Exploring solutions for one of America’s most talked about issues
By: Leviathan DeGross
After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School that resulted in the death of 17 students, debate and outrage filled the nation and the capital. Two sides emerged; one called for stricter gun control or an outright ban, while the other called for mental health reform and arming teachers. Amidst the swirl of activists, lobbyists and politicians, many voices have been lost in the gun debate. In a democracy, all voices deserve to be heard, and with a debate that has been pushed to the edges of black and white, it’s time to look through the gun smoke and examine the complex issues.
When it comes to the purchasingand sale of firearms, there is often an immediate reaction of trying to blame gun shop owners and clerks. These are small business owners who have received attacks in the media and have specifically been targeted as the villains in many stories. The owner of JT Guns and Supply in Des Moines, who asked that his name not be printed, was a victim of this current trend. A local activist attempted to buy a gun, specifically an AR-15, to try and make a point about how easy it was to buy in Iowa and that gun shop owners will forego proper procedure in order to make a sale. The owner refused to sell the gun and followed the proper protocol after the activist asked if there was a way around the background check for purchasing a long rifle in accordance with Iowa law.
An additional requirement the owner explained is that paperwork for the weapon and the purchaser is submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms, and Explosives. While this is a simple process and can be completed in the shop at the time of purchase, it is a record for showing that every single weapon is registered and to whom the weapon belongs. The activist posted a video online from the parking lot of the shop criticizing the shop owner for the ease of buying the weapon. After a few heated words were exchanged, the owner made something very clear: “I will not be portrayed as the bad guy,” the owner said. “I don’t sell to monsters.”
No gun shop owner or clerk wants to b
e the person that sells a weapon to the next mass shooter. There is a responsibility of owning and respecting firearms that these individuals whose livelihood revolves around them have a professional obligation to follow, and they use the tools that are available to them when selling a firearm. The owner even voiced that he would be open to additional restrictions on purchasing weapons, such as the proposed minimum purchasing age of 21, or even additional background check requirements.
Lane Mellegaard is a gun shop clerk who works specifically with handguns and home defense. When asked for his recommendation for a personal defense firearm, the AR-15, or any other semi-automatic carbine, wasn’t even mentioned. “I would not recommend the AR-15 to someone who is seeking a firearm specifically for home defense,” Mellegaard said. “Similar to a handgun, the rounds will have the ability to pass through walls of a house and hit unintended objects.”
Mellegaard’s recommendation was actually a shotgun for two primary reasons. A shotgun has an intimidating presence and many times can remove the need to even fire a shot. While in the extreme situation of needing to fire a shot, the pellets do not maintain the energy to pass through walls like a bullet from a long rifle or handgun would, making it a safer close range weapon for defense. Mellega
ard made it clear that a rifle is not a first time gun owner’s perfect choice. Handling that type of weapon takes experience and knowledge of firearms in order to properly control and understand what happens after the trigger is pulled.
There is also the much talked about the “gun show loophole” when it comes to the sale and purchasing of firearms. According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the gun show loophole does not refer to licensed and recognized gun shops or larger stores. The gun show loophole allows unlicensed sellers to sell their weapons. There are stipulations that it has to be sold from the seller’s private collection and the intent cannot be primarily for profit. Since these are private individuals selling at gun shows, they do not have the same requirements for gun sales as licensed dealers, which allows weapons to b
e sold without a background check or registration. A licensed seller of firearms selling at a gun show is still subject to the same requirements as in stores.
Amber Gustafson is a former chapter leader of Moms Demand Action and has been active in the gun debate for many years. “Sandy Hook changed the conversation,” Gustafson said. “It went from guns to discussing mental health and the shooter.” While the main goal has been to find the reason behind the shootings, this conversation wasn’t enough for Gustafson. “I realized that this conversation was about my son,” Gustafson said. Gustafson’s son is a member of his school’s trap shooting team and the experience has done wonders for his issues with attention and other issues. “The reality is you can either lock up guns or people, and no one is going to lock up my son,” she said. Gustafson began to realize early on in the debate that mental health may not be the direction to go. The risk of it becoming a witch hu
nt is simply too great, as is the risk of stereotyping every person with a mental illness as a potential mass shooter.
Gustafson then pointed to gaps in current legislation that need to be tightened, one example being the “boyfriend loophole.” According to Gustafson, anyone who is convicted of domestic violence can still legally purchase a weapon so long as they were not married to the victim, had children with the victim or lived with them. This only applies to offenders who have been convicted, not just suspected–they have been charged and found guilty. Gustafson also pointed out that the background check for purchasing weapons is not a national standard and is subject to state by state check. “So in theory if you were convicted of a crime in Arkansas, and then crossed the border into Louisiana and purchased a gun there, there is no g
uarantee that crime in Arkansas would come up in a background check.”
