Comprehensive approach to end gun violence

Reacting to the shooting last week in Newtown, Conn., some Americans are calling for more gun control, including a ban on assault weapons.

However, before jumping to a solution, we should first define the problem. Just one week removed from the Sandy Hook attacks, the public still lacks a full understanding of the facts and an appreciation of the motivation that drove a 20-year-old to kill. The reasons for mass shootings are complex, and, most experts agree, cannot be addressed solely through gun control. The circumstances and motivation behind these types of killings require an examination of our mental-health regulations and practice, internal security at schools and the influence on young teens of violence in movies and videos, to name just a few of the contributing factors most often cited.

Many of my former colleagues in law enforcement have long supported further regulation of assault weapons. As attorney general, I worried over my agents confronting criminal organizations armed with such powerful weapons. I also worried over the safety of my younger brother, who served on the police force in Houston for over 20 years. Like millions of Americans, I own firearms. I have a right to protect and to provide for my family.  However, I support reasonable regulations and qualifications upon gun ownership. I believe the Second Amendment allows the reasonable regulation of assault weapons and high-volume ammunition clips. I also believe the Second Amendment permits the government a reasonable period to conduct a background check in connection with gun purchases.

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Opponents of gun control argue that even if Congress enacts regulations tomorrow on the sale of assault weapons, there will still be thousands available to those who intend to harm others. Admittedly, anyone determined to kill using an assault weapon is unlikely to be deterred by new regulations. However, the fact that an assault weapon may already be easily accessible does not mean that the regulation of future sales is pointless. For example, we regulate the sale of tobacco and alcohol to minors, even though those products might be readily available in the home or through older friends.

Additionally, opponents argue the Second Amendment protects their right to own assault weapons. True, in 2008 the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, held that the Second Amendment is not limited to protecting a right to bear arms for militia service. The right to bear arms is an individual right. The court, however, was very clear that this right is not absolute. Justice Scalia wrote that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of firearms.”

Two years later, in McDonald v. City of Chicago, the court reaffirmed its holding that the Second Amendment is an individual right, but again recognized the validity of certain regulations and restrictions. Heller and McDonald do not protect the unrestricted right to own an assault weapon. In both cases, the court was dealing only with laws that prohibit virtually all possession of handguns. As a result, the court has only had an opportunity to decide whether there is an individual right to have firearms in one’s home for self-defense purposes. Whether, and how far, that right extends beyond those circumstances is still an unanswered question.

Further regulation of certain guns and closing the “gun-show loophole” on background checks may be helpful in preventing mass shootings.

These measures might make us feel better, but they will surely not be enough. Instead of just focusing on the guns, we should look at the other contributing factors to this shooting, as well as those at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., and others. Only after a comprehensive review can we, through our representatives in Congress, be in a position to take steps that will actually make a difference in limiting the violence in America in a manner consistent with the Constitution.

Alberto R. Gonzales is the former United States attorney general under President George W. Bush. He is currently the Doyle Rogers Distinguished Chair of Law at Belmont University College of Law, and Counsel at the Nashville law firm of Waller Lansden.