What to Do about Gun Control

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In the aftermath of the absolutely terrible shooting in Oregon, there are renewed calls for the United States to act in order to stop gun violence and mass shootings. Unfortunately, the calls to act don’t usually come with any solutions, so the debate usually involves endless repetitions of the Politician’s Syllogism. I certainly want to try to steer the debate in a more constructive direction, but in order to actually have a constructive debate about this matter, we not only need to discuss what might work, we also need to make clear what might not work, and what might instead be some combination of (a) ineffectual, and (b) restrictive in terms of actually limiting the rights that the American people enjoy.

First off, let’s focus on the rhetoric of the president of the United States in the aftermath of the shooting. I have no doubt that President Obama’s outrage was genuine. I also have no doubt that he genuinely wants to do something in order to reduce the number of mass shootings in America. However:

Even if it were politically possible to do “something,” and President Obama never did specify exactly what he thinks should be done, though, it’s not at all clear that anything he proposes would be effective. Background checks didn’t stop Dylan Roof from buying the handgun that he used to kill nine people in Charleston in June, for example, and they didn’t stop Adam Lanza from taking the guns his mother had purchased even though it was illegal for someone his age to even own a gun Connecticut in 2012. One could perhaps make an argument that better mental health screening could have prevented James Holmes, Seung-Hui Choi, or Jared Lee Loughner from getting being able to buy a gun, admittedly. However, as I’ve noted before, expanding restrictions on gun ownership based on a person’s mental health status raises serious medical privacyindividual libertydue process questions as well as the risk that people who need help won’t get it because of the fear that they will be reported to the state. As Brian Doherty notes, Obama’s rhetoric last night was largely empty . . .

Read the whole thing. To be fair to the president, in addressing this issue, he has in a number of ways been more mature in the art of governing than have a host of Tea Party Republicans, who appear to have some kind of fetish for shutting down the government (though it must be said that presidents don’t usually want to shut down the government, and if we ever have a Republican president again, the periodic calls from Republicans to shut down the government will dramatically decrease). But while the president is being more mature in one particular way, in another way–namely, in his repetitions of the Politician’s Syllogism–he is adding nothing substantive and useful to the debate.

Useful and substantive rhetoric, instead, comes from the likes of Eugene Volokh, who tells people some hard truths that they may not like to hear, but need to hear anyway:

After various highly publicized shootings, those of us who are skeptical about gun controls are often asked: So what are we suggesting should be done about the shootings? If we’re not suggesting gun controls (as opposed to proposals such as letting teachers or professors be armed, increasing concealed carry rights outside schools, providing school guards or trying to figure out, maintain and extend the remarkable fall in violent crime since the early 1990s) — the argument goes, we’re not taking gun tragedies seriously.

Now I generally don’t support the “don’t just stand there, do something” school of criminal law. When all the proposals seem likely not to work, or do more harm than good, implementing one of them for the sake of “doing something” strikes me as a mistake.

But let me offer a concrete analogy (recognizing that, as with all analogies, it’s analogous and not identical).

Every day, about 30 people are killed in the U.S. in gun homicides or gun accidents (not counting gun suicides or self-inflicted accidental shootings). And every day, likely about 30 people are killed in homicides where the killer was under the influence of alcohol, plus alcohol-related drunk driving accidents and alcohol-related accidents where the driver wasn’t drunk but the alcohol was likely a factor (again not including those who died in accidents caused by their own alcohol consumption). If you added in gun suicides on one side and those people whose alcohol consumption killed themselves on the other, the deaths would tilt much more on the side of alcohol use, but I generally like to segregate deaths of the user from deaths of others.

So what are we going to do about it? When are we going to ban alcohol? When are we going to institute more common-sense alcohol-control measures?

Well, we tried, and the conventional wisdom is that the cure was worse than the disease — which is why we went back to a system where alcohol is pretty freely available, despite the harm it causes (of which the deaths are only part). We now prohibit various kinds of reckless behavior while using alcohol. But we try to minimize the burden on responsible alcohol users by generally allowing alcohol purchase and possession, subject to fairly light regulations.

[. . .]

But on balance the answer to “what are we going to do about alcohol-related deaths?” is “not much, other than trying to catch and punish alcohol abuse.” And if someone says, “you’re obviously not serious about preventing drunk driving and alcohol-related homicide, because you’re not proposing any new alcohol bans or alcohol sales restrictions,” our answer is generally (1) “just because there’s a problem out there doesn’t mean that we should impose new regulations that are likely ineffective and possibly counterproductive” and (2) “punish misuse of alcohol, rather than burdening law-abiding users.”

As I wrote, those responsible for endless repetitions of the Politician’s Syllogism (and nothing more), don’t like reading the above excerpt. They would prefer to call for us to Do Something, even though they–and we–have no idea whatsoever what that Something is. But that doesn’t make the presentation of Professor Volokh’s facts any less important or salient.

So, what does reduce gun violence? Here is a list of potential policies to be tried. I have no problem with any of these solutions being implemented, although–as mentioned above–background checks did not stop Dylann Roof from killing people in South Carolina. I should note as well that while gun ownership may not deter crime, it can actually make individual responsible gun owners safer. It can make their families safer as well.

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