Project Fortress: Rights and Responsibility, Liberty and Limits
All people of goodwill—no matter their views on guns—are sickened by the epidemic of mass-shootings and sense that it’s a symptom of something broken within our country. But if something’s broken in America, America can fix it. Americans are problem-solvers. As Tocqueville observed, “Americans always display a clear, free, original and inventive power of the mind.” We must put that power of reason to work in order to tackle this terrible problem of gun violence.
To protect the most defenseless among us, law-enforcement agencies, school boards, and federal and state lawmakers should use the balance of the summer to begin implementing safety procedures that can have an impact in the coming school year.
First, when children are in harm’s way, law-enforcement personnel must move immediately to breach entry points, take down the shooter and protect the innocent. That didn’t happen in Uvalde—a deviation from standard police procedure, which was transformed after the Columbine mass-shooting. In addition, given that it takes an average of 15 minutes for police to respond to an active-shooter situation—even when the police do everything the right way—law-enforcement jurisdictions should implement an “all hands” alert system for school shootings. Under such a system, all off-duty police from the jurisdiction, as well as all departments from all neighboring jurisdictions, could be alerted to the threat via text and vectored to the school, thereby reducing response times.
Second, locking down students is the very opposite of what schools should do in response to a shooting. All this does is make it easy for a person intent on mass-murder to commit mass-murder. Instead, schools should embrace multi-option responses, and students should be trained to run to predesignated safe spaces outside the building. Any parent will accept the headaches of finding a hidden child over the horrors of identifying a dead child.
Third, schools must be hardened against madmen. Armed and trained security guards should be posted at public schools during school hours. Given that there are some 98,700 public schools in America, this will be an expensive effort, costing billions annually. But a mix of federal, state, local and nonprofit funding sources can meet this all-important need. And a range of qualified Americans—subcontracted security firms, retired law-enforcement officers, off-duty police, retired military personnel with relevant training—can man these all-important posts.
One proposal that won’t solve the epidemic of mass-shootings is disarming the law-abiding public. Such a course of action is not only impractical—44 percent of Americans live in a household that has at least one firearm—it would also be immoral: If we disarm law-abiding citizens, law-enforcement won’t be able help all the good guys and stop all the bad guys. Studies reveal that Americans use firearms in self-defense at least 500,000 times each year. The vast majority of these never make it onto cable news. But those Americans who use their firearms to defend themselves and their families do make it to the next day.
Since police response times are never zero minutes, law-abiding citizens are always the first-responders. That explains why many law-enforcement officers support law-abiding citizens responsibly owning firearms. Seventy-six percent of sheriffs and police chiefs believe “qualified, law-abiding armed citizens help law-enforcement reduce violent criminal activity.”
That said, if those of us who support Second Amendment rights don’t work with our neighbors to strengthen firearms safety through commonsense reforms, the likely consequence will be a wholesale rollback of Second Amendment rights.
As a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights—I’m a gunowner and a concealed-carry permit holder—I recognize that rights and liberties come with responsibilities, that rights have limits, and that the greater the impact a right or a liberty can have on others the more responsibility must be attached to it. For example, Americans have an inherent freedom of movement. To do so by walking carries very little responsibility. To do so by driving a car requires more responsibility and more qualifications—permitting, instruction, insurance, proof of physical capability, age requirements. To travel by driving an 18-wheeler enfolds more responsibility, additional licensing and training, and limits on hours driven per day and week.
That serves as a reminder that most rights are limited in some way: We have the right to practice our faith, but we don’t have the right to use religion to justify violence. We have the right to speak freely, but we don’t have the right to yell “Fire!” in a public place. We have the right to disseminate ideas, but we don’t have the right to defame someone. We have the right to “peaceably assemble,” but we don’t have the right to assemble anywhere or any time—and that word “peaceably” is key (which is why the mobs of 2020 and 2021 were so appallingly wrong). We have the right to protect our property and person, but we don’t have the right to flout a warrant or resist arrest. We have the right to preserve our life, liberty and property, but all three can be taken by lawful state action if we take someone else’s life, liberty or property unlawfully. States have expansive rights under the Tenth Amendment, but they don’t have the right to rebel against the federal government.
All of those requirements, restrictions and responsibilities constrain our liberties and rights—all for the good of domestic tranquility and order. In the same way, we have the right “to keep and bear arms.” But for the good of domestic tranquility and order, there are reasonable and necessary limits the law must place on the scope of the Second Amendment. Some limits—some guardrails—lawmakers should consider today include:
Limits on Magazine Capacity and Prohibition of Certain Firearms
The 1994 ban on “military-style assault weapons…and certain high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds” made sense—and still does. It expired in 2004. Prohibiting the sale of high-capacity magazines and certain kinds of weapons—not based on how they look, but rather on what they do—can save lives: Mass-shooting deaths declined after that 1994 ban went into effect—and then jumped after that law expired.
