Senate Majority Leader
The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House
U.S. House of Representatives
Dear Political Leaders:
You are both older than I am and probably older than most of our readers. Consequently, you grew up at a time when public school students practiced “duck and cover” during school time. Public schools held regular (often mandatory) air-raid drills, where students were instructed to duck down beneath their desks and cover their heads with their arms as protection against nuclear attack from the USSR. While the efficacy of this defense was, thankfully, never tested, it did provide a great deal of material for comedians and satirists.
It is no laughing matter that today’s students have learned how to hide from a potential shooter—often called “lockdown” drills. These drills have become a routine part of students’ lives in the 20 years since the Columbine High School shootings. Some parents also equip their students with armor-protected backpacks. All of us experience enhanced security measures at public gatherings. These efforts are meant to keep us safe.
But from whom? FBI data and criminology studies indicate that a common profile of a mass shooter is a white man, frequently enraged, influenced by white extremist ideologies, and armed with semi-automatic or assault-style weapons. There is a lot we do not yet understand about this phenomenon. But we know enough to take reasonable steps to protect ourselves.
Reasonable protective steps should start with the realization that this cannot be solved by a piecemeal state-by-state approach. The city of Dayton had banned assault-style weapons. The Dayton, Ohio, gunman legally bought his assault-style weapon online and had it shipped from Texas to a gun store in Ohio. Again, interstate commerce being what it is, and online purchasing being commonplace, a piecemeal approach to gun safety will be ineffective unless federal laws apply.
But which federal laws should be enacted? Certainly, universal background checks and gun registration should be required. In Minnesota, Christian Oberender acquired an arsenal of 13 guns including an AK-47 and a .50 caliber Desert Eagle. In 2013, he left a note addressed to his dead mother, detailing plans to kill people and stating that “the monster want out.” Oberender had murdered his mother with a shotgun when he was 14 and had a complex mental health history. Further tragedy was averted by a Carver County deputy, who got a tip from a private citizen 18 years after his initial commitment. A mandatory database of this sort of data would have raised a “red flag.”
Red flag laws now exist in 17 states (though not in Minnesota). These laws generally allow family members to petition the courts directly for orders to confiscate weapons from relatives. New York now allow teachers as well as family members to petition the court for such protective orders. All of these laws, to be effective, should cover the entire country and include due process protection for the individual who is subject to these orders. Society regulates other activities for public safety reasons—not everyone is allowed to drive a car and many people lose their required license to drive—all subject to due process protection, and all constitutional. We have a similar right to be protected from people who should not be allowed to have firearms.
But shooters also must have the means to carry out their plans. The Dayton gunman had a drum magazine that could carry up to 100 rounds of ammunition. He was able to kill nine people and injure 27 others in less than 30 seconds. Magazine capacity should be regulated. There is no constitutional infirmity in prohibiting people from purchasing or owning totally automatic weapons, “street sweeper” shotguns, or semiautomatic shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than three shells (so to hunt migratory fowl). All are prohibited by current federal law. Nor do any of these laws infringe on constitutionally protected states’ rights. By the same token, assault-style rifles can be outlawed as they were for 10 years, prior to 2005.
Regardless of the restrictions placed on guns, there is the social context of mass shootings. They seem to occur in clusters. Some sociologists have referred to this as social contagion. Radical right-wing and white nationalist ideology spread on social media has clearly had an impact. The manifesto left by the shooter involved with the El Paso shooting quoted almost verbatim from recent Fox News commentary about migrant “invasions.” Words matter, particularly to unstable individuals seeking social validation. The recent trend of not naming shooters in mass shootings is helpful. It would be more helpful if political leadership in this country were uniform in decrying inflammatory and particularly racially tinged statements.
We should be careful not to make this discussion a political one dividing Americans into pro-Trump or anti-Trump, Democratic, or Republican camps. What we’re really trying to do is to prevent dividing Americans into dead or alive. It’s an overworked cliché, but responsible adults, including political leaders, should be able to exercise judgment. It is way past the time when leadership in this country faces this issue squarely and quits employing duck and cover.
Vance K. Opperman
A gun owner
Vance K. Opperman
is owner and CEO of MSP
Communications, which publishes
Twin Cities Business.