Coming around on gun control

I have long opposed most sorts of gun control. The main reason is the same reason I oppose drug prohibition: There is no way to enforce a ban on a thing, except through police-state tactics (and I don’t like living in a police state).

How do you ban a thing? You can pass a law against possession, but that law is unenforceable except by house-to-house searches. You can’t even enforce a ban on carrying concealed weapons except by stopping and frisking everyone out on the street. (Please don’t suggest only stopping and frisking “suspicious” people, unless you have first-hand experience with looking like one.) Since there’s no victim to report the crime (“I was illegally possessed at!”), you only find the criminals by chance, unless you’re willing to go full war-on-drugs with undercover agents, coerced informants, wiretaps, search warrants executed by SWAT teams and so on.

You could impose a high penalty on possession of a gun, and then only enforce the law when a gun came to the attention of the police. That would probably get the guns off the street—a gun hidden under the floorboards isn’t much of a threat—except of course for the “only criminals will have guns” issue: High penalties don’t much deter people who are already committing crimes with high penalties. Plus, it leads to all the classic slippery-slope arguments. Selective enforcement (searches used to harass disfavored people) and unfair results (unlucky people spending 20 years in prison for a gun they didn’t know was in the boxes of grandfather’s personal effects) being just two of the downsides.

Besides, guns are useful tools. If we have a ban that applies as well to the police and the military, then we’ve denied them tools that they may need to do their jobs. But if the ban doesn’t apply to them, then we have to draw the line in a specific place—or a series of specific places. If police qualify, how about campus police? Transit police? Park rangers? Do bodyguards qualify? How about armored-truck guards? Stalking victims? The result is once again selective enforcement and unfair results, this time with a side order of political shenanigans.  Some people who need the tool will be denied it. Other people who thought they were allowed the tool will have their lives destroyed when a court rules that they were not.

Much more sound than laws against things is laws against behavior. It’s illegal everywhere to shoot someone or to threaten someone with a gun or even to discharge a gun in a populated area. These are the sorts of laws that gun-control opponents always point to as the right way to control guns. But they self-evidently don’t work. Even if you discount suicides and accidents, there are 12,000 homicides a year in the United States—with about 90% committed with a firearm.

So, what other behaviors could we regulate? There is often talk of regulating the sale of firearms. Being in the business of selling firearms is already extensively regulated, but currently it’s legal to sell (or give away) a firearm without being in the business—sales between friends and gifts between relatives are legal, and don’t require that you be a licensed firearms dealer. That could be changed. You could make selling firearms be like selling prescription drugs, which only a licensed pharmacist can do. Many currently legal, perfectly ordinary behaviors would be illegal, or else the laws would have to be very carefully drafted. Could a father buy his son his first .22 rifle? Could an Olympic-champion riflewoman let her aspiring-sharpshooter daughter take mom’s match-grade pistol to the shooting range to practice with? If a down-on-his luck man pawned a family heirloom firearm, would he be committing a crime if the pawn shop owner’s firearms license were not in order? What if the pawn shop clerk were a felon?

Registering guns is often proposed, although I don’t see how doing so would reduce violence. Further, I think gun-owner fears of gun registries being useful primarily as a tool for eventual confiscation is well-founded: What other use would a registry have? The parallel is less with registering cars (which are big and operate in public where people can see them) and more with registering typewriters (which are small and are generally used in private).

Illinois has long had a registry of “allowed gun buyers,” which is somewhat less pernicious than a list of guns: It would still provide a list of places to search, if things trended even further toward a police state, but it would do so without providing what amounts to a master of list of guns to be seized. In fact, I would fully support such a scheme, if it were automatic: Every adult who has not been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, nor adjudicated as dangerous or incompetent in some other fashion, should be on the list of those allowed to buy guns. The government could automatically strike people from the list upon conviction or commitment to a mental institution (with an appropriate appeals process to correct errors). Or people could file a simple form to ask to be taken off the list, if they had some personal objection. It’s basically the instant background check from the opposite direction.

I will say this, though—gun control advocates are finally on the right track, in attempting to mobilize public opinion. For the past thirty years, members of a small, mostly liberal elite have been trying to use their influence over government officials to pass gun control. But with public opinion so divided, legislative sausage-making has produced laws that are pointless and ineffective, full of easily ridiculed loopholes, but still with traps for the unwary gun-owner to commit a technical violation that leads to harsh sentences, without reducing the number of guns or making them less dangerous. (I am thinking in particular of the so-called assault rifle ban that ended up merely banning a handful of cosmetic details.)

And yet, I am nearly brought around. I am ready to support gun control legislation, if something can be found that would actually reduce violence (or at least its severity), doesn’t require police-state tactics to enforce, and doesn’t send people to prison simply because their papers are not in order.

That last is non-negotiable for me, an attitude puts closer than I’d like to be to unsavory company on other issues, such as immigration, where I agree with many Republicans that I think we should control our borders better. It’s because the other tactics of keeping our population density low are ineffective, unless we empower the police to check people’s papers. If we want the higher standard of living that comes from living well below carrying capacity—and I do—we can’t let just everybody live here. But having a category of “illegal” people forces immigrants to live outside the rules that promote the health, safety and prosperity of everybody, for fear of deportation. That risks the health, safety, and prosperity of all of us.

