No easy answers on gun control


Frank Wessling

If good intentions were all that’s needed to achieve good results, the lazy man and woman could do as well as the most ambitious. In reality, as opposed to fables and dream worlds, human purposes demand work — generally, sustained and focused work.
And sustained work for politically disputed goals is extremely difficult.
That’s why we fail in this country at keeping guns out of the hands of mentally unstable and violent people, the ones so often in the news for deadly shooting sprees such as the multiple killing last month in Aurora, Colo., and the more recent shooting at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee.
A Catholic Messenger reader raised a good point in a letter last week. He wrote: “If you want to stop the gun violence, it is simple. Design a law that takes guns away from criminals and crazies.” No one would argue with that intention. However, it is far from simple.
Laws already exist on both the federal and state levels intended to keep certain people from possessing guns. Drug abuse, mental health problems that come to the attention of public authorities, domestic abuse charges, criminal conviction — all of these are supposed to be reasons why an American cannot buy a gun.
If public records on these offenses and disabling conditions were perfect, and if the sharing of these records into a central, accessible database were perfect, and if all business transactions involving guns faithfully used such a database, we could come close to reaching the intention of the laws. Of course we are far from perfect.
The background check system for gun sales is riddled with problems of compliance, funding and confusion. It requires leadership in each of the 50 states, yet 21 of the states have no requirement that mental health records be shared with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Even where the law requires such sharing, funds for the personnel, time and technology are hard to find and easy to cut when a budget pinch comes.
In 2008, Congress adopted a program to aid states with funding for NICS reporting. The money appropriated for that purpose, however, is minimal and only 14 states have qualified to receive it. Still, that assistance has made a difference. The organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that those 14 states do much better than the rest in keeping up their NICS reports.
Iowa is among the states that permit or require reporting to the NICS, but we have not qualified for the federal fund grants because our collecting and sharing of records among agencies, courts and the police is still inadequate. There were 179,944 gun background checks in Iowa in 2011, according to the Mayors survey. There were 3,530 mental health records from Iowa in the NICS database during that time but at least 21,957 should have been if we were as good as the states which do best at submitting their records.
That gap is frighteningly large — and many states are far worse.
It’s a free country, as we like to say, and we want to keep it that way. Thus, it is not at all simple to limit our freedom, even the freedom to have a gun. As outlined here, we see the complexity and difficulty of gaining the information needed so no one but that fabled law-abiding citizen can have a gun. And we haven’t said anything about private gun sales and exchanges.
Where more guns are available, more unstable and violent people will obtain them. Any reasonable system for disarming the “crazies” must include limits on the availability of guns — the sheer number of killing tools, especially those capable of high-volume killing.
At the very least, semi-automatic guns and high capacity bullet clips and magazines should be outlawed.

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