When It Comes to Gun Control, Forget Congress

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Statistics can be a powerful tool, but they are no match for ideology – especially when it comes to lawmaking. The American gun violence epidemic is a harrowing example: the ideological crusade waged by the gun lobby has turned gun-owners into a powerful political force and stifled sensible gun control legislation in Congress. But the statistics cannot be ignored. Every day, 13 children are killed by guns in the United States – one Columbine per day. Nearly 10,000 Americans are killed by guns each year, compared to less than 250 in Germany and less than 50 in Great Britain. Nearly one-half of our gun victims are children. And the statistics go on. Meanwhile, politicians meet each outpouring of public rage and anguish with speeches, television commercials and inaction.

So what should be done? Reducing gun violence requires better regulation of the manufacture and distribution of firearms. Furthermore, reformers should focus on state governments and the judicial system, instead of the perpetually gridlocked Congress.

Manufacture

Odds are that there are more manufacturing standards for a child’s favorite toy than for an adult’s favorite gun. Consider this: the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) requires that slats on a baby-crib be no more than 2 3/8 of an inch apart to prevent infants from getting stuck, but has no power to mandate trigger locks that would prevent children from using their parent’s guns. Why? Because Congress specifically excluded guns from the CPSC’s regulatory authority. The government regulates the manufacture of countless consumer products (including toys) that could pose a safety threat but does not do the same with the most threatening product that exists: guns. So the first step to reduce gun violence is for the government to begin treating guns like toys so that children will be less likely to do the same. Congress, or states, should require that every gun come equipped with a trigger lock (to prevent children or other unwanted users from firing the gun), a load indicator (which makes it clear whether or not the gun is loaded) and a tamper-proof serial number (to facilitate tracing).

Distribution

There is no nationwide limit on the number of guns an individual may purchase at one time. Therefore, “straw purchasers” are able to buy up guns and distribute them through secondary markets to people who could not legally buy guns themselves – including children. A straightforward way to combat this problem is to limit the number of guns an individual may purchase to one per month. While some states have enacted such laws, the absence of a uniform national standard makes it almost impossible to keep guns out of the hands of children and other illegal gun owners.

Looking Beyond Congress

Given the political clout of the NRA, it seems unlikely that Congress will pass comprehensive reform any time soon. Therefore, enacting a reform agenda may require looking to the states and the courts. Some state legislatures are passing strong gun control laws and, perhaps more important, some state agencies are starting to regulate gun manufacture and sale. Massachusetts, for example, has implemented strong consumer safety regulations limiting the type of guns that may be sold in the state.

The courts offer another promising alternative. Federal, state and local governments have sued the gun manufacturers and hope to use the potential cost of litigation to force the gun companies to alter their manufacturing and distribution methods. The Smith and Wesson agreement, whereby the nation’s largest gun manufacturer agreed to many of the government’s demands in exchange for being dropped from the suit, bodes well for this strategy.

Gun violence is a public health catastrophe. Making progress will require looking beyond ideology and maybe even looking beyond Congress.

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