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You know the United States is edging back to a post-Covid normal when a distraught kid takes his father’s 9 mm Sig Sauer, purchased on Black Friday, to his Michigan high school and opens fire. It is the most recent of 53 school shootings this year that have killed 17 people and wounded 73 others. Since there were numerous incidents in which no one was killed or injured, it is accurate to say that we are in a place where we are no longer preventing school shootings: we are managing them better.
But we aren’t getting guns out of the hands of kids, and too many parents who own guns are being as careless as ever.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard has told the public that the suspect, who is 15, is not talking, but he “had practiced shooting with the gun” and “posted pictures of the target and the weapon.” So three students are dead, others are wounded, and the rest of the young people and teachers at school that day will have to live with hours spent in a slaughterhouse for the rest of their lives.
We know what to expect from politicians. Anti-gun forces will demand change so that this “never happens again,” a stupid thing to say about any tragedy if there ever was one. Pro-gun forces will offer their “thoughts and prayers.” On Twitter, partisans on both sides will mock each other. Finally, principals nationwide will hold their breaths, wondering if their school is next.
And lawmakers will do nothing.
So here is my question: isn’t there an awful lot of ground between banning gun ownership, or regulating gun ownership (something I favor strongly), and living in a world where it is easier to get your mitts on a lethal weapon than it is to get a green card or a driver’s license? Between “never again” and “thoughts and prayers?”
Of course, there is. And as voters of all persuasions, we must demand that our representatives stop campaigning on extreme positions and propose intermediate steps to mitigate the harms of what is now a river of unregulated weapons.
Here are a few examples of what a bipartisan approach to mitigating gun violence could look like.
Gun owners should have an obligation, under federal law, to secure lethal weapons in their households so that minors cannot access them; parents should be charged as accessories to any crime committed with a weapon they own if they do not fulfill this basic obligation.
We have the technology to produce inexpensive, biometric gun safes that open, not with a combination lock that a kid could dig up or guess, but with the gun owner’s thumbprint. Importantly, this concedes, at least temporarily, gun ownership itself. But it would also ask the gun lobby to concede that a safe would not limit the rights associated with gun ownership since a minimally competent gun owner could quickly access a weapon if they felt the need to defend themselves.
Adult gun owners should all be required to hold a license similar to a driver’s license; minor children could apply for a “learner’s permit” at 14 to use a gun under a licensed gun owner’s supervision.
This would require passing a test that shows a working knowledge of local, state, and federal laws governing the ownership and use of weapons. These laws actually exist, even in states where gun ownership is the least regulated. It would also require taking a proficiency test, during which an examiner would ask the license holder to make decisions in simulated situations, define self-defense and the right to retreat, and identify situations in which drawing a weapon invites violence.
Again, this would require those who oppose widespread gun ownership to concede that we have lost the battle. But that is actually true, and until we face that, gun control is impossible. Not insignificantly, it would make concrete pro-gun forces’ assertion that they actually care about responsible gun ownership.
Here, the parallel to driving an automobile is relevant: laws governing automobile use, which can be lethal, do not stop motor vehicle injuries and fatalities. They do not stop irresponsible and drunk driving. But they do ensure that novice drivers have a working knowledge about the dangers of motor vehicles to make good decisions. This, in turn, allows 16-year-olds to stay alive long enough to gain the experience they need to be safe and responsible drivers.
Currently, the gun curriculum in schools teaches students how to fight back against being attacked. Clearly, the students in Michigan benefitted from such training: they locked and barricaded the doors of classrooms, and some armed themselves with scissors, even though close combat with a pair of scissors is a last resort when someone is shooting at you from across the room.
Federal funds could be awarded to states willing to adopt such a plan in their middle and high schools. An ideal gun curriculum would include gun safety and decision-making in a household where guns are kept and a working knowledge of the consequences of making poor decisions.
Again, driving is a good parallel example. I took the automobile safety course before getting my license. In addition to advice I follow to this day, it included gruesome photographs of people whose mangled bodies were pulled from alcohol-fueled wrecks. A gun safety course could emphasize that being killed is not the only unchangeable consequence of malicious or foolish choices. Young people need to understand that killing another human will change their life, and other lives, irrevocably, even if the shooting is legally justified. In addition, such courses would include information about and access to services students could use if they were in so much pain that they were considering harming others or themselves.
Again, this would require anti-gun forces to concede that one battle—the battle to keep guns out of the hands of young people—is lost, at least temporarily. It would require pro-gun partisans, on the other hand, to concede that the irresponsible and malicious use of guns by the young is something for which they need to take responsibility. And both sides must acknowledge that young people who do these terrible things make bad decisions for a reason: in the end, it isn’t about the gun at all.
How many more kids need to die and be traumatized before the adults stop arguing take charge again? We all must concede that gun violence is endemic: that means we are in mitigation mode, at least for now.
So let’s mitigate.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay is adapted from a post on her Substack, Political Junkie.