Why the U.S. Is Not Like the Rest of the World on Gun Control

We must direct our resources and political energies on aggressive and effective new public mental health initiatives.

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Daniel Gallington is the Senior Policy and Program Adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

America is not the only place in the world with violence perpetrated by people with serious mental illness. It happens everywhere—and comparing incidents serves primarily to highlight the reality and ever increasing severity of those with untreated mental illness in modern society. And, they do their twisted violence with guns, knives, bombs, arson, and vehicles driven into crowds of innocent people. However, what Americans can or will actually do about gun violence from the mentally ill is a far more complex issue than it is for the rest of the world—this for a number of reasons not understood by most foreigners and some Americans.

Until now

To begin with, if you're an American, how you think about guns is usually related to three basic factors: what part of our country you grew up in; what you learned from your parents, relatives and friends; and whether you served in the military. Whether you or your family may have also been a victim of violence can have "pro" or "con" effect on your view on guns, and it's easy to understand either reaction.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Perhaps ironically, our two largest political parties haven't had much to do with it, especially over the past few years; however, this is not without some major internal intricacies and oddities. For example: Far more Republicans are "pro gun" than Democrats, but many Democrats from the South and West are also "pro gun." And, far more Democrats from the East and West coasts (and the big cities) are "anti gun," as are some notable "big city" Republicans.

And, Democrats remember—painfully—1994, when, during the Clinton administration, the "assault weapons ban" was passed by Congress. The national political reaction was dramatic—a 54-seat "swing" to the Republicans in Congress—this after Democrats had enjoyed the majority in the House for 40 years!

This "political lesson" also explains: 1) why substantive gun-related legislation has not been passed since, 2) why the liberal Obama administration totally avoided "gun issues" during its first term, and 3) why Democrats didn't raise gun control issues during the 2012 campaign.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

While they will probably not admit it, Democrats simply knew better. And, had the Connecticut shooting not happened, it's exactly where we would be on the gun issue today. This in spite of the 2011 shooting of a Democratic congresswoman—and the killing and wounding of several others—by a lunatic with a "high-capacity" handgun, as the congresswoman spoke in public and in her home district!

In fact, the legislative and judicial mood of the country was clearly headed in the opposite direction—propelled by a steadily enlarging popular consensus—with "right to carry" and "castle doctrine" legislation passing in many more states. And, the Supreme Court ruled against the Washington, D.C. gun ban, while other federal courts ruled against the Illinois gun ban. "Gun bans," by the way, simply don't work to control urban gang violence, such as we have in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. Violent criminals, especially drug-centered ones, will always have guns, while the law-abiding citizenry comply with bans. Finally, so-called "mass shootings in America"—perpetrated mostly by the mentally ill—actually increased slightly during the 10 year assault weapons ban, destroying the basic "cause and effect" assumption of the sponsors of the ban. The lesson here? Simple: Taking guns away from honest people doesn't keep them away from criminals or crazy people—that's a whole different problem.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should the Assault Weapons Ban Be Reinstated?]

A whole new ball game?

Enter the Connecticut tragedy: As a result, do we actually have what gun control advocates are calling "a whole new ball game"? Despite the totally understandable public outrage and anguish of the event, most of us know otherwise. This pragmatic consensus is based on the following reasons, which go much deeper into the fabric of American life and society than are realized or understood by most foreign critics.

  • First, our Constitution assures us of the "right to bear arms"—even more emphatic, it also says that the right "shall not be infringed." Perhaps even more important, especially in this context, our Constitution establishes many of our basic "rights" in the form of prohibitions—on our government—i.e., things our government just can't do. As a result, Americans will continue to own guns, with few limitations, just as we continue to enjoy free speech. In fact, nothing short of a constitutional amendment can change this so long as we exist as a nation. The rest of the gun debate is mostly about definitions, not basic concepts—and we all know this.
  • Our attitudes toward guns are grounded by the basic constitutional right to have them (and the government not being able to take them away) so no one rationally believes that there could ever be a "gun ban" here, such as there has been in England or Australia, where there are no similar constitutions, or in European civil law countries, with even less fundamental guarantees of basic rights.
  • We had to fight for our independence and freedoms, and to this day have an extremely limited central government, especially when compared to other world democracies. The federally protected right to bear arms is also part of our sovereign state constitutional system, which takes practical precedence over federal laws in most of our everyday lives, i.e., many, if not most firearms specific laws and regulations are state.
  • Our federal political system was designed—intentionally—to be inefficient and to prevent pockets of despotic power developing, especially in the executive department. We call this a "system of checks and balances" and we like it that way. In fact, substantive legislative reaction to the Connecticut shootings might simply be impossible because of our inefficient federal political system itself. And, it was intended to "work" that way, i.e., by not working—and it could easily "not work" as a legislative reaction to this latest violence. And, as with the fiscal cliff debt crisis, everybody will blame everybody else if nothing happens, but it could easily turn out that way.
  • The NRA and other organizations that are focused on preventing federal and state legislative action that infringes on our "right to bear arms" are very effective. These organizations, just like the hundreds of other "political action organizations" we have (for free speech, antidiscrimination, privacy, etc.) aggressively pursue their charters, and will continue to do so until the debate becomes far more responsible and far less emotional.
  • Finally, the inescapable facts are that the Connecticut shootings—and most of those like it—are not primarily a failure of guns in society, but an even more serious and fundamental failure. That failure? Our "mental health system" of which there simply isn't.  And, there hasn't been a "system" since we "decided" to put hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people back on our streets, hoping that they would somehow "take their meds"—assuming they even have them—which most didn't, don't and won't. This is the "real problem" and most everyone who can be objective about these tragic events realizes it. In fact, and as is too often the case, many who actually knew these shooters were not surprised by the evil they did—only that the shooters were not under some form of strict supervision. Why can't, won't, or don't we deal with our mentally ill? That's a whole separate set of issues—legal, medical, and resource centric. Is it simply easier—and cheaper—when reacting to gun violence done by the mentally ill, to blame guns than it is to keep mentally ill people off our streets? Many think this is the real motivation behind "gun bans".
  • [Read the U.S. News Debate: Did the Sandy Hook Shooting Prove the Need for More Gun Control?]

    Where to now?

    So, this is where we "really are"—and always have been—on gun control in America:  It's not "a whole new ball game" and won't be unless we change our Constitution. And, while we might be able to "beat around the margins" of the issue with some new gun regulations and procedures, hopefully we will—instead—concentrate our real focus, frustrations, resources, and political energies on aggressive and effective new public (mental) health initiatives. Meanwhile, Americans will continue to enjoy their constitutional right to bear arms, just as our forefathers knew we should—as a basic guarantee of our safety and security—and one constitutionally defined as a protection from oppressive government. This is a fundamental part of who we are and where we came from. And, unlike the political evolution of many others in the world, our approach has worked pretty well—it continues to work because of the basic assurances for each of us that were originally intended.

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