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Putting the Hammer Down on Guns

By Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

"Today is not the day for a debate on gun control."
-- Presidential Spokesman Jay Carney

Note to Jay Carney: "If not now, when?"

Twenty children, ages 5 to 10, are mercilessly gunned down in the protected sanctuary of their Connecticut schoolroom and this does not call for a public debate? Is the US Gun Lobby really so powerful that the White House spokesperson feels his first duty is to call for a ban on public debate -- instead of a ban on the very weapons that created this tragedy?

We should move to ban the ownership of military assault rifles and other high-powered weapons of mass destruction. These weapons are unsuitable for recreational target practice or hunting. They are clearly unsuited for the urban environment. Congress has already acted to outlaw the ownership of machineguns and banned the possession of bazookas.

This leaves the question of handguns. In searching for solutions to the risks of concealed weapons and Saturday Night Specials, we needn't raise the troublesome debate over Second Amendment "rights" to own a handgun. There are many things we can do, short of a ban on handguns and none of these approaches would violate the most reactionary interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Without banning ownership of handguns, per se, here are some actions we could take to rein in the rising tide of gun violence that is flooding our nation.

A Licensing Fee for Victims Compensation
States and municipalities could create a new licensing fee for gun-store owners and gun dealers. The money raised would be used to create a fund to compensate the victims of gun violence.

All dealers would need to contribute to this fund in order to do business. The fund could be a state or federal trust fund or, alternatively, state and federal laws could require gun-dealers to take out impact-specific insurance from an approved insurance firm.

The amount in the state/federal fund would be adjusted each year, depending on the level of lethal gun violence. If the number of gun deaths declined, the cost of the subsequent year's insurance would also decline. This would give weapons merchants a financial stake in reducing incidents of illegal gun use. (There is precedent for this approach. As a consequence of BP's role in polluting the Gulf of Mexico, insurance costs for all oil companies rose “exponentially.†This served to send a message to the entire industry that endangering lives and livelihoods could entail painful financial penalties.)

Mandatory Gun Sellers' Insurance
The oil and gas industry routinely obtains comprehensive insurance protection to cover a wide range of external liabilities -- including damage to the environment (from oil spills and gas explosions) and payments for death, injuries and disabilities suffered by workers and civilians harmed by the companies' activities. (In one recent case, on October 24, 2012, a jury in West Texas awarded $11 million to a man who sued an oil company after he was struck by a pipe casing that broke free of an oilfield elevator.)

BP and its Deepwater Horizon drilling partners were required to have insurance coverage to pay for damages and compensate victims in the event of a drilling accident. (Coverage that proved inadequate to address the magnitude of the disaster.)

By contrast, current insurance packages offered to the US gun industry mainly cover damage to the business owners' property and workplace accidents. Unlike insurance for the oil and gas industry, the gun-dealers' policies do not extend to such "externalities" as the death and injury caused by the use of the gun-sellers' products.

BP's Gulf of Mexico explosion and oil spill killed 11 rig workers and devastated the livelihoods of millions of Gulf Coast shrimpers and business owners. Why then, should the US domestic arms industry be exempt from similar insurance requirements -- especially given the larger death toll routinely caused by the misuse of firearns?

The FBI reports that guns killed 8,775 Americans in 2010. The previous year was even deadlier. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2009, guns accounted for 11,493 US deaths. But these figures only include homicides. In 2009, guns also accounted for 18,735 suicides -- nearly half of all US suicides. Combining suicides and homicides brings the total estimated number of gun-related deaths in 2009 to 31,228, making gun deaths the second leading cause of non-disease-related mortality in the US -- second only to accidental deaths.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP set aside $9.5 billion to establish a trust to pay claims for damages. By July 2011, the fund had paid $4.7 billion to 198,475 claimants. Given the scale of death and damage that results from the daily operations of the US gun industry, the argument for requiring similar insurance coverage becomes compelling.

The Individual Gun Seller's Accountability
Responsibility for gun carnage does not end at the factory. It also extends to the point-of-purchase. Gun store owners are the "gatekeepers" when it comes to protecting the public from people who feel they must acquire guns for "self-protection" against other members of the public.

When a gun used in a crime can be traced to a particular store (even if the weapon has been subsequently sold, given away or stolen), the identity of that store and its location – as well as the make of the weapon and the name of the manufacturer – should be made part of the official police report so this information can be included in all media reports on the crime and its aftermath.

In those cases where the individual who commits a gun crime is the same individual who purchased the weapon, the gun dealer or storeowner responsible for the sale should be subjected to a thorough investigation to determine if the merchant exercised a proper regard for downstream risks before authorizing the sale.

If an investigation determines that the purchase should have been denied because the customer had a significant criminal record, had relevant medical, mental or emotional problems, had been subject to a restraining order, or had recently experienced significant stress or personal trauma -- e.g., the loss of a home, a bitter divorce, the loss of a job -- the individual seller could be found criminally responsible.

In such cases, the costs for compensating the victims would be born first by the seller, rather than covered by the industry's collective trust fund, insurance plan or state/federal licensing fees. This would give the gun industry a financial stake in cracking down on gun shops and independent dealers that engaged in reckless sales practices that endanger the public.

Similar restrictions should be imposed on the sale of ammunition. There should be rigorous background checks and limits on the amount of ammunition one can legally purchase as possess.

James Holmes, the deranged student who stands accused of opened fire in a crowded Colorado movie theater -- killing 12 and wounding 58 -- was able to assemble an arsenal of weapons without undergoing any serious background checks prior to purchase.

Despite the Department of Homeland Security's massive budget and growing domestic surveillance infrastructure, the DHS remained totally in the dark about Mr. Holmes, a diagnosed schizophrenia who was methodically amassing a 6,000-round arsenal by ordering bullets over the Internet.

While the FBI busied itself setting up "sting" operations to entrap would-be jihadists (by providing encouragement, training and fake explosives), Holmes' activities went completely unnoticed -- even though surveillance videos at one point captured him unloading 150-pound boxes of ammunition -- delivered courtesy of FedEx and UPS. Clearly, another fundamental reform should require new restrictions on laws regulating the sale of ammunition.

There are clear steps that can be taken to draw down the threat of weapons violence in the country. The US has allowed itself to become the most heavily armed country on Earth. For the sake of those children in Sandy Hook, we need to face our demons and start insisting on more responsible gun controls and regulations. It was clear from President Obama's emotional address to the nation that he has heard the message -- even if his Presidential spokesperson has not.



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