Every time a disturbed or hate-filled individual embarks on a murderous shooting spree, as at the Covenant School in Nashville last month, politicians rush to the media to urgently announce “we’ve got to do something” to stop “gun violence.”
When pressed, they either propose that the government somehow “keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them”, or ban the private possession of some or all types of guns altogether.
Over the years I have written half a dozen columns assessing the merits of such proposed remedies. At the risk of repeating myself, here are the most important insights.
First, Americans have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The U.S. Supreme Court has strongly affirmed that individual right in the Heller (2008), McDonald (2010), and Bruen (2022) cases. The McDonald Court noted that that right is not “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” but together the three rulings erect a high hurdle for the gun control advocates.
Vermonters have an even more explicit constitutional right “to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state” (Ch I, Art 16), clearly and unanimously affirmed by our Supreme Court in 1903.
So who can the government disallow from acquiring and possessing firearms? Certainly minors, illegal immigrants, felons, fugitives, and persons involuntarily committed to psychiatric treatment.
How about millions of angry or resentful people who were ever treated for depression or low self-esteem, or issued threats to their significant other, or screamed at their kid’s soccer coach, or were mugged by a person of another race, or profess a religious faith whose Holy Book instructs the faithful to “slay the idolators”, or believe themselves thwarted by high taxes and overreaching regulations, or associate with an unsavory peer group, or spend hours a day playing violent video games, or who defiantly announce on social media that “very soon everyone will know my name”? These people are eligible to purchase and possess firearms, and it’s hard to find an incontestable way to screen them out.
Banning sales of certain classes of firearms because they can be used in mass shootings – the so-called “assault weapons” ban – was tried for ten years with approximately zero positive results. Individuals in this country own around four hundred million firearms, and every criminal and potential shooter knows that one can buy, swap, or steal every kind of weapon (except actual full-auto machine guns) regardless of regulations or prohibitions. Attempting to buy a firearm when you’re not eligible is itself a felony, but it is rarely prosecuted unless connected with a subsequent crime.
The most promising – albeit not perfect – legal way to deal with possible shooters before they start shooting is a “red flag “law. These laws invite concerned persons to alert mental health and law enforcement when there is reason to believe that an individual is preparing to commit a violent crime. In 2018 the Vermont legislature unanimously enacted a red flag law authorizing a court to issue an extreme risk protection order.
Commendably, Act 97 includes due process protections, including penalties for false and malicious reporting. So far Vermont has been spared a Columbine, Newtown, Parkland, or Covenant School shooting. Most of our happily few shootings seem to occur among criminals engaged in illicit drug trafficking.
The most vexing factor in the epidemic of “violence involving deadly weapons” is also the most difficult to deal with. That is a culture of violent assaults succinctly described last year by columnist Mark Alexander of Patriot Post: “the Highland Park (Illinois parade) assailant was a poster child for dysfunctional families and the lost tribal legions of faithless, empty-souled sociopaths roaming our streets. They are sponges bloated with toxic culture poisoning, who embrace a cult of violence.”
How does our society diminish such a culture of violence? As I wrote after the Florida Parkland school shooting, “Passing more laws aimed at further restricting firearms ownership offers little prospect of preventing more gun violence and it threatens the constitutionally protected right of self-defense by law-abiding citizens. Schools need to make it difficult for an armed assault to succeed, stamp out bullying, and by well-conceived interventions provide the support that potentially dangerous youths badly need.”
“And finally, the institutions of civil society need to multiply their efforts to help disturbed, alienated, hopeless young people overcome their demons, while their lives can still be turned around.”
That’s easy to say, difficult to achieve. At the time I cited three examples of inspired civil society responses from a Heritage Foundation report (“Focusing on School Safety After Parkland”, Backgrounder #3295): The Return to Civility Fund, Elevate Phoenix, and Sandy Hook Promise. We need many more.