Skip to main content

Keep guns out of dangerous hands

By Daniel W. Webster, Special to CNN
September 18, 2013 -- Updated 1924 GMT (0324 HKT)
A police officer runs near the scene of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and the suspect -- were killed in the shooting. A police officer runs near the scene of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and the suspect -- were killed in the shooting.
HIDE CAPTION
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
Mass shooting at D.C. Navy Yard
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis had background of violent incidents, misconduct
  • Daniel Webster: How could someone like Alexis legally buy and carry loaded firearms?
  • He says to appease gun lobby, policies have low standards for possession of guns
  • Webster: Stronger standards for legal gun ownership could help reduce horrific shootings

Editor's note: Daniel W. Webster is professor and director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

(CNN) -- We are still learning key details about Aaron Alexis, the man named as the shooter in this week's horrific mass killing at the Washington Navy Yard.

So far there is a record of at least two prior incidents in which Alexis fired a gun under circumstances that should have brought criminal charges. His time as a Navy reservist was checkered with accounts of insubordination and disorderly conduct. He was reportedly seeking treatment for mental illness (he was hearing voices and having problems sleeping). More importantly from the perspective of risk for violence, a former roommate reported that Alexis was a heavy drinker.

While much of the focus has been on how a person with this background obtained clearance to work at a military facility, a similar question could be asked about how he could legally buy a firearm in Virginia and allegedly obtain a permit to carry loaded firearms in Texas.

Opinion: Gun control is not the answer

The gun lobby and other opponents to stronger gun laws like to talk about the rights of "law-abiding gun owners," but the policies in place in most states allow individuals with backgrounds far worse than that of Alexis to own legally as many firearms as they can afford and carry loaded firearms most anywhere.

Daniel W. Webster
Daniel W. Webster

To appease the gun lobby, lawmakers have created an environment where individuals with numerous convictions for misdemeanor crimes involving violence, firearm misuse, illegal drugs and alcohol abuse, and who have previously been subject to restraining orders for domestic violence, can legally arm themselves to the teeth.

Several states have stricter standards for legal possession of handguns than federal law, and states such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts give law enforcement some discretion in determining who should legally be able to buy and carry handguns.

My colleagues and I published a study last year where we found that in states with the weakest standards (similar to federal standards), nearly one-third of state prison inmates incarcerated for crimes committed with guns would have been prohibited from possessing firearms when committing their most recent offense if their states had standards for legal gun possession similar to those in place in high-standards states. With reasonable regulations such as background checks for all gun sales and proper regulation of gun dealers, many of these inmates would not have had guns to use in crime.

Opinion: What could have prevented Navy Yard carnage?

Cutter: Gun increase breaks all logic
Remembering the victims

In order to reduce significantly the gun violence that occurs every day in communities across the United States, we must focus on the issues that matter the most where there is broad consensus. Public opinion surveys show large majorities of gun owners support stronger standards for legal gun ownership and policies designed to keep guns from prohibited persons, including universal background checks and stronger regulation and oversight of gun dealers.

We can't say for sure whether such policies would have prevented the recent mass shootings that have gripped our nation, but they would reduce a significant number of shootings that don't receive national news attention, though they are no less devastating to the individuals, families and communities.

Unfortunately, the gun debate in the United States has been just that -- a debate. Instead of engaging in the all too familiar, polarizing discussions that have characterized gun policy, let's act upon the things we all agree upon -- keeping guns from people who shouldn't have them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel W. Webster.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT