the other hand an assumption that gun ownership is illegitimate because the ill-educated, boorish, bullying paranoid gun nuts who feel most passionately about the issue block our view of any moderate elements. There is no space being carved out for a more responsible, humane, trained (and yes, smaller) armed citizenry.
The events of last week demand that we do better. We could consider whether any of the following measures might have frustrated Elliot Rodger's ambitions to kill people with firearms, and whether they could dampen those ambitions in others down the line:
- Limits on the number of modern firearms or magazines that may be possessed or purchased in a set time period up to several years. You can still own guns. Any guns you like. Just not all of them, all at one time, without undertaking a negotiation with the society that has to live with you and your guns.
- High purchase taxes, insurance requirements, co-signing agreements, or mandatory training and evaluation for men 25 and under seeking to own firearms, the way rental cars work. We know that men of that age are especially likely to use guns on themselves and others, just as auto insurers have long known they're likelier to get in crashes. Plus, there's a precedent to this approach: In 1934, seeking to curb the proliferation of machine guns on the streets, the U.S. passed the National Firearms Act, which levied a $200 tax on every purchase of a full-auto weapon or other controlled gun. The guns were still available, and other firearms were more affordable, so no right to ownership was infringed, but this constitutional federal regulation of commerce effectively ended the broad trade in machine guns.
- Mandatory disclosure of all prescriptions taken and all mental health services consulted since birth. If Rodger had attempted to enlist in the armed forces, all this information would have been recorded at the time of his recruitment. And given his medication and consultation history, he would have either been disqualified from service or required to obtain a waiver to the rules. There are no such requirements for gun purchases.
- Allowing rental housing units to bar firearms or require firearms possession to be declared on a leasing application, and secured with an additional move-in deposit... as is currently done with cats and dogs. Cats and dogs.
- Require breathalyzer testing at the point of sale for all firearms purchases, and again on delivery of the firearms, if there's a waiting period.
- More cops. Not armed private citizens, cops. The first thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is not giving a bad guy a gun. The second thing is not a random guy who thinks he's good, a supreme gentleman. The second thing is a guy whom we as a society have decided is good. Don't trust cops? Then work to create better-trained, savvier cops. Don't complain about the evils of policing like it means something.
- Require all modern firearms sold to men to be plated permanently in high-gloss pink. No, really. Shiny hot pink guns are harder to conceal illicitly and easier for the unarmed to spot and avoid. This would be a win-win for America: Either macho gun culture would spurn pink guns and there'd be fewer pistol-packing men with something to prove, or they'd bite the bullet and acculturate to pink guns... and then, maybe, our culture might finally get over its dumb coding of pink as "girly."
What chance do these measures have of passing? I don't know. But I bet they start a more productive national conversation than an assault-weapon ban.