Some firearms are designed for self-defense; others are designed to maximize damage and lethality. Society has a legitimate interest in keeping the latter off the streets. And Congress has the authority to promote that interest. The reason I know this to be true is that it’s already been done. I cannot carry an M249 squad automatic weapon, attach an M777 howitzer to my pickup, drive an M1A1 battle tank to work, fly a B-52 bomber to vacation or use a Javelin missile at the shooting range. All of these are undeniably “arms.” The fact that I’m not allowed keep and bear them doesn’t make me less free. It makes me more secure. As the Supreme Court concluded in a 1939 decision, the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to own any weapon. A 1994 High Court ruling labeled “machineguns, sawed-off shotguns and artillery pieces…as items the ownership of which would have” a “quasi-suspect character.”
Related, limiting magazines to 10 rounds (as some states do) means a killer will have to reload after 10 shots, and that means law-abiding citizens will have a chance to get away or disarm him as he reloads. (The Uvalde mass-murderer used a semiautomatic weapon with a 32-round magazine.) Shootings involving these large-capacity magazines have a 62-percent higher death toll.
Speaking of law-abiding citizens, 10 rounds are enough in the vast majority of self-defense cases. Studies suggest that the law-abiding citizen fires two to four rounds in a typical self-defense situation.
Age and Credit Restrictions
Firearms are not cheap. A teenage boy trying to purchase more than $4,000 in guns and ammunition on credit—like the Uvalde killer—is the very definition of a red flag. Indeed, many of the perpetrators of recent mass-shootings legally purchased their weapons, even though they were in their teens—suggesting that the law played some role in how and when they obtained their tools for murder. Given that male brain physiology is still in development beyond the age of 20, it makes sense to restrict gun purchases to those older than 21. As noted, we have age restrictions on other rights. For those who huff, “If a young man can serve in the military at 18, he should be allowed to buy firearms at 18,” I would counter that perhaps he should first join the military, where he can learn how to use firearms responsibly.
Training and Licensing
As we do with prospective drivers and cars, we should do with prospective gunowners and guns. State-regulated firearms training makes sense, as does empowering instructors to deny a license to individuals unfit or unready to shoulder the burdens of responsible gun-ownership. Gun-ownership and state-regulated training/licensing can coexist. (I say this as someone who took two days of training before purchasing my first gun.) In Switzerland, for instance, gun owners have to show proficiency in handling their firearms. Local police agencies (akin to our state police) review and approve gun licenses.
We submit to background checks to buy a house or a dog, coach Little League, watch toddlers. It makes as much or more sense to have background checks for gun purchases. Yet under current law, guns can be legally purchased—through private sales—without background checks. One study found that some 80 percent of firearms “acquired for criminal purposes are obtained through transfers from unlicensed sellers.”
Importantly, the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning gun regulations in New York (which required prospective gunowners to prove a need to exercise their Second Amendment rights) notes that “nothing in our analysis should be interpreted to suggest the unconstitutionality” of permit requirements in force in 43 states (e.g., background checks, mental-health checks, training in firearms handling, market-based fees, reasonable waiting periods). “Because these licensing regimes do not require applicants to show an atypical need for armed self-defense, they do not necessarily prevent ‘law-abiding, responsible citizens’ from exercising their Second Amendment right to public carry.”
The Court is reiterating that some limits on liberty are reasonable and constitutional. Indeed, that’s at the heart of civilized society and our constitutional republic. Obviously, the state can go too far in limiting liberty (it’s called tyranny), but the state can also do too little in limiting excess (it’s called chaos). And we seem to be careening toward chaos. “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive,” as President Theodore Roosevelt observed.
Those who regularly read Project Fortress know this initiative is committed to the defense of individual liberty and individual responsibility, as evidenced during the COVID-19 crisis, which saw federal and state governments trample upon individual liberty and dismiss the importance of individual responsibility. There are two significant differences between this proposed approach to the public-safety crisis caused by firearms in the hands of unfit individuals and the approach taken in response to the COVID-19 public-health crisis.
First, the policies detailed here would be drafted by state and federal legislative bodies. The responses to COVID-19 unleashed by the federal government and most state governments were spawned by unelected advisors and handed down by executive fiat. That’s not the way our system is designed to work—and as we learned in 2020, it doesn’t work.
Second, while some of these proposed policy reforms would limit some individual freedoms related to the Second Amendment, they would not suspend Second Amendment rights. Government actions in response to COVID-19, on the other hand, suspended freedom of religion and the right to gather for worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and the right to work and “secure the blessings of liberty.”
