Better gun laws– it’s complicated

Really enjoyed this piece from David Frum who 1) recognizes the absurdity of our current gun policies, yet 2) recognizes how and why it will be difficult to change them in a meaningful manner in the uniquely American cultural context.  Well worth reading all of it.  My favorite parts:

But I’ve come around more and more to the gun advocate point of view that there is something artificial and even dishonest about the technocratic approach to gun control. There’s nothing wrong with, say, Nick Kristof’s list of ideas in an October 2 New York Times column of proposals such as

Limit gun purchases by any one person to no more than, say, two a month, and tighten rules on straw purchasers who buy for criminals. Make serial numbers harder to remove.

But once you have accepted that it’s reasonable for citizens to accumulate firearms at the rate of 24 a year, it’s hard to imagine that there is really anything else you can do that will prevent a lot of gun deaths. Americans die from gunfire in proportions unparalleled in the civilized world because Americans own guns in proportions unparalleled in the civilized world. More guns mean more lethal accidents, more suicides, more everyday arguments escalated into murderous fusillades…

There are subtle, sophisticated, and nuanced approaches to the gun problem that balance the rights of gun owners against the imperatives of gun safety. They may well even make some difference at the margin. But they are unlikely to make any significant difference. Americans debate these approaches not because they are likely to be effective, but because the methods that will work—that have worked in every other advanced society—are here politically taboo.

Was there one legal change that could have thwarted Stephen Paddock? Probably not. But the reason crimes like his are so common here, and so rare in western Europe, is not that we are afflicted with more Stephen Paddocks than they, but because their Stephen Paddocks find it so much more difficult to obtain guns, and especially large quantities of guns… [emphases mine]

So in a limited sense, the gun advocates are right. The promise of “common sense gun safety” is a hoax, i.e. Americans probably will not be able to save the tens of thousands of lives lost every year to gun violence—and the many more thousands maimed and traumatized—while millions of Americans carry guns in their purses and glove compartments, store guns in their night tables and dressers. Until Americans change their minds about guns, Americans will die by guns in numbers resembling the casualty figures in Somalia and Honduras more than Britain or Germany…

The adults who exposed those children to death and injury [descriptions of sadly common toddlers shooting people] surely thought they were doing the right thing by having guns in their home. But they were wrong, dead wrong. As Melinda Wenner Moyer writes in the current issue of Scientific American: “The research on guns is not uniform, and we could certainly use more of it. But when all but a few studies point in the same direction, we can feel confident that the arrow is aiming at the truth—which is, in this case, that guns do not inhibit crime and violence but instead make it worse.”

And the surest sign that gun advocates know how lethal the science is for their cause is their determination to suppress it: since the mid-1990s, Republicans in Congress have successfully cut off federal funding for non-industry gun-safety research.  That’s not what you do when the facts are on your side.

Gun safety begins, then, not with technical fixes, but with spreading the truthful information: people who bring guns into their homes are endangering themselves and their loved ones…

But in an America where guns were viewed as they are in Australia or Canada, the project of moving two dozen of them into a hotel suite would likely be detected somewhere along the way. The person moving those guns would find himself in trouble—not for murder—but for some petty gun infraction. His weapons might be confiscated, or he himself sent to prison for some months. His plan would be interrupted very likely without anyone ever imagining what had been contemplated. Mass shootings so seldom happen in other countries not because they have developed carefully crafted policies against shootings, but because they have instituted broad policies to restrict guns…

But those countries do tightly regulate the movement of guns from place to place. Because they regard gun ownership as a privilege rather than a right, they screen much more carefully not only for criminal records, but for histories of addiction, mental health treatment, and domestic violence. They test whether applicants for gun licenses can in fact, and not just in self-assessment, handle their weapons responsibly. They protect against major gun crime with the same “broken windows” policing philosophy that Americans used to secure their cities in the 1990s: lawbreakers typically commit a lot of petty infractions on their way to bigger crimes, and enforcing against the former can head off many of the latter.

Even more basically: because there are fewer guns and gun owners to track, those who are dangerous stand out more conspicuously, before it is too late.

So, yeah, if it were up to me, I’d go back to the interpretation of the 2nd amendment which stood for 200+ years (“well-regulated militia”) and dramatically cut back access to guns.  I’m under no illusions that “common-sense” gun policies will make a major difference.  That said, they will help at the margins.  And the margins are human lives!  And the cost– some people feeling that their “freedom” is infringed because they can’t have an AR-15?  Yeah, I can live with that.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Better gun laws– it’s complicated

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Perhaps changing the emphasis on the second amendment to the militia part of it would be helpful. The gun cult doesn’t attempt to deal with that and generally ignores it.
    Maybe the only citizens who have the right to individual guns should be citizens who qualify for a militia formed by each state. Training by this militia should be required prior to acquiring a first gun and refresher courses should be required periodically. Qualifying for the militia would hopefully exclude those with violent criminal records and mental diagnoses.
    Someone else can figure out the rest of the details. I’m just throwing out an idea to get the discussion away from “gun control” and “regulations”.
    Don’t the Swiss have such a system?

    • Jeremy Tarone says:

      The Swiss have firearm regulations that are much closer to Canada’s laws. Deep background checks, licenses are required to purchase, records are kept of purchases. You must pass a test to show you know the laws, regulations and firearm safety, and that you can safely handle a firearm. For pistols you must belong to a gun club/range. You can only transport your firearm to/from the range or when hunting, and pistols are kept at the gun range.
      Firearms at home (long guns) must be kept secured and empty when not being used.
      Those who break the laws and regulations get charged, their weapons confiscated.

      Swiss Gun Ownership – The REAL Story

  2. Jeremy Tarone says:

    “…lawbreakers typically commit a lot of petty infractions on their way to bigger crimes, and enforcing against the former can head off many of the latter.”

    Very often in America when children kill themselves or others because the owner left an unsupervised firearm around children, there are no charges against the firearm owner. 75% of the time it’s considered “a tragic accident” rather than the negligence it is.
    In Canada the irresponsible firearm owners are almost always charged.

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