January 17, 2013

A Contribution to the Gun Discussion

Following the Sandy Hook massacre, everyone seems to be talking about what to do about guns. With President Obama having made his own proposals yesterday, the discussion will only intensify.

Also yesterday, I left a comment on Facebook about gun ownership that I thought needed to be said. It quickly became a mere drop in the wide and fast-moving Facebook river. I decided, however, that the thought required a bit more prominence, so I offer an expanded version of it here.

Many people have suggested that the government ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, or other weapons or accessories. This seems like a commonsense idea, but it is often met with the objection that there is already an unacceptable quantity of such material in the hands of citizens. This is a serious objection.
 
The proper response to the objection is to make possession of certain materials illegal without grandfathering current owners. In other words, ban not only the sale of, say, assault weapons, but also make possession of them illegal, giving their current owners a reasonable period during which their weapons must be surrendered to or purchased by the government. This, of course, constitutes “taking people’s guns away.” something no one seems to have the courage to suggest might be right and proper. The NRA knows this and is trying to convince us all that “taking people’s guns away” is simply unthinkable. In fact, it is not.


Assault weapon

Some additional thoughts—

The NRA says that if people are forced to surrender their guns, only criminals will have guns. That might be an improvement. Admittedly, it is not a good thing that criminals have guns. It is a much greater problem, at least in public perception, that crazy people have guns.
 
Apropos of crazy people, I am skeptical of the provision of the law just passed in New York that requires therapists to report threats of gun violence made by their patients. This seems like a good idea, but will be problematic in practice. New York therapists may lose a lot of sleep in the future trying to balance their professional and legal responsibilities and their potential personal liabilities. Therapists are not and should not be expected to be clairvoyant.

There is no silver bullet to fix the crazy mass murderer problem. What we can do is to take steps to improve the mental health of the population generally. This will involve treating mental illness like other illness. It will require removing barriers to obtaining (or obtaining adequate) mental health services and campaigning to remove the stigma often associated with psychological abnormalities.

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