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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT