Friday, December 21, 2012

Jumping the Gun: Why Most of the Gun Debate After Newtown Isn't Helpful

Jay Carney got some flak after the Newtown massacre by saying "Today is not the day to talk about gun control."  Detractors almost universally said "if not now, when."  They were right.  We can say what we want, when we want.  But pushing for gun control immediately after the incident, before the facts come in, increases the chances that we'll just say or do something useless.

Many of the loudest gun control advocates are pushing for assault weapons bans, because a semi-automatic assault rifle was used to kill the children in Newtown.  Many gun advocates, including many pundits and politicians who have previously opposed these bans, are saying that nobody needs weapons like this.  I'm generally inclined to agree with this, but any time the government tells me what I do or don't need, the Libertarian part of my psyche cringes.  One thing they say that makes sense is that certain weapons only belong on the battlefield.  The trick is identifying what that means.

The definition of assault weapons is a bit vague.  Automatic weapons are always considered assault weapons.  Not all semi-automatic weapons are considered assault weapons, only ones with certain characteristics are.  The assault weapons ban defined an assault weapon as a weapon with detachable magazines and at least two other characteristics that were considered typical of assault weapons.  The problem is, a few of the things that potentially define something as an assault weapon seem mostly or entirely harmless.

Two examples are pistol grips and collapsible stocks.  A collapsible stock is a stock that can be shortened in order to be customized to the size of the user.  I don't see how this makes a gun noticeably more dangerous.  A pistol grip allows the user to control the recoil more easily.  One could argue that it makes a shooter more able to shoot people more quickly.  But it also makes them more able to shoot static targets more quickly or deer more quickly or whatever.  Typically, how quickly someone can kill targets has more to do with the skill of the shooter than the type of stock or grip that a gun has.  This ban seems to be designed to ban guns that look dangerous. They may like they belong on a battlefield, but many of them are no more or less dangerous than more ordinary looking weapons.

Another problem with fixating on assault weapons is the fact that they are not used in most murders.  Most murders are committed with pistols, which is probably why the last assault weapons ban had no noticeable effect on homicide rates.  The President echoed this in the presidential debates, noting that most murders involve "cheap handguns".  Even some mass killings are done with pistols.  The Virginia Tech massacre, the worst school shooting ever, was done with two handguns.  By focusing entirely on the specific circumstances of the shootings in Newtown, we risk ignoring most of the violence in this country. 

Another thing that has come to the forefront is a focus on mental health and identifying people with problems and treating them.  Many, if not all, of the mass murderers in recent years have had some kind of mental health problem.  Disturbing behavior by the Tucson killer was reported by many classmates at a local community college he attended and nothing was done.  The Aurora killer's classmates also reported strange behavior and nothing was done.  On the other hand, The Virginia Tech killer and one of the Columbine killers had been diagnosed with mental health problems prior to the attacks and had received treatment.  The Newtown killer was known to have some mental problems and some reports suggest his mother was about to have him committed.  These instances all suggest that more intervention is necessary and when it happens it needs to be more effective.  But what's also true is that most murderers are not crazy.  Most murderers kill for a relatively mundane reason: an argument, jealousy, revenge.  Angry results in more murders than crazy.  Focusing only on the mentally unstable ignores most of the problem.  It's always a good idea to improve mental health care (or any other health care), but this won't fix most of the problem.

As with every other mass shooting, the debate over the "culture of violence" has reemerged.  We are told that America has a history of violence and our culture glorifies violence and contributed to this.  But this actually doesn't make any sense.  The same violent movies and video games that are common in a America are equally common in other nations where murder is extremely rare.  American movies are commonly watched in Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and Australia.  They buy the video games too.  France, the UK, and Germany have far more violent histories than America.  Yet murder rates are low in all of these countries.  Not only would attempting to silence or deter these forms of entertainment be a violation of the First Amendment, it would be a complete waste of time.  Other countries are able to avoid real violence, despite the fact that they are exposed to the same amount of fake violence as we are and despite the fact that they have histories as violent, if not more so, than ours.

While I'm on the subject of foreign countries, it has to be mentioned that other industrialized nations have stricter gun control laws.  In some, like Japan and England, this results in low rates of gun ownership and low murder rates.  Others, like Canada or France, have relatively high numbers of gun owners (though not as many as us) but still have low murder rates.  And some others, like Brazil and Russia, have low rates of gun ownership but much higher murder rates.  What this means is the presence or lack of guns and gun control laws doesn't appear to predict a country's murder rate.  The source of the problem is something else.

This doesn't mean gun control is useless.  I think some gun control measures makes sense.  Smaller magazine size is fine.  I truly don't need a 30 round clip to defend myself.  If I need to defend myself from an attack and need more than six or seven bullets to do it, this is the sort of attack I should be running away from.  And limiting magazine size won't prevent me from buying more than one gun.  This won't stop people from producing homemade high capacity magazines, but I still think it will reduce the chances of mass shootings occurring.  Background checks should be required for all gun purchases.  Instant background checks should be available everywhere.  There must be a way to make background checks possible at gun shows.  This won't stop strawbuyers, but it will still prevent many felons and crazy people from getting guns. Lastly, one thing that often goes unmentioned is that many criminals acquire guns from licensed dealers who make illicit sales under the table. So another thing that must happen is additional enforcement.

But as for the rest of the debate, it's a hasty reaction which will have little or no effect.  We won't fix the problem by renewing an assault weapons ban that didn't accomplish anything significant the first time, other than boosting assault weapon sales before its passage.  And hand wringing over movies and video games is a waste of time.  This is a multi-faceted problem that will probably take decades or generations to fix.  We won't be able to control it if we only respond to the headlines.  We will not fix anything if we attempt to resurrect legislation that already failed once.  We must be willing to commit to rigorous analysis of all aspects of the problem and explore all possible solutions, while being mindful of the Constitution and its guarantees.  We must accept that this requires a prolonged effort at the grassroots level by all citizens who want the violence to stop.   If we want to prevent future violence and respect the memory of the victims of violence, we must attempt to find solutions that actually work and shake off the tired old rhetoric that solves nothing.

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