We asked people on both sides of the gun debate for proposals they all could live with: Here’s what happened
We asked people on both sides of the gun debate for proposals they all could live with: Here’s what happened
WASHINGTON -- When talk turns to school kids and shootings, the two sides of America’s great gun debate usually disagree on so many things.
Give guns and firearms training to willing teachers, one side says.
Not happening, says the other.
So what happens when Second Amendment purists and gun-control advocates are brought together over a month to see if they at least can understand one another? Can they agree on ways to reduce gun violence?
In a minor experiment, we set out to see. But first, consider the personalities and conflicting positions.
There was Alexander Covan, 48, of Livingston, New Jersey, who designs education and training programs, totally unrelated to guns, for a living -- and who says he sees ignorance or hypocrisy in the politics of gun control. He wants to arm and train willing teachers. David Goodman, 48, a federal firearms dealer in Virginia Beach, and Vanessa Kooper, 20, of Slidell, Louisiana, who works in her family’s business, both want to promote more positive influences in kids’ lives, provide more support for broken and at-risk families and put a very big spotlight on suicide prevention.
“Let’s get there before kids go down that path” to gun violence, Goodman said.
This sounds good -- except it also sounds “like empty rhetoric because the party that supports unlimited gun rights is also the party that abhors social safety nets, school funding and universal medical care,” said Joe Vargo, 37, a father and destination marketer in Columbus, Ohio, and a gun-control supporter. And at-school firearms and safety training, supported by the gun-rights side, is not occurring if Melanie Jeffcoat, an actress and filmmaker from Homewood, Alabama, and the Rev. Kris Eggert, 66, a retired minister from South Euclid, Ohio, have anything to say about it.
“Gun ownership is a choice that is made by a minority of households, and those households can determine how they want to introduce guns to their children,” Eggert said.
Is there no middle ground? What would happen if, after talking for a month in a closed, moderated Facebook group, these proponents from either side offered what they separately considered to be reasonable, sensible solutions to curbing gun violence? What new legislation and government policies would either side propose if they tried to avoid ideas they knew would never fly ?
Advance Local, its member websites including Cleveland.com, and San Francisco-based Spaceship Media convened 150 people from early April through early May in a closed, moderated Facebook discussion called “Guns, an American Conversation.”
The point of this dialogue journalism was not to change anyone’s mind. Rather, it was for participants to better understand how and why people with opposite views in a politically divisive time come to their separate opinions. The conversation, occurring practically around the clock and across three time zones, took place in the aftermath of the school shooting that killed 17 at a Parkland, Florida, high school in February.
When the dialogue was over last week, we picked six people in the group -- three each from opposite ends of the gun-control spectrum -- and worked with them to see how they’d recommend dealing with excessive gun violence.
There was no right or wrong -- but there was a realization that for change to happen, the two sides might have to find agreement somewhere. Both sides seemed to acknowledge, for example, that as much as some gun-control advocates want to ban certain semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, the political will currently falls on the side of gun rights, not gun bans.
But there are other recommendations that emerged. These proposed solutions illustrate not only the policy differences between the two sides in the nation’s gun debate but also their separate worldviews.
They also show where common ground exists.
Agreement on both sides
Victories can be small and large. These were both -- large because they showed both sides in the debate could agree on certain things; small because implementing the points of agreement could be problematic politically.
Proposal: Put more public resources into suicide prevention, since suicides account for the majority of firearms deaths -- 59 percent in 2006, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Goodman, a Navy veteran and Second Amendment defender, proposed a widespread public campaign similar to the nonprofit 22 Kill, a program that tries to reach military veterans. It was so named because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported in 2012 that 18 to 22 veterans a day commit suicide. That program provides awareness, education and contacts to support veterans and their families.
A broad campaign needs “national exposure,” Goodman said. “There are many cases like that where somebody said, ‘He didn’t seem like that kind of person,’ but some of the signs might not have been noticed.”
The gun-control side here -- Eggert, Jeffcoat and Vargo -- agreed with the need and the goal. But they said it should include money and resources that Congress and state legislatures have not always provided.