As it stands in Iowa, laws for a concealed carry permit are very specific. The minimum age for a nonprofessional permit is 21, and the minimum on professional permits is 18. The professional permit only applies for members of law enforcement or military. There is also an application that must be submitted through the sheriff of the county of residence, who maintains the power to deny a permit with court approval after the denial has been made, paired with a three day minimum waiting period. The permit must be renewed every five years. There is also a required gun safety training with
approval from the instructor.
The National Rifle Association is also active in Iowa politics. Gustafson recalled being in a meeting where an NRA lobbyist was pushing for a removal on the ban of short barreled shotguns, also known as “sawed off” shotguns. A “sawed off” refers to a modification where the shotgun barrel is shortened by sometimes literally sawing off the front part of the barrel, and often changing the stock of the weapon into a pistol grip, greatly reducing the size and weight of the firearm. This modification was declared illegal because it increases the ease of concealing an extremely powerful weapon, as well as increasing the spread of the shot in the weapon when it is fired, making it much harder to control. This section of the NRA is called the Institute for Legislative Action and operates from the other sections of the NRA that provide weapons safety training and conservation efforts with sportsman and hunters. According to Gustafson the ILA is where the “scary side” of the NRA lives and is the “home of La Pierre and Dana Loesch” who have become infamous in their aggressive attacks against the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting and different media groups.
The NRA’s proposal to arm teachers, along with top Republicans such as President Donald Trump, has been met with some backlash. Accordin
g to a poll conducted by NPR, the major supporters of arming teachers are Republican men, with almost 71% saying that teachers should be armed. That being said, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has yet to sign on to President Trump’s proposal which has largely divided the Republican House.
The danger of this response is it pushes us toward living in a more militarized society. When Gustafson was asked her thoughts on this proposal, she made the point that more guns does not mean more security. “Whenever I go to a major event and see armed people on rooftops with machine guns or standing outside it’s a reminder,” Gustafson said. “It shows that we are afraid, and that there is a very real threat.” It is also important to note that the proposed change to the national legal age of purchasing a firearm to 21 has largely been shelved and is not being actively discussed in the national setting.
As it stacks up, Iowa is actually one of the most restrictive states when it comes to gun laws, according to a 2017 article written by Keith Wood in Guns and Ammo magazine titled “Best States for Gun Owners.” Wood ranks the states from highest to lowest by examining right to carry, the implementation of the National Firearms Act (an act that restricts the possession and sale of machine guns, silencers, short barreled weapons and destructive devices), the Castle Doctrine (refers to use of force laws in self-defense state by state) and other factors. The states with strict gun laws are ranked the lowest while those with the less strict gun laws were ranked higher. Iowa ranked 36 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The top 5 states according to this article were Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alaska and Arizona. All of these states have some level of “permitless” carry laws and wide latitude for where a gun can be carried. For example, Kansas allows a weapon to be carried in any public ground, which includes college campuses.
The numbers for gun deaths and injuries in the United States do raise the pressing issue for passing additional legislation. According to the Gun Violence Archive there were 344 mass shootings in 2017, with 433 people killed in those mass shootings. This actually marks a decrease in mass shootings from 2016 when there were 383 mass shootings, and 456 killed (“mass shootings” was defined as more than 4 people killed or injured in a shooting). However, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history happened in 2017, when 58 people were killed and 851 were injured in Las Vegas.
While the CDC has currently only published its material through 2015 in terms of injury or death by firearms, there is one remarkable trend. In percentage of age groups, 15.7% of all deaths by firearms were from people age 15-24. This is over 1 in 8 gun deaths. One-third of all gun deaths in the United States were people under the age of 34 for 2015. That same age group had 6,789 suicides by discharge of firearm.
What this data shows is that if we want to decrease the numbers of gun deaths in the United States, it is a much bigger task than it might seem. This issue is far reaching and is rooted in the deepest parts of American culture. While mass shootings in America are not all committed with the AR-15, the most lethal mass killings in modern American history have been. When handguns were identified as being major problems in crime, the restrictions for carrying them were raised. “When we restricted the sale of handguns because of crime, we also saw the suicide rate by firearm drop by almost 17%,” Gustafson said. Gun restrictions work, and can reduce gun deaths in all areas where a firearm is used. If we want to see less mass shootings committed with semi-automatic carbines like the AR-15, then both history and the numbers show that restriction works. It won’t end mass shootings, and it won’t end gun violence, but nearly everyone can agree that something must be done.