Alex Brandon, AP
Looking west away from the stage, the crowd fills Pennsylvania Avenue during the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington.

A huge group of young people arrived in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to demonstrate for gun control. I was delighted to see the many bright high school students who demonstrated in a very responsible manner. Unlike many demonstrations in Washington, where violence, trashing store windows or harming pedestrians have occurred, this was largely peaceful.

I am sort of an “old hand” when it comes to Washington demonstrations. I participated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, which had 250,000 people. I walked through the Women’s March the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, which had between 400,000 and 500,000 people. Near the White House, a friend and I saw several bricks thrown during the Women’s March, but the one closest to us landed harmlessly. In my opinion, the students’ demonstration was exemplary, as there was a fair amount of self-policing. Estimates for the demonstration place it at about 200,000 people. Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety nonprofit provided funding and organizing support.

The big question was this: What do the demonstrators suggest we do about gun control? They have expressed they are against the National Rifle Association and candidates associated with the NRA. They have been somewhat vague — on their website they call for an assault weapons ban without differentiating between people possessing the tens of thousands already out there and purchasing new ones. I agree that we should ban the sale of new assault weapons, but I do not think we can forcefully take back the large number already in circulation. There was no talk of repealing the Second Amendment, although former Justice John Paul Stevens this week wrote an op-ed saying it could be done easily. I respectfully disagree. Repealing a constitutional amendment is a long and complex process, and the Second Amendment is beloved by many Americans.

Very little was said in the demonstration's speeches on the details of more background checks. In its Thursday edition, The New York Times reported that the most-read article of the last week was an op-ed from a Parkland senior who wrote, “I tried to befriend Nikolas Cruz, but he still killed my friends.” The takeaway from her article was that Cruz probably would have killed even with all sorts of psychological support and friendship. That leads me to the conclusion that he probably should have been institutionalized or incarcerated. But we don’t like to institutionalize/incarcerate people except for specific crimes. The reason is cost and our highly developed sense of individual liberty.

Finding all of the Nikolas Cruzes and detaining them would be an extremely expensive proposition. It would violate many of our ideals of privacy and individual freedom. Our current legal system allows for a school administrator to be sued personally for making an accusation that someone is dangerous without proof. Recording and transferring that judgment violates a lot of the privacy laws we have.

While I was in the Senate, I did support more extensive background checks. Indeed, we passed laws for more background checks, but they were dropped in the first two years of the Obama administration when both houses of Congress were Democratic. There is a strong feeling among libertarians and liberals that individuals can be eccentric without being accused of potential criminality.

We start the debate on gun control with the knowledge that there are as many guns in America as there are people. It is easy to talk glibly about simple solutions, but once one sits down and really thinks through two or three steps, it becomes almost an unsolvable problem. However, the young people have inspired me and our nation to try harder.

Trump did a good job of inviting student leadership into a private meeting. He has indicated a willingness to go along with more extensive background checks, but it is up to Congress and the courts to act. Members of Congress fear many background check proposals will be struck down as unconstitutional by the courts. The president has appointed a justice and several judges who are more favorable to allowing more extensive background checks on citizens, so it will take a combination of the actions of courts, Congress and the president to try to solve this terrible problem.

To really get extensive background checks going, we will have to accept a lesser standard in privacy and the possibility of institutionalizing certain individuals, and we will have to change our legal system — now, everyone in the chain of command is fearful of being sued as an individual in tort or libel for making any harsh evaluation of anybody. And, suddenly, school administrators are fearful of being sued for transmitting that information to another governmental body in violation of privacy laws.

I have much praise for the students’ speeches, but my criticism is that they did not offer specific solutions on how we can maintain our individual rights while sharing background checks broadly.

Comment on this story

For some reason, God’s creation of man brought to Earth a creature that is very hard to govern, or even self-govern. The current gun control debate is a classic example of a public policy debate where everyone thinks they have the solution until they sit down and try to make it work.

God apparently intended that we humans should have to struggle to govern ourselves. It is not a pleasant process to try to improve things as much as we can. The students’ demonstration has inspired us to keep trying.