It has now been nearly two weeks since the Newtown massacre once again cast an ugly shadow of gun violence over our country. In the ensuing fortnight, the pundits have been working overtime generating their ideas on "what to do" about guns.
Their ideas aren't new: Ban assault weapons. Limit high-capacity magazines. Make access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun. All reasonable ideas, though it must be acknowledged that 1) such hand-wringing after past shootings has faded rather quickly as the public moves on and 2) if anything, because today's congressional districts are drawn up so safely, lawmakers are less inclined to do anything about guns than ever before.
Let's face facts: Congress hasn't passed a major gun control bill since 1994, when at the behest of Ronald Reagan, it approved an assault weapons ban (long since expired) and, in 1993, the Brady Bill, which requires background checks on gun buyers when a gun is bought for the first time. (Subsequent sales of those used weapons are often unregulated, thus the so-called "gun show loophole.") The fights to pass those laws were nasty and protracted, and in the ensuing years, positions have hardened even more. Bottom line: As disturbing and outrageous as the Newtown massacre was, there is essentially zero chance that Congress will do anything of substance about it.
So what can be done?
The Constitution grants any president of the United States executive powers. Some have argued that President Obama could exercise them to close the gun show loophole — which has arguably allowed up to 40 percent of all private gun purchases to occur with no background check whatsoever, just pay and be on your way. This appears to be easy politics. Even before Newtown, a survey by GOP pollster Frank Luntz said that 85 percent of non-NRA gun owners and 69 percent of NRA members favored this.
Look for this to be among the recommendations given to Obama by his "gun czar," Vice President Biden. These background checks could also include any known information on a customer's mental health. The Justice Department has also studied the idea of better information-sharing among different agencies, sort of like how the CIA and FBI began working better together after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. These are all ideas worth discussing, though state's rights and privacy laws are legitimate barriers.
Even the National Rifle Association has a few ideas. The NRA's Wayne LaPierre, blaming just about everyone other than his own organization for Newtown, says Hollywood is at fault for gratuitous violence, as are the manufacturers of violent videogames (one, he said, was called "Kindergarten Killer"). He calls this kind of content "the filthiest form of pornography." On this one point, LaPierre is right. Parents should know better than to expose their kids to this kind of garbage. But here's a question for Mr. LaPierre: If the NRA insists that the Second Amendment is sacred and must be protected, is it not hypocritical to suggest that the First Amendment, whose free speech protections cover movie and game makers, be weakened? (It's a moot point anyway: The Supreme Court, in June 2011, upheld the free speech rights of videogame makers to spew out their filth.)
LaPierre has also suggested, as you've no doubt heard, that guns in schools might have prevented the Newtown massacre. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he insisted. LaPierre, whose rantings caused former President George H.W. Bush to quit the NRA in outrage in 1995, seems to have forgotten that an armed guard at Columbine High School couldn't prevent the murder of 12 students and a teacher (he fired four times and missed). There were plenty of good guys with guns at the Fort Hood army base in 2009. And on and on.
So why not go after guns — and the NRA itself — the way 46 states went after cigarettes back in the 1990s? Guns are similar to cigarettes in one key respect: Long after they are used, both incur very large and ongoing costs that states, local communities, and thus taxpayers are forced to absorb. Aside from the immediate anguish and grief that can result from the use of a gun, the economic burden is spread over many years, in the form of lost work, medical care, insurance, law enforcement, and criminal justice. One study puts a price on this: $174 billion a year.
The societal cost of just one gun homicide averages $5 million, according to the institute. That includes $1.6 million in lost work; $29,000 in medical care; $11,000 on surviving families' mental-health treatment; $397,000 in criminal-justice, incarceration and police expenses; $9,000 in employer losses; and $3 million in pain, suffering and lost quality of life.
Who pays for much of this? You do. Doesn't matter whether you have a gun or not. Just like smoking. You pay for much of its after-effects whether you smoke or not.
Here is what the states did about cigarettes: In November 1998, Big Tobacco, worn down by legal wrangling on dozens of fronts, agreed to pay 46 states a minimum of $206 billion over 25 years. The landmark deal, known as the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), exempted Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard from private tort liability resulting from harm caused by tobacco use. In addition to paying billions, the companies agreed to end or limit marketing of cigarettes, fund anti-smoking education campaigns, and dissolve industry-funded trade groups such as the "Tobacco Institute."
The landmark agreement with the states wasn't designed to put cigarette makers out of business, just make them more accountable and responsible for the use of their product, which was and remains legal. Guns, by virtue of the Second Amendment, are even more protected, but this hardly excuses their defenders from accountability for their use. Only a handful of states and the District of Columbia have laws governing private sales at gun shows. Those who lack such laws can cite states' rights, a legitimate point — but often it's the taxpayers in those states who pay for years to come. States with tougher laws can sue neighboring states that don't to recover their costs; the NRA can be sued for similar reasons. Want a gun? Oppose reasonable restrictions on them? Fine. But you know the saying: Freedom isn't free. Give those who oppose tighter gun laws an economic incentive to comply.