Want More Americans To Buy Guns? Put One In Everyone’s Hands

Back in 1835, the French Chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville published his remarkable portrait of our country, Democracy in America, which retains an extraordinary clarity and insightful awareness to the present day. Based largely on conversations between the author and Americans he met as he went hither and yon, the two-volume work captured much of what we still believe makes America an exceptional country both in terms of word and deed.

Two things that made America exceptional, according to de Tocqueville, was our individualism and our penchant for violence, both of which he believed reflected the degree to which most of America in the 1830s was still largely a frontier zone.  What connected individualism and violence, according to de Tocqueville, was the apparent willingness of Americans to settle disputes without recourse to any government authority, and to use weapons to settle disputes, in particular knives and guns. This strikingly American cultural trait remains true to this day, expressed most directly in the current argument about guns. Stop and think about it: gun-control advocates have established a clear link between elevated homicide rates and access to guns; pro-gun advocates claim that the risks of gun ownership are far outweighed by the degree to which guns protect us from crime. Take your pick either way, the fact is that as regards the current argument about guns, what de Tocqueville understood about American culture in the 1830s appears to be alive and well in the present day.

pink gun                Ultimately what is going to resolve the debate about guns and gun violence is how guns fit into our overall culture, and right now on this issue America seems to be split.  On the one hand for the first time a clear majority of Americans believe that guns keep us safe.  On the other hand, despite the upward spike of gun sales since you-know-who moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the percentage of American homes with guns sitting around continues to decline.  And believe it or not, I believe that these two seemingly contradictory trends will not only continue, but will become even more pronounced over time. Why do I say this?

First, the demographics that are averse to gun ownership will continue to drive the population profile of America as a whole, by which I mean millennials, single women, racial and ethnic minorities, new immigrants, in other words, everyone except older White men.  And White males between ages 30 – 60 still own most of the guns. A recent poll of registered voters in New York State showed that virtually all the groups except older White men overwhelmingly supported the restrictive new SAFE Act that will, at least in the case of New York, no doubt result in fewer guns.

At the same time, the media and popular culture continues to promote guns and gun violence as a basic theme.  Of the ten most popular movies released this year, half involve multiple shooting scenes with good guys getting shot by bad guys or the other way around.  So Hollywood still believes that we respond to settling arguments with guns.

Remember when the local bowling alley was a place where the family would spend Sunday afternoon because the backyard barbeque was rained out?  To be sure, there were always a few lanes being used by serious bowlers who were practicing for their next league match, but most of us went bowling just to have some fun.  I think the idea of shooting ranges becoming destinations for family fun may be coming into its own; an operation like Colonial Shooting is a far cry from the nasty and overly-serious range environments that cater to the hard-core shooting crowd.  If the NRA would stop taking itself so seriously and stop trying to convince everyone that they need to walk around with a gun, the industry might actually begin to attract all those outliers whose natural curiosity will motivate them to shoot guns even if they have no interest in owning one.  And you never know, put a gun in someone’s hands and they might actually want to keep it there.



What Does New York’s Safe Act Really Mean?

Last week a Federal judge in New York rendered the first decision on New York’s new gun law, the Safe Act,  that was rammed through the Legislature by Andy Cuomo on the heels of the massacre at Sandy Hook.  New York’s new law effectively bans the sale of AR-style rifles to state residents and also set semi-auto magazine limits at a maximum of seven rounds. Judge William Skretny, appointed by Bush 41, is known as a careful, almost scholarly reviewer of legal texts, and in this instance he went to great lengths to analyze the pros and cons of the new law.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Basically his decision contained both good news and bad news for gun owners in New York.  The good news is that Judge Skretny invalidated the 7-round magazine capacity as being ‘arbitrary’ and not shown to really protect public safety as New York State claimed. The bad news is that he also found that the ability of the State to deny access to certain types of weapons did not undermine the 2nd Amendment guarantees of self-protection and was consistent with “the state’s important interest in public safety.”

As more and more gun cases pile up in what Judge Skretny calls the “terra incognita” of post-Heller jurisprudence, the trend seems to be moving towards a recognition of the government’s ability to regulate and even ban certain types of weapons (most notably ‘assault’ rifles) as long as such measures do not deny access to other types of weapons that are commonly used for self defense.  Ironically, the claim by the NRA and its friends that high-capacity, semi-automatic rifles afford the greatest degree of self protection is being turned against them by multiple Court decisions which find that the defensive utility of these guns based on their lethality is exactly what justifies their regulation given the public safety responsibilities vested in the state.

The NRA has spent the last thirty years noisily promoting the notion that an armed citizenry is our most effective method of dealing with crime.  And if nothing else, the coincidence of increased gun sales and a decline in violent crime over the past 20 years would seem to bolster their case. The NRA further argues that banning ‘assault’ rifles is a red herring because even though such weapons are used on rare occasions for mass assaults, like Aurora, the overwhelming bulk of shootings involves handguns as the weapon of choice.

Which was exactly the point made by Judge Skretny and other jurists who have been hearing gun cases since Heller was decided in 2008.  The fact that AR-15 rifles are touted by the NRA and the manufacturers as more effective self-defense weapons than handguns is exactly why the government may be able to ban them while leaving 2nd Amendment guarantees intact.  The dangerousness of guns can be played both ways, because the fact that high-capacity, military-style weapons are used in only a few instances of gun violence doesn’t invalidate the government’s right to keep them out of everyone’s hands, particularly if citizens can still own other weapons, like handguns, that provide a reliable means for self defense.

In their raptures over Heller the pro-gun lobby conveniently ignored the majority decision’s explicit statement that the 2nd Amendment was not an unlimited “right.”  Instead, the author of the Heller decision, Antonin Scalia, made it clear that further judicial activity would have to take place in order to more clearly define the degree to which government could limit access to guns.  If the New York and other recent decisions are straws in the wind, nobody at the NRA headquarters should assume that unlimited gun ownership will continue into the future; in fact it may soon become a legal doctrine whose best days have already passed.