Matt Springer has written a post Against the gun control that won’t work, and he correctly points out that previous gun control efforts have been little more than shameless demagoguery, including the totally-worthless assault weapons ban. People must understand that the previous major legislation the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was an atrociously-stupid piece of legislation. The weapons that fell under the ban were not banned because of function. As Springer points out, the ban focused on cosmetic elements of weapons so that lawmakers could put them on a table and describe how they banned scary guns, but in no way prevented the sale of similar semi-automatic weapons that could accept large capacity magazines and drop lots of rounds, only without folding stocks or flash suppressors.
However, I disagree with his summation that none of the control efforts previously tried has value, or that things like registration and other barriers to ownership won’t work. Let’s address some of these common arguments and why while they sound appealing, they’re an example of “letting the perfect destroy the good”.
Starting Gun registration: The shooting was carried out using firearms which were stolen from a person who legally purchased them, had a background check, and filed and was granted a purchase permit. The mass shooter in Norway acquired his weapons under a regulatory regime of full registration, as did the perpetrators of the two infamous school massacres in Germany in the 2000s. Registration of firearms prevents mass shootings in the same sense that automobile registration prevents DUI – they don’t, they can’t, and they’re not intended to.
Well, a highly-motivated individual may accomplish a lot, but that doesn’t suggest registration has no role whatsoever in preventing mass shootings. Yes, in these massacres in other countries, the laws were obeyed, as in Connecticut. But creating obstacles to ownership probably decreases the frequency of such incidents, as the differences in gun violence between these countries demonstrate. We have had 4 mass shootings during Obama’s presidency, not to mention, our yearly toll of some 30,000 people a year killed by guns. Our per-capita death rate is about 4 times higher than our next door neighbor, Canada, or any of these countries mentioned with death rates in the tens or hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands.
When you make it harder to get guns, it makes it harder for people who are deranged, angry or otherwise dangerous to own them, and you’re going to decrease your rates of gun violence. Just because it isn’t perfect, and doesn’t prevent a highly-motivated individual from doing all the work, doesn’t mean that you can’t deter dozens of other would-be shooters from mass violence.
Finally the DUI analogy is poor if you point out that some weapons are like giving someone a tank to commit their DUI. A DUI on a tricycle (read black-powder musket), is different from a DUI in 18 wheel tanker truck (your AR-15 might be a good example). Really significant barriers should be put in place to prevent civilian ownership of clip-fed semi-automatic weapons.
Assault weapons ban: Connecticut has one, and the weapon was legal under it. The reason is simple, and common to all versions of the assault weapons ban – “assault weapon” is an inherently meaningless concept whose legal definition is essentially cosmetic.
Agreed, assault weapons bans as they exist are totally useless. However, that doesn’t mean an intelligent ban couldn’t be designed. I think the sale or ownership of magazine-fed weapons should probably be prohibited or severely restricted for civilians. The ownership of extended magazines such as those used by the shooter in Aurora should be a federal crime. They should cease to exist outside of military use. Allowing ownership of revolvers, bolt and breech-fed rifles and shotguns, would satisfy legitimate home-safety, sporting, and hunting applications that can and should be protected by any gun control regulation. The problem is clip-fed semi-automatic rifles and handguns. These are the guns that do the most damage-per-second, with easy reloading, and the ability to bring and use hundreds or even thousands of rounds by a single person. It would be far more difficult (but still not impossible), for similar events to take place if we severely restricted weapons available to pump, bolt, an breech weapons that do not have the capacity to drop as many rounds per minute. And I would still be able to go skeet shooting, hunt deer, duck, or target shoot to my heart’s content.
Total prohibition of firearms: In a country with well over two hundred million firearms, it is logistically impossible. But if it weren’t, there is not much reason to believe it would do any good. Guns can be acquired illegally and are not required for mass murder in the first place. The worst school massacre in US history was carried out by a bomber in Michigan. The Oklahoma City bombing killed nineteen children and a hundred and fifty adults. The Columbine shooters attempted to go down in infamy as the Columbine bombers and would have killed many more people had their improvised propane bombs not mercifully failed. While bombs require a modicum of effort, more lethal than any single mass shooting was the 1990 Happy Land arson, the perpetrator of which killed 87 people with a gallon of gasoline. The most lethal mass shooting prior to the shooting in Norway was carried out by a South Korean police officer in a country where civilian possession of firearms is prohibited. Norway itself does not completely prohibit firearms ownership but the restrictions are extremely tight. Prohibition has a terrible track record at preventing dedicated psychopaths from mass murder. For that matter, is has a terrible track record at preventing violent crime of the more mundane sort.
