Wednesday, January 02, 2013


I've waited a while to write anything about Sandy Hook and the gun control debates that have spun out from it. To be honest, I haven't thought about gun control in a long time, and it's never been a very important issue to me. It's also long been one of my last conservative hold-outs; I share the libertarian skepticism that gun legislation would disarm many criminals.

TNC posted the script of a conversation on the subject between him and Jeffrey Goldberg that I found somewhat insightful and, if nothing else, pleasantly civil. Like probably most liberals, I don't actually want to "take everyone's guns away;" I just think some sensible regulation is in order. Still, I feel like the conversations about guns and the solutions proposed don't have much to do with the scenarios they purport to solve.

In the Newtown story, for instance, Adam Lanza raided his survivalist mother's arsenal and walked into an elementary school with her guns. How, exactly, does registration or a database or an assault weapons ban prevent something like that? Lanza used an AR-15, sure, but I would imagine he could have racked up a similar death toll with any semiautomatic weapon. People suggest a mental health angle, but what solution lies that way? I'm pretty sure most psychiatrists would find the idea of a mental health "no fly list" database for guns repellant. How can you square that with patient confidentiality? And what if the person trying to buy a gun has never had a psychiatric evaluation? Are we going to mandate them for firearm purchases? That sounds like a good idea, admittedly, but I wonder how hard it is for a potential shooter to fake their way through something like that. And again, remember, Lanza didn't buy his guns. He took them from his mother's house.

Meanwhile, most violent crimes committed with guns are the mundane street violence that gets less play on the national news. Perhaps there's some way to prevent felons from buying guns, but a great many gun crimes of this sort are committed with stolen handguns. How do you stop the flow of illegal guns into the streets? An assault weapons ban makes more sense here, but street crime is usually more about one dude vs. one other dude, in which case the difference between an "assault weapon" and a revolver is negligible. If there's a way to prevent purchases of handguns by people likely to have them stolen from them, it isn't obvious to me.

In more general terms, now is actually not a great time for such matters. It's usually a bad idea to go crafting sweeping legislation in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. That's how we end up with things like the USA PATRIOT Act. Plus, we have to remember that the odds of being involved in a mass shooting are vanishingly small, and that as a whole America is safer than it's been since Eisenhower was in the White House. Though now may be the moment when the political iron is hot, the issue of gun violence is probably less important than it's been in a very long time.

I will say this, though: I said at the beginning that I'm skeptical about gun laws disarming criminals. The truth is I'm less skeptical of that than I used to be. It is indisputable that all other developed countries have far fewer guns than we do, and all other developed countries have a tiny fraction of our rate of gun violence. All other countries, however, also have a black market for firearms, just like we do, the very same thing American criminals use to get their guns. Ergo, if it were true that gun control only took guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, all of those other countries have the same rates of gun crime as us, since just like our criminals, their criminals have access to guns via the black market.

Except apparently the guns are far more expensive, or there aren't enough to go around (two sides of the same coin, I know), or they just don't bother going through the trouble. In any case, crimes committed with firearms here are committed with knives and baseball bats in Britain and Japan and Finland and Argentina. That's important, because the presence of a firearm makes an assault many times more likely to be lethal, especially a mass assault like what happened in Newtown.

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