I grew up around guns in rural South Dakota. I am a gun owner, an occasional hunter, and a 2nd Amendment supporter. Three of our sons served in the military and are gun enthusiasts. If anyone tried to take away a gun of mine they would have to fight me for it. As a judge I saw the effects of society’s propensity toward violence, sometimes but not always involving guns. The moment calls for honest discussion about how to prevent more senseless killings, and that discussion should take place with as little rancor and partisanship as possible.
First some facts: more people have died from gun violence since 1970 than in all American wars combined. We have far more guns and gun deaths than any other nation in the world: nearly six times the per capita rate of Canada, and nearly 16 times that of Germany.
Almost 2 in 3 of the 33,500 annual gun deaths are by suicide. Of the roughly 11,000 homicides, about half the victims are young males, and some 1,700 women are killed as the result of domestic violence. The horrendous mass shootings we have experienced have totaled about 320 deaths annually over the past 5 years – around 2% of all homicides; as an aside, about six Americans die annually at the hands of Islamic terrorists. Handguns are by far the most common weapon used in killings.
While about 90% of those who take their own lives suffer from a mental disorder, it is a much less common factor in homicides. As a judge, it became clear to me that the vast percentage of our overall crime problem, including violent crime, involved people who struggle with untreated addiction, often after experiencing a dysfunctional childhood.
Just as the types and causes of gun deaths vary, so the solutions will also be different. One thing is clear: we must learn to take better care of each other and seek to adopt policies that work for the wellbeing of ordinary Americans.
Our own congressional delegation seems to agree, pointing to the role of mental illness; yet instead of promoting better mental healthcare, the majority in Congress has employed its efforts to reduce mental health funding, and to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which, importantly, provides coverage for mental health and addiction treatment in every policy.
So, what measures are most calculated to reduce gun violence? Sadly, we have far less data on this than we should because Congress has effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] from funding research on gun violence.
I advocate these first steps:
1. A law mandating uniform background checks on all gun sales, with free service at sheriffs’ offices for private transfers and estate transfer exemptions; and improved sharing of information among reporting sources;
2. Prohibiting any device, such as bump stocks, that converts a semi-automatic into an automatic weapon;
3. Prohibiting individuals on the government’s terrorist watch list from buying firearms, but no person should be on the list in the first place unless the government first proves it is warranted at a due-process hearing;
4. Encouraging states to adopt red flag laws that allow a court to temporarily remove guns from a person who poses a danger to himself or others, with mandatory database reporting and removal upon clearance by a medical specialist;
5. Promoting interventions like the Sandy Hook Promise that identify and reach out to at-risk individuals, including restorative justice and anti-bullying programs;
6. Committing our nation to a War on Mental Illness and to ensuring every American has affordable health coverage to treat it; and
7. Importantly, removing the ban on the CDC studying firearm violence;
I will become a target of the NRA and its enormous political action committee. That’s okay. The NRA, like many other special interests, tends to bully politicians, which helps explain the absence of sound reform. This is one reason I refuse to take any PAC money.
I suspect that most South Dakotans are just as sickened as I am by the endless slaughter of Americans, and also tired of special interests controlling our Congress.
Two questions lie before us: do we have the courage as a nation to defeat the powerful special interests that have thwarted reform on this and so many other issues; and what kind of America will we leave behind for our children and grandchildren?