The massively-covered Atlanta and Boulder mass murders took place less than a week apart. Less well known is that the Colorado attack was the seventh mass shooting1 in the U.S. in just 7 days. (The FBI defines mass murder as 4 or more people being killed in the same event.2) Nowhere else on earth are mass murders, not related to war, occurring at the rate they are in the U.S. What is so different about our country compared to other wealthy countries that have vanishingly low rates of gun violence, such as Japan?3
As usual, the response by some politicians is to declare that guns are not the problem. It’s always something else. This time, as in the past, they say mental illness caused it. No way could it have been the easy, largely unfettered access to high-powered firearms that can kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently.
But they are WRONG. There is, in fact, a strong relationship, supported by a ton of high-quality, peer-reviewed research studies that show a strong association between gun deaths and easy access to guns.4
The same old story all over again
I first wrote this common-sense gun control story5 after the Parkland High School mass murders on February 14, 2018. It was published in The Hill and got the usual barrage of angry comments from lovers of the Second Amendment.
I republished it 18 months later after the El Paso AND Dayton massacres in August 2019. And, here I am again, dredging up this old story that is still relevant today because we have done NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to stop these horrific and predictably repetitive mass murders.
When it comes to gun control, we’ve been asking the wrong question
As the title of my original story indicates, I believe when it comes to our approach to common-sense gun laws, we have been asking the wrong question about who should have guns.
Asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question, we should be asking who has demonstrated, via a standardized protocol, that they have earned the right to have one.
We are already using standardized protocols when we implement mandatory background checks to determine who should not have guns, but the screening, often poorly implemented, is based on categories of people (mentally ill, felons, domestic abusers) we think shouldn’t have guns.
Related story: The Founders and the Sanctity of Gun Ownership
What I am proposing is we develop stringent and transparent tests of fitness to own a gun and then we apply those tests equally to everyone – first to get a gun and then repeated over time in order to keep the gun. This is not pie in the sky. Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the world has been doing this for years. They have proven that it works there. It can work here too.
Here is my op-ed from The Hill:
“Every time the gun control debate is reignited after another mass shooting, the conversation quickly focuses on who should be restricted from purchasing guns, almost always with the suggestion that the solution to our mass shooter problem hinges on preventing people with mental illness from acquiring access to guns. But asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question. Its answer will not make a single dent in our dismal standing as the country with the highest number of gunshot deaths in the developed world.6 [Ed. Note: Old link exchanged for newer one]
It can’t because we have demonstrated over and over that it is impossible to enforce such restrictions dependably.
Unstable people, including mass shooters, such as Nikolas Cruz and others7, have obtained their firearms legally because, at the time they bought them, they did not meet the criteria to be denied gun ownership8 based on their mental health status.
Dr. Amy Barnhorst, the vice chairwoman of community psychiatry at the University of California Davis, explains the challenges:9
The mental health system doesn’t identify most of these people because they don’t come in to get care. And even if they do, laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will.
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She points out that posting threatening statements on social media or scaring your classmates is usually not enough to hospitalize someone against their will.
Nor, do we (or should we) require that this type of information be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Reframing the approach to gun ownership
I believe it’s time to reframe the approach to gun ownership from opt-out (everyone who wants a gun can get one unless we can prove they should not have one) to opt-in (everyone who wants a gun must demonstrate, on an ongoing basis, that they are capable and willing to responsibly manage gun ownership).
For those of you who would argue that this is a violation of our Second Amendment right, I ask how is this different from what we do now?
We have already determined that it is legal to restrict certain categories of people10 from owning a gun (e.g., felons, domestic abusers) in the interest of public safety.
Why not go one step further and proactively determine who should be able to have a gun just like we decide who should be able to drive a car, practice medicine, or cut our hair?
Getting a gun in Japan
There is a successful model for this approach. Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of firearm-related deaths in the developed world11, has implemented a comprehensive system for evaluating prospective gun owners with an eye to public safety. This is what you have to do to get a gun in Japan:12
- Attend an all-day class organized by the police and then pass a written test
- Apply for training at a licensed shooting range a process that requires a certificate of residency, a photo ID, and a list of past jobs and addresses
- Pass mental health and drug tests administered in a hospital test and present the certificate to the police.
- Pass an in-person interview with a police officer who may ask questions such as “Why do you want a gun?” “What do you do for a living?” “Do any of your relatives have mental health issues?”
- Pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record, association with criminal or extremist groups, evidence of instability or domestic strife.
- Attend a training session at a licensed shooting range that includes both a gun safety class and test as well as shooting instruction and a competency exam
- Obtain the approval of the police who make an unannounced visit to your home and workplace to ask employees and neighbors about your behavior, including such questions as “Do you ever hear screaming voices from their apartment?”
Once approved for a temporary license to have a gun, the applicant can visit a gun shop to select a gun. But you can only buy shotguns and air rifles, not handguns. And you cannot take the gun you selected home until the official license is issued.
The gun owner must then provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun and ammunition in their home, each of which must be locked and stored separately. You have to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.
Too much, you say? Why should gun owners have to subject themselves to this type of scrutiny? If you take the time to read about the issue, the answer is clear.
It’s because it keeps guns out of the hands of bad guys — even gangsters in Japan don’t have guns13 — as well as irresponsible, the mentally ill, unstable teens, domestic abusers, and a whole host of other people who most of us would agree should never have a gun.
Why should we do it? Because it works and what we are currently doing does not.”
- Josh Berlinger. The Colorado attack is the 7th mass shooting in 7 days in the US. CNN, Updated Mar 23, 2021 https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/23/us/7-mass-shootings-7-days-trnd/index.html
- Mass Murder, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_murder#
- Gun Deaths by Country 2021, World Population Review. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-deaths-by-country
- Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
- Patricia Salber M.D. Asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question. The Hill. Feb 2018 https://thehill.com/opinion/civil-rights/375217-asking-who-should-be-restricted-from-gun-ownership-is-not-the-right
- Gun Deaths by Country 2021. World Population Review. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-deaths-by-country
- How They Got Their Guns. New York Times (subscription required). https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/03/us/how-mass-shooters-got-their-guns.html
- What You Need to Know about Background Checks for Guns. CriminalWatchDog, Inc. https://www.criminalwatchdog.com/faq/background-checks-for-guns
- Dr. Amy Barnhorst. Mental Health Systems Can’t Stop Mass Shooters, NYT. Feb 2018 (subscription required)
Firearm Prohibitions. Gifford Law Center. https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/who-can-have-a-gun/firearm-prohibitions/
Robert Preidt. How U.S. gun deaths compare to other countries. CBS News, Feb 2016 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-u-s-gun-deaths-compare-to-other-countries/
- Karl Denzer. Behold the four-month process of buying a gun in Japan. Washington Post. Oct 2017 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/behold-the-four-month-process-of-buying-a-gun-in-japan/2017/10/05/72283fea-2375-11e7-b503-9d616bd5a305_story.html?utm_term=.ef8d45c5364b
- Jake Adelstein. Even gangsters live in fear of Japan’s gun laws. thejapantimes, Jan 2013 https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/01/06/national/media-national/even-gangsters-live-in-fear-of-japans-gun-laws/#.Wo3STpM-d-V
This story was initially published in November 2018. Sadly it has been updated to reflect the most recent mass murders – Atlanta and Boulder.