To prevent a 'Washington Navy Yard' mass shooting, require gun permits

The NRA is right. Many mass shooters have mental problems such as those that apparently drove Aaron Alexis to start shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. But the US cannot lock up every person who struggles with such problems. It is more useful to license gun holders.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Roses rest on an anchor at an entrance to the Washington Navy Yard as security personnel stand watch in Washington Sept. 19. Op-ed contributor Walter C. Clemens Jr. writes: Licensing gun holders 'would be no more onerous than the requirement to register every motorized vehicle and license every driver.'

Four US presidents have been assassinated while in office. Two others were wounded. There have been at least 20 attempts to assassinate sitting and former presidents. Now, 13 persons, including gunman Arron Alexis, are dead after a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard near the US Capitol Sept. 16. Not only politicians but, in recent years, school children and moviegoers have been shot and killed.

How can America reduce gun violence? Possessing a gun does not necessarily improve one’s chances of survival. Residents of states with higher levels of gun ownership have disproportionately higher rates of gun-related deaths, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.

The National Rifle Association is correct: Many if not most mass shooters have mental and emotional problems such as those that apparently drove Aaron Alexis to start shooting at the navy yard in Washington, D.C. But the United States cannot lock up every person who has mental or emotional problems that might later result in a violent act. It would be far more useful and feasible to register every gun, large and small, and to require that every gun holder be licensed to use and/or own a firearm. A national registration and licensing system could be mandated under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.

These proposals may appear utopian and out-of-touch with political reality. But they offer a clear and relatively simple response to a severe challenge to public health. Defenders of gun rights will say that registration and licensing would intrude and infringe on their individual freedom and Second Amendment rights. But such obligations would be no more onerous than the requirement to register every motorized vehicle and license every driver. 

Yes, bad guys would be reluctant to register their weapons and seek a license. In time, however, the law would catch up with many of them. Given his record of run-ins with the law, an individual such as Alexis could not have obtained or retained a gun license under a national system to register guns and license gun owners. Nor could he have purchased a gun.

As for the Second Amendment, while the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a right to arms, the court also left the door open to gun regulation. A requirement to register arms and license ownership would not jeopardize Second Amendment rights.             

A requirement to register every gun and license every gun holder would not prevent hunters, sport shooters, or those who feel safer with their own weapons from owning guns. To obtain a license, however, an applicant would have to maintain a clean record and demonstrate an ability to maintain and use a weapon to prevent injury to themselves and others (except attackers). These conditions parallel the requirements for owning and using an automobile.

Every weapon registered should have a safety device to prevent firing by children or other unlicensed persons. Registration of large-bore and rapid-fire weapons that are more powerful than what can be useful for hunters should probably be limited to collectors who exhibit them or keep them under lock and key.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life comes first. Without it, there can be neither liberty nor the pursuit of happiness. More Americans die from gun violence in the US than from terrorist acts or fighting overseas. Common sense and experience dictate that the US agree to control the tools of death and destruction within the country as well as internationally. If we demand international curbs on weapons of mass destruction, should we not also expect and demand regulation of weapons that kill thousands of innocents every year in America? 

Walter C. Clemens Jr. is professor emeritus of political science at Boston University. His most recent book is "Complexity Science and World Affairs" (State University of New York Press, 2013).  

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