Like Mike, I find myself straddling the gun violence prevention/gun enthusiast line. Actually, I don’t see this as a line in the sand at all. The battleground, sadly, seems to be between many gun violence prevention folks who want additional controls on guns and gun rights absolutists who see every attempt at the control of gun violence as a slippery slope to loss of gun rights. So here are a few comments I would make to anyone who would ask me how I think about this.
First, the matter of firearms themselves. These are intrinsically hazardous objects whose purpose is to shoot holes in things. Firearms evolved as warfighting tools and as sporting arms second. Their main purpose, my Zen-like moments at the range notwithstanding, is to kill, whether it is human beings on opposing sides of a battlefield, an intruder threatening a family, or this winter’s meat. In a civil society that has evolved from a few million people in a rural environment to a largely urban landscape of over three hundred million people, the roles and influence of guns on society has obviously changed. Indeed, although the Second Amendment and historical cultural values have provided Americans a much broader range of gun rights and widespread ownership than in most developed countries, an interest balance between rights and responsibilities, including government oversight of the keeping and bearing of privately owned firearms, is reasonable. There is a wide divergence of opinion on where to draw the line on government oversight, i.e., the notion of what constitutes “infringement” but I’ll leave that elaboration to anyone who wants to read Heller v District of Columbia or Adam Winkler’s compelling read “Gunfight”. Briefly, gun control has always existed in America. Heller provides broad latitude, based on historical analysis as well as the Second Amendment, for it to continue.
Secondly, as arms are by their nature dangerous, if not unusual, government has a compelling interest in their oversight. Historically, we have regulated handguns, especially concealed public carry (see Gunfight), and dangerous and unusual weapons such as sawed off shotguns or fully automatic rifles. Because auto rifles were heavily regulated by the 1934 National Firearms Act before everyone and their dog owned one, you rarely hear of full auto rifles being used in crimes. They are relatively rare and owned legally by a few people willing to deal with the BATF’s requirements as enthusiasts. Meanwhile, increasingly lethal arms such as so-called “assault rifles” were sold on an equal basis to more traditional semiauto and manually-operated rifles since the middle of the last century. The argument that these are no different than traditional sporting rifles as far as their risk to society rings hollow as high capacity, rapid firing rifles were introduced to the military because of their superior firepower. The WW II soldiers carrying full auto weapons such as the BAR were far more likely to use them to control the battlefield than the soldier with even an M-1, or as James Fallows said in a June, 1981 Atlantic, “…The BAR man, by contrast, had the sense that he could dominate a certain area—“hose it down,” in the military slang—and destroy anyone who happens to be there.”
Why the civilian market should have unfettered access to weapons barely different from those designed to “hose down” a battlefield, without rigorous strings attached, is a good question worth public debate. As I have said on my own North Mesa Mutts blog, I think semiauto vs. selective-fire is a distinction without a difference in this discussion. Millions of these weapons are in private hands and most owned safely (including, presumably, my own Mini-14) but if these weapons continue to be used to mow down people in theatres, schools, and public events, some sort of regulation is inevitable on public safety grounds. Perhaps, since so many are out there, some sort of retrospective controls on ownership, midway between full auto rifles and low-capacity rifles, rather than a retroactive ban, could be seen as a compromise. In my world, we think carefully about low frequency, high consequence events. Frankly, mass shootings are becoming high frequency/high consequence events. How many more Sutherland and Las Vegas shootings do we need to endure before we re-think ARs and their handgun bretheren? Just as we wouldn’t really want Homer Simpson as the operator of a nuclear power plant, there are a few people I would prefer not having the power of mass carnage over the public.
For those GVP advocates who think the usual gun control proposals will drastically reduce gun deaths, I say keep dreaming. We heavily control auto use via competency licensing of drivers, registration of vehicles, laws regulating motor vehicle safety (such as air bags and structural crumple zones), and laws regulating traffic operation. We still kill about thirty to forty thousand Americans per year. That’s because with hundreds of millions of Americans driving about three hundred million cars, some small fraction will be mishandled or deliberately misused. I think the same would hold true for guns as long as there are so many out there. As Mike likes to say, if you own a gun, sooner or later it will go bang. If we want to seriously reduce gun deaths and injury, we need to seriously reduce guns. My own quick analysis of the Center for American Progress’s news release a couple years ago was that the most basic correlation was between suicides and gun ownership. Since that is the case, it doesn’t matter what guns we regulate since all it has to do is go bang once. Nonetheless, we need to have gun laws for the same reason we need traffic laws: to provide consensus guidance for safe operation and penalties for misuse.
My two most compelling gun violence prevention laws would be universal background checks (except to people who know each other well and can vouch for each other) and safe storage laws. Selling to a stranger without a background check is rolling the dice. Straw purchases, as recounted in a 15 Nov. Washington Post Story by Peter Hermann, Ann Marimow, and Clarence Williams (“One Illegal Gun: 12 Weeks. A Dozen Criminal Acts. The Rapid Cycle of Gun Violence”), can rapidly result in multiple cases of armed carnage. Indeed, I think the most compelling hypothesis for the posited link between permissive right to carry and higher gun crime rate recently asserted by Prof. John Donohue et al is not necessarily that more hotheads are obtaining carry permits but that simply more guns are being bought and carried about or stored carelessly and therefore available to be stolen. Ensuring that someone else, whether it be a family member, house guest, or a stranger doesn’t get their hands on your banger is critical. As Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden recently recounted to me, theft is his best estimate of the principle source of guns used in crime in that city.
The bigger picture of violence in America obviously goes far beyond gun ownership and involves drug laws, poverty, income inequality, a disastrous loss of blue collar jobs, and social divisions. But as Philip Cook et al recently stated, most economically developed nations have crime problems. Ours are more lethal since there are far more guns involved. We gun owners certainly are not to blame for the larger social context of violence, except insofar as we may, as individuals, tolerate social injustice. But as firearms owners and enthusiasts we have a moral obligation to do our part to reduce gun violence. Simply saying it is someone else’s problem means that sooner or later, the bigger problems will land on our doorstep, whether in blood spilled or regulation.