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Some ideas for addressing the mass shooting epidemic

The latest mass shooting in San Bernardino, California [1], coming so closely on the heels of last week’s attack at a Planned Parenthood facility [2] in Colorado, has renewed calls for something – anything – to be done in order to try to stem the constant flow of these mass shootings.  Despite not having concrete evidence as to what motivated the shooter in Colorado, and while the investigation of yesterday’s attack is on-going, the demand for more than “thoughts and prayers” has risen to a fevered pitch.  I will say that I’m disappointed in those who are angry or dismissive [3] of those who offer thoughts and prayers – that anger isn’t helpful, and those offering thoughts and prayers are doing so out of compassion and grief, just like the anger that is pouring from those who want more.

It is incumbent upon those of us in the gun rights community, not the gun grabbing advocates, to come up with the ideas to help solve this problem, however.  Our passion for defending our second amendment rights has lead to a great expansion in the rights of Americans to keep and bear arms as protected by the Second Amendment, which we should be proud of.  At the same time, to paraphrase Stan Lee, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility.  No law-abiding gun owner wants their rights infringed upon because a criminal used a gun to shoot up a school, a theater, a clinic or anywhere else.  But that’s the first, and only, response from those on the left to these crimes.  Clearly, the solutions to these problems aren’t going to come from the left.  They have to come from us.

In the interests of full disclosure, when I ran for House of Delegates in 2011, I received the AQ rating from the NRA.  I also received the Virginia Citizens Defense League endorsement.  I’ve been a gun rights advocate my entire life – it was the earliest political issue I became passionate about.  I’m also a gun owner, owning both long guns and handguns, and I took my wife on our second date to the gun range.  For those concerned about my conservative credentials, this is one issue where I am to the right of Attilla the Hun.  At the same time, I recognize that the status quo – where every day and every week we see more tragedies like Sandy Hook, Aurora, and these latest – is untenable.  We need to take some positive steps to address these issues.

TO BE CLEAR: What I have outlined here are just ideas. They’re conversations starters. None of these are concrete policy proposals, nor will they fix everything – they may not fix anything, nor do I think any kind of government or private action can fix everything. This is just for people to talk about and discuss – I don’t necessarily agree with all of these proposals, either. You can agree, you can disagree, you can put forward your own ideas. But we need ideas.

We’ve heard a lot of complaining but few ideas to move the ball forward.  It’s time to present some solutions that could help address the actual problems. I’ll be honest, though.  Even the solutions I’ve outlined below feel inadequate.  I don’t know if any solution is ever going to feel adequate in the wake of another one of these tragedies, but we can’t afford to let despair cloud reason.  My goal here is to present solutions that actually address the various problems leading to mass shootings, and are politically feasible.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.  As the Washington Post notes here [4], there are some facts that we all need to be aware of before we start looking for potential solutions.  Namely, mass shootings are not rare, they’ve been increasing since 2007, most of the weapons used in these shootings are obtained legally, overall crime rates, including gun related homicides [5], have been dropping in the United States, violent crime is at near record lows, and gun ownership is also on the decline.  Slightly less the one-third of households have a gun, although I question the validity of that statistic, given that it’s self reported.  For many good reasons, people who own guns aren’t usually that willing to say so to a random person conducting a poll on the phone.

Given the links between mental health issues and some of these mass shootings – particularly Sandy Hook and Aurora – whatever solutions proposed should include a mental health component.  We also must acknowledge the links of domestic and international terror to some of these shootings, as we saw in Ft. Hood and the Boston Marathon bombing (where a gun was used to kill an MIT policeman).  At the same time, any solutions we proposed should not be designed to deter law abiding citizens from buying guns, nor make it harder for law abiding citizens to purchase guns and ammunition.

These are some solutions that can help us address the various issues that come into play when talking about mass shootings

1.  A national firearms transfer fee to fund mental health beds and an enhanced NICS background check system –  Funding for mental health, especially in poorer communities, has been a concern.  A quick search on the internet will find multiple states, like Maryland [6] and Colorado [7], have had issues with funding for mental health, and while some states have increased their spending [8] on mental health issues, others have cut their funding.  At the same time, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has been subject to the same issues the rest of the federal government has, with lingering demands for budget cuts and sequestration hampering their ability to train.  The FBI has stated [9] that “[d]ue to budgetary restraints in 2013, the NICS Section experienced limited training opportunities to assure the long-term growth and viability of the NICS.”  If funding is the issue that is making it harder to address mental health concerns and ensure NICS functions at the level we want it to, then we need to provide a dedicated revenue source – one that isn’t subject to annual appropriations – to supplement what is already being done.  Imposing a reasonable, flat fee on every transfer of a firearm that requires a background check – not more than $20 – could help provide additional funding without raising taxes on everybody.  The fee would be set aside specifically for mental health and NICS, with the mental health portion going where it is most needed.

According to the FBI, there were slightly more than 21 million background checks completed in 2013, and the number has been increasing every year.  A $20 transfer fee collected from each of those checks would bring in around $420 million a year in new revenue.  A $20 fee would not be punitive or deter folks from buying guns, either.  While some Democrats have pushed for a “firearms tax” of $100 or more [10] and some localities are already charging taxes [11] on firearms purchases, this idea is different because it’s not simply a tax designed to raise revenue.  It’s a national fee charged when a service is provided – the background check – and it is focused on providing additional resources for two specific programs, not simply to generate revenue, deter or fleece law-abiding gun owners by acting like a “sin tax” on a constitutional right.  Shoring up NICS and providing funding for mental health prevention and treatment are specific issues that directly impact the mass shooting issue – if one mass shooter is stopped from getting a gun because of a background check, or one mass shooter gets the mental health treatment he needs before he chooses to take a life, the cost will have been worth it.  Bottom line – this is a user fee that will result in little impact on most gun owners. $20 is the equivalent of a box or two of ammo [12].  $100 is too high.  $20 is reasonable.

