Scattered Thoughts On Gun Control

Guns are bad...Like everyone, I’m sad and angry about Friday’s tragedy. But I keep hearing that now is the time to discuss gun control. So, fine, let’s discuss…


—It’s unfortunate that so many people now dismiss the idea that there should be a window of mourning, during which political discussions ought to be tabled, after a national tragedy like Friday’s shooting. I understand why that is: Calls to postpone talk of politics are so often themselves politically motivated, a way to put off a conversation one side never intends to have, that they seem cynical. But it should be obvious that the time for policy discussions is not when people are angry, sad, depressed, scared, emotional, and irrational. This is what leads to laws like the Patriot Act. It’s not that policy discussions should never flow from a national tragedy, and obviously knowing how long to wait is tricky, but I suspect the answer is at least a few hours, maybe even a day or two.


—Why do so many of the same people who (rightfully) laugh at the idea that drug prohibition decreases drug use, endorse the idea that gun control will solve the problem of gun violence? Gun control does not mean that bad or crazy people won’t get guns; it means the government will get to decide who gets to have guns. This is