Someone in United States will probably be killed by a person using a firearm before I finish this column. In February 2007, a teenage boy with a shotgun and a pistol randomly shot and killed six people at Trolly Square in Salt Lake City. It took only a few minutes for policemen to kill him.
That was a rare event. Such killings now occur almost daily in our United States. Most killer’s guns are semi-automatic rifles, similar to AR 15s, modified to mimic illegal full automatics. In 2019 there were, on average, more than a mass murder a day with privately owed guns. These awful events are so common law abiding Americans appear to accept them as normal.
I am guilty of remaining quiet as unstable people use illegal firearms to kill children at school, shoppers at malls or folks enjoying a concert. I have owned a gun since I was 11 years old. I have that gun and about a dozen more locked in a safe place away from where I live. For years I read about gunmen killing people and watched the aftermath of shootings on TV. I did nothing. Those awful things were not happening to people I knew.
Recently a lone gunman killed 22 people and injured 24 others in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. I have spent many happy hours in that city and adjoining Ciudad Juarez. The following morning I awoke to a NPR story about that shooting. Monica Ortiz Uribe, a woman I know from Las Cruces, New Mexico, was the reporter telling that story. Mass killings were happening in places I know and love.
In 1990, Jenny and I bought and restored an 1880 adobe house in Mesilla, New Mexico. Mesilla was a city in Mexico when Brigham Young settled on Mexican territory. Utah and Mesilla became property of the United States when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago became effective in 1848.
El Paso and Ciudad Juarez were only a few miles from our Mesilla home. We used both for business and pleasure. We drove or walked across the border between twin cities in two nations once or twice a week. We, or our car, were seldom searched. A nod and a smile were our passports.
I don’t remember shopping in the Walmart where 22 people were recently killed. We preferred shopping in Juarez. But even with the ridiculous obstacles now placed on folks crossing the border, I suspect there were about as many Mexicans in the El Paso Walmart as there were Americans. I don’t know what went on in the killer’s mind, but whatever it was, he should not have been able to obtain a firearm.
Gun rights advocates often say, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Technically, they are correct. Our challenge is keeping a lethal tool, a gun, out of the hands of humans who want to use it to kill other humans. Authorization to own and/or use a gun should be issued only to people who passed mental evaluation and competency tests. Unfortunately we Americans have not been willing to do that. We require tests of competence to drive an automobile, but not to own a firearm.
Our constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Several other countries have examples we could use to develop gun owner regulations that do not conflict with our constitution. One of these is Australia, where I lived before and after their national gun law.
We first lived in Australia in 1968. Their gun laws were similar to ours. Each state had separate laws. There were few restrictions. In 1996 a mass shooting in Port Author, Australia, killed 35 people and wounded 23 others. Aussies passed federal laws forbidding ownership or use of automatic and semi-automatics firearms. The government purchased and melted the forbidden guns. Gun restrictions are now managed primarily at the state level, but most include registration of firearms, keeping guns locked in a safe when not in use and periodic inspection of firearms. Overall, it as been well received and quite effective.
Switzerland has successfully controlled gun deaths for decades. Most male adults are part of militia and competence is maintained through training. Firearms are locked in safes when not in use.
Earlier this year, New Zealand had a major shooting massacre at Christchurch. Four months later they have passed laws like those of Australia. Automatic and semi-automatic guns are being bought back and destroyed.
These countries concentrate on competence and stability of the user rather than capability of the gun. All have mass murder and suicide rates lower than ours. Our country is different. But our land of the free and home of the brave can’t survive if we allow guns capable of mass destruction to be owned and used by demented individuals. We need to evaluate gun users like we do new automobile drivers and register every person who uses a gun.
At a minimum we need to teach that a firearm is a tool, not a toy. New gun users, like new automobile drivers, should demonstrate competence and have a background check. Those of us who own guns should welcome periodic background checks, competency tests for gun use, registration of all firearms, storing our guns in safes and periodic inspections.