Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s another Only in America news cycle: Four young people, in three different states, shot by strangers – all reportedly because they had the bad luck to approach the wrong house or the wrong car. And all because America allows far too many people to arm themselves with deadly weapons.
Ralph Yarl, just 16, apparently thought he was ringing a friend’s doorbell in Kansas City, Missouri, when Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old White man, shot Yarl, who is Black, through the front door, and then shot him again in the head. Yarl miraculously survived, but his life will never be the same. Lester told police he and Yarl exchanged no words before Lester fired.
Kaylin Gillis, a White 20-year-old, was in the car with her friends in rural upstate New York when they accidentally turned up the wrong driveway. The homeowner, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan, also White, shot her dead as the car was leaving, according to a local sheriff.
And in Texas, police said two teenage cheerleaders were shot by Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., a 25-year-old Latino man, after one mistook Rodriguez’s car for her own in a grocery store parking lot and opened the door.
Many Americans, particularly leading Republicans, like to point out that most gun owners are law-abiding citizens – not people who buy guns with the intention of committing a crime. The problem, though, is that any society as gun-saturated as ours isn’t going to see senseless violence just from criminals. It’s going to see senseless violence from people who were law-abiding citizens, until they used a gun to kill or maim someone.
No one knows what these shooters were thinking when they purchased their firearms. But I feel virtually certain it wasn’t “I’m going to shoot a kid in my driveway.” I suspect these men considered themselves law-abiding citizens who simply wanted to protect themselves, and perhaps their families or their property. Or maybe they even wanted to have a gun just to have one.
But because the US allows nearly anyone to arm themselves, we as a society create and enable a situation in which average, often untrained citizens are handed the ability to swiftly end others’ lives. And it’s a vicious cycle: Many conservatives who object to regulating guns also paint a picture of a violent society in which every person has to be prepared to use deadly force, and a huge majority of gun owners themselves say they own a gun because they’re afraid of crime. But of course, when few limits are placed on gun ownership, guns are more common and gun crime becomes more pervasive; when guns are ubiquitous in a society, so is gun violence.
In other words, the very gun violence created by lax gun laws and mass gun ownership fuels the kind of fearfulness that leads to gun ownership.
America very obviously needs to make a change. Owning a gun should be significantly more difficult than owning a car: Our laws should require extensive training, the passing of a strict test, reasonable limits on what type of weapon one can own, insurance mandates, safety rules and regular checks of one’s mental health and physical abilities. If you can’t see well enough to drive a car, you can’t see well enough to responsibly own a firearm.
At this point, the public can’t know whether any of these shooters would have passed these benchmarks. But these basic regulations could save a great many lives. And the same way a driver’s test makes the rules of the road clear to drivers – and hopefully sends the message that, if drivers break the law, ignorance is no defense – a stricter gun ownership process could emphasize to gun owners that their weapon is their responsibility, and if they fire first and ask questions later, that’s going to be on them, in criminal court.
In the US, of course, this is not always how it works. Over and over, gun owners make radically irresponsible and dangerous choices, whether that’s having a gun in the home when they know that their child is emotionally disturbed or violent, killing someone hastily and claiming a “stand your ground” defense or shooting at a stranger over a knock at the front door or the chime of a doorbell.
In 1984, the Bernie Goetz case in New York City made headlines when Goetz shot four unarmed teenagers on the New York City subway after one approached him and either asked for or demanded $5. While all four teens survived, one was left paralyzed and with brain damage. Goetz claimed that he had been the victim of a previous violent robbery in a city beset by violent crime, and so his reaction to pull out a gun and fire was a reasonable one given his state of mind. It was an absurd argument, especially given the allegations of racist comments from Goetz. But a jury bought it. Goetz got off on the attempted murder and assault charges and was convicted only of gun charges. After the appeals process, Goetz ended up serving just eight months in prison.
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But the case briefly captivated the public’s attention, in part because it raised crucial questions: When judging an individual’s actions as criminal or not, do we default to what that individual believed was reasonable? Or do we insist that there is some baseline standard of a reasonable person that, no matter the individual’s particular background or perspective, one should have to abide by? And how much force is too much to defend one’s property?
These are questions we continue to face. Do we want to live in a country where deadly force is wielded according to the judgment of people like Goetz or the three men who shot first in Missouri, New York and Texas? Or do we want to live in a county with laws and rules, where people can make honest mistakes and not pay for it with their lives?
Pro-gun conservatives continue to stress that most gun owners are responsible, reasonable and law-abiding. So it should be easy for them to prove it through a tough but fair licensing process. And when they behave irresponsibly with a weapon that they know full well was designed to kill, then we must hold them fully accountable – including with criminal charges and serious jail time. Truly reasonable, responsible and law-abiding people would accept no less.