The problem with tougher gun laws
The Kansas City Star
It’s understandable that the Sandy Hook tragedy has prompted a wave of outrage and sorrow, fueled not only by the carnage but frustration with the continued occurrence of mass shootings. President Obama has called for a task force (as he has in response to many other issues) and perhaps something constructive will come of it.
As for the commonly suggested remedies, I can’t see how they get you where you want to go, which is diminished gun violence and prevention of mass shootings.
Take the assault weapons ban, which is reflexively pulled from the shelf in response to each outrage. The earlier ban expired in 2004. One of its key provisions grandfathered weapons manufactured before the ban, of which there are tens of millions.
Such a provision is necessary, unless you think Congress is willing to turn every current owner of a non-conforming weapon into a criminal. Ain’t gonna happen.
Connecticut has an assault-weapons ban, but the rifle used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook didn’t meet the definition – even though it was a version of the military M16. That’s the problem with the notion of “assault weapon.” It’s a nebulous category created solely by the law.
Under the ban, an “assault rifle” is a semi-automatic weapon with removable magazine and at least two military style features like a bayonet lug or pistol-grip stock. But what’s “military style”? I guess we’re supposed to believe gun makers won’t quickly alter their designs to bring their products into compliance. There’s little or no difference between an “assault weapon” and rifles used by millions of hunters and target-shooters.
Ban high-capacity magazines? Similar problem: They’re all over the place and you can’t wish them out of existence.
Britain banned handguns outright but handgun crime still went up. Mexico has tough gun laws but look who ended up with the guns and the high-capacity magazines. If you can’t stop illegal immigration of human beings, you’re not going to stop the gun trade even if you make the weapons illegal. You’ll just ensure that the people with the guns are the bad guys.
The Daily Beast’s Megan McArdle has a long and thoughtful post on this topic that deserves a look. Also, The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein weighs in and admits “we don’t know how to prevent a tragedy like the Newtown massacre.”
Klein adds another wrinkle, though: He quotes an expert saying that most of the weapons contributing to gun crime aren’t the old ones hunters and target shooters keep in the basement, but new ones. Apparently, criminals eschew the old and prefer the new. His point: Closing the gun-show loophole might make a difference. Maybe, but it might also simply alter the supply channels. See Mexico. As with drugs, demand won’t vanish if you sanction supply.
Despite outrages like Sandy Hook, schools have become safer over the last 20 years. From 1992-2010, the number of on-site murders dropped by nearly half. Violent crime at schools has dropped by roughly the same proportion – along with violent crime for the nation as a whole. And for all the focus on assault weapons, rifles of all sorts were involved in only 3 percent of last year’s homicides.
Personally, I’d favor a ban on ammo that shatters in the body, and I’m not strongly opposed to measures like bans on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines or closing the gun-show loophole. I just don’t think such measures would do much.
A lot of people are using Sandy Hook to vent their disdain of “gun culture” and those loathsome bitter clingers. In other words, some of the emotional reaction involves snotty class arrogance as well as public safety, and to the extent its the latter, it’s only poisoning the debate.