Finding Common Ground on Gun Policy

By Charles Wheelan on October 11, 2017

Where do we even begin after Las Vegas? The shooting was so calculatingly evil, so tragic for the victims and so sad for our nation. And yet we have been here before: after Sandy Hook, after the Orlando nightclub shooting, after Louisiana GOP Rep. Steve Scalise was shot in the capital this summer.

Our reaction is always shock and sorrow – followed almost immediately by the same predictable partisan debate on guns. I fervently believe that electing more centrist independents can help break through this paralyzing tribalism. What exactly would a centrist gun policy look like? Is it possible for a handful of pragmatic lawmakers in the political middle to break through the gridlock on an issue as emotional as gun violence?

Absolutely. Because there is no constituency in favor of gun deaths. No reasonable person supports what happened in Las Vegas. Every American – Republican, Democrat or independent – would like to prevent the next attack. We just seem unable to do it. Or even to get started.

After Sandy Hook, Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, tried to take a tiny step towards responsible gun ownership by requiring federal background checks on gun purchases at gun shows and over the internet. That's hardly a radical step, but the bill failed in the face of a Senate filibuster.

Let's imagine something different. What if there were five centrist independent U.S. senators – or a similar group in the House, or even in a state legislature – who could convene a bipartisan working group with the avowed goal of reducing the annual number of gun deaths by 10 percent?

This group would not begin the discussion with the usual stale arguments over semiautomatic weapons or concealed carry laws. The discussion would begin with the outcome they hope to achieve: fewer people dying from guns.

Let's be more specific: More than 33,000 people each year die from guns, so the initial goal would be to reduce that number by 3,300. That is a lot of tragedy averted. (These and other data come from an excellent breakdown of gun death numbers by FiveThirtyEight.)

The group members would not begin by talking about mass shootings. Instead, they would have a conversation about mass killings. The latter is more likely to be productive than the former.

The deranged shooter in Las Vegas had as much in common with the Oklahoma City bombers as he did with shooters in Orlando and Sandy Hook. Who does this and why? Let's talk less about the guns and more about the gratuitous killing. Once we have a better understanding of that, we can begin to talk about what policies might make it less likely.

Maybe a change in gun laws will reduce mass killings but maybe not. The Oklahoma bombers used a rental truck packed with explosives. The Boston Marathon killers used pressure cookers filled with nails, nuts and ball bearings.

As soon as we start talking about gun laws, the partisans stop listening. Instead, a small centrist caucus could help have this conversation in the right order: 1) convene a group of legislators from across the political spectrum who are genuinely committed to reducing wanton violence; 2) ask the right questions about the right problem – mass killings; and then 3) pursue the policy changes that emerge from that inquiry. It's silly and unproductive to debate solutions when we have no real grasp of the problem.

Next, the bipartisan working group would recognize that while mass shootings (and shootings by law enforcement) capture headlines, they make up a relatively small proportion of gun deaths. The vast majority of gun deaths are suicides.

When this working group studied the issue further, they would learn that many of the victims are men suffering from temporary depression who kill themselves within a week of buying a gun. Contrary to popular wisdom, many of these suicides are preventable.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force implemented a program to identify and assist soldiers at risk of harming themselves that brought down the suicide rate in the ranks by 65 percent. So if we are committed to reducing gun deaths, suicide is a logical place for lawmakers to act.

Next, the bipartisan task force might look at accidents. Is there any political constituency in the U.S. that rabidly favors gun accidents? There are a number of things that can be done to make guns safer, particularly for children. Guns can be "childproofed" so they cannot be fired by a young person. They can be equipped with smart chips so they can only be fired by the owner.

Think about how technology has transformed your life. Why should gun safety be any different?

Did you know that when you remove the magazine from a semiautomatic pistol (like they do in the movies) there can still be one bullet left in the chamber? Neither do most young children when they find a parent's gun, decide to play around with it because it is "unloaded" and end up shooting a friend. Our bipartisan committee might decide that a mandatory load indicator would be a relatively easy way to prevent such tragedies.

None of this should sound fanciful. It is exactly the way we reduced motor vehicle deaths. Beginning in the 1970s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting detailed data on every single traffic fatality in America. We studied how people were dying (drunk driving, unsafe vehicles), and then we made changes: airbags and other safety features; stricter drunk driving laws; limits on when young drivers can be on the road; and who they can have in the car. How did it work? Between 1975 and 2015, the number of highway deaths per 100 million miles driven fell by 67 percent.

What happened to gun deaths over the same period? Guns now kill more people than motor vehicles in 21 states and the District of Columbia (compared to just two states in 2005). The age-adjusted death rate from guns and motor vehicles is now nearly identical for the first time since driving became a common feature of American life. The homicide rate in America has been falling steadily for decades, but those gains have been offset by a rise in suicides.

The political tragedy related to gun death is that Democrats and Republicans do not hold inherently incompatible views. No one supports mass killings. No one supports gun accidents. No one believes gang members should have easy access to guns (other than gang members).

We can unequivocally support the rights of law-abiding gun owners while also demanding that the gun industry and gun owners act responsibly. Taking guns out of the hands of gang members in Chicago would not impinge in any significant way on the life of someone whole likes to hunt deer in Wisconsin, or on someone in Washington, D.C. who wants to keep a gun in the house for self-defense.

How do we move forward after Las Vegas? Let's start by looking at how and why people are dying from guns, as we did with cars and trucks. A handful of centrist independent legislators would be in a position to add light to this issue, not just heat. Maybe I'm missing something, but a goal of reducing gun deaths by 10 percent seems like something that most sane legislators could get behind

Charles Wheelan is co-chair and founder of The Centrist Project. It was based on his book, "The Centrist Manifesto." He is also the author of Naked Money, Naked Statistics, and other books. Charles teaches public policy at Dartmouth.