In an era of hardening political polarization, one of the most divisive issues is how to prevent the gun violence that our society faces day in and day out. We can’t even get started on a solution because gun-rights advocates fear that people concerned about gun violence want to take away their guns and people concerned about gun violence think that gun-rights advocates don’t care about public safety. Neither assumption is correct — except at the political extremes.
If we are going to address gun violence effectively, we need to start with mutual respect for two fundamental propositions. On the one hand, the Second Amendment confers a constitutional right, the core of which is the use of a gun for the defense of the home. That constitutional right is not absolute, as Justice Antonin Scalia made crystal clear in the District of Columbia v. Heller decision. On the other hand, public safety is a legitimate concern. It’s one of the fundamental reasons that people join together to form a civil society.
Can that lead to common ground? Of course. There is all but universal agreement that certain people should not be allowed to possess guns because of the threat they pose to civil society. The right to possess a gun has long been denied to people convicted of felonies or violent misdemeanors such as those involving domestic violence and to people suffering from serious mental illnesses.
Universal background checks are designed to prevent people not permitted to possess guns from getting them. The vast majority of Americans — indeed, the vast majority of American gun owners — support universal background checks. Adoption of universal background checks has been blocked by fears that it could lead to gun registration and inconvenience for legitimate gun owners. These fears must — and can — be effectively addressed.
Another measure for keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have them is the so-called “red flag,” or extreme risk protective order, which provides a judicial process for temporarily taking guns away from and denying access to people who are a threat to themselves or others. Connecticut has had a version of this law for nearly 20 years, and a recent study found that for every 10 to 20 protective orders issued, one suicide was prevented. Utah has the fifth highest suicide rate in the country, and 80 percent of our gun deaths are suicides. Enacting a red-flag statute could significantly reduce the suicide rate in Utah.
Safe storage of dangerous weapons is a particularly challenging issue. It is well-documented that guns taken from family members or friends all too often become the means of mass shootings and suicides. In conjunction with the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, the Utah Shooting Sports Council has begun a public education campaign to promote the safe storage of firearms for individuals who pose a threat to themselves. Careful tracking of information from this campaign may help turn the tide on Utah’s gun suicide epidemic.
Many other measures for preventing gun violence have been raised. In each case, two questions should be answered. First, how effective will it be in preventing gun violence? Second, what will the practical impact be on responsible gun owners? Answers must be based on honest, objective analysis, not simplistic partisan rhetoric. Even the author of the Dickey Amendment, which effectively shut down federal research on the causes of gun violence, has recanted and now recognizes the necessity for fact-based research on gun violence.
So there is a road to working together to prevent gun violence. We should take it.
Ed Rutan, Park City, is a member of the board of directors of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah and was the city attorney for Salt Lake City from 2002 until he retired in 2013.