2012-12-21 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Too Soon, Or Too Late?
By Mike Scala

After the Columbine massacre, many said it was too soon for a discussion about gun control in this country. After Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora, we heard the same thing. If anything constructive is to come from the unspeakable violence of last week, my hope is that we, as a nation, realize we’re past due for that conversation. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, was it too soon to start the process of protecting the beach? No – it was too late.

The discussion must begin with the premise that reasonable people can disagree on what steps should be taken. It is imperative that we maintain civility and respect our neighbors’ positions. As we all acknowledge, the Constitution does guarantee the right to bear arms. While history and the text of the Second Amendment itself, referring to a militia and the security of a free state, suggest the right has more to do with deterring tyranny than personal selfdefense, the Supreme Court has expressed an expansive view in recent years. It has held, for example, that cities cannot lawfully enact handgun bans. Indeed, the right to guns is a broad one. The dialogue, however, cannot end there. Most of us probably agree that especially dangerous weapons, capable of mass destruction, are justifiably restricted. It’s admittedly a point often made, but it’s a good illustration that at least some regulation is necessary. In New York, as in a handful of other states, there is a ban on assault weapons. The right may be broad, but it isn’t unlimited. Gun advocates argue that restricting lawful access to firearms only empowers criminals who obtain them illegally. Criminals, including the one responsible for the rampage at Sandy Hook, do get their hands on guns they aren’t supposed to have. But the guns have to come from somewhere. The Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator reports that 85% of guns recovered in crimes in New York City were originally sold out of state. This can be attributed to our relatively tough gun laws.

Of course, having stricter controls in some states and laxer ones in many more is problematic when guns are readily transported across state lines. This is very much a national issue. In 1994, Congress passed a federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Following last week’s events, President Obama affirmed his commitment to reinstating the ban. I support the measure wholeheartedly. A nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons is important, and so is more uniformity in this area of our legal system.

It is also alarming that 40% of gun sales do not require background checks. This is because the federal background check requirement does not apply to private sellers. Anyone who attempts to purchase a gun should be subjected to a background check. Further, those with troubled individuals in their care should be required to take special precautions. We can protect the rights of qualified people and still take measures to keep guns away from those with criminal histories and mental illnesses.

Gun control is a long term proposition: being more careful with distributing guns does not take guns off the streets. In time, it will decrease gun violence. Still, any serious conversation about the issue should include the acknowledgment that gun control in itself only goes so far. Our long term strategy must additionally include increased access to education and mental health services. Our culture at large should probably be re-examined. Times like these are times for reflection.

It would be foolish to believe there was a simple fix. By the same token, we must do all we can to address the problem. It’s never too soon to strive for change.

Mike Scala received his Juris Doctor from Brooklyn Law School.

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