Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reflections on the Latest Mass Shooting

Maybe it is just because I have Facebook now, but this latest mass shooting seems to have inspired a stronger reaction from gun control advocates than anything up till now.  Of course, it is futile as ever. So far as I can tell, some hard core gun advocates have reached the point of regarding guns as a sort of law-free zone.  Or perhaps they would take the "neutral law of general applicability" rule that gets applied in First Amendment cases.  In other words, murder is still equally serious whether committed with a gun or not.  But until you actually attack someone or at least threaten to, guns are exempt from the law and any law regulating them as such is unconstitutional.  After the previous mass shooting before this one David Frum wrote:
Many gun makers, gun sellers, and gun owners seek a unique legal status for themselves, exempt from the norms and rules that apply elsewhere in American society. It’s this quest for special privilege, not Second Amendment rights as they have been understand for almost all the history of the republic, that enables slaughters like that in Charleston [the mas shooting de jeur]—and the miserable toll of massacres and accidents still to come.
Indeed, although I cannot find the link, there was some time back a quote from one Congressman seeming to suggest that anything specifically designed for killing people was exempt from all regulation.  Try to wrap your head around that.  To put it in concrete terms, dynamite can be quite lethal, but its primary purpose is blasting, so it can be regulated.  The government is allowed to put restrictions on public access to dynamite.  Hand grenades, by contrast, are designed specifically for killing people.  If this Congressman is to be taken at his word, the Second Amendment therefore bans all regulation whatever of hand grenades.

While the gun lobby was once open to narrowly targeted restrictions that at least interfered with gun sales to felons, they are now opposed to even that.  And certainly, they do not acknowledge that anything can be so lethal that there would be legitimate reason to keep it off the street.  According to the gun lobby, all gun owners fit into to neat, binary categories: good guys and bad guys.  Good guys would never criminally misuse any weapon.  Thus they can be trusted with all weapons, no matter how lethal. Lethality is simply a non-issue when the weapon is in the hands of a good guy.  Bad guys, by contrast, will not obey any gun laws.  They will always have unlimited access to weapons of all kinds through the black market.  The black market is simply a given that nothing can change. Therefore, since bad guys will always have unlimited access to unlimited firepower, the best we can hope for is to make unlimited legal firepower available on the streets so that good guys will have parity.  And of course, there are no gray areas, no overlaps, and no good guys involved in the black market.

Again, taking the hypothetical of hand grenades, I do not see how the overall logic would be any different.  Hand grenades are inanimate objects.  No hand grenade ever pulled its own pin and threw itself.  Since they are made for the high-stress, high-error atmosphere of combat, presumably they are reasonably "safe" in the sense of being designed not to go off by accident.  So why shouldn't hand grenades be legal?  No good guy would ever criminally misuse a hand grenade; good guys would use them only for lawful purposes.  Bad guys will simply ignore all laws against hand grenades and buy them black market and not a thing can be done about it.  Therefore, we should remove all restrictions on hand grenades so good guys will at least have parity.

What is wrong with this logic?  Well, for one thing, it ignores the awkward fact that a ban on hand grenades actually appears to have been quite effective at keeping them out of the hands of bad guys. For another it fails to explain what lawful purpose good guys have for hand grenades.  (Stockpiling them for armed confrontation with the federal government, I suppose).  It ignores the fact that all use of hand grenades outside of war is misuse.  And, of course, there is the lethality if they are used.

Besides, people do not divide so neatly into good guys and bad guys as gun enthusiasts think.  There are good guys who always exercise proper self-restraint no matter what the circumstances.  And then there are good guys who have had too much to drink on any particular occasion.  And there are people with no evil intent who nonetheless have poor impulse control and might impulsively do something foolish.  And there are tragic mistakes when good guys think they are using their guns in self-defense or defense of another and turn out to be mistaken.  And there are good guys who have bad guys for teenage sons.  Nancy Lanza (mother of the Sandy Hook shooter) was undoubtedly a good person who volunteered for the school and did all she could for her troubled son under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  So was Laurel Harper, nurse and mother of the latest shooter. But their being good people did not keep their large gun collections out of the hands of their mentally disturbed sons.  Nor, for that matter, do bad guys run around in T-shirts labeled "bad guy" or otherwise identify themselves as such.  Open Carry advocates would no doubt assure you that they allow only good people in their organization, but that did not stop one of them from killing her husband and step-daughter.

Nor is the black market in guns an immutable fact of life that nothing can change.  Most black market guns can ultimately be traced back to a legal source.  One research found 57% of all guns found at crime scenes could be traced to 1% of all licensed dealers.  The ATF responded with close scrutiny of these dealers, established tougher regulations, imposed sanctions, and revoked licenses of some of the worst offenders.  If allowed to go through, this might have made a serious dent in the immutable black market.  So naturally Congress moved to stop them.  When Smith & Wesson entered into an agreement to reduce selling the more lethal types of firearms and cut off sales to dealers who seemed to be feeding into the black market, irate gun owners called for a boycott.  And the whole anger against Operation Fast and Furious does not appear to have been driven so much by anger that the ATF let guns get into the hands of bad guys as that it made any attempt to crack down on the black market at all.  No one exactly said that the Second Amendment guarantees every law-abiding citizen the right to buy guns in bulk and sell them to Mexico drug cartels, but a lot of the outrage seems to imply as much.

In short, there is a black market in guns.  No doubt it is impossible to shut it down altogether.  But it is certainly possible to shrink it a great deal if it were politically feasible.  The reason it is not politically feasible is that the gun lobby sees any attempt, even to crack down on illegal gun sales, as ultimately a threat to legal gun ownership.  And I suppose there is something to it.  If their goal is to exempt guns from all laws whatever until someone actually gets shot, then all laws on guns are necessarily a threat.

Or, put differently, the gun lobby assumes that criminal access to guns is a thing beyond all hope of remedy, so we should assure as many guns on the streets as possible to counter criminals who will always have infinite access no matter what.  Common sense says that, in fact, the more guns are on the street, the more of them are likely to fall into the wrong hands.  We cannot create 100% assurance that no bad guy will ever get his hands on guns.  But reducing the number of guns on the street will make it a whole lot harder.  Other, more targeted measures can make it harder, too.  But until this generation passes away and a new one takes its place, such measures will be politically impossible.

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