Every time the gun control debate is reignited after another mass shooting, the conversation quickly focuses on who should be restricted from purchasing guns, almost always with the suggestion that the solution to our mass shooter problem hinges on preventing people with mental illness from acquiring access to guns.
But asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question. Its answer will not make a single dent in our dismal standing as the country with the highest number of gunshot deaths in the developed world.
Unstable people, including mass shooters, such as Nikolas Cruz and others, have obtained their firearms legally because, at the time they bought them, they did not meet the criteria to be denied gun ownership based on their mental health status.
Dr. Amy Barnhorst the vice chairwoman of community psychiatry at the University of California Davis explains the challenges:
The mental health system doesn’t identify most of these people because they don’t come in to get care. And even if they do, laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will.
She points out that posting threatening statements on social media or scaring your classmates is usually not enough to hospitalize someone against their will.
Nor, do we (or should we) require that this type of information be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Reframing the approach to gun ownership
I believe it’s time to reframe the approach to gun ownership from opt out (everyone who wants a gun can get one unless we can prove they should not have one) to opt in (everyone who wants a gun must demonstrate, on an ongoing basis, that they are capable and willing to responsibly manage gun ownership).
For those of you who would argue that this is a violation of our Second Amendment right, I ask how is this different from what we do now?
We have already determined that it is legal to restrict certain categories of people from owning a gun (e.g., felons, domestic abusers) in the interest of public safety.
Why not go one step further and proactively determine who should be able to have a gun just like we decide who should be able to drive a car, practice medicine, or cut our hair?
Getting a gun in Japan
There is a successful model for this approach. Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of firearm-related deaths in the developed world, has implemented a comprehensive system to evaluating prospective gun owners with an eye to public safety. This is what you have to do to get a gun in Japan:
- Attend an all-day class organized by the police and then pass a written test
- Apply for training at a licensed shooting range a process that requires a certificate of residency, a photo ID, and a list of past jobs and addresses
- Pass mental health and drug tests administered in a hospital test and present the certificate to the police.
- Pass an in-person interview with a police officer who may ask questions such as “Why do you want a gun?” “What do you do for a living?” “Do any of your relatives have mental health issues?”
- Pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record, association with criminal or extremist groups, evidence of instability or domestic strife.
- Attend a training session at a licensed shooting range that includes both a gun safety class and test as well as shooting instruction and a competency exam
- Obtain the approval of the police who make an unannounced visit to your home and workplace to ask employees and neighbors about your behavior, including such questions as “Do you ever hear screaming voices from their apartment?”
Once approved for a temporary license to have a gun, the applicant can visit a gun shop to select a gun. But you can only buy shotguns and air rifles, not handguns. And you cannot take the gun you selected home until the official license is issued.
The gun owner must then provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun and ammunition in their home, each of which must be locked and stored separately. You have to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.
Too much, you say? Why should gun owners have to subject themselves to this type of scrutiny? If you take the time to read about the issue, the answer is clear.
It’s because it keeps guns out of the hands of bad guys — even gangsters in Japan don’t have guns — as well as irresponsible, the mentally ill, unstable teens, domestic abusers, and a whole host of other people who most of us would agree should never have a gun.
Why should we do it? Because it works and what we are currently doing does not.
Patricia Salber M.D., is the CEO of The Doctor Weighs In, and was the founder and president of Physicians for a Violence-free Society.