Lack of health insurance or limits on treatment tend to stand in the way of people getting the help they need, they said. “We cannot demonize those on Medicaid or those who push for an expansion of low-income health care coverage,” Jeffcoat said. “If we had affordable access to therapy and well-funded mental health crisis centers, perhaps we could save some of these lives.”
Proposal: Intervene early in kids’ lives. Give them positive incentives. Support at-risk families. The key is to teach personal responsibility, which includes helping children change their behaviors and realize they are responsible for their actions -- and that guns aren’t a way to resolve problems or differences. Community-based organizations could play a role in this.
“Parents, teachers, neighbors” have to get involved, Goodman said, to reach children before they become involved in crime. “Let’s get there before kids go down that path.”
Agreed, said the other side. But this, too, requires social services funding that Republicans in Congress, while supporting Second Amendment rights, have been reluctant to provide, Vargo said. Non-profit groups work at it now but mostly on a small scale. Paying lip service to helping families and children won’t be enough if not backed by resources, the others on this side said.
Proposal: Enforce current laws. Laws already exist that call for harsher sentences if a felony is committed with a firearm, and “dozens and dozens of criminals weekly are going to court” on these charges, Goodman said. But they are offered plea bargains and get the firearms charges or stipulation dropped.
Similarly, laws exist that require states and agencies to report criminal and domestic violence convictions to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, in order to determine whether a buyer is eligible to buy a firearm. But not all agencies are as rigorous as others in their reporting. The Air Force, for example, failed to report the domestic violence court martial conviction of the mass shooter who bought four firearms after his discharge and one-year prison sentence. He killed 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas last year.
“That guy absolutely should not have been allowed to buy firearms,” Goodman said.
The same goes for policing “straw purchasers,” or people who buy guns for others because the end user is barred. According to Goodman, a firearms dealer, and The Trace, a website that reports on gun issues, violators are seldom prosecuted.
Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health this year concluded the same: Federal prosecution of straw purchasers “is extremely rare,” and state laws and their enforcement are inconsistent.
The gun-control side in this debate agreed with this entirely. But they said additional laws are needed, too.
Proposal: Make schools safer.
The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act in 1990 and similar state laws were supposed to prevent gun violence and create safe spaces for children. Yet schools have become “soft targets,” gun-rights proponents say, and people who want to do harm are well aware of this.
The solution means locking doors at schools and providing guards who are trained. It requires better use of cameras and sensors, Goodman said.
It needs to be a multi-layered effort. The U.S. Capitol is secure, Kooper noted. Shouldn’t schools be?
This got no disagreement.
“Some schools still allow anyone to enter,” Jeffcoat said. “It makes me sad to turn schools into prisons, but we have to be aware that not everyone who enters a school should be there. I think a trained resource officer at each school would be great. The one at our school handles complicated issues every day, and I am grateful to have her there.”
The gun-rights proposals that got pushback
Covan, Goodman and Kooper made several additional proposals for new tactics or policies they said could reduce gun violence. But in these, they found the other side saying no.
Proposal: Teach firearms safety to school children so they know what to do in scenarios where guns are involved or are found. The emphasis would be on safety -- on knowing guns can harm you and therefore knowing what to do if you come into contact with one.
Students would not necessarily have to even handle a firearm, Kooper and Goodman said.
How and where would this be offered?
“I have no issues with offering it at schools,” Goodman said. But if there were objections, gun safety could be taught through any number or organizations, from scouting to volunteer gun groups to community centers, even with law enforcement involvement.
Goodman and Kooper would make the training optional -- not because they think gun education isn’t necessary, but because politically this could be a hard sell.
“Just offering firearms safety is a HUGE stretch, so I’m not sure they would go for that,” Kooper said in an email. Besides, Goodman said, “when you force people to do something when they really don’t want to do it, you are creating a negative scenario, whereas you want a positive scenario.”
Covan, however, said he would build it into the curriculum, requiring parents to opt their children out if they wanted. “I think this should be mandatory, just like drug and sex ed, with an opt-out option for those who chose to put their own kids at risk because they feel uncomfortable with the subject matter,” he said. “Nobody is asking to opt out of fire safety classes for young kids.”
