This story is from UCLA Today, a discontinued print and web publication.

The fallout from failed gun policy will be more inspections

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Adam WinklerAdam Winkler is a professor at UCLA School of Law and the author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America." This op-ed appeared in the New York Daily News Sunday, Sept. 22.
 
Another tragic mass shooting, another round of questions about what can be done to stop this from happening again. Some insist we need more gun control, others that we need more guns. But what we are likely to get is something else entirely.
 
Get ready for the inspection nation.
 
Gun control advocates say we need new laws, like universal background checks and restrictions on military-style semiautomatic rifles.
 
There’s no doubt our current background check system is riddled with holes. Only licensed dealers are required to do a background check, but anyone else can sell a gun at a gun show or online without one.
 
Mentally ill people are not supposed to be able to buy guns, but the law defines mental illness narrowly — only those found to be incompetent or dangerous by a court are prohibited. Someone with a simple history of mental troubles, like the Washington Navy Yard shooter, isn’t barred.
 
Even a court ruling that someone is mentally unfit rarely prevents someone from passing a background check. States are notoriously lax in providing such information to the federal database. According to Mayor Bloomberg’s gun control group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 19 states reported fewer than 100 mental-health adjudications to federal officials. Rhode Island — where Aaron Alexis called police in August — with reports that he was hallucinating and hearing voices — submitted none.
 
Conclusion? While better background checks could help reduce the daily death toll from guns — stopping gangbangers from easy access to firearms, often obtained through interstate gun trafficking — they aren’t likely to impact mass shootings. From Aurora and Newtown to Santa Monica and the Navy Yard, the shooters all bought their guns legally — or could have.
 
No background check prevents someone from stealing guns or buying them on the black market.
 
More broadly speaking, there are limits to what gun control can do. Norway has very restrictive gun laws — and in 2011 witnessed the worst mass shooting in world history, when Anders Behring Breivik killed a horrifying 77 people.
 
In a country like the U.S., with approximately 320 million guns in private hands, anyone who’s persistent enough to do so can manage to obtain a gun.
 
There’s another problem with holding out for more gun control as a solution to mass violence: It just won’t happen. As we saw in April, when President Obama’s gun control push went down in flames — despite overwhelming popular support in the wake of the Newtown massacre for expanding background checks — gun rights advocates have too much power in Congress to allow such measures to pass.
 
While states can try to close the loopholes themselves, as New York and Connecticut have done, such efforts are weakened by the looser laws in neighboring states.
 
Guns travel easily and often over state borders, which makes gun laws only as strong as their weakest link.
 
Since Newtown, moreover, more states have loosened their gun laws than tightened them.
 
Those gun rights activists so powerful in Congress? They’re just as strong, if not stronger, on the state level. As highlighted by the recall in Colorado of lawmakers who voted for gun control — a fight NRA foes lost despite the fact that two anti-recall billionaires alone plunked down at least $600,000 — they aren’t afraid to flex their muscles.
 
Gun rights advocates claim to have the better solution: We need more guns just about everywhere. An armed citizenry, the argument goes, will deter criminals — and reduce the death toll once a shooting begins.
 
Yet no state’s gun laws are more liberal than Arizona, where the Gabby Giffords shooting occurred. Mass killers usually expect to die in the incident anyway.
 
While a well-trained civilian might be able to confront a killer on a rampage, this isn’t a reliable solution. You are asking a lot of someone to intercede and put himself directly in the line of fire.
 
Besides, it’s hard to see how you limit the damage from guns by having more people shooting them. In the acute, highly unusual stress of a life-threatening event, we quickly lose control over our fine motor skills. Firing a gun accurately in a crowded, confused situation is extremely difficult.
 
Even well-trained police officers often end up shooting the wrong people. In 2012, when NYPD officers engaged in a shootout with the Empire State Building killer on the streets of Manhattan, nine innocent bystanders were shot — all of them by the cops.
 
Last week, officers accidentally hit two bystanders near Times Square as they aimed at a man they believed to be armed.
 
Those would-be civilian heroes with concealed carry permits have much less training than the police. While states usually require permit applicants to spend a few hours on the range, none require any training for gunfights in public places.
 
The "more guns, less crime" theory never had much empirical support, even though it’s taken as gospel in gun circles. A few early studies claimed to find a reduction in violent crime when states made it easier to carry concealed guns. But subsequent studies found the impact to be greatly exaggerated and the earlier studies’ methodologies flawed.
 
In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences found "no credible evidence" to support the idea that more people with guns on the street reduced crime.
 
Part of the problem with the "more guns" solution is that very few people carry guns on their person at any given time. While concealed carry permits have soared in the last 30 years as state after state has made them easier to obtain, still only a small fraction of the population has any desire to tote around a heavy piece of dangerous equipment day and night.
 
Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen very many civilians intervening in recent mass shootings. In Tucson, one armed civilian did say he was about to step in and fire his weapon. Good thing he didn’t. He thought one of the victims was the shooter.
 
So what are we going to do?
 
Just about the only option available is increased security: More armed guards. More surveillance cameras. More bag inspections. More metal detectors. More of the coming wave of technologies that will allow ever more sophisticated scanning of people to ensure they’re not carrying weapons.
 
Not only at schools, but at movie theaters, major outdoor gatherings, sporting events, you name it.
 
While many people scoffed at NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s simplistic sloganeering — "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" — public schools around the country have hired armed guards since Newtown.
 
In places like Pembroke Pines, a Fort Lauderdale suburb, "armed school resource officers" greeted students returning to public school this August. "It is a relief to have them here," said one principal.
 
Since 9/11, we have already seen a massive increase in security designed to stop terrorists. After Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard, we’re going to see more and more places do more to stop mass shooters — in malls, transportation hubs and other places where large numbers of people gather.
 
What other choice do the managers of publicly accessible places have? If you can’t stop a crazed madmen from killing a lot of people, at least you can try to stop him from doing it in your facility. It’s NIMBY for gun crime.
 
There are considerable downsides to this high-security approach. Americans can barely afford to lose the few remaining shreds of privacy they have left in our online, high-tech world.
 
More guards and cameras mean even more time being watched. Our bags and purses will no longer be safe places to keep our personal secrets.
 
Going out in public is going to mean being open to public inspection, as football fans have discovered with the new league rule requiring them to carry clear bags to stadiums.
 
It’s depressing; we Americans rightly treasure our freedom of movement. A big part of us loathes the movement toward a world with checkpoints on every corner. But an equally powerful instinct wants to control problems, manage risks — as we have with the terrorist threat.
 
A ton of added security is also expensive. We’ll all end up paying for it through higher prices, fees and taxes. But trading privacy and money for safety is a deal we have proven willing to make again and again.
 
Indeed, polls show that three in four Americans support increased security in malls, schools and other public places. Unlike universal background checks, which are also supported by an overwhelming majority, there’s no political price to pay for lawmakers who support more security.
 
The sad part is that a deranged killer will always be able to find victims. If he can’t get into the school, he’ll go to a mall. If he can’t get in there, he’ll go to a library. If that doesn’t work, there’s always a busy intersection.
 
We can’t put guards and scanners on every square foot of space where people gather. Or can we?
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