We Need Gun Control at Every Level

Illustration: Angelica Alzona/GMG

The vast majority of Americans do not need a firearm, and yet they own them anyway, and continue to use them to kill. This is an epidemic that stems from a single source—the enormous, poorly regulated market for arms, propped up by an obscenely rich political lobby holding half of America’s electoral politics hostage.

This is the starting point; the argument over whether or not we need more or less gun control is, to me, as useless as debating whether or not fossil fuels are poisoning the air. Nearly all credible research shows that we need fewer guns and better accountability and regulations for the ones we keep; the only thing left for us to do is haggle over the details.

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Those details are tricky, not in the least because a large portion of the country does not accept the overwhelming evidence that guns do, in fact, kill people—at least 36,623 in 2018 alone, including roughly 22,000 suicides. The question then becomes one of delegation: Who will make the laws that take the guns? Will it be the federal government, the states, or local municipalities?

Democratic presidential candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have, in recent days, found the courage to put forward aggressive gun control platforms. Harris pledged to take executive action and impose universal background checks if Congress does not present her with a plan within the first 100 days of her presidency, while Booker vowed to “fight the NRA” like never before and floated the idea of a national licensing system.

As well-intentioned as these proposals might be, the fact remains that we cannot change the country’s relationship with guns with one federal sweeping law, or with an executive order that finally realizes the gun-grabbing boogeyman the NRA has terrorized its members with for decades.

Instead, we need at least a three-tiered system of gun control: strict federal laws requiring universal background checks; closing gun show loopholes; and far harsher penalties on businesses and gunmakers found negligent in their sales. We need sweeping federal changes and changes at the state and local level to even stand a chance at stemming the tide of gun violence. Because each state and each city and town is different, and therein lies the problem.

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In Pennsylvania right now, for example, the battle over gun jurisdiction is playing out in the state legislature, as Republican lawmakers—who control both chambers of Pennsylvania’s legislature—try to give increased control over gun laws to the state, and Democrats try to give cities and counties more power to pass local laws. In other states, however, the balance of power is reversed—Democrats have power in the statehouse, but Republicans control many local counties and jurisdictions, where local sheriffs in have vowed to create “gun sanctuaries” that ignore state or federal laws. Right now, there are rebellious local officials in Washington, New Mexico, Oregon and Illinois, but the practice will undoubtedly spread unless state and local jurisdictions can find a way to work together.

Gun violence is just one symptom of this larger divide between urban and rural in America, but like healthcare and the opioid crisis and the labor struggles plaguing every industry, the solutions to it must take into account the country’s enormous size and diversity. Gun control in New York City must look different than it does in rural Alaska. While robust federal laws instilling common-sense reform like background checks, licenses, and dealer accountability will provide a framework, they won’t be enough to enact real change without supplementary laws in smaller jurisdictions.

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The federal government needs a way to drastically decrease handgun ownership among American citizens as a whole and restrict the purchase and use of rifles and shotguns, ideally completely eradicating most firearms in urban areas. That does not, of course, mean that farmers in Kansas and Colorado and California should be stripped of their ability to keep a firearm for pests or hunting on their property. There are other countries with a similar urban-rural divide that manage to preserve the use of firearms as a tool without allowing their citizens enough access to murder each other by the thousand every year.

At the same time, flexible local laws do nothing without some form of federal consistency. Gun advocates often point to Chicago as an example that gun legislation doesn’t work to stop violence, noting that Chicago has strict gun laws and rampant gun violence. It’s a common argument rooted in a fallacy: Setting aside the fact that Chicago’s city gun laws aren’t as restrictive as they once were, this argument falls apart when you realize the city itself is adjacent to gun-lenient Wisconsin and Indiana, and it’s incredibly easy to transport a gun across state lines (in 2017, the city found that 60 percent of guns its police recovered after crimes came from outside Illinois).

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Per an NPR factcheck of the Chicago gun laws claim:

It’s important to remember here that Chicago is very close to two states that have relatively weak gun laws: Wisconsin and Indiana. So while it’s easy to pick on Chicago (or any other high-crime city) for its ugly statistics, says one expert, taking bordering states into account weakens this gun-advocacy talking point.

“It’s not a scientific study. It’s an anecdote,” said Philip Cook, a professor of public policy studies at Duke University. “They might have pointed to Washington, D.C., back in the days when D.C. banned handguns and yet had high gun-violence rates. Those bans are only at best partially effective, because the borders are permeable.”

D.C. borders Virginia, which does not have strong gun laws. (It gets a D from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.)

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Cities like Chicago should seek stricter reforms on a local level. But without strict federal bans or penalties on the gun dealers supplying weapons inside and outside the state, as we’ve seen, local legislation is toothless. And while licenses and background checks may keep more mass shooters off the streets and guns out of the news, states are in some cases better equipped to combat other angles of the issue, like the straw purchases that often feed gun crime at a local level.

Forcing local authorities to enforce constraints better served for larger municipalities or urban areas is a fool’s errand; so, too, are Pennsylvania Republicans’ plans to enforce gun laws at a state level that strips larger cities of the ability to protect their citizens.

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From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Both Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney wrote to the Senate committee, asking its members not to move Mr. Langerholc’s bill.

“As the Mayor of a city that has been particularly ravaged by the scourge of gun violence, I ask that you address the issue of the proliferation of both legal, and illegal guns in Pennsylvania, and in the absence of such action, at least provide me with the ability to address these specialized concerns with local action,” wrote Mr. Kenney, a Democrat.

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There is no one catch-all fix to this issue. It is going to be messy, especially considering that in some instances, the NRA is even more powerful at the state level than it is in D.C. But like healthcare, the needs of individual communities and the people governing them will be different—no one set of rules is going to end the violence tearing the country apart. Marches on Washington are a powerful statement, but can only go so far. Gun control starts in the home and ends in the White House, not one nor the other or anywhere in between. All of them at once, and now.

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About the author

Jack Crosbie

Contributing Writer, Splinter