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Actor Liam Neeson criticizes gun culture in U.S.; in response, gun advocates call for boycott of his movie

Philip Cook and Kristin Goss: There's actually a common sense approach to the gun issue

Editor’s Note: Philip Cook and Kristin Goss are professors at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. They are co-authors of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) —  

In case we need any reminder that gun politics can be over the top, there’s the recent report that gunmaker PARA USA regrets supplying weapons to the action flick “Taken 3” and is calling for a boycott.

Why? It’s not because they’re feeling guilty about triggering violent fantasies in some viewers, but because the star of the movie series, Liam Neeson, had the gall to tell a reporter that there were too many guns in America.

Philip Cook
Philip Cook

There’s no doubt Americans are worried about gun violence and support some proposals to keep guns away from potentially dangerous people.

Kristin Goss
Kristin Goss

For example, in poll after poll, Americans of all political stripes, including gun owners, support background checks on all firearm purchases. (A requirement of that sort was enacted by popular vote last November in Washington state.) California, New York, and a handful of other states, altogether constituting one-quarter of the U.S. population, have regulations on gun design, transactions, possession or use that go well beyond federal requirements.

On the other hand, public opinion in support of protecting gun rights has grown in recent decades, and in red states there has been a highly successful effort to deregulate guns.

The political environment is surely challenging on this issue, but we see several promising policy approaches that are especially well suited to balancing different interests while advancing shared goals.

Technology: Develop ‘smart’ guns

The development of “smart” guns promises to give gun owners a new option that many of them would value, namely, a weapon that could only be unlocked by a “key” they control. A gun of this sort has been developed by the German manufacturer Armatix, utilizing RFID technology of the same sort that we have all become accustomed to with our car keys. These “personalized” guns won’t reduce violence by reckless owners, but the technology will cut down on misuse by curious children, suicidal teens, thieves or other unauthorized users who get their hands on the weapon. It seems ironic that the effort to block the introduction of such guns in the United States, so far successful, is led by organizations that advocate gun rights.

Courts: Reduce illicit carrying

Most gun assaults occur outside the home. When an underage youth, gang member or ex-con is picked up carrying a gun, there is a good chance that a serious crime has been prevented. Judges must do their part by treating illicit gun carrying as a serious offense, rather than dismissing such cases as “victimless crimes.” By analogy, most drunk-driving cases are “victimless” in that no one was harmed, but overall the successful crusade (by MADD and other groups) to have DUI treated as a serious crime has saved thousands of lives. Reducing illicit carrying would have the same effect.

Mental health: Need better approach

Recent mass shootings have brought mental health experts and gun violence prevention advocates together to forge sensible approaches. Federal law disqualifies from gun ownership those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or otherwise ruled mentally incompetent by a judge. That disqualification can only be effectively implemented in states that enter their mental health records into the national background check system kept by the FBI, a small step in the right direction.

But federal law is of little use in responding to most cases where a psychotic individual poses a threat. A carefully crafted policy is needed to allow judges to order guns removed from those who are found to be dangerous to themselves or others due to mental illness. Such quick response policies should be coupled with a process to restore gun rights when the danger has dissipated.

In sum, guns, like many other commodities, create risks as well as benefits. In regulating cars, liquor, medical procedures, and much else, there is a balance between risks and benefits. That common-sense approach doesn’t have the drama of a Liam Neeson film, but it is our best hope going forward.

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