No matter what some politicians and talking heads may say, it’s time to talk about guns in America. Gun safety and management clearly isn’t an issue that has a pause button. Not as long as people keep getting shot. Regardless of your exact stance, the stone cold fact of the matter is this: Guns accelerate the speed by which violent people can carry out violent acts. As such, we need to start thinking outside the box and looking for ways to realistically manage guns in this country. We need to troubleshoot a failed and continually failing system.
Growing up on a farm, I was raised with guns as an everyday part of my life. We hunted. We killed vermin. We slaughtered animals. I have immediate family members who are legit collectors — one uncle has nearly 6,000 guns. Pretty much everyone in my family still hunts. And every single one of them has gun safes in their homes. Gun safety is a huge topic and we all believe in sensible gun control.
My personal guns are locked up in a safe in Washington state. I’m sure our neighbors have similar safes. We’re an independent people up in the Pacific Northwest; a region of the country where firearms still have some utilitarian purpose. And yet we fight for background checks and create safety measures on the state level.
You know what else we did on the state level? We legalized weed. We and Colorado were the first to do so and… it’s worked out pretty well. Which got me to thinking, maybe what this fight needs is less waiting for the Federal Government and more policies created by individual states.
Here’s how states can take the lead on this issue.
STATES CONTROL THIS CONVERSATION
A large portion of the American population wants more common sense gun laws. There’s a seemingly endless dearth of evidence supporting this. Unfortunately, we have to square that with the reality that the NRA (a private lobby group tasked with ensuring gun manufacturers make the most money they can) spends millions on assuring politicians sympathetic to their lobby make our laws. That’s just reality. The NRA gave Donald Trump $30 million for his presidential campaign. It’s on us to do what we can to circumvent that system.
That’s where the structure of our nation comes into play. Let’s look at the continued rollout of legal cannabis as a model here. Each state has the right to enact its own laws based on their constituency’s voting, within reason. That’s why some states don’t sell alcohol on Sundays or some states have legalized cannabis and others have legalized gambling. States also have the right to enact their own laws on guns and they do all the time. In fact, state laws on guns are as varied as laws on cannabis and alcohol.
Only six states and the District of Columbia have bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and prohibit high-risk individuals from buying guns with a background check. Some want these bans and prohibitions to be nationwide, clearly. But if that’s just not tenable right now with the current political situation, looking to states isn’t a bad idea.
WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE AT THE STATE LEVEL?
Banning heavy arms, high capacity clips, and cursory background checks are a good starting point, but they don’t get the job done. It’s just not anywhere near enough. Drastic times call for policy overhauls and our policies are easier to overhaul state by state.
Let’s say Washington State voted to enact gun control more in line with, say, Germany. That would mean they’d completely overhaul the gun ownership laws in that state. Now, I’m picking Germany because (besides being my current residence) it has the fourth highest gun ownership rate in the world and gun culture is a real part of the society for semi-similar reasons to America — hunting being atop that list.
In Germany to purchase or use a gun you have to do the following:
- Be 18 years old.
- Show trustworthiness through an interview (and a full psychiatric interview if you’re under 25).
- Demonstrate personal adequacy and expert knowledge (train once a month at a shooting range for one year straight).
- Show a necessity for needing a firearm.
- Buy personal insurance for the weapon and your use of it.
- Allow a firearms expert to ensure you are storing and transporting the weapons safely.
- Have no history of drug or alcohol abuse.
- Have no history of any violence.
- Have no felony convictions.
- Have no history of mental illness.
“Necessity” applies to hunters, farmers, proveable personal safety issues, collectors (who have to be certified as experts), and sports shooters. This is a starting point that a lot of us can likely agree upon. Trained, stable gun owners are always better than untrained ones.
Now, where the rubber really hits the road is in what you can buy once you’re certified to have a gun. Sticking with Germany, a gun permit is mandatory for every gun you purchase and you’ll have to go through the year of training for different types of weapons. Translation: if you want a shotgun, you learn to use it first for a year, same with rifles and handguns, then you get one. Moreover, everyone is prohibited from buying rifles that accept a magazine with ten or more cartridges. Generally, it’s bolt action rifles, handguns, and long barrel, non-pump action shotguns (of course, there are exceptions and barrel length plays a big role). For the most part, all heavy semi-automatic, military-grade weapons are banned from public purchase. Naturally, all automatic weapons are off the table, even if you’re a certified expert.
Lastly, you can’t just buy all the ammunition you want in Germany. You’ll need another permit to purchase black powder products. You have to prove why you need the bullets and what they’re going to be used for. This is an extra layer of public protection that we seem to not even be talking about.
Overall, Germany’s gun violence is dramatically lower than every single US state. Germany’s rate of gun-related death is 1.01 per 100,000 people. Hawaii’s — our safest state when it comes to gun violence — is 2.71 per 100,000 people. To put that in perspective Alaska has a rate of 19.59 per 100,000 people and the US average is 10.64. I think it’s safe to say that well-trained gun owners are preferable to untrained ones. That shouldn’t be a controversial stance to take.
In light of those stats, states tearing down the scaffolding of existing gun control for a thorough overhaul seems downright genius.
HOW CAN A STATE IMPLEMENT THIS WITH OPEN BORDERS?