2.  Expand the NICS background check system to include the terrorism watch list – Right now, NICS uses a number of databases [9], including the Interstate Identification Index (criminal history records), the National Crime Information Center (fugitives, active investigations, protective orders), the NICS’s own database (local, state and federal records of persons prohibited from owning a gun using data not in III or NCIC, including mental health adjudications), and DHS’s ICE database (citizenship records).  It does not check the National Counterterrorism Center [13]‘s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), or use the government’s primary terrorist watch list, compiled and reviewed by the Terrorist Screening Center [14].

If we are honestly concerned about international and domestic terror, it makes little sense for us not to be cross-checking gun purchases through the terrorism watch lists.  While there are obvious concerns about the accuracy of those lists [15], those same concerns exist for all of the various databases used here.

If we do add the terrorism watch list to NICS, there needs to be an expedited appeal process to ensure those mistakenly on the list or those who are on the list because they are wanted for questioning in regards to some other individual’s activities (as the NRA noted in the link above) aren’t delayed unnecessarily from buying a gun.

Because we are dealing with a Constitutional right, these changes absolutely have to involve due process, and give anybody denied at the minimum a right to be heard in their own defense.

3. Repeal the three day “must issue” rule for delays in background checks – Right now, if a background check can’t be completed within three days, gun dealers are required to transfer the gun.  Over 99% of background checks are instant, but there are some that take longer, often due to gaps in the data.  It is likely that, if we add the terrorist watch lists to NICS, the delays will increase.  While there should always be an emphasis on speed, speed at the expense of accuracy is not acceptable here.  It is better to err on the side of caution and not transfer a firearm if the background check has not been completed.  If this becomes a common way of delaying purchases and impacts law abiding citizens significantly, it can be addressed later.

To put things in perspective, some people have been complaining that the two-year average vetting process for resettlement of Syrian refugees isn’t strong enough, because there could be gaps in the data and the FBI says they can’t guarantee the accuracy of it.  Yet at the same time, others complain that gaps in background check info shouldn’t stop a gun purchase if the background check takes more than three days.  It makes little sense, especially given the number of mass shootings we’ve seen where the guns have been purchased legally with a background check, to not allow the process to take as much time as necessary to ensure that a full vetting has taken place.

4. Pressure on social media companies to do more to restrict the ability of potential mass shooters to connect with like-minded individuals and self-radicalize –  While I am not aware of any formal studies (we could use one) on the role of social media in the increased number of mass shootings, there does appear to be plenty of anecdotal evidence [16].  And there is no question that the rise of social media has had a major impact on recruiting of radical Islamic terrorists and the self-radicalization of Americans [17].  Facebook and Twitter – the latter especially – have been common tools used by terrorists to spread propaganda and self radicalize.

As more and more Americans spend more and more time interacting with each other over social media, the emphasis on policing social media needs to increase.  While government should not step in here to curtail what is, unfortunately, free speech, these social media companies should make it more difficult for hate groups, potential terrorists and their sympathizers, and similar high-risk people to use their platforms to coordinate attacks and spread propaganda.  They need to spend some serious time and money on these issues.  Facebook allows for private “closed groups” that are inherently self-regulating, outside of the public view.  Twitter is constantly playing wack-a-mole [18] with terrorist accounts and those using it to spread propaganda.  But anybody who has dealt with these social media sites know that they are generally very resistant to removing content or barring users, even for egregious behavior.

That needs to change.  These networks provide a new service that wasn’t available before, even after the rise of the internet and the web.  Allowing like-minded people to come together is generally a good thing, but when those like-minded people are essentially weaponizing and radicalizing people, those same social media companies need to step up and do their part to prevent their networks from being used inappropriately.  The outcomes are too severe for them to err on the side of free expression.  They aren’t government agencies and they aren’t bound by the first amendment.

5.  Treat these mass murder as a public health issue [19] – Treating gun violence as a public health issue has been controversial for a while and almost derailed the Surgeon General’s nomination [20].  That being said, there is some logic to treating this violence – especially the parts of it tied to mental health issue – as a public health issue.  At the very least, it would lead to more non-partisan studies on the issue, and potentially to more people trying to find solutions.  There are a lot of areas that need to be explored, not the least of which is the actual – not anecdotal – relationship between mental health and mass shootings, as well as the relationship between certain types of drugs and violent behavior.  It’s time we take these issues out of the realm of politics and conspiracy theories and actually start studying them.

These are just a few potential ideas that are more than doing nothing, and may have an impact on some aspects of these mass shootings.

In the end, however, it is unlikely that government or business alone will be able to address these problems effectively.  We all, collectively as a people, need to do some serious navel gazing and ask ourselves why so many people are willing to take the lives of people they’ve never met.  No matter how much gun control advocates scream about guns, no gun fires itself.

The solution to ending these mass shootings will likely remain elusive, given the political nature of the debate, but we should never lose sight of the fact that this is a man-made problem, caused not by guns, but by those who would misuse guns to harm their fellow man.  If we are going to stop this problem, the solutions need to start and end with people.