Said Eggert, Jeffcoat and Vargo on the other side: Absolutely not.
“School funding is so limited and testing carries such weight that we are already sacrificing art and music,” Eggert said. “There is no way that time and resources should be used for firearm safety. Firearm safety training is not in the same category of fire safety, nor is it as necessary as sex education.”
Proposal: Provide willing teachers and administrators with firearms and safety training, and let them use it if necessary. Only those who want to be armed -- teachers, administrators or others involved in schools daily -- would be so equipped, Kooper, Covan and Goodman said.
“Absolutely no way do we want to force anyone to do it,” Goodman said. In fact, he said, forcing or requiring anyone to carry a weapon would be as bad as not having such security, he said.
But training shouldn’t stop there, Covan said. “I believe it would be fair and appropriate to require and provide training in verbal de-escalation, legal use of force, weapon retention, marksmanship, and procedures for interacting with security and law enforcement during an event,” he said.
Said the gun-control side: This is absurd.
“Firearms do not belong in schools,” Vargo said, “and there is no evidence to support the ‘good guy with a gun’ theory. Gun culture should not infiltrate schools.”
“I have talked endlessly with educators about this and they were the ones who stopped this bill here in Alabama,” Jeffcoat said. “And there is no way that a gun in a safe, away from ammo (and away from kids) will be handy in a second’s notice, anyway.”
This idea came from only one member of the gun-rights team, Covan:
Proposal: License handgun users and register those handguns.
He acknowledged this wouldn’t be popular with Second Amendment purists but said the problems created by the prevalence of handguns warrants it. Handguns were used in 88 percent of all murders in the United States in 2016 in which the the type of firearm could be identified, according to data reported to the FBI.
Licenses to carry a handgun could be issued by state or local authorities, based on unambiguous criteria -- so licenses couldn’t be withheld arbitrarily -- and on standardized tests for firearms proficiency and knowledge of the law, Covan said.
Registration of handguns, however, could “be most useful if implemented on a national level,” Covan said, in order to better track weapons across state lines, although a coordinated system of state checks could work too. This could incentivize creation of better ways to make weapon identification, such as serial numbers, more tamper-resistant, which would help against firearms theft and trafficking.
“A handgun is a weapon designed for convenient carry by people who might need a gun but don’t plan on using it,” Covan said. From a Second Amendment perspective, a long arm -- a rifle -- is “for resisting tyranny; a handgun is for self-defense. Handguns are also far more suited to a criminal carrying concealed on the street. For that reason, I’m actually OK with registering handguns to make it harder to sell them illegally.”
Said the gun-control side in this debate: Well all right.
“We just found some common ground!” Eggert said.
It was not universal, however, and Goodman and Kooper -- who more typically agree with Covan -- said no to this one.
“When the Second Amendment was written, muskets -- long guns -- and flintlock pistols were in primary use,” Kooper said. Therefore, the Bill of Rights framers weren’t just thinking about long guns when they wrote the Second Amendment.
She quoted Ronald Reagan to make another point: “As government expands, liberty contracts.”
In Kooper’s own words: “When we -- the people -- give the government permission to infringe on our rights, we are asking for trouble.”
Proposals from the gun-control side that were rejected
If the gun-rights side could get some agreement from the gun-control side, might the gun-control side’s calls for new laws and regulations get consent from the Second Amendment crew?
Sorry, Goodman, Kooper and Covan said to most of the proposals they heard from the other side.
Part of their objection related to the Second Amendment right to own firearms, but they also cited questions of fairness, due-process rights and what they say should be a presumption of innocence on the part of the majority of gun owners.
No one disputed that guns can kill. But they said firearms are a tool the overwhelming majority of gun owners use safely and properly, and this broader group is not only law-abiding; it is immensely respectful of the responsibilities that go with gun ownership.
The nation doesn’t need more laws to stop gun violence, many on this side say. Laws are on the books already, but need to be enforced better, they say. Removing the constitutional right to a gun would also remove the right to a weapon used by some for personal protection.
