Patching up America’s broken heart: Could regulatory theory offer a solution to gun violence in the US?

Gun violence: America's new normal.

On Wednesday morning, the US suffered another gun-related tragedy. This time, reporter Alison Parker and camera man Adam Ward from WDBJ-TV, Virginia, were shot dead on air by a disgruntled former colleague.

Alison Parker’s father has said that he will not rest until the US introduces stronger gun control laws, and he challenged the media to keep the story as front page news until the government takes action.

The US federal government has been notoriously reluctant to implement stronger gun control laws, despite mass shootings in Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Charleston, and Aurora, Colorado, lobbying by high-profile politicians, including Gabrielle Giffords, herself a victim of gun violence, and efforts to tighten restrictions on gun ownership, led by President Obama.

The key barrier to tougher controls is the Constitutional protection on the right to keep and bear arms, which is inextricably linked to a heavily pro-gun culture in some parts of  the country, and a powerful gun lobby that is relentless in its quest to forestall any kind of law that would lessen the perceived rights of gun owners and, presumably, reduce gun sales.

Like many other people living outside the US, I see America’s libertarian approach to gun ownership as irrational, irresponsible, and as posing a serious (and unnecessary) threat to public health and safety. As much as anyone, I would like to see the US introduce comprehensive legislation setting uniform background check requirements, banning the sale of military-assault style weapons to the public, and closing off loopholes in gun trafficking laws – as a start. But I also understand the significant political and cultural barriers that the US faces in introducing strong legislative measures.

In this context, could a regulatory approach offer some inroads into solving the problem of gun violence?

Regulatory theory describes the range of regulatory tools and strategies that are available to governments and private regulators to shape behavior (both that of individuals and of industry or social entities). While regulation may involve “command-and-control” style laws that ban certain forms of conduct outright, more often the aim is to reduce or eliminate the hazards of productive social and economic activities, including risks posed to the environment, to workplace health and safety, and to public health through products such as contaminated food.

Regulatory strategies often involve government-designed laws and regulation, but regulatory theory also stresses the use of various forms of “soft law,” such as co-regulation, self-regulation and even “networked governance,” where large companies use contractual mechanisms to force smaller companies to adopt safe working methods, for example. In this model, governments’ role is often one of “meta-regulation” – encouraging, monitoring and overseeing the adoption of self-regulation and other voluntary measures by industry and civil society.

So what might a regulatory approach to gun control look like? Well, for a start, it could involve pressuring the private sector to adopt voluntary gun control strategies. For example, Walmart has announced that it will stop stocking assault rifles in response to reduced consumer demand. What if there was an industry-wide code on the sale of certain weapons to the public, accompanied by monitoring and oversight by an independent organization?

There are a range of other opportunities here – what about economic mechanisms? Can we harness demand for safer communities in some way, for example, by asking the public to boycott pro-gun businesses, or “naming and shaming” such businesses on The Internet? Are there ways in which safer gun ownership behaviours could be encouraged through education and information-based strategies, creating a shift towards a culture that doesn’t accept mass shootings as the new norm?

Regulatory scholars often suffer from a bad reputation, on the basis that they tend to support “soft” or “hands-off” approaches to social problems. A regulatory approach to gun violence wouldn’t be a final solution. It’s certainly not enough by itself, and it’s no substitute for effective government action. But it might be one step on a long and winding road to a safer American society. I’m sure that for the victims of gun violence and their families – like Andy Parker – anything is better than nothing.











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