January 3, 2013

The Gun Debate Is Not About Disarming 'Good Guys'

Since the Newtown shooting, many individuals, liberal and otherwise, have argued for stricter gun laws. These individuals, at least the ones of whom I’m aware, have not argued that we need to ban all guns. Rather they’ve argued that we need more sensible gun laws, laws that, for example, make it more difficult for criminals and schizophrenics to obtain firearms.

But instead of dealing with these specific arguments, many self-proclaimed gun-rights advocates have been attacking straw-man arguments. In a recent article in The American Conservative, for example, Rand Paul’s media director, Jack Hunter, writes that “[t]he calls for increased gun control after the Newtown shooting” are “demonstrably wrongheaded—and potentially deadly” and that they best way to prevent future Newtowns is to make sure that good guys have access to guns. As evidence for this, he adduces several armed citizens who have stopped gunmen[1] and then concludes:

“Banning knives would not have stopped Jack the Ripper. Banning guns will not stop the crazed few who seek to open fire on the public.

“To the degree that liberals get their way on gun control, there will be more deaths of innocents. I’m not saying that liberals would want the potential murders implied in the examples here to occur. But what they want legislatively would only—inevitably—lead to more killing.”[2]

But again, the liberals I’ve read and listened to over the past few weeks haven’t been arguing that we need to ban all guns. Most liberals seem to recognize that, even if desirable, that’s simply not going to happen, and they have consequently focused their energy on advocating specific, restrained measures, namely:

1) Banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.[3], [4], [5]

2) Requiring everyone to pass a criminal and mental health background check before being able to purchase firearms.

3) Making gun trafficking a felony.[6]

4) Abolishing the Tiahart Amendments, which, among things, largely prohibit states, cities, and local police forces from accessing the ATFs gun-tracing database.[7], [8]

Liberals after Newtown have been focusing on measures like these, not measures that would prevent “good guys” from having guns. If people like Jack Hunter would like to explain why these measures are so bad, then I’d be happy to listen. But they refuse to do this for the simple reason that these measures seem like no-brainers and have consequently gained the support of most Americans.[9]

Which is why extremists like Jack Hunter won’t debate these proposals. They know they’ll lose.

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[1] Not all his examples, I should point out, are valid ones. For instance, he writes: “On December 11 a man opened fire in a mall in Portland, Oregon—that is, until he was confronted by another armed man who had a carry-and-conceal weapon. The gunman who had fired on shoppers then took his own life.” Once you research what actually happened in the Clackamas Town Center, however, you realize that it’s not at all clear that the concealed-carry holder caused the gunman to kill himself. After the shooting started, 22-year-old Nick Meli pulled out his own weapon, but he refrained from firing, afraid that he might hit a bystander. Meli believes that the killer saw him and that he didn’t fire any more shoots, save the one that ended his life, after their encounter (Mike Benner, “Clackamas mall shooter faced man with concealed weapons,” KGW, December 17, 2012). Police were on the scene within a minute after the shooting began and believe that their presence might have impelled the killer to shoot himself (Mariano Castillo and Holly Yan, “Details, but no answers, in Oregon mall shooting,” CNN, December 13, 2012). From everything we know, it’s not clear why the killer shot himself (Anna Griffin, “Clackamas Town Center shooting: 22 minutes of chaos and terror as gunman meanders through the mall,” The Oregonian, December 15, 2012.)

[2]How Gun Control Kills,” December 27, 2012.

[3] The Brady Campaign offers what seems like a pretty reasonable definition of assault weapons (Federal Gun Laws: Assault-Style Weapons: Frequently Asked Questions.”)

[4] In response to those who claim that the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban didn’t work, I would just point out, first, that the ban contained numerous loopholes that greatly hindered it. Assault weapons and large-capacity magazines manufactured before 1994 were exempted from the ban, meaning that more than 1.5 million assault weapons remained in circulation. In addition, the country’s stock of large-capacity magazines actually continued to grow after the ban, because it remained legal to import them as long as they had been made before the ban. The law also inadequately spelled out what constituted an assault weapon, allowing “the industry to continue manufacturing guns similar to those that had been banned.” Second, a 2004 study financed by the Justice Department concluded that the ban did lead to a small reduction in gun crime (Michael Luo and Michael Cooper, Lessons in Politics and Fine Print in Assault Weapons Ban of 90s, New York Times, December 19, 2012).

[5] As proof that assault weapons can have defensive purposes, some have pointed out that during the LA Riots some Korean store owners used semi-automatic rifles to defend their grocery stores. Three points here. First, it’s not clear that assault weapons were used. In the following news clip, for instance, one individual (presumably a store owner or friend) can be seen with a more traditional hunting rifle and another with a handgun: Korean store owners defend their businesses during the 1992 LA riots. Second, it seems clear that assault weapons were not needed for defense. Evidently just displaying traditional rifles and handguns and firing them into the air was enough to deter looters (Ashley Dunn, Looters, Mercants Put Koreatown Under the Gun: Violence: Lacking confidence in the police, employees and others armed themselves to protect mini-mall,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1992). Third, even if assault weapons were in fact needed to keep back looters, it doesn’t follow that the benefits of allowing such weapons to remain legal outweigh the costs. As recent events have made clear, assault weapons allow deranged gunmen to murder large numbers of individuals in a relatively short period of time. Making it harder for would-be killers  to acquire such weapons would most certainly save lives, and achieving this goal makes a ban worthwhile, even if every few decades or so such a weapon might be used to keep a group of looters at bay.

[6] Michael Bloomberg, “6 ways to stop gun madness,” USA Today, December 19, 2012. See also Demand A Plan to End Gun Violence

[7] Tiahart Amendment Facts,” ProtectPolice.org.

[8] Another action that seems sensible to me: creating a nationwide database to track gun and ammunition purchases (Marc Parrish, “How Big Data Can Solve America’s Gun Problem,” The Atlantic, December 27, 2012).

[9]Poll: More see societal problems in Sandy Hook shooting,” Washington Post, December 20, 2012.

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