UNITED STATES: Columbine. Sandy Hook. Marjory Douglas. Ask an American what these names mean, and they will tell you: school shootings. Since February of this year, the US has already witnessed close to 40 deaths as a result of "mass" shootings. In April 2021 alone, there have been nearly 700 deaths by firearm. For comparison, Canada has reported an average of 700 firearm deaths per year for the past 20 years.
Biden announces six-point gun reform plan
US President Joe Biden announced his gun reform package last week. With his hands likely tied by Republicans in the Senate unwilling to pass comprehensive legislation, Biden is moving ahead using the most powerful tool at his disposal: executive action.
Biden laid out six provisions in his gun reform executive order:
• Appoint a new head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which is the governing body that oversees firearm sales and distribution. The ATF has been without a director for 6 years.
• Regulate "ghost guns" which are composites built from parts without serial numbers and not subject to background checks.
• Add serial numbers to stabilizing braces for pistols.
• Allocate resources to violence prevention groups.
• Create "Red Flag" laws that allow someone to report a family member who is a threat to themselves or others and who they believe should not have access to a firearm.
• Direct the Justice Department to create comprehensive reports on gun trafficking.
Americans divided on gun reform
30-year-old Alex LaRue enjoys hunting and target shooting and opposes every suggested reform. "Getting a gun is already very hard in America, and respectfully, I invite people who say otherwise to attempt to obtain one." Despite LaRue's personal experience purchasing a gun in New York, whose regulations make purchase difficult compared to other states, the US is globally ranked as the easiest country in the world to obtain a firearm. Japan, ranked one of the most difficult, has the lowest gun violence death rate in the world. However, Canada has a globally low firearm mortality rate, even with few laws governing purchase. LaRue would argue, rightly, that lax laws do not lead to increased firearm violence.
Suzanne Muehleisen, a retired teacher, supports stricter gun regulation as it touched her personally. "A very good friend of mine is a judge for the Native American court system. Her flight got cancelled so she was hearing the case via phone. The accused walked into court and opened fire, killing several and wounding others. Every time there is another mass-shooting she relives this day. It breaks my heart to watch her suffer and I ache for the lives lost."
Muehleisen thinks Biden's executive order doesn't go far enough. "Biden's request to rid the US of ghost guns is admirable, but the least of our problems."
LaRue agrees. "So called 'ghost guns' are rarely used in crime and require thousands of dollars in both tools and materials to create, let alone the skill to do so. I have actually looked into making a gun before and gave up due to shortcomings in time, money, and skill." LaRue is correct about the relatively low percentage of 'ghost guns' implicated in violent crimes; however, the use of these untraceable weapons is increasing.
In 2019, a 16-year-old in California shot himself and five of his classmates with a homemade "ghost" handgun.
As far as the difficulty of building a ghost gun, according to a New York Times report, they are "easy and relatively inexpensive". An AR-15 build kit costs as low as $345 and can be completed within an hour or two.
Muehleisen offered a historical perspective. "The freedom to bear arms was written when each gun needed to be reloaded after each shot. It was also put there to create a militia to protect their own. The gun laws currently are too lax and not intended for its original purpose." She maintains, "I don't want all your guns, just some of them." She hopes for more stringent background checks and a ban on any military-type weapons.
LaRue believes people don't understand the types of weapons and their uses. "Assault rifle is a term used by those wishing to ban sporting rifles that resemble the M4A1 military rifles. No AR-15 has ever been commissioned for use in war. While I personally do not own one, they have a huge following in the sporting rifle community; it would be a huge shame to ban such rifles." As far as regulating the purchase of stabilizers or unfinished receivers, he added, it "is essentially banning the sale of steel or aluminum without a background check."
Treatment of mental illness is not the solution
While it may seem that LaRue and Muehleisen may find little else to agree on, they both believe in the same root cause of gun violence: untreated mental illness.
As a former middle and high school teacher, Muehleisen observed her students' mental health deterioration. "I was in the school environment for over 20 years. Many more behavioral issues, anxiety, and depression than when I started. My last year of teaching, significant mental health issues [were] ignored by both the parents and administrators. Many mass shooters have mental health issues, yet without the availability of guns, they would not be able to shoot!"
