There Are Ways to Make Things Better

In the gun reform debate, there is the common phrase, “don’t put new laws on the books; enforce the laws we already have.” After every mass shooting, gun reform advocates push for new legislation and the firearms community opposes it; those who oppose new legislation fear erosion of the Second Amendment, and many believe that there is no solution to the gun violence problem without significant changes in existing law. The resulting impasse leads to the discouraging conclusion that gun violence is impossible to prevent.  It is interesting, however, to consider the possibility that a more focused and robust effort to enforce existing gun legislation, in conjunction with voluntary, community-based initiatives, may lead to a reduction in gun fatalities and injuries.

Pennsylvania’s Auditor General considered this question in a November proposal on firearm safety.[1]In compiling its special report, the Auditor General’s staff solicited input from not only gun reform advocates, but also from a diverse range of interest groups, including physicians, gun owners and sporting associations, law enforcement, gun shop owners, and mental health professionals. The result is a12-point set of recommendations, all of which require no change in the law to implement.[2]

The report begins with recognition that firearms ownership and usage are guaranteed by both the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions, and that therefore,firearms are here to stay. While opposing views on gun violence make dialogue difficult, it is precisely what is required for the possibility of any appreciable decrease in gun violence.

The report expresses two broad ideas.  First, better enforcement of existing laws, particularly Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act[3],will have a positive effect on safety. Second, the cost of firearms injuries necessitates that the problem be addressed as a public health issue like any other. Within that broad framework, there are twelve specific recommendations:

1) The state should work to expand access to mental health care, especially in rural communities.

2) The stigma of seeking mental health treatment must end; the state should mount a culturally responsible public awareness campaign.

3) Engage medical doctors and train all physicians to screen patients for risks of firearms violence.

4) Engage licensed firearms dealers in looking for red flags in customers who might potentially use a firearm for suicide.

5) The Pennsylvania Game Commission should expand its hunter education program section on firearm safety and create a voluntary training program on safe firearm usage and storage.

6) Firearm owners to voluntarily use safe storage best practices, such as locking unloaded firearms in a safe, and storing ammunition away from firearms.

7) The state should continue to support hospital-based violence intervention programs and behavioral health resources in hospitals, so they can be fully responsive to the violent injuries they treat and ensure that unresolved trauma will not contribute to retaliation and suicide.

8) The  support communities in organizing violence prevention efforts proven to be effective.  The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s Gun Violence Reduction initiative is a good example of that support.

9) The Governor should sign an executive order requiring Pennsylvania State Police to issue quarterly and monthly reports on firearms traced from crimes to help track lost and stolen guns, as well as firearm-related criminal activity.

10) The state should secure funding to increase Pennsylvania’s participation in a national network, The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network(“NIBIN”) which uses bullets to connect multiple crimes to single firearms.

11) Sheriffs and other law-enforcement officials who issue concealed-carry permits should exercise their discretion to thoroughly check applicants’ references and backgrounds before approving applications and they should consider prosecuting those who provide false information.

12) Pennsylvania State Police should implement the Lethality Assessment Program, which connects victims of intimate partner violence to local domestic programs, statewide.

It is encouraging that none of the report’s recommendations require change in existing laws, and that the recommendations were crafted through discussion with constituencies across the ideological spectrum. It assumes that most Pennsylvania citizens are not content to accept the current level of gun injuries and deaths, a not unreasonable assumption. Within the consensus that gun violence should be reduced, there are ways to reduce violence statistics,without government interference with the Second Amendment right.

What is required, however, is sincere willingness to address the gun violence problem across ideological boundaries. Thus, the report urges persuasion of professions, encouragement and cooperation between and among citizens, medical professionals, and business owners, open discussion, education, engagement and cross-community support. Several examples of this collaborative approach are noteworthy. The stigma of mental illness can cause suffering individuals to avoid seeking help, especially in rural, underpopulated counties, because of the possibility that others within the community will learn of the mental illness. Because treatment is often sought in neighboring counties, some Pennsylvania counties have voluntarily adopted cross-community cooperation on mental health treatment in order to maximize success. Another example is Turning Point, an initiative at Temple University Hospital, wherein shooting victims aged 18 to 30 are provided extra counseling during their stay at the hospital. The program has demonstrated positive results.

The firearms and public health communities can work together successfully, and the medical profession plays a key role in preventing gun deaths and injuries. The Gun Shop Project in New Hampshire, for example, seeks to engage gun shop owners and firing-range owners to learn to avoid selling or renting firearms to suicidal customers, and encourages the display and distribution of suicide prevention materials. These initiatives were developed based upon feedback from firearms retailers. And although the popular perception may be contrary, physicians are in fact legally permitted to ask patients about firearms – no federal or state statute prohibits those conversations, and it does not violate patients’ Second Amendment rights.[4]

Society bears the cost of firearms injuries and deaths – both in monetary terms for state supported programs, insurance carriers in claims payment, consumers in premiums; and in heartbreaking human cost in terms of grief and tragic loss,exposure for law enforcement, and the general malaise wrought on the public by the relentless barrage of senseless bloodshed. Partisan thinking claims there is little or nothing to be done short of political and legal battle. Faith in the goodness and rationality of most people, however, demonstrates hopeful strides in the direction of peace and safety.

[1] A Safer Pennsylvania, A Community Approach to Firearm Safety – A Special Report on Working Within Existing Laws, byPa. Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale, announced November 27, 2018

[2] To read the full report, see

[3] Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995, 18 Pa.C.S.§6101 et seq.