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Gun safety legislation: It’s now or never

On Sunday night, Oct. 1, 2017, American citizens faced once again another horrific mass shooting, this time at a musical event in Las Vegas, and the worst in U.S. history.

While the great majority of American citizens reacted in shock and pleaded for new thinking and action to control gun violence, reactionary forces in Congress and in the White House proclaimed it “too early” and “too political” to start discussing gun control policy at this time of tragedy. 

These reactionaries try to draw attention to the obvious need for better mental health services, not normally on their to-do list, but their intention is to divert public attention and defer legislative action on gun control indefinitely. As Las Vegas shows, it is often difficult to “profile” mass shooters before they act, and distinguish between the “good guy with a gun” and the “bad guy with a gun,” in time to prevent the atrocity. 

Our U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut took the floor of the U.S. Senate on Monday, Oct. 2, to make an eloquent appeal, asking “If we don’t consider gun policy now, after this horrific event, when will we ever do so?” 

He recalled that ever since the shooting of schoolchildren and teachers at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012, the same reactionary forces in Congress, in lock-step with the current reincarnation of the National Rifle Association (NRA), had blocked each and every sensible legislative initiative to enhance gun safety. Senators Chris Murphy and Dick Blumenthal are making renewed pleas in Congress for sensible gun legislation.

 

For the record, I am a gun owner and enjoy target practice. I am not anti-gun, just pro-gun safety. In fact, I was “volunteered” by the U.S. Army to participate in the nationwide U.S. national rifle competition in 1958, and using an old bolt action .30-06 rifle, placed 21st in a field of several thousand competitors. Later, taking advantage of a curious provision in Swiss law, I entered the Suisse Romande two-man rifle team competition in Switzerland in 1972, using a state-provided weapon of choice, and placed second. 

So, I can sympathize with gun ownership and responsible use, but not with the current NRA’s resistance to sensible, practical safety measures. In fact, responsible handling of rifles was one of the principal purposes of the original NRA Charter. The NRA should be part of the solution, not the problem.

In addition to background checks and basic competency tests, I would favor registration of ownership of guns (by serial number) as we “freely” require for ownership and operation of vehicles and aircraft today. This would include recording of transfer of ownership as we do with automobiles and airplanes, so that we have a record of who has what and for what purpose. 

Furthermore, we should follow the lead of other countries, such as South Africa, and require competency tests, child locks on child-accessible weapons and the use of locked gun cabinets. 

No one’s constitutional rights are violated by reasonable restraint on the use of potentially deadly equipment such as automobiles, aircraft, rockets, drones or guns. If a person is on record for dangerous mental illness, or is on a “no-fly” list, it is reasonable to set limits on that person’s occupation or license, such as driving a car for Uber, obtaining a pilot’s license, or the open or concealed carrying of a deadly weapon. We do this for the common-sense purpose of public health and safety.

 Equally, we should adopt limitations on “automatic” and other “rapid-fire” weapons, as well as magazine capacity, and require recording of ammunition purchases for such weapons. 

Someone who buys an AR-15 or M-16 rifle plus a few thousand rounds of ammunition may need some extra security attention. That could have averted the Las Vegas shooting. No one needs a thousand rounds to shoot a deer. No one needs to “bear” a shoulder-held Stinger missile, to do what? 

 

I would oppose the current proposals in Congress to weaken gun safety laws, and to add a “constitutional right” to the use of silencers on guns. If silencers had been used in Las Vegas, the death rate would have tripled, because it would have been difficult to identify the direction and source of the shooting.

At the same time, I would propose special licensing for serious, vetted “collectors” and historians, especially of antiquated weapons such as, say, the iconic Hotchkiss machine gun, much as we do for “antique” or “classic” automobiles and aircraft, which are exempted from certain modern regulations. 

Whatever individual states do, we really should have reasonable national federal minimum standards, to avoid “shopping” between states in quest of the least safety and least regulation, at greatest risk to American citizens. If the right to bear arms is a nationwide constitutional right, then so should be the safe, legislated implementation of that right. It’s now or never.

Senators Murphy, Blumenthal, Warren and others are working on the specifics of such legislation right now — not later — and we should give them every possible support. 

 

Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.