Is Compromise Possible on the Gun Debate?

Flickr - ~Steve Z~ - S^W 22-32 Kit Gun Pre 34
By Stephen Z (S&W 22/32 Kit Gun Pre 34), via Wikimedia Commons
It is often said that one can identify an effective compromise because both sides are inevitably unhappy with it. There's probably some truth to this notion. After all, nobody gets everything they want in a real compromise. And if we imagine a scenario where there is great animosity between the two sides prior to the compromise, the prospect of not getting everything one wanted may pale in comparison to the the prospect of the other side getting any of the things they wanted. At least, this often seems to be the case in our highly tribalistic and polarized world of competing ideologies and preference for narrative over reality.

What Do We Want?

Do you think it is possible for the two sides we hear so much about in the debate over gun safety to ever reach a compromise with which both would be willing to live? I'd like to think so. At the same time, I have to admit that I am not completely sure I know what both of the sides in this particular debate really want. One side appears to favor improved gun safety, including stricter measures to keep guns out of the hands of persons who probably shouldn't have them. But what does this mean? Would this side be satisfied with anything less than the eradication of guns, or is that their real aim? The other side is clearly in favor of gun rights and seems to think that "more guns" is the solution to most forms of gun violence. But again, what does this mean? Would this side accept any regulations aimed at keeping guns away from suspected terrorists, or are they ultimately seeking the abolition of all gun restrictions? To determine whether a compromise is possible, it seems that we'd have to begin by clearly understanding what both sides really want.

My best guess is that those calling for improved gun safety (and stricter gun control) are far more interested in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, the seriously mentally ill, and irresponsible gun owners than they are in eliminating all guns. I don't hear many voices on this side calling for the black helicopters with which many on the other side seem to be obsessed. Most aren't discussing plans for taking away your guns, although there is little doubt that some would like to. Similarly, my best guess is that those on the gun rights side of the debate seem to be more interested in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, the seriously mentally ill, and irresponsible gun owners than they do in making sure that everyone has unrestricted access to guns. I don't hear voices on this side claiming that every person is entitled to military grade automatic weapons. Most don't seem interested in abolishing all gun laws. And so, there does appear to be at least some common ground.

If it was true that almost everyone agrees that certain people should not have easy access to guns, then the debate might be a bit simpler and could focus on how best to accomplish this limited goal. That is, how do we do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of certain people without making it overly difficult for everybody else to have their guns? Hypothetically speaking, it seems like the ideal compromise might expand gun rights for responsible law-abiding citizens while restricting access for everyone else.

What Data Would We Need?

A good compromise needs to be data-driven. We'll do a much better job with it if we have access to some numbers to guide our decisions. Here's just one example of the sort of data I'd want: How do most criminals, seriously mentally ill individuals, and irresponsible gun owners acquire their guns? Do most purchase them legally, buy them on the black market, steal them from our responsible law-abiding gun owners? How are guns currently ending up in the hands of those we all wish didn't have them? That seems to be a critically important question that would have to be considered in any sort of meaningful compromise.

Suppose we were to learn that most of the guns that end up in the hands of "bad guys" were purchased legally. This would require us to take a hard look at how we could do a better job at the point-of-sale. On the other hand, suppose we learned that almost none of these guns were purchased legally and that most were stolen. This would require us to focus on issues of security and theft deterrence after the point-of-sale. My guess is that both approaches would be necessary, but this is one example where data would be helpful as we considered various options.

Federal Laws

Whatever else might make it into our grand compromise, I'll tell you where I'd be inclined to start. I'd begin with federal laws designed to replace the inconsistent mess of state laws with clear policies that would apply across the board. I think it is ridiculous that a responsible gun owner in one state has to worry about all sorts of differences in the law as he or she crosses into another state. Guns are too important for there to be this much variability based on one's location. We need federal laws covering open carry, concealed carry, and all sorts of other things. If you obtain a concealed carry permit in one state, for example, it should be good in all states. If it is legal in one state for you to carry your gun in church, it should be legal in all states for you to carry your gun in church. If it is legal for you to shoot someone who breaks into your residence in one state, it should be legal in all states. I'd be inclined to replace the confusing patchwork of varying state gun laws with federal laws.

But what about state's rights? You got me there. I'm not terribly interested in state's rights. I've always found it absurd how we pretend to be "one nation" when we're feeling patriotic each July and then threaten secession the rest of the year whenever the federal government does something we don't like. In the particular case of gun laws, I think that whatever we are going to do should happen at the federal level, as this is likely the only way we can expand gun rights in some major ways while simultaneously improving safety.

What's This Nonsense About Expanding Gun Rights?

Remember, we're talking about a framework for a compromise here. Both sides have to feel like they are getting something they want out of the arrangement. And this is one of the reasons I think that federal law is the way to go. A responsible gun owner who buys a gun and obtains a concealed carry permit for this gun should be able to travel to any state in the U.S. and find that his or her permit is still valid and that the gun-related laws are the same as they were at home. The experience of buying a gun should be the same in all states. None of this is currently the case, and it would represent a meaningful expansion of gun rights. This is not the only expansion I would support; it is just one example of what I mean when I suggest that part of an effective compromise would likely involve some expansion of gun rights.

I'm not sure whether any meaningful compromise is possible because I am not sure whether either side would go along with any sort of compromise. I would certainly like to think that both sides share at least some common goals, and that should make a compromise possible. Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part. The alternative to attempting any sort of compromise seems to be a combination of increasing polarization and continuing to ignore the pervasive gun violence taking place in our country.