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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Letter on Gun Violence Prevention

The following letter was written in response to a presumably legitimate inquiry from a gun owner and NRA member about the philosophy of a certain non-profit, issues-oriented organization.  As an advocate of gun violence prevention, I was asked to respond.  Although my response was not as long as the answer below, I now offer this as a reasonable response to a reasonable inquiry.  Names of people and organizations have been removed.  The original inquiry was as follows:

“I am just wondering what your organization is standing for. I am an avid gun owner/hunter and believe in my right to keep and bear arms. Now when you say "common sense" do you mean just that or are you against firearms in general?  I believe criminals should not have the right to own guns, but I don't believe that law abiding American gun owners should bear the burden. Most of the current legislation has done little to nothing to attack the criminals, but has made it more burdensome on the honest. How many drug dealers do you know that register their Military look-a-like guns or have to worry about renewing their pistol permit every 5 years. You can see where I am going with this, they don't because they are criminals. Therefore its only the law abiding citizen who is affected by such laws.  Please let me know where your organization stands on Gun Control and just what your definition of "Common Sense" actually means.”


Dear Inquirer:

Recently, I was asked by ________________, to send along some of my thoughts on your inquiry about his organization, and about the stance of his organization toward gun control.  First, let me explain that, although not a member of that organization, I am a member of another organization that often works with his group as co-sponsors of issue-oriented events and activities. So, I am speaking as a member of a particular group, but the opinions are mainly my own. Second, we are not gun-control advocates as much as we are advocates of gun violence prevention.

In answer to one of your questions -- "are you against firearms in general? " - I would answer absolutely not.  It is not our intent to limit legitimate access to guns and ammunition for the purposes of hunting, sporting events, contests, collection or even legitimate self-defense.  The second amendment right to bear arms is a well-accepted norm in both existing law and judicial decisions; we are not looking to overturn those basic rights.  Likewise, in answer to a second question, we are not in existence to increase any particular "burden" on legitimate gun-owners.   Present laws and requirements already impose a paperwork "burden," but that routinely comes along with any system of registration, application, or sale.  We are not sure what other "burdens" might come to legitimate gun-owners because of more stringent laws on background checks, for instance.  Please enlighten us if you know of something that would occur as a burden other than some additional paperwork for gun sellers. However, if you mean by this that legitimate gun owners would be having to be part of a national gun registry, that is a myth belied by the fact that pending legislation on expanded background checks specifically prohibits national gun registries.

We are in agreement with your statement that "criminals should not have the right to own guns."  We would add that there are probably others who should not own guns as well, including those shown to be violent toward others in ways that are clearly evident.  This gets into the whole area of the mental health system which is something that our organization is also ultimately concerned about, as that system does not currently have efficient and effective standards for sharing "mental health" information among practitioners in the mental health field, with law enforcement, universities or colleges, or even with relatives of those who demonstrate aberrant behaviors.  Nor is there an efficient and effective way for school, law enforcement and other legitimate providers and relatives to share pertinent information with the mental health care providers and with each other.  So, prevention of gun violence (and other forms of violence) also depends on an overhaul of our mental health system and its requirements, and abilities, for information-sharing. 

Criminals are those who disobey established laws.  Therefore establishing new laws does not insure that criminals will be stopped or that they will even be prosecuted because that is what criminals do:  they find ways to circumvent laws.  There are very few pieces of legislation that even attempt to stop all criminal behavior in a certain area, because they cannot.  Nor do most laws “target criminals.”  Rather they set standards and rules by which criminals can be arrested, charged, and prosecuted in the justice system.  Therefore, we agree with the premise that certain laws we propose - such as universal background checks - will not stop all criminal behavior in connection with gun violence.  However, such laws will provide law enforcement with stronger tools to prosecute those who disobey that law, will set new norms for society, and will have a lasting positive effect and influence on our culture of violence.  Those are some of the intended purposes of our proposals, and are about all that can be reasonably expected. 

Right now, under federal laws, background checks are limited in scope, as you know, in that they only apply to federally licensed gun dealers.  Even under that less-than-universal law, the current background check system since it started has kept over 2 million criminals and other dangerous people from buying guns at licensed dealers (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics within the Justice Department). We advocate for expanded background checks to close gun sale loopholes.  In fact, we support H.R. 1565 which is a replication of the Manchin-Toomey Amendment from the Senate, by which background checks would be required for all gun sales in commercial settings, including at gun shows, on the internet and in classified ads.  Private, unlicensed firearms sellers would be required to conduct these checks through licensed dealers using the same system (NICS) already in use for licensed dealer sales.  The bill would, however, exempt transfers of firearms between friends and family from such requirements. 

