The Aurora Colorado killings have focused media attention on gun control and gun violence which is always the case following a killing spree by a deranged soul. This has prompted a lot of “soul searching” in the words of Fareed Zakaria on his Global Public Square show this past Sunday morning. He wants to move past the soul searching and come to terms with “the fact” that we have so much more gun violence in this country than in most others because we have so many more guns.
En route to making his point, he dismisses David Brooks’ argument in a NY Times column last week, that when it comes to these mass killers “it is about psychology, not sociology”. Brooks, a supporter of gun control laws though conservative, argues these killers are uniquely deranged and “if they cannot find an easy way to get a new gun, they’ll surely find a way to get one of the 200 million guns that already exist in this country. Or they’ll use a bomb or find another way.”
Zakaria sees it differently: We have no more “nut cases” than other countries, but many more guns, so we should have better gun laws. Though I respect them both I mostly agree with Brooks and not with Zakaria.
Zakaria conflates two issues that should be kept separate. One is overall gun violence and the other is killing-spree violence. We certainly do have a huge amount of guns in private hands, an eye-popping estimate of 250 million to 270 million. That’s nearly one for every American (estimated to be about one-fourth of privately owned guns world wide)(*1). Of course, some of us have many and many of us (including me) have none, but around 50% of households report owning a gun.
Since our gun related death rate is around 20 times that of England/Wales, which has relatively few privately owned guns, one imagines a connection to overall death rates. But there seems no clear cut connection to mass killings. An article in the conservative National Review describes numerous incidents in several European countries that have much stricter gun laws than ours, including England. While making it tougher for the demented to stockpile guns and ammunition makes sense – like keeping sharp objects away from children – Brooks may be right that these safeguards will seldom be enough to deter the diabolically demented.
As for the effectiveness of gun control, the facts are not as clear as Sakaria seems to think. Justice Steven Breyer is a liberal justice on the Supreme Court who was on the losing end of a 5-4 decision that struck down a Washington D. C. gun control law. Even so, after Breyer surveyed the vast body of empirical research on the effectiveness of gun control he concluded, “The upshot is a set of studies and counter-studies that, at most, could leave a judge uncertain about the proper policy conclusion.”
If, after a careful study of the issue, Justice Breyer is uncertain about “proper policy conclusions” when it comes to gun control, shouldn’t all of us who know much less, be careful about jumping to our own conclusions?
Also, rather than more gun control, studies show an increasing public support for less. Many have bought into the NRA’s idea that the only real prevention is for each of us to pack iron ourselves. In Colorado more than in most states. Last March the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the University of Colorado’s campus gun ban, saying the CU Board of Regents overstepped its authority in blocking students from carrying licensed concealed weapons.
Tied to that, it has been argued by those on the right that one armed innocent at the theater in Aurora may have saved many others (of course, another imaginable scenario is that the armed innocent could have panicked and started firing wildly adding to the carnage. Also, how do we know whether someone in the the theater did carry a gun but just froze?).
Of course, the distinctions I have tried hard to make may all prove irrelevant in terms of the foreseeable future. Recognizing the public’s leaning towards less, the Democrats have little enthusiasm for more gun control. And, though Obama made a statement in support of another assault weapons ban in a recent speech, I don’t take it seriously (*2). It is simply more political rhetoric to appeal to his base. Nothing will come of it if he is re-elected. There are too many bigger fish to fry.
The NRA has won the gun control debate for the time being. Of course, given the increase of gun toters, one day we will have a real shoot out like that of the OK Corral, and who knows if the innocents who are packing will act like heroes or panic and make things worse. I just hope that the NRA’s gun-use training programs are really good, as I do not have confidence in the ability of the average gun toter to handle things well if suddenly confronted by a well armed demented sort who doesn’t give a flying “F” what will happen to him or anyone else.
(*1) One stat that troubled me in Zakaria’s report was his indicating that Americans own 50% of the world’s privately held guns. The information I have found indicates around 25% in 2007, and I can’t imagine it doubling in the past five years. I think Zakari’s staff just got it wrong.
(*2) The nature of “assault weapons” seems misconstrued by gun control advocates. They are not automatic weapons, which are outlawed already, and fire only one shot with a squeeze of a trigger, not many, though they do fire faster than other non-automatics. They can be fitted with magazines that hold numerous bullets, but that’s true of some other guns as well. One source of confusion is that what are dubbed assault weapons usually look like they are automatic. The photo above is an example of that. And some are knock offs of actual automatic weapons, but without automatic firing capacity.
- NRA Muscle Chills Gun-Control Talk After Shootings (bloomberg.com)