I’m no happier with letting police demand my firearm paperwork, and send me to prison if it’s not in order, than I am with letting police demand my citizenship papers against similar consequences.

I also think playing with guns is fun, and would be sad if they were banned. But I would give up playing with guns, if I thought it would prevent a large fraction of 11,000 murders a year. I don’t see a clear path from here to there, but I have joined the mass of people trying to find one.

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5 thoughts on “Coming around on gun control”

  1. Right, that prohibitions rarely work. See “Prohibition” and the 18th/21st Amendments even.

    I would SETTLE for just any of the same requirements of certain other legal products – alcohol amongst them…if one has to be 21 to drink alcohol or to go gambling, bcs these are “dangerous” items to health….then 21 min age to purchase a gun AND ammo seems quite logically in order.

    I would actually put the onus more on the ammunition than on the gun itself.

    Just database track the purchases of ammunition, use the exact same software as what was already required for selling obstensibly “over-the-counter” products with pseudoenephrine in it. The database is required and as such even tho OTC, it is kept locked up behind the pharmacy desk now – and ID is required too.

    Tax the hell out of selling ammunition. Just like other legal yet high taxes on cigarettes, skoal, alcohol…

    Also, people have trouble buying insurance for their potential dangerous actions it seems…so include an insurance premium pricing on each bullet as well, that goes to a victims insurance fund program.

    That way nothing is banned nor illegal…but as in the case of cigarettes, raising the prices very high will result in some people choosing to quit the habit!

    A new proposal I would say is to register the bullets/ammo with numbers or rfid chips, then the database entry will know which numbers were in which boxes and who they were sold to.

    Any consequent crime would not necessarily be assumed to be the purchaser….but it would certainly give the police a person to start questioning at least to see if they were transferrred after purchase and to whom.

    Eliminate the purchase loopholes of course to be consistent. Tax the sales of guns. Require ID, and minimum age requirements, just like the Feds and states make for cigarette or alcohol sales.

    Add a FOID requirement for all gun purchases. And FOIDs need to be registered/renewed, so put an insurance policy premium on those prices as well.

    Right to bear arms to me means the guns. Ammunition was not included specifically in the Constitution. And in any case, ID requirements and taxes come under the constitution as “well-regulated” and taxes for the benefit and betterment of the society as a whole.

  2. These are very reasonable tactics, if guns are just toys, and if shooting is just a vice. If guns are useful tools, then such laws become tools of oppression (by denying them to the poor—historically with the explicit intention of denying them to members of ethnic minorities).

    I used to come down on the side of useful tool, but I’m beginning to think that their practical usefulness is so limited as to make this a very minor concern.

    I still don’t like the idea that only rich people should be able to have guns.

  3. 32000 people die each year from car accidents (mostly youth I believe). Over a million are “wounded” by the same ;-). We need to start banning cars or maybe just the gasoline? We won’t get an effective solution for any problem as long as we can’t discuss it rationally.

  4. Yes, car deaths and gun deaths are quite similar in magnitude (if you lump together accidents and suicides along with murders).

    An argument that I’ve made in the past is that it’s relatively easy to reduce your chance of getting killed with a gun: seek medical attention if you become depressed (greatly reduces risk of suicide), and avoid doing business with criminals (mainly, don’t buy or sell illegal drugs and don’t be a prostitute). Do these things and your risk of being killed with a gun drops down to levels comparable to other occasional hazards, like being struck by lightning or gored by a bull.

    Surely making the country safer for drivers and pedestrians is as important is gun control.

    As I say, it’s an argument I’ve made in the past, even though I recognize that tactically it’s a dead loser—because cars aren’t scary in the way that guns are. But it’s more than that: There is a strong, multi-pronged effort to make cars safer, to make roadways safer, to get dangerous drivers off the road, etc. These efforts have been highly effective, reducing roadway deaths by close to half in my lifetime.

    If there were anything close to that sort of effort applied to firearms, we’d have all sorts of gun control going on by now. There’d be guns that could only be fired by the owner, guns that called the police automatically when they were fired, gun inspection regimes, mandatory testing for gun shooters, mandatory gun-owner liability insurance, etc.

    Most of those ideas have serious problems when applied to firearms, but they’d be what was going on if people applied the same logic to gun deaths that they apply to car deaths.

  5. I think cars would scare everyone if, with each accident and fatality, it was front and center on the news, pictures of hurt people + smashed cars with every incident nationwide. No one would want to drive and we’d be yelling for a ban on cars (or how about every vehicle must be self driving!).

    The point being is — it is how we sensationalize this stuff (looking at the media, politicians, pundits) and not necessarily because it is in the top ten threats (or whatever) that we should be paying the most attention to fixing now (we can’t fix everything now).

    I like what places like the Copenhagen Consensus Center is doing, seeing what makes the most sense in terms of real people helped vs time/effort/cost. I’d like to see how many people were helped by the “War on Drugs” or even the “War on Cancer” vs the number harmed by the same process. Other good examples in the Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_levitin_how_to_stay_calm_when_you_know_you_ll_be_stressed

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