In the wake of the truly awful shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., there are familiar reactions calling for stricter regulations on gun ownership.
President Barack Obama has asked Vice President Joe Biden to lead a review process of gun control laws and gun violence in the United States. Biden’s charge also includes an examination of mental health policies.
The president is wise to include that second part of the Biden task force’s mission. The killing spree undertaken by the shooter in Newtown was not the action of anything close to a reasonable, sane person. Clearly, this individual suffered from severe mental health problems, which apparently had either gone untreated or unsuccessfully treated.
The FBI estimates that there are already between 200 million and 300 million firearms owned by residents of the United States. And, of course, that number would grow substantially if all the unknown or illegally owned firearms were included. The total is nearly one gun for every resident of our country.
So one problem we collectively face is that, unfortunately, there already is plenty of firepower available to people who might choose to inflict harm upon others.
We all hope that the work of the Biden task force, and ultimately Congress, proceeds with an eye toward reasonable solutions to this ongoing, maddening, horrible problem of mass shootings of innocent people in public places.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution still matters. There are important reasons why the nation’s Founding Fathers saw fit to include it in the Bill of Rights. There are examples of governments that eliminated weapons among their citizenry, only to put too much power in the hands of government. And twice in the past four years, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of Americans to own a firearm for lawful purposes, such as self-defense.
Yet those 2008 and 2010 decisions also said that the high court wasn’t casting doubt on many long-standing regulations, such as prohibitions on possession by felons or those suffering mental illness, or laws barring guns from sensitive places and putting conditions on commercial gun sales. The court’s 2010 decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote, “does not imperil every law regulating firearms.”
Which means there is room for a reasonable discussion about common-sense steps that might be taken. The NRA’s idea of putting armed lawmen in all 133,000 public and private K-12 schools fails that test.
The goal of the Biden task force should be to improve our ability to keep guns away from “bad guys” and in the hands of “good guys.”
That’s a huge oversimplification, but that’s really the point. There should be no action toward taking guns away from law-abiding citizens who have positive reasons to own guns and do so without incident.
There remains a legitimate question of whether military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines are really necessary for self-defense, hunting or other everyday uses of guns. There is an argument to be made that, at some point, there can be too much firepower for any ordinary citizen to need.
There are other areas of the law that deserve a look: closing loopholes in the background check system for purchasing weapons and toughening laws for illegal possession and use of firearms, for example.
A vigorous debate will ensue as to where these lines might reasonably be drawn.
Let us hope the coming gun control debate remains civil and productive — and that the ideas for more successful treatment of the mentally ill also are creative, constructive and forward-looking.
President Obama is right. We simply can’t tolerate these mass murders anymore.