While I agree prohibition is logistically-impossible, the reason isn’t that if we ban guns the loons will just build bombs or burn people alive. Again, a motivated, deranged human is extremely dangerous as long as anything combustible, and anyone vulnerable is in reach. That doesn’t mean that forbidding the sale of compact, high-capacity killing machines over the counter won’t have an effect. Just because there are alternatives to guns, doesn’t mean gun access should be so easy. Take the example of the crazy guy that stabbed 20 kids in China last week at about the same time. Yes, a deranged person just needs a kitchen knife to wreak havoc in a school. However, the difference in death count was significant. No one died. It’s actually quite difficult to kill people with a knife, and very difficult to kill lots of people. Just making mass violence more difficult, while not stopping mass violence, will make it less deadly.
We’re not talking about perfection here. We’re talking about progress. Making it harder, making the violence rarer, will decrease the amount of gun violence, as almost every country besides the US demonstrates every year with their gun violence deaths at a tiny fraction of our own.
Improvement of NICS: If you buy a gun, you have to fill out paperwork and undergo a background check. These checks have been very good at preventing purchase by people who are disqualified by criminal records. But while adjudication as mentally incompetent is also disqualifying, such records are only poorly integrated into the system. This flaw was the source of the Virginia Tech shooter’s weapons.
It’s dangerous to create databases of people tied to conditions like mental illness or other discriminatory conditions. The difficulty of making such databases effective will persist because of issues with individual’s privacy rights.
Repair of the catastrophically bad US mental health apparatus: There’s a dire article in Gawker making the rounds, a first person account of a mother trying to raise an extremely troubled kid. They have basically two options – prison or muddling through alone. There is almost no systematic way of helping the helpable deranged, and almost no systematic way of containing the non-helpable deranged until they commit a violent crime and get sent to prison. This must be changed, and changed immediately.
I agree, mental health parity should be a focus of this presidency and Obamacare. Mental illness should be treated, insured, paid for and taken care of just like any other illness. Our continued inability to deal with mental illness is a national shame. However, in general, the mentally ill are less likely to be violent and more likely to be victims.
Secure schools: If you’re determined to herd children into buildings with no law enforcement or other responsible armed adults (mass shootings almost exclusively happen in areas that are both 1) “gun free” and 2) don’t have law enforcement presence), at least build the buildings in a safe way.
But then won’t the criminals just pick the locks or bring bolt cutters? Interesting how in this instance the suggestion that increasing the difficulty of access works when applied to door access, but not when applied to gun access. You see the flaw there? I also think it’s sad that rather than dealing with the threat the suggestion is to continue to fortify our schools, our homes, our neighborhoods. Safety shouldn’t mean having to live behind fences and barbed wire.
The flaw in most of his reasoning is to say that because something doesn’t work perfectly, means that it has no value. Stringent registration and background checks will fail, but they create a larger obstacle for many who otherwise can just walk into a gun store and buy an incredibly dangerous gun with no questions asked. A prohibition on new sales would not do anything about the existing guns, such as used in this case, but it would, again, make it much harder for those like Cho that had to purchase their own to carry out their crime.
In particular a ban on certain functional aspects of guns could reduce mass violence. Ban extended clips such as were used in aurora, make it a federal crime to own one. Make them nonexistent. Do not allow civilian purchase of weapons that are magazine-fed. Bolt action hunting rifles, guns with a breech, revolvers, shotguns etc, are still deadly, but they have legitimate sport and personal defense uses. There is also no constitutional amendment protecting ownership of magazines or clips, so make it against the law to own one larger than 5 rounds, or to own more than a limited number. That would be completely adequate for sporting uses. Finally, place limits on ammunition purchases and stockpiling. The second amendment says we have the right to keep and bear arms, but says nothing about restrictions on industrially-produced cartridges that feed some of these more deadly weapons. Such cartridges, after all, didn’t even exist when the constitution was written, coming almost 100 years later. Make it against the law to own or carry more than 100 rounds of a given ammunition. You could still go to the range, buy and dump lots of rounds in practice, but given the bag limits for deer in any given state, do you really need to keep thousands of rounds at home? What exactly are you preparing for? I realize, bulk purchase of ammo is economically-sensible, and convenient for people who over the years will likely use that ammunition in target practice and hunting. Allow unlimited shotgun rounds of buck or birdshot, and maybe .22 caliber rifle rounds etc., but strongly consider round limitations on 9mm, .357, .223, .45, .50, 7.62mm etc. The more power, speed, and range of the bullet, as well as it’s use in clip-fed semi-automatic weapons, the more care we should take to prevent bulk ownership.
There are ways to sensibly and effectively regulate firearms and ammunition. We should engage in this debate though, with adequate information on the function of these firearms, their applications for legitimate sport, and their capacity for rapid fire and reloading. The mass violence problem is one of ready-access to semi-automatic weapons that are magazine fed. Limitations on their access, or outright restriction, while not-perfect, would make mass violence much more difficult, and more unlikely to see the death counts we have seen in recent years.
Disclaimer – I am a gun owner and enthusiast who target and skeet shoots. Weapons I own would become illegal under my suggestions, but I think that’s a reasonable sacrifice to prevent the extremes of gun violence. I would happily trade my magazine-fed weapons for a revolver and maybe an over-under shotgun I could use for target and skeet respectively.