In the United States at least, it is hard to remember a year that saw more unspeakable and tragic death at the opposite end of a lunatic's barrel than this one. I'm not going to recount these horrible and repulsive and nightmarish occurrences, the most recent of which took place at a small Connecticut elementary school. But I am going to state the obvious:
These tragedies transpired because a mentally and emotionally disturbed young man had access to semiautomatic guns.
Access is everything, and technology is moving to improve it still.
Today, with lax gun laws, lapsed assault rifle bans, loopholes aplenty, and the continued dominance of pro-gun lobbies like the National Rifle Association, we have cultivated an environment wherein it is comparatively easy to legally obtain and own a gun. That would explain why gun ownership rates in the U.S. are the highest in the world; also, maybe, why 34 people are shot and killed every day here.
We can dodge registration requirements by buying guns at antique shops or the infamous gun shows that can in actuality be casual transactions made almost anywhere. Some guns don't require permits, others do. For instance, in Connecticut, you need a permit for a handgun, but not a rifle. Which means some guns are especially easy to get. And the easier guns are to get, the more gun crime there's going to be. It's science.
The Firearm Injury Center at Penn confirms the correlation between access and violence. Mother Jones reports:
A sizeable body of research shows that the more easily guns are made available, the more shootings we can expect. "The correlation between firearm availability and rates of homicide is consistent across high-income industrialized nations," FICAP notes. "In general, where there are more firearms, there are higher rates of homicide overall. The US has among the highest rates of both firearm homicide and private firearm ownership."
And, unfortunately for fans of less gun violence, gun production is rising.
So, if access to guns goes up, then so does the gun violence, the above ATF chart portends an ill omen. Over roughly that same period (2003-2010), nearly 250,000 people were killed by guns.
But that's nothing. These are all guns produced the old fashioned way, manufactured at factories and shipped to distribution centers and moved to sporting goods stores or convention centers in Los Angeles. Yet the future of at-home gun production is nigh. While anyone could theoretically build a gun at home now, gunsmithing is a skill that takes years of experience. But that may soon change, as the development of 3D-printed guns is in full force.
Right now, they're not, of course. The Wiki Weapons Project just managed to print a receiver for an AR-15 assault rifle, and it lasted for just 6 shots.
But still. That's six shots out of a gun whose receiver–in the eyes of the law, that is the gun–was made from a 3D printer. In other words, the one part of a gun that has a serial number, and thus is required to be registered, can now be printed off the grid. That's a new frontier we're closing in on, one that just might give more Americans access to guns than ever before. And they'll be harder to classify, register, and permit under the current frameworks.
Our current spate of regulations are already woefully inadequate at keeping those constitutionally-protected guns out of criminal hands. Almost half of all Americans already own them. As of 2009, there were 310 million nonmilitary guns in the nation. They're everywhere. And more and more are coming off the assembly line. And we're about to start making functional plastic ones at home on the cheap. This sort of access to weapons is extraordinary, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
So what do we do? Even some of the most liberal voices consider banning guns a fantasy; it's too engrained into our culture, too enshrined in the Second Amendment. Too NRA'd into our veins.
A couple of novel options are still feasible. The Atlantic suggests we regulate ammunition—that's not covered by the Second Amendment, see? Salon says we should tax the hell out of guns in general. And sensible people everywhere say we should finally ban assault rifles that can shoot through goddamn walls. We could ban semi-automatic guns, as Australia did, and the government could civilly buy back those made illegal.
Steps can be made, in other words. We're not altogether paralyzed in the face of the gun-loving nation. But we have to start measuring our policies to fit the incoming flood of guns—of all shapes and sizes—and the unprecedented access to life-taking machinery that flood is going to bring with it.