“By saying that you want to protect lives, you’re basically making it harder to protect lives,” Kooper said.
“When you have a problem,” said Goodman, “taking things away doesn’t solve the problem. You still have the bad actors.”
This is what Eggert, Jeffcoat and Vargo proposed -- and the other side rejected:
Proposal: Require a criminal background check for every gun sale, including private and gun show sales, and ensure that all relevant records are updated in the background check system. If a buyer could not be cleared because of uncertainty about a criminal record, the transaction could be delayed, Eggert said.
This proposal is a bit of a mixed bag as far as reaction, but it goes in the rejection pile for a simple reason: The gun-rights crowd has the same problem with it as Republicans in Congress did when they refused to pass a similar law.
While federal firearms dealers must submit buyers’ names to the NICS, whether they sell at a store or a gun show, private sellers do not, although California and Connecticut have their own laws with a tougher private-sales standard.
What could be wrong with requiring universal checks?
“I think the current gun buying/background check system should be fixed before adding more,” Kooper said.
Covan said he could go along with requiring background checks for all buyers, but he would not want to change the current federal system that allows a transaction to go forward if the NICS cannot get a clear answer in three business days.
“If a question is raised, it becomes the responsibility of the FBI to find the information within a reasonable period of time and proper reporting should eliminate this issue,” he said. “If they do find something later, I believe that the sale can be retroactively reversed and the weapon repossessed.”
Proposal: Ban all gun purchases for people with a history of domestic abuse -- whether in married or unmarried relationships -- if there is cause to worry about a shooting.
Current law is supposed to flag both felony and misdemeanor domestic violence convictions in the NICS. Yet dating partners are not subject to the federal firearms ban unless the partners have lived together as spouses or have a child in common, says the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In 2008, the center says, individuals killed by current dating partners made up almost half of all spouse and current dating partner homicides. A study of applicants for domestic-violence restraining orders in Los Angeles found that the most common relationship between the victim and abuser was a dating relationship.
Advocates of tightening the law say they would require people with such convictions to turn in their firearms. In some states, a judge can require someone subject to a protective order to give up his weapons, but when these laws now exist they are applied inconsistently, the New York Times says.
A broader law linked to domestic violence still should include the opportunity for the gun owner to get “timely and effective due process” in court, Jeffcoat said. “If the police are called to a home with a significant domestic disturbance and they know there are guns in the home, they would have the authority to temporarily remove those guns, and if a judge then hears about a longer history of abuse, this offender may in fact lose their right to own guns.”
What could be the objection to this?
It’s an old one: Not all domestic violence cases are the same, and some people wind up with convictions and lose a constitutional right when they didn’t intend to cause harm. The offender can even become responsible down the road. Loss of a constitutional right should not require special requests and expungement attempts to regain it later.
“I dont think a domestic violence suspect/criminal should be banned from using/having a gun for life,” Kooper said.
Proposal: Raise the minimum age to purchase all firearms to 21.
Current federal law requires a buyer to be 21 or older if purchasing a handgun from a dealer, but he or she can be 18 if buying in a private sale. Anyone 18 or older can buy a long gun, including a shotgun or an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon, from a dealer, but there is no minimum age in the private-sales market.
“I know the argument is that an 18-year-old is a legal adult who could fight in a war, but I think that this age restriction is more in line with the drinking age, brain development and the statistics on gun suicides by teens,” Jeffcoat said.
Sorry, said gun-rights advocates, but this too is a non-starter, and not only because it would affect hunters under age 21.
“I must disagree with this 100 percent!” Kooper said, reminding others than she is 20 years old. “As someone ‘underage,’ I feel it is very hypocritical to group ALL teen/young adults together -- stereotyping, if you will. It is a constant source of frustration to me as a mature, responsible young person.”
“If an 18-year-old’s brain isn’t developed enough to behave safe and responsibly,” Covan added, “they definitely shouldn’t be allowed to drive a motor vehicle (and insurance stats support that) ... or have a child. If we are going to talk about broadly limiting the rights and responsibilities of people under 21 because their brains aren’t fully developed, that’s another discussion.”
