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We can honor the Second Amendment, improve our system of firearm regulations, and enhance the safety of our children in the process.
Twice a week, my wife participates in a swim program. On February 15, she came home crying. That morning, as she swam laps, she couldn’t shake the sadness that had overcome her after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. She was deeply affected by the loss of life. She also contemplated how she could talk to our almost 3-year-old daughter about what to do if the unthinkable were to happen at her preschool. She felt compelled to get involved.
Parkland has clearly motivated millions of people to take up the cause of firearm safety. This reaction is stronger than past responses to school shootings. In the long arc of history, however, Parkland is not new.The tragedies mount up, remembered by Americans in a litany of place-names: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Sutherland Springs’ First Baptist Church, Mother Emanuel, Pulse nightclub and the Las Vegas Strip. I think it’s becoming apparent to millions of Americans, including many gun owners, that we need to do something different.
To be clear, I don’t want to take away anyone’s legally purchased firearm. I am a gun owner, and I certainly don’t want to impede those rights. But I also believe that we can proudly bear our arms and have responsible firearm laws. The safety of our children and citizens doesn’t have to be at odds with gun ownership. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Progress is difficult, because the issue is framed as a contest between the NRA and their Republican allies versus Democrats and gun control advocates. Doing so masks the real common ground that exists. It also places the issue in the middle of our zero-sum partisan politics, where progress is viewed through the lens of winners and losers.
Having traveled the state of Kansas in 2014 and again this past year, I’ve met with people on all sides of this issue. I believe there is significant common ground among gun owners and non-gun owners alike.
Here are a few things I’ve learned.
For one thing, the political arm of the NRA doesn’t adequately represent the views of a majority of their members. The vast majority of NRA members and gun owners are responsible, patriotic people who obey the law and respect their neighbors and their communities. They also support reasonable gun safety measures. Many have handled firearms their whole life, taught gun safety classes, and spent time at the gun range and in the fields and forests hunting. They, better than most Americans, understand the need for reasonable gun safety measures. They haven’t bought into the argument that banning bump stocks or requiring training before someone gets a concealed-carry license is a slippery slope on the path to obliterating the Second Amendment. Rather, they understand the importance of gun safety to maintaining their Second Amendment rights.
I believe most gun owners would join me in calling for the following reforms:
First, we need to strengthen our background check system. As the NRA has suggested, plugging the holes in our mental health and law enforcement reporting systems would be a good start. That would be in vain, however, if the same person could simply buy a weapon in a private transaction without a background check.
Second, we should revisit the question of what arms Americans are entitled to bear. I’d repeat the assertions of Brian Mast, the Republican congressman and veteran from Florida: “The Second Amendment is unimpeachable. I accept, however, that it does not guarantee that every civilian can bear any and all arms.” A starting point would be to raise the age for purchases of military-style semi-automatic rifles to 21 and require additional screening for such purchases.
Third, we should stop the sale of bump stocks, high-capacity magazines, and any other accessory that allows legal firearms to be easily converted into weapons of mass murder.
Fourth, we should require appropriate training and licensing for anyone who wants a concealed-carry permit. Most gun owners that I’ve spoken to about this issue agree wholeheartedly. They respect guns and realize how important it is to have training to be able to safely carry a concealed weapon.
I realize the NRA’s political arm will reject these suggestions as being ineffective, easily circumvented by criminals, or otherwise a constitutional infringement. They’ll point to any argument they can to confuse the issue. Engineering blurriness is part of their strategy.
When that fails, they use fear. The standard NRA election campaign playbook consists of frightening their members into believing that the target of their attacks – and I was one of them – wants to confiscate their guns. It doesn’t matter if this attack is true or not. Usually, as in my case, it isn’t. But understand, the reason they have to go to such lengths is that most of their members actually support reasonable gun safety measures. Telling their members the truth about their political opponents is generally not a winning strategy.
The second observation I’d make is that Democrats are complicit in the lack of progress on this issue. If you don’t believe me, consider the 111th Congress. In 2009, when Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th U.S. president, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress by large margins. They had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, a 76-vote advantage in the House, and a Democrat in the White House. They could have advanced any of the proposals identified above and passed them into law without Republican support. They lacked the courage to even raise the issue.
As someone who was on the receiving end of a $1.5 million smear campaign from the NRA’s political action committee, I understand it takes fortitude to talk about issues like guns. But that’s the essence of public service. Without talking about these issues, we’ll never uncover the common ground that exists, which I believe is the path to progress.
Millions of Americans, like my wife, may have changed the political calculus. They may have made it politically dangerous to oppose reasonable gun safety measures. If we have a real dialogue about this as a nation of citizens, not special interests, I believe we’ll honor the Second Amendment, improve our system of firearm regulations, and enhance the safety of our children in the process.