While LaRue agrees that the problem of mental illness needs to be addressed, he sees it as independent of gun regulation. "Bad people can still get guns, or make bombs, or any number of things. Banning AR-15's will only push people that want to do harm to use other means to accomplish the same horrible things."
He added, "We need to make mental health a higher priority, revamp our justice system to better address this, and talk about other ways to actually help the problem other than incriminating law-abiding gun owners with overreaching and hard-to-comply with ineffective legislation."
Canada's relatively lax laws and low firearm mortality rates lend support to LaRue's argument. "If my car is making a funny noise," he continued, "I wouldn't just turn the radio up, I would open the hood. The assault weapons ban of the 90's for instance, we actually didn't see any discernible drops in violence."
According to Poltifact's research on the Clinton-era assault rifle ban, "The impact of the law is debated, but some researchers say that limits on large capacity magazines and assault weapons help reduce fatalities."
While untreated mental health is often the rare intersection of agreement between those in favor and those opposed to gun regulation, there is little evidence to support mental illness attribution of gun violence. According to Harvard Medical School, "After controlling for substance use, rates of violence may reflect factors common to a particular neighborhood rather than the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder." In fact, those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators of violence against others. Poverty and environment are more reliable antecedents to violent behavior toward others than mental illness.
If mental illness is not implicated in America's firearm death rate, then what is?
American exceptionalism may be obstacle to meaningful reform
Eric Gabrielson of Maine is a former naval submariner. He debunks both the notion that guns are hard to get and that treatment of mental illness will reduce gun violence. A native New Yorker, he admitted that it takes a "papal edict" to get a gun in NY, but in most other states, "it's ridiculous that people think it's hard'" he said. "I had $300 bucks and decided to see just how hard it would be. In Maine, it took me 20 minutes to buy a gun [and] it's a concealed carry state. I can carry a gun in my pocket." He added, "I'm pro-gun-control, but I don't believe gun control will make any difference."
"The real problem," he said, "is the myth of America." He compared American's belief in gun ownership to church-goers belief in the prayers they recite but have forgotten their purpose and meaning. "America is rooted in 'I and me'. From our colonizing days, we were 'lucky enough' to take over an indigenous population who couldn't fight back and 'lucky enough' to be geographically isolated so we could do whatever we wanted, with no one to stop us.
As a critical care worker, Gabrielson compared those who oppose gun reform to the COVID anti-maskers. "Those people [anti-maskers] don't care how many are going to die—just don't take away their 'freedom'." Nearly 600,000 have died of COVID to date and "the death of 40,000 Americans each year to gun violence—those opposed to gun reform don't care."
As far as solutions, Muehlieson believes that more training before owning a gun is key. "We get more training on driving than we do to become a gun owner." Her recommendation follows Japan's policy of extensive training before gun ownership.
However, LaRue and Gabrielson share the sentiment that there is no policy solution. LaRue said, "If there was an easy specific answer then we would have found it already. We have a cultural problem and need to shift the focus to finding better solutions to stop evil people, not just shifting the tool of violence from rifles to other means of mass murder such as the Oklahoma City bombing which occurred during the last assault weapons ban. We all want to save lives, but we need to address it pragmatically, not emotionally."
Biden's executive actions to reduce firearm violence in America, no matter his intentions or his beliefs, are unlikely to address the root reform needed: a shifted American paradigm that puts 'we' before 'me'. Maybe a cultural gestalt rather than serial numbers or bans or background checks is the only chance we have. Until then, Americans like Suzanne Muehlieson will continue to bear the trauma of Sandy Hook and the dozens of school shootings that followed. "I will never ever forget watching those babies evacuating the school. I was forever changed. That's why I struggle when I hear 'They're coming for your guns!' Seriously....we live in a very selfish society."
"This notion that we are the chosen people, that all rights are God-given…it could be that Manifest Destiny is America's original sin," said Gabrielson. What's the solution for that?