While it is impossible to eliminate heartbreaking attacks like that in Newtown; it is possible to make that level of violence less likely. At the same time, it is important to recognize that no single policy will fix the problem; rather, the achievement of even limited success will result from the cumulative effects of a range of policies. Policy responses should thus not only focus on eliminating guns, but rather, should also propose new ways to alter the relationships of guns, mental health and violence.
As an example of new policy for dealing with gun violence, I recently proposed the two key gun-safe to the US military as a way to help address the growing problem of military suicide. Many military personnel have personal weapons and extensive experience with firearms – a combination, which when combined with a dramatic increase in mental health issues in the armed forces, has contributed to the doubling of the military suicide rate over the last ten years.
Suicide and many other violent acts, even when thoroughly rehearsed and planned, tend to be triggered by strong, short-lived emotional impulses. If weapons are not available during these impulses, then the likelihood of violence – to one’s self or to others – can be greatly diminished.
The two key gun-safe borrows the idea of the dual-key system from nuclear missile silos. The two key gun-safe has two locks which must be keyed simultaneously, and which one person cannot open by his or her self. The locks are located appropriately far apart and are sufficiently complex and hard to operate that they must be opened by two adults (variations could include dual key codes, fingerprints etc.). By requiring that another person assist in opening the gun safe, the two key gun-safe would ensure that gun access not occur when someone is alone.
Along with the two key gun-safe, I would recommend the development and distribution of a two-pronged educational campaign. The first campaign would focus on the importance of keeping personal weapons, clips and ammunition in a gun safe when not in use. Future technologies could be developed that disable weapons after a certain number of hours if they are not reset by depositing them in the safe. Second, current mental health and gun safety programs would be expanded to include assessments of family members and friends mental distress, and the importance of not unlocking the safe if the person seeking the weapons appears to be distressed.
The two key gun-safe is not a cure. People, especially military personnel, intent on killing themselves, will likely be able to locate firearms. Similarly, severely ill people intent on harming others may still be able to access weapons. However, systems that ensure at least two people are involved when accessing firearms – along with an information campaign that emphasizes the importance of storing weapons in gun safes and not providing access to those who seem disturbed – may decrease instant access to firearms for those intending to do violence and thus minimize some future shootings.
Given what we are learning about the details of the events in Newtown, the two key gun-safe likely would not have made a difference in stopping this horrible event. But, efforts that restrict firearm access for those who are alone and struck by the impulse to take their own and others’ lives might help to limit some outbreaks of future violence.
The two key gun-safe is not a panacea or even a complete solution, but represents the type of step forward that I think we can, and should, package together with other responses to change the conditions that led to this and other attacks. Locking up weapons and ensuring that their use requires the assent of another person would represent a major step in altering the relationship between mental illness, guns, and violence.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Scott Sigmund Gartner is a Professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs and Dickinson School of Law. Author of Strategic Assessment in War (Yale University Press), he is currently studying the political and strategic factors that contribute to suicide in the military.
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