In answer to your main question, this is what we consider to be an example of "common sense" legislation.  One way to look at it is that this makes a "sound basic sense" that appeals to a broad range of people  with at least an average intelligence.  It doesn't have a lot of complicated language, but stresses a point that most people can understand: that we need to expand background checks to cover most gun sales.  In  this way we have a better chance at reducing gun violence by gun wielders who should not have access to guns in the first place.

But, there is a second meaning of "common sense" not often cited, that applies in this case most especially.  It is the definition of common sense as "pertaining to the whole community or public."  In the case of universal background checks, we have for some time now heard that up to 92% of the public, and around 84% of NRA members, favor this kind of legislation, feeling that it makes good sense.  To their discredit and peril as legislators, certain Senators thought they could simply ignore this expression of the "common sense" and they voted against the wishes of their constituency.  A few of those Senators have seen their positive poll numbers take a nose-dive, and are now feeling the heat of public pressure to change their vote or be fired by the electorate next year.   When a "common sense" develops among voters from across this country, it is not wise simply to ignore it.  This commonality is what has pushed our nation forward at certain critical times in our history, and we believe that one of those critical points has clearly been reached when the "common sense" about background checks must prevail.

Finally, let me add to these answers a bit of a personal note.  I come from a long paternal line of gunsmiths; some of whom started out as independent locksmiths and then switched to gun-making in their hometown of Birmingham England.  Those relatives include my great grandfather, at least three great granduncles and my grandfather.  An uncle and a cousin born in this country continued on that same occupational path.  Some of these men came to the States when they were quite young (in 1886 and 1888) to work in a series of gun factories, first in New York and New England; also in Ontario (where my grandfather came to work with his oldest brother in a company that had been transferred lock, stock and barrel from Norwich, CT).  My grandfather, one of his sons and another of his brothers, ended up their careers working for a Gun Company in my birthplace.  What is important to me is that these men were not only accomplished gunsmiths (three of whom served as superintendents of their factories at one time or another) but they were part of making gun manufacturing in this country a vital industry, and, when called upon, they used their skills and positions to build the munitions that helped win the Great War (WWI).  One of my granduncles worked for New England Westinghouse company in Springfield, MA that had a huge contract for rifles used to end the war; another worked for Henry Ford in his large plant in Highland Park, Michigan that ended up making munitions for the War.  My grandfather, before he immigrated to the U.S., was an Armorer Sergeant in the Canadian Armed Forces that helped forge the way through France and Belgium into Germany to end WWI.  He was on the front lines in some heavy fighting and was a victim of mustard gas causing his early death in 1947.

I tell you all this because I want you to know that I am proud of my family's heritage.  I am proud of their commitment to sporting rifles, and wartime munitions-making.  I am equally proud of their achievements in their communities as Lodge leaders, as churchmen, as people one could always count on.  Although I have never owned a gun, and am part of a movement and organization that believes that every constitutional right comes with certain responsibilities; and, that every right must be restricted when that same right becomes abused or distorted and brings harm to others (such as yelling "Fire" in a closed theater), I am not about to abandon my heritage by helping to impose burdensome or unreasonable restrictions on legitimate gun owners. 

Therein lies something that my ancestors would never have understood: how could a very legitimate club called the National Rifle Association go from a sportsman's club to an advocate of allowing absolutely no restrictions on military assault rifles, made-for-battle ammunition clips, and the right to carry concealed weapons wherever you please, plus an outright opposition to the saving of innocent lives by a system of universal background checks?  My ancestors would be appalled because they knew in their own lives that the right to bear arms meant sport and target-shooting, collection and competition, and self-defense.  They would not have understood absolute gun and ammunition rights advocacy that endangers the lives of innocent children and young people, as well as adults.  In other words, they would not have understood the NRA’s obsession with a totally unrestricted second amendment that allows harm and death to come to innocent citizens at the hands of violence-prone, mentally unstable, or criminally-intentioned gun owners.  Such illegitimate gun ownership would not make "common sense" to them, nor does it to me.

I hope this explanation has been helpful to you.


Sincerely yours,