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A Serious Question for Proponents of Gun Control

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I had hoped that there might be a decent mourning interval after the horror in Las Vegas before we returned to contentious political debates. But, alas, that is not to be. The natural instinct after tragedies is a desire to “do something.” And, the “something” for a great many people in this case is gun control. So, reluctantly, a few thoughts on the issue.

Though my natural instincts rebel against any expansion of government power, I am not an absolutist on Second Amendment rights. I can be convinced to support reasonable measures to protect the public, while also protecting the rights of gun owners. But once we get past the emotion of “do something,” I ask my liberal friends on here, what exactly do you propose? Ban “bump stocks?” Sure, I’m fine with that. But beyond that, what gun control proposal would have prevented Las Vegas or any of the more recent mass shootings?

The Washington Post offers a pretty straight-down-the-middle at recent mass shootings and gun laws: They don’t find any that would have been prevented by current gun control proposals. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/12/10/marco-rubios-claim-that-no-recent-mass-shootings-would-have-been-prevented-by-gun-laws/?utm_term=.c08aa91b4ee5.

The truth is that there is no easy answer to gun violence. A few things to consider:

There appears to be no relationship between the number of guns and the number of murders. There has been a 56 percent increase in gun ownership since 1994, and a 49 percent decline in gun deaths over the same period. There are a number of reasons for the decline in gun crime, including changing demographics, better policing, and so on. But it seems hard to make a claim that more guns inevitably leads to more crime. In addition, a look at states with widespread gun ownership does not show them to have higher murder rates. Guns are ubiquitous in, say, Vermont, but it hasn’t exactly turned into a shooting gallery. One can overstate this – most of these states, like Vermont, are rural – and have lower crime rates generally. Still, the relationship between gun ownership and crime generally are ambiguous at best.

It is true that other countries with stricter gun laws have lower murder rates. But there may be less here than meets the eye. Those countries frequently had lower rates of gun homicide before their most stringent laws were enacted. For example, while the number of gun deaths in Australia declined after it enacted a sweeping gun ban following the Port Arthur mass shooting, that was largely a result of a decline in gun suicides. The rate of gun murders does not appear to have dropped significantly.

The most common gun proposal is an expansion of the background check system. But Stephen Paddock went through a background check – and passed. There was nothing in his background that would have raised flags under even the most vigorous check. He even went through the associated waiting periods, and given the length of time he apparently planned his crime, a longer waiting period would have made no difference. The same is generally true in other mass shootings. The killers passed background checks. (The Newtown killer stole weapons from his parents who had passed background checks).

It has been suggested that those with histories of mental illness should be barred from gun ownership. That might indeed reduce gun deaths. But it needs to be balanced against the probability that it would discourage some individuals from seeking treatment. Moreover, how is mental illness to be defined? Anxiety? Depression?

The second most common proposal is to ban so-called “assault weapons.” The evidence from the previous (now-lapsed) assault weapon ban is inconclusive. According to the most comprehensive study of the law’s impact: “The ban did not appear to affect gun crime during the time it was in effect, but some evidence suggests it may have modestly reduced gunshot victimizations had it remained in place for a longer period.” That’s not a ringing endorsement.

An effective assault weapon ban would also be extremely difficult to legislate. That’s because there really is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” There is no difference in the firing mechanism between guns commonly described as assault weapons and most popular hunting rifles. As a result, most assault weapon bans prohibit weapons based on cosmetics or the inclusion of extraneous features, such as a pistol grip or collapsible stock. These restrictions are extremely easy to evade.

It also noteworthy that, while “assault weapons” are often a feature of mass shootings, they are not really part of the overall problem of gun violence. Only about 2 percent of gun murders are committed with assault-style weapons. Handguns are the murder weapon of choice.

We are not getting rid of guns in this country. Americans currently own more than 300 million guns. Roughly half of all American households own a gun. Suppose a gun ban passed tomorrow, and an unimaginable 90 percent of Americans voluntarily turned in their guns, that would still leave some 30 million guns out there. And, the people not turning in their guns are likely to be those I least want to have them.

Finally, I keep hearing that no one needs this or that type of gun to hunt. Well, “need” is amorphous concept. But, more importantly, let’s remember that there are many legitimate reasons to own guns besides hunting, such as: sport, self-defense, and, yes, a bulwark against tyranny. There would be less resistance to gun control proposals if supporters didn’t so quickly jump from “no one is coming for your guns” to proposals to broad gun bans or confiscation proposals.

Again, I’m perfectly willing to consider some type of gun control. But I am looking for practical, effective proposals that would actually reduce gun crimes, while still protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans. If you have such proposals, I’m willing to listen. Over to you…

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