Proposal: Increase and enforce the penalties for using illegal guns in crimes.
Ideally, this could include penalties for gun sellers whose products are disproportionately used in crimes, and to enforce policies to help track how criminals wind up with guns. This could be extended to crack down on gun trafficking between states where it it easier to buy a firearm and states with stricter standards.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says just 5 percent of gun dealers in the United States sell 90 percent of guns linked to crime, “and they often do it with business practices that they know are irresponsible or even illegal.”
No gun dealer is required to make a sale if he suspect the gun is being bought for someone else (a “straw purchase”) or thinks the buyer is a trafficker who transports weapons to states with stricter firearms laws. But a small share of gun dealers do it anyway.
There are two problems with the proposed solution of adding laws or making penalties stiffer, say those on the other side: Tough laws exist already for using a gun when committing a felony, and they just need to be enforced. And trafficking is already a crime.
“There are already an assortment of add-on penalties and they don’t seem to deter anyone,” Covan said. “The federal penalty for gun trafficking is 10 years. If that is not a sufficient deterrent, what would be?”
Proposals from the gun-control side that might find middle ground
So did the group that believes strongly in Second Amendment rights refuse to budge on a single thing offered by the gun-control side -- a side that says it purposely didn’t include weapons bans or other proposals it knew wouldn’t fly?
It turns out there were two potential proposals for compromise to ideas from Eggert, Jeffcoat and Vargo:
Proposal: Get behind Red Flag laws -- laws that allow temporary removal of firearms from people deemed a danger, based on their behavior.
While current federal law bars sale of guns to someone adjudicated as “a mental defective” or who has been “committed to any mental institution,” few people with such diagnoses actually commit crimes.
Another category of behavior -- disturbing, antisocial acts or statements that creates a credible threat -- sometimes triggers worries but doesn’t meet the legal standard.
But five states -- California, Connecticut, Indiana, Washington and Oregon — have “red-flag” laws that allow relatives, close friends and police to ask judges to issue “gun violence restraining orders” if they have reason to worry, according to The Washington Post. There need to be more of these, as long as the gun owner has due-process rights in court and the threats of violence are clear, credible and public, say Jeffcoat, Eggert and Vargo,
What do gun rights proponents say to this?
“These red flags need to be very well defined to create an acceptable legal standard that doesn’t amount to, ‘He listens to weird music’ or ‘dresses all in black,’” Covan said. ”‘Credible threat’ should be defined as ‘making specific threats to kill or injure self or others.’ The response should not be limited to ‘take away guns’ and should not be framed as ‘gun-restraining orders’ but rather as a comprehensive response that would be equally effective if the person decides to become the next Florida slumber party slasher or Oklahoma City Bomber.”
Proposal: Require basic gun usage and safety training for first-time gun purchases.
The idea of “mandatory” training might be distasteful to some Second Amendment purists, Jeffcoat said. “But we can try to meet them with required training for first-time gun purchases, and perhaps even require safety and usage training in order to get a concealed-carry or open-carry permit, whose issuance varies state by state.
She added, “As I write this, I actually can’t believe that isn’t already required before someone can walk around with a gun on their hip.”
What say the gun owners?
“More training, yes. Mandatory, no,” Kooper said.
Covan gave a variation of the same answer. Training is good. But “a test out option should be provided if the person believes they can demonstrate competency without taking the course,” he said.
You might have noticed Goodman’s voice missing in response to some of these ideas. He had a broader message to most of the gun-control proposals: Proponents focused on removing a right. That always requires a careful balance.
“I find myself in disagreement with most of these based on the principle of innocent until proven guilty, due process and Sixth Amendment right to face accuser and have counsel present,” Goodman said. “If there is a way to favor those processes and implement the suggestions, I would be inclined to consider the options.”
Of course, neither Goodman nor the others has the power to implement any of these proposed policies or laws. But these show what might and might not be possible when people from both sides talk and trade suggestions.
Whether Congress can do that, given its deep political divisions and special interests that bend lawmakers’ ears, is a different matter.