I know, I know. You’re dying to call me out on the fact that any American can drive over the border from California to Arizona and just buy whatever guns they want. You’re 100 percent correct. And that has to stop.
Maybe this is dating me, but I remember when you couldn’t cross a state border without having to stop at an agriculture checkpoint. It was a small kiosk on the interstate and highways where a state cop would check the trunk with a quick once-over to assure you weren’t bringing banned fruit or vegetables into that state. This is a crucial step to assuring gun laws work state-by-state and will likely be the most difficult to accept. I get that. But, right now, what other choice is there really?
There are benefits and drawbacks here. Until there’s a national consensus on what gun control means, states are going to have to start enacting measures to protect their citizens locally. Part of that is going to be building a statewide infrastructure that monitors, trains, licenses, and assures gun control laws are enforced correctly. And, yes, that means we’re going to have to give up some rights for this. We do that all the time by the way. Every time we walk through airport security, we’re giving up constitutional rights. Basically, we give up our fourth and fifth amendment rights every time we try to board a plane.
Don’t believe me? Just try to “take the fifth” when they ask you if you’re carrying any explosives at check-in.
On the other hand, this creates a lot more jobs around the gun industry training individuals and better-trained law enforcement. These should both be things liberals, conservatives, and gun owners can get behind. American jobs! Gun control! Better trained law enforcement! It’s all of our political hot buttons rolled into one.
Putting German-style gun laws in place somewhere like Washington would mean that gun ranges would need more employees to train up everyone who wants a permit to buy, carry, or fire a gun. Plus, think of all the extra ammo those ranges would sell if every Washingtonian had to spend a year training on their guns three times over (for handguns, rifles, and shotguns) and then keeping up those skills year after year at the range with an expert there to keep you certified. Guns would get more expensive, likely, but not so costly as to dissuade aficionados.
Add to that a more robust background check system that includes actual interviews (by medical professionals in some cases) and trained gun experts leading classes for gun safety, border police doing five-minute spot checks and interviews on incoming out-of-state cars, and you have a lot of new jobs, income, and spending power. Not to mention the revenue from issuing multiple licenses for gun owners.
Where will the money come from to build this new infrastructure, you ask? Well, states like Washington have massive, billion-dollar windfalls coming from the legalization of cannabis that could easily be used to help fund these programs. And, like with cannabis, once other states see this kind of gun management working, they’ll be chomping at the bit to enact similar laws themselves. It’ll spread when it works. And it’ll spread when the money and jobs around the industry increase.
Moreover, before 2012, it was almost inconceivable how a state could create, license, and regulate an entirely new industry (cannabis) within a year’s time. Yet Washington did it. So did Colorado and now many other states. Remember when the naysayers said, “it’s too big, too complicated, it’ll cost too much money, and require too much bureaucracy?” Now legal weed is commonplace.
We can make these big changes on a state level when we want to. Cannabis legalization proves that.
THE (CURRENT) FEDS DON’T WANT STATES TO CHOOSE
There’s been a backlash to state’s rights since the Trump administration came to power with the GOP majority Congress. Republicans, who traditionally have been major advocates for “states’ rights,” have pivoted and consolidated power in DC. For instance, Jeff Sessions — perhaps the biggest flip-flopper on states rights in modern history –has been toying with destroying the legal cannabis industry. Also, Congress has been clandestinely trying to pass an NRA-backed law that will force every state in the union to recognize concealed carry laws from any other state.
Let’s take a step back. 31 states do not even require a background check to purchase a firearm. Beyond the negligence of those state’s legislators, forcing a state with more reasonable gun management — like simple background checks — to adhere to another state’s laws is dubious (and likely unconstitutional), not to mention pretty much every major police department in the country is against the bill. This law, that will likely pass, is another reason that states need to be louder and take more definitive actions to prevent a continued ascendancy of gun violence.
The big point of all this is that states are smaller. They are therefore more nimble from a legislative branch standpoint. Why not let a state like Washington try this out as an incubator? It’ll have no immediate effect on the other 49 states. Hunters, collectors, and enthusiasts will still be able to buy, shoot, and carry guns if they qualify. The citizenry will be inherently safer, since all gun owners will be correctly trained to use their gun and there will be fewer guns overall. (The argument that a black market for guns will explode if there are more gun control laws is a lie. Less gun control means more guns on the street and in the hands of criminals because they’re that much easier to get in the first place. In fact, 74 percent of gun crimes committed in New York City (a state with strict gun laws) came from states with lax gun laws.)
This divide and conquer approach — focused on the states rather than national policy — may seem counter-intuitive, but until we figure out how to run a country with a sensible approach to guns, maybe those state border checks need to go back up. In the 80s, we were willing to sit through a check for lettuce and apples. Why not guns in 2020? We are willing to go through pat-downs and metal detectors at airports. Why not on the I-5 between Oregon and California?
Sure, the NRA is powerful, federally. But that power can be stolen from them. States — which are easier, just by the principle of scale, to legislate — can snatch that power away. One state would have to start and, if their measures were successful, others would follow suit. Nothing opens peoples’ minds like success, the state-based cannabis laws underscore that. Maybe it’s time to bring the same approach to guns.