DEC. 12, 2015 New York Times
After months of grief and depression, parents who lost children in the 2012 schoolhouse gun slaughter in Newtown, Conn., turned to the courts last year for a modicum of justice and only then discovered the full power of gun manufacturers: The industry marketing the weapons that killed 20 children and six adults at the school enjoys an extraordinary immunity from civil damage suits — a customized shield from Congress that the makers of autos, drugs and other American industries are not given.
The law, enacted in 2005, has been notoriously successful at protecting gun makers and dealers and keeping victimized families from being heard in court on wrongful-death and damages claims. If there are ever to be effective answers to the gun deaths now plaguing the nation, repeal of this egregious law — a denial of basic American fairness — should be near the top of the agenda if only to force the gun industry to worry about billions in damages for its abuse of public safety.
Whether that happens, of course, depends on whether Congress is ever going to break from the gun lobby. Could there be anything less controversial than denying gun purchases to people on the terrorist watch list? Yet Republicans prefer to express concern about “due process” for gun purchasers even as they propose blanket bans on Islamic refugees.
There is a raft of needed measures that could and should be enacted as national shock flows then ebbs with each new headline about a massacre. Some of the most common sense protections involve less-noticed gun deaths in the home and illegal gun dealers arming the underworld, but all deserve the attention of voters, who have the power to throw out lawmakers hiding in the pocket of the gun lobby.
The Brady Law Most needed is an expansion of this law so that dealers and others now buying firearms on the Internet and at gun shows are subjected to background checks. The law has barred 2.5 million risky applicants in the last 20 years from buying guns, but it does not apply to 40 percent of total gun sales. Despite the national anguish over the Newtown shooting, Congress failed to close this huge loophole. Lawmakers, particularly wavering Democrats, must be relentless in pushing for universal background checks, which are favored by 85 percent of the public, including 79 percent of Republicans.
Battlefield Guns and Ammunition A responsible Congress would restore the assault weapons ban and enact limits on gross ammunition clips that let shooters spray crowds of victims with up to 100-round bursts. High capacity magazines developed for warfare have been used in at least 45 mass shootings since 1984, killing 403 people and wounding 406, according to the Violence Policy Center, a public safety research group. There are periodic proposals to control or tax ammunition. But the gun lobby showed its clout this year when federal officials backed down from a plan to block the sale of an armor-piercing handgun bullet rated a clear danger to the police. “You spoke, we listened,” officials tweeted after gun zealots complained that their rights were abridged.
Mental Illness Services undoubtedly need to be improved for Americans with mental illnesses as a public health issue, but recalcitrant Republicans are invoking this to duck gun safety measures. They should be the first to embrace a practical law pioneered last year in California that allows concerned family members to alert a judge to issue a gun restraining order on a potentially violent individual.
Insurance and Smart Guns Anyone who opposes limits on gun ownership is obliged to come up with practical steps to keep the public safe. Why not require a gun owner to have liability insurance, as is required for owning a car? Where is the industry, so clever in marketing war weapons, when it comes to advancing safer “smart gun” technology?
Home Safety The home is an even riskier place than the venues attacked by mass shooters. Gun safety studies have found that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a family homicide, suicide or accident than to be used in self-defense. More than 1.5 million children under the age of 18 live in homes with loaded, unsecured guns, leaving them 16 times more likely to be killed than in safer homes, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a research group. It is hard to imagine how any politician who kisses babies on the campaign trail can fail to demand mandates and penalties to keep guns unloaded and locked up at home.
State Laws Gun safety laws work in states where they are applied, even if other states are lax. Those with weak gun laws and high rates of gun ownership suffer the highest gun death rates, according to research. Alaska, where 60 percent of households have guns, had 19.5 gun deaths per 100,000 in 2013. The rate was 2.7 in Hawaii where 9.7 percent of households have arms.
The lethal “iron pipeline” of traffic in guns from states with weak laws to those with stronger laws should be stopped by federal law. Researchers found that 90 percent of guns used in crimes were supplied by just 5 percent of gun shops specializing in such underworld traffic — a lethal flaw crying out for not just government but industry controls. Appallingly, statehouses have been advancing the concealed carrying of pistols as the industry’s latest craze — selling citizens on the fantasy of self-defense in public places. Research shows these licensed shooters have been killing themselves or others rather than taking down perpetrators, with at least 29 mass shootings since 2007 found to involve concealed-carry licensees.
Basic Research This is crucial for fathoming the 33,000-plus annual gun deaths (and more than twice that number wounded), far greater than in any other major nation. But Congress has caved in to the gun lobby and hobbled federal research on this major public health challenge. Gun deaths have already overtaken car crashes for mortalities in more than a dozen states. Yet it wasn’t until last year that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, prompted by the White House, issued the first clear evidence of what the public already sensed — gun sprees by shooters with military-style assault weapons were on the rise. Far more research is needed. Congress’s budget hawks should be delving into the causes of gun violence, which exacts an estimated economic cost of more than $225 billion year.
These proposals are some of the steps citizens should be discussing to reduce the intolerable bloodshed from guns. Public despair that nothing can be done is not an option. The parents of Newtown are providing a model of determination — attempting a difficult lawsuit that is barely underway in state court because Congress shielded the gun industry. Its success is far from certain, but the parents are persisting.
A version of this editorial appears in print on December 13, 2015, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: Despair About Guns Is Not an Option.