Why Gun Legislation Does Not Matter

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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5 Responses to Why Gun Legislation Does Not Matter

  1. Mark Burkitt says:

    Sandy Hook was no tragedy. It was the intentional massacre of defenseless people, many of them young children, carried out by an insane young man with a gun.

    New legislation controlling gun ownership will only succeed in preventing such mass slayings to the same degree it successfully controls all the people who who have access to all guns, which is to say, in current American culture, it won’t succeed at all. Not yet, anyway.

    You casually dismiss any self defense rational for trained citizens owning firearms as an appeal to “wild west thinking,” reducing a cogent defense for responsible gun ownership to a child’s shoot’em-up game, all the while ignoring the fact that the majority of mass slayings occur in gun-free zones, where defenseless people cower in the corner while a madman casually walks about, slaying with impunity. As a survivor of a 1991 massacre, regarding the need for self defense should be taken a bit more seriously than you willingly allow.

    The NRA is fighting a loosing battle. Political will and public opinion is turning against gun rights advocates, and will only increasingly do so with every (sadly, inevitable) mass slaying percolating through the news cycle. Eventually the voting public will decide that, for the good of all, it would be better if there were no guns in the hands of private citizens. The Constitution will be amended, and we will lose our right to bear arms. This will happen within the next five years.

    • Chip Burkitt says:

      I think self-defense is a very good reason for gun ownership. Chad owns more than one gun and is trained in their use. He has been in dangerous situations where people were shooting at him and he was returning fire. It was not my intention to dismiss or minimize the self-defense rationale for gun ownership. At the same time, I must maintain that self-defense does not account for the vast majority of gun purchases made in the United States. Even when a gun is purchased for self-defense, there is no guarantee that the person doing the buying is responsible, careful, or trustworthy. To drive a car, you need to have demonstrated that you know the rules of the road and can safely operate the car. Only then can you be issued a license to drive. Why should we expect any less for gun ownership? Gun owners should have to demonstrate that they know the law about when it is appropriate to use a gun and that they know gun safety. Then they can be issued a license for it.

      And I do not know why you contend that the NRA is fighting a losing battle. I see no evidence of it at all. Congress won’t even approve an assault weapons ban, despite it’s being only a paper victory for gun opponents. There is ample evidence that an assault weapons ban would be meaningless in terms of reducing gun violence both because of the number of assault weapons already in private hands and because the vast majority of gun-related deaths are from handguns. Most Americans do not want to ban private ownership of guns. What they want is reasonable limits so guns don’t end up in the hands of criminals and madmen.

  2. Chad says:

    Heresy!
    I like how you crush everyone’s ideological position with reality. Suck on that ideologues! A couple of stat points I would dispute (not that they should lead to a different conclusion). The GSS (probably the best survey in existence for US social stats) says 35% of people live in a household with a gun. That’s closer to roughly 1/3 of of all households verses almost half. This indicates that access for the mentally ill could be a bigger problem than you give it credit as I will show.
    It would be interesting to see aggregated data on these mass shooting events but I would guess that they pretty closely reflect the above statistic or perhaps are skewed in favor of the shooters purchasing their own weapons. In the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings the shooters used weapons that were purchased by a family member. But in the Gabby Gifford, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and MN’s own Accent Signage shootings the shooters all purchased their own weapons and passed NCIC background checks. Perhaps most disturbing is that in all of the cases where guns were purchased, mental health concerns had been raised by mental health professionals, but no single registry exists for mental health professionals to add people to a list which would prevent them from passing the FBI NCIC background check needed to legally purchase a handgun or assault rifle. I view these shootings as legally preventable while still allowing for broad (if still regulated)understanding of 2nd amendment rights. Right now states like NY have passed laws which expand a mental health professional’s ability to flag persons as potential mental health risks for purchasing a gun. However, due to several gun purchasing loopholes, such a law can only be truly effective if Mental Health professionals have the ability to add and flag individuals in the NCIC database which is the only required background check for most states purchasing laws. This one regulation change = relatively cheap enforcement and potentially effective at reducing 2/3rds of mass shootings. So in short, I think background checks could at least be more effective at reducing the number of future mass shooting. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/25/gun-ownership-us-data)

    • Chip Burkitt says:

      I derived the 47% figure from the results of a Gallup poll from 2011 published in the linked article. Of those, 62% claimed to have more than one. That works out to 29% having more than one gun.

      • Chad says:

        Yeah, I saw that. I think the GSS is a better source. It is the industry standard in national representative polling. Unless something has changed Gallup polls are conducted by land-line phone, which over-represents old, white people (happen to be more likely to own guns). GSS has been tracking gun ownership with a bi-annual survey since the 60s and the trends look stable and predictable.

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