Recent massacres in Sandy Hook, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado have brought to light America’s intractable gun problem. The issue goes far deeper than the recent string of mass shootings, however. In our nation, a person dies from gun violence every 17 minutes. That’s eight children and 75 adults killed each and every day, according to a 2009 study conducted by the Children’s Defense Fund advocacy group.
Whatever your position on 2nd Amendment rights, you cannot deny that the U.S. has an urgent problem with gun violence.
The biggest obstacle towards solving this issue is culture. While much gun violence is concentrated primarily in the urban north and coastal cities (like Los Angeles), a huge and powerful bloc of voters (located in the south, west and rural areas) strongly opposes any measure to restrict gun ownership. In these areas, guns are a basic fact of life. Perhaps this stems from strong cultures of honor. Or maybe, in some areas, it stems from a reliance on nature to provide food. Guns are quite useful for shooting animals.
Given the ferocity of these voters, the power of the gun lobby and the ambiguity of the 2nd Amendment, I don’t think we’ll make progress on sweeping gun restrictions. Make no mistake, I believe we would be safer in a world with fewer guns, but I think an assault weapons ban is politically impossible and logistically unenforceable right now.
But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to curb gun violence. While we press for cultural change in areas where gun ownership is sacred, I think two pieces of national legislation will go far to prevent senseless deaths: requiring personal liability insurance for all gun owners and stringent controls on ammunition for such firearms, including substantial taxes. Both of these measures work to drastically raise the cost of gun ownership.
In 1993, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed a 10,000 percent tax on bullets designed to penetrate body armor and cause irreparable tissue damage. He proposed excluding bullets used for everyday hunting and recreational shooting from that tax. According to a New York Times article describing his plans, that would make the tax on a 20-cartridge pack of highly dangerous bullets nearly $1,500.
Chris Rock, suggesting an even higher tax, famously quipped in “Bowling for Columbine,” “If a bullet costs $5,000, there’d be no more innocent bystanders.”
While gun owners may argue that ‘guns don’t kill people,’ bullets themselves emphatically do kill people. Those who wish to own high-capacity assault weapons should pay dearly for their ammunition.
They should also pay for liability insurance. Tragic events like Sandy Hook can never be fully prevented. But we can make it easier for families to be compensated. Money can never replace human lives, but it can help pay medical, funeral and other associated costs, including an adult’s lost wages, for instance, or for grief counseling.
A recent Economist article touts the feasibility of such an insurance system, noting that, “… the private insurance market will likely do a very good job of discriminating between gun owners who pose different levels of risk.” This essentially means that rural gun owners who own only hunting weapons will pay little, while those who own high-capacity weapons in more populous areas will pay dearly. The burden will be fairly distributed.
These two policy solutions will not adequately substitute for stricter controls on weapons themselves, but I think it’s the best we can do in the current political climate. We can prevent deaths by simply making gun ownership more expensive for those who pose a great risk to society.
We owe the children of Sandy Hook, the victims of Aurora and the tens of thousands who die from gun violence each year a solution. The victims deserve a voice and their families, as the president said in the State of the Union, a vote.