California Forum

The three gun control myths that are killing American kids

A crowd of people hold a rally against gun violence, gathering at Marion Square in downtown Charleston, S.C., Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, following Wednesday's deadly school shooting in Florida.
A crowd of people hold a rally against gun violence, gathering at Marion Square in downtown Charleston, S.C., Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, following Wednesday's deadly school shooting in Florida. AP

The murder of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Fla., should cause all of us to ask, how many people must die before this country finally adopts meaningful gun control laws.

This, of course, is just the latest of so many instances of gun violence, following tragedies in places like Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, and Columbine. They all share one feature in common: a disturbed man with a military-style semiautomatic weapon killing a large number of people in minutes.

Action to decrease gun violence is long overdue. Each year, more than 30,000 people in the United States die from guns and more than 70,000 are injured.

Sensible gun regulations won’t stop all the killing, but it will have a dramatic effect.

There is much that can be done to decrease gun violence. To begin with, Congress should ban the sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons.

Almost all of the recent mass shootings – in Parkland, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in Las Vegas, in Orlando, in San Bernardino – involved the same weapon: the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle. It has a large magazine capacity and shoots at high velocity. Its bullets are especially destructive.

The AR-15 is adapted from the military M-16 rife and serves no purpose other than to murder people quickly. Congress should ban the AR-15 and similar weapons and large capacity magazines.

Background checks for gun registration must be strengthened. For example, the gun-show and private-sale loophole to background checks must be closed.

Ordinarily, when someone buys a gun at a gun shop, the seller confirms the buyer’s right to purchase a gun by contacting the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. However, if a buyer seeks to purchase a firearm at a gun show or elsewhere from a non-professional gun seller, that consumer usually need not undergo the otherwise mandatory background check. Would-be criminals with disqualifying backgrounds are undoubtedly aware of this path around the bar on their ability to obtain firearms.

Requiring all purchasers to undergo a background check is of only limited value unless we are confident that the system effectively screens the vast number of prohibited purchasers from obtaining firearms. That is not the case today.

Yet, even these minimal steps to gun control seem out of reach. In part, this is because of myths surrounding the gun control debate.

One myth is that efforts at gun control violate the Second Amendment. Nonsense. The 2008 Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, for the first time recognized the right of an individual to have guns in their homes for the sake of security.

But very importantly, the Supreme Court emphasized that the Second Amendment is not an absolute right. Writing for the majority, the late Justice Antonin Scalia specifically wrote that, “like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

In fact, the court made clear that the government can regulate who owns a gun, what types of guns can be owned, and where those guns can be located – because the government has a legitimate interest in protecting public safety. Banning semi-automatic assault weapons and large capacity magazines would not violate the Second Amendment. Nor would universal background checks or a host of sensible other gun regulations.

A second myth is that the American people don’t want gun control. According to one recent national poll, over 90 percent of voters are in favor of requiring criminal background checks for all guns sold in the U.S. More than 80 percent support required trigger locks for firearms. About 70 percent of voters support assault rifle bans and no-fly list gun sales bans.

A final myth is that gun control laws won’t make any difference because criminals will still get guns. Study after study shows that crime has decreased in foreign countries that have adopted strict gun control laws.

Sensible gun regulations won’t stop all the killing, but it will have a dramatic effect. The fact that people get illegal drugs, or even that people commit murders, despite the criminal prohibitions on those crimes is not an argument against the laws. Nor is the possibility of illegal possession of guns a reason to give up and fail to make it more difficult for dangerous individuals to get firearms.

All of us are vulnerable to senseless gun violence. We all send our children to schools, watch movies in theaters, go to concerts, and spend time in public places.

Whatever one’s views of the Second Amendment and gun rights, these steps just make basic common sense. How many more deaths must there be before our politicians have the courage to take action?

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He can be reached at echemerinsky@law.berkeley.edu.

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