My Facebook friends will not be surprised that I have been reading The Federalist Papers. I’ve been posting favorite quotes, mostly from Alexander Hamilton, who wrote so many quotable passages. I had never read them before, and I find the experience quite surprising and interesting.
One surprise was to learn that Hamilton opposed keeping a standing army, what today we would call a professional military. He considered it a danger to individual freedom for the government to have professional soldiers at its command. He reasoned that since soldiers are everywhere admired and respected, they would gain increasing influence in politics and eventually carry out a coup, overthrowing the duly elected government. Indeed, we have seen this scenario play out in fledgling democracies across the world. As long as the citizens of a country were armed, there was therefore no need to keep a professional military.
Of course, in Hamilton’s day citizens had access to the same arms as professional soldiers. Despite having guns, many armies still fought at close quarters with swords. Guns had to be reloaded through the muzzle after every shot. Volunteer artillery groups acquired their own cannons. Can you imagine a volunteer group of citizens today purchasing a long-range bomber or a nuclear submarine?
The nature of warfare has changed so much that it is no longer reasonable to expect that a well-armed citizenry could act as a sufficient deterrent against invasion from without or a military coup from within. Modern armies have access to weapons with far greater destructive capability than those available to citizens. The causes which impelled the constitutional framers to insist on limiting the government’s authority to control private ownership of arms no longer exist.
Since the Second Amendment can no longer serve its original intent, it should be repealed by amending the Constitution. However, it would be political suicide for any politician to take up such a position, even if the aim was to place gun ownership on a more sane Constitutional footing.
Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, plenty of Facebook friends have weighed in on the need for gun control or gun safety laws. Some have been well-reasoned. Most have been incendiary and polarizing. Against them and equally polarizing have been defenders of the second amendment, most adamantly refusing to admit a need for any kind of regulation beyond what we already have. Except for passing on a few moderate articles, I have stayed out of the fray. But now I feel I can contribute something in a small way.
Significant change in gun control is not going to happen. The Constitution does not allow it, and the Supreme Court has consistently held that the second amendment, whatever its authors may have intended, means that individual citizens have a right to own guns. Some changes are likely, but they will not be significant. Here are the changes I expect to see along with reasons why they are unimportant. The stated aim of most of these proposals is to decrease the likelihood of another Sandy Hook. None of these proposals can actually fulfill that aim.
- Ban on assault weapons. This is likely to happen simply because it happened before. It did not make a difference then, and it will not make a difference now. Any ban is likely to take the form of a ban on sales. It will have no effect on assault weapons already owned. Estimates put the number of assault weapons in the US between 3 and 4 million. The transfer of such weapons by sale would become illegal, but since there is no way to enforce a ban on private sales, they would likely continue anyway.
- Restrictions on magazine size. This may happen because it is reasonable. No one who owns a gun for sporting purposes or for self defense needs a 30-round clip. (Of course, it is possible to imagine scenarios where a large clip would come in handy, but lets stick to reality.) Limiting magazine size, however, would not be an effective deterrent to someone determined to quickly kill a lot of strangers. It takes only a couple of seconds to eject an empty clip and install a new one. Those couple of seconds might be a window of opportunity for a trained officer armed and able to respond, but for unarmed people cowering behind any available cover, they are meaningless. In addition, there would be sales of extra capacity clips—legal or not—to circumvent the law.
- Background checks. Background checks have a lot of popular support because we obviously don’t want to sell guns to known felons or folks with a history of violent mental illness. The problem here is the sheer number of guns already in existence. Access is not a problem either for criminals or for the mentally ill. Forty-seven percent of households reported owning a gun in 2011. Twenty-nine percent own more than one. With more than 300 million guns already in private hands, chances are good that the next Adam Lanza already lives in a household with multiple guns.
- Waiting periods. The idea behind a waiting period is to prevent heat-of-the-moment shootings. You learn that your girlfriend is having an affair with your best friend, so you run out to K-Mart and buy a pistol and shoot them. If you have to wait seven days before you can take possession of your new gun, chances are you might re-think your future and decide on a less final solution. The problem here is that mass shootings usually require careful planning and preparation. A short waiting period is no deterrent at all if what you aim to do is prevent mass shootings.
- Registration. This is perhaps the most contentious potential regulation. It is also the one most likely to make a difference. Gun rights advocates fear that this is first step toward confiscation. Require registration of firearms in order to build a federal database of gun owners. Then when the time is ripe, use the database to seize the vast majority of civilian-owned weapons. Gun control proponents scoff at this scenario, pointing to licensing and registration of vehicles as an analogy. If a registration law does go into effect, it will likely affect only new sales, not existing ownership, not only because of the power of the pro-gun lobby, but because enforcement costs for implementing a law requiring registration of existing firearms would be too high. Moreover, many people would no doubt refuse to comply. In any case, a national firearm registry would not act as a deterrent to someone planning a mass shooting.
Gun violence is an intractable problem in the US. On the one hand, we have a long tradition associated with the second amendment that guarantees citizens the right to gun ownership. On the other, we must acknowledge that easy access to guns has made America less safe rather than more safe. Gun rights proponents are fond of saying that the only effective deterrent to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. That is wild west thinking, good guys and bad guys, bang-bang! you’re dead. But for many of us, and especially for those of us who do not own a gun, the good man with a gun is the police officer or soldier who is paid to protect us. In truth, the only effective deterrent to a bad person is a good person. The gun is peripheral.