Background Checks: Doing Something While Doing Nothing

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Friday 9  August 2019

   Having two massacres by firearms in one day may be enough to provoke Congress into passing some gun regulation legislation. Maybe it won’t; they have been amazingly resistant to addressing the carnage around them. If they do, it will probably be related to their favorite “solution” of the last dozen years: background checks, so crazy people can’t purchase guns. It might be an okay idea, except for two small points. First, if they do actually pass anything even vaguely associated with curbing gun violence, Congress will probably pat themselves on their collective backs, say “problem solved,” and wait for the next massacre. In that case, something done likely equals nothing done.

  Second, background checks probably won’t change the number or severity of gun deaths. With almost 400 million guns already in private hands in the United States – by one estimate, that’s 100 times more than our military has, and 400 times more than our various police forces – there’s hardly any need for a would-be killer to buy a new firearm. Whose backgrounds are we going to check? Also, few of our mass murderers of recent years would have been considered “crazy” before they actually were. After the fact, people remember that the killer “acted strange,” or provocative writings turn up on the internet. It would take a pretty exhaustive background check to cover those bases for every gun applicant, and without strong “probable cause” that kind of probe wouldn’t be made, anyway.

   We are too far gone as a race and a nation to completely stop mass murders, but the answer for making them less likely has always been evident to anyone who wanted to see it. Available right now in the United States are hundreds of thousands of guns capable of firing bullets at a rate allowing the killing of dozens of people in a minute or so. We can immediately cut back on the availability of that kind of weapon by outlawing the sale of such guns to civilians. We can begin a buy-back program and look for other ways to get some of those already-available guns out of circulation. We can construct the “assault rifle” law like current laws treat bartenders who let customers get drunk and subsequently kill people with their cars; i.e., make it a potentially criminal act to be the supplier (wittingly or unwittingly) of a gun used in a mass murder.

   I can hear the cries of “Second Amendment” already, but, seriously, the original record is clear that was meant to protect state militias and discourage a national standing army. The language of the Virginia Declaration of Rights – from which the wording of the Second Amendment was derived - spoke to both issues: “The people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia composed of the body of the people trained to arms is the proper national, natural, and safe defense of a free state. That standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided.” Quibble about the odd punctuation, if you will, but it doesn’t change the contrast between having trained local militias or having a national military.

   And so what if you’re not convinced? Our Constitution has been amended seventeen times since the original ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. In times of need, it is open to amendment or clarification. If we need a new statement on gun ownership, isn’t that one of the reasons we have a Congress?

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© Sanford Wilbur 2019