Questions and Causes
All that said, background checks, training and licensing, mag-capacity limits, bans on certain weapons, and new approaches to school security won’t prevent every shooting. Many opponents of the Second Amendment seem unable to recognize a basic truth: People willing to break laws related to murder will have no qualms breaking other laws related to firearms. As President Ronald Reagan pointed out after he survived a gunman’s bullets, “Some of the stiffest gun-control laws in the nation are right here in the District, and they didn’t seem to prevent a fellow a few weeks ago from carrying one down by the Hilton Hotel…So, I would like to see us directing our attention to what has caused us to have the crime.”
Indeed, cities such as Washington and Chicago suffer some of the nation’s worst gun violence despite having some of the nation’s strictest gun-control laws, which suggests that dealing with the root causes of gun violence is as important as dealing with the instruments of gun violence.
Is it a coincidence that the number of mass-shootings has exploded at the very same time the epidemic of fatherless homes has exploded? In 1980, 18 percent of U.S. births were to unmarried women; today, that number is more than 40 percent. This is not an attack on single moms. Often working multiple jobs outside the home, they face the most important job of all inside the home—alone. Many of their children grow up to be productive members of society. But the odds are against them. A fatherless male is twice as likely to engage in criminal activity. Nor is this an endorsement of the misguided notion that any father is preferable to no father at all. The health and safety of a family should never be sacrificed for the sake of a marriage. But the hard truth is that absentee fathers are badly impacting the health and safety of society.
Is it a coincidence that mass-shootings have become an epidemic in an age oozing with television and movie carnage, awash in first-person shooter video games, filled with music that celebrates violence? The Columbine, University of Northern Illinois, Sandy Hook and Tucson mass-murderers were involved in violent gaming. A study by the American Psychological Association reveals that a typical American child sees 8,000 TV murders by the time he or she finishes elementary school. After studying hundreds of pop and hip-hop songs (each with at least a million sales), researchers discovered that more than nine out of 10 songs surveyed referenced violent acts. The purveyors of pop culture often tell us that their products can change how we think, what we do and what we aspire to be. Anyone who has gazed at the work of Michelangelo or Monet, listened to Beethoven or Bono, been transported by a Capra or Spielberg film must recognize that the images and sounds produced by culture can affect us in a profound way. What’s puzzling is that the same people who say cultural inputs can inspire refuse to admit that cultural inputs can poison.
Is it a coincidence that the number of mass-shootings has exploded at the very same time the percentage of families that attend houses of worship has collapsed? In 1985, 71 percent of Americans belonged to a house of worship. Today, just 47 percent of Americans go to church, synagogue or mosque. Not coincidentally, God has been banished from our schools. A culture that airbrushes God out of public view and devalues human life is sowing the wind—and now reaping the whirlwind.
Is it a coincidence that the number of mass-shootings has exploded in the wake of what behavioral health expert Dominic Sisti calls “an evaporation of psychiatric therapeutic spaces”? As a consequence, many people in need of treatment fall through the cracks.
As you mull those questions, consider these thumbnail biographies.
The Sandy Hook mass-murderer was disconnected from his father, often talked about his “depression,” and expressed “interest in mass-murderers.” By seventh grade, he was “obsessing” about “destruction and war.”
The Tucson mass-murderer had “no social connection,” triggered at least five calls to campus police at his community college and was encouraged by the school to seek mental-health treatment.
The Uvalde mass-murderer engaged in self-mutilation, passed the time by driving around and shooting people with his BB gun, seldom saw his father, and threatened on social media to commit rape and mass-violence.
The Independence Day mass-murderer was infatuated with violence—posting violent videos, violent pictures and violent music online.
The Aurora mass-murderer had a severe mental illness known as “schizoaffective disorder,” which is a psychotic mood disorder.
The Charleston mass-murderer was born into a broken home, dropped out of school after ninth grade, was doing drugs by 13 and had multiple run-ins with the police as a teen.
The Buffalo mass-murderer filled social-media posts with references to attacks on black people. He published a hate manifesto, threatened violence at his school, did a school project on murder-suicide, was questioned by police and was admitted for mental-health evaluation.
The Las Vegas mass-murderer suffered with an anxiety disorder and often told his girlfriend, “Your God doesn’t love me.”
This is not to say that all atheists, all people who write violent songs or stories, all schizophrenics, all racists, all fatherless boys, all those who play violent videogames, all fans of “death metal” or gory movies become mass-murderers. But it does seem that all these mass-murderers were afflicted by one or more of those cultural pathologies. And because we can’t readily identify who’s headed over the edge, we need new guardrails, new laws and new law-enforcement procedures to better protect innocents.
The bipartisan gun-safety bill recently signed into law includes some of the reforms discussed here—sharper focus on mental health, enhanced school security, resources to combat illegal gun sales, expanded background checks, mechanisms to prevent guns from falling into unfit hands. It’s not going to fix everything, but it’s a step in the right direction—and a hopeful sign that Americans can still work and reason together to tackle big problems.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose and writes the Project Fortress blog.