This isn’t the first time our nation’s streets have been wracked by deadly violence, nor is it the first time that killing has spurred distrust of newcomers and minorities, and ignited demands that weapons be regulated.
During the 1920s and 1930s, with alcohol banned and criminal gangs fighting for the illegal profits Prohibition created, machine-gun toting toughs tore each other apart in the streets. The most famous incident was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Seven members of the Irish North Side Gang were killed by four members of Al Capone’s Italian crime family, two of who wielded Thompson submachine guns.
The fears of such violence, along with an attempt on the life of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, left Americans demanding change. A year later, Congress passed severe restrictions on particularly dangerous weapons, restrictions that remain in place today. These weapons include fully automatic machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and rifles, explosives like grenades and bombs, suppressors meant to silence firearms and most guns with bores over .50 caliber, more than half an inch.
The federal law did not make it impossible to own such weapons, but the process of getting licensed is onerous, and there is a $200 fee, which was worth nearly $3,600 in 1934, on transferring each weapon. And because these weapons are all so heavily restricted, they are prohibitively expensive to purchase, legally or illegally.
Congress must now decide whether to act in response to the outcry that something be done to stop the next Orlando, the next Newtown, the next Charleston, the next San Bernardino. Restricting the legal sale of certain weapons does keep those weapons out of criminal hands. We’ve proven that in the United States for more than 80 years, usually with little of the outcry about such restrictions we’ve seen over laws proposed in the past 20 years.
That’s why machine guns like the ones we picture in the hands of bank robber George “Baby Face” Nelson and his contemporaries are practically never to blame in mass killings, or other gun deaths. Contrary to the argument put forward by the gun lobby, that gun-control laws limit only law-abiding citizens, strict regulation does keep weapons from criminals. Those regulations constrict legal markets, and when that happens, the prices rise in the illegal markets on the streets.
Faced with another wave of violence, one that is terrifying in its randomness, we can pass reasonable controls, ones that could help to stem these atrocious incidents and reduce the much more common suicides and homicides killing about 30,000 Americans each year.
This week, the U.S. Senate is due to consider a bill to force background checks for every gun sale in the nation. Another measure being debated would ban people on the terrorist watch list from buying weapons. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, a savvy taker of the national pulse, supports such a measure.
With the blood still fresh in our minds and fear swelling, it is time to drop gun control as the proxy argument for clashing values between the left and the right. Instead, can we talk rationally about why it is in the national interest to make it difficult for those who can’t be trusted to get weapons?
n No one should be able to buy a gun without a background check, not from a gun show, the internet, a buddy or a family member. On average, Chicago has a gunshot victim every three hours and a gunshot homicide every day. About 10,000 Americans are killed by someone else with a gun every year. A lot of the guns are availabile because of background-check loopholes and lax state gun laws.
n No one with a known mental illness, like Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, should be allowed to buy a gun.
n No one who has been on a terrorist watch list, like Orlando killer Omar Mateen, or a no-fly list, should be able to buy a gun unless fully cleared.
n Semi-automatic rifles with military-style accessories of the type banned from 1994 to 2004 should be placed under the same restrictions as weapons covered by the 1934 law.
n No one should be able to buy huge magazines like the ones used in the Sandy Hook school killings.
n There should be a waiting period of at least several days for gun purchases, which could help prevent impulse attacks and 20,000 suicides a year committed with guns.
n The law should demand that anyone whose gun is stolen report that theft.
People in other high-income countries are 10 times less likely to be killed by someone else with a gun than in the United States, and 25 times less likely to be killed with a gun. Generally, it’s possible to legally buy guns in those countries, it’s just harder than here. That makes it far more difficult and expensive to buy the illegal guns used in most crimes.
We understand no law can stop every mass killing or gun homicide, but that doesn’t mean the right laws wouldn’t reduce the tragic numbers.
It must be much harder for people who shouldn’t have weapons to get them. That would make it a bit harder to purchase weapons even for people who can be trusted with them. And far harder for anyone to get the most dangerous military-style weapons.
When liberties such as the right to bear arms and the right to not be slaughtered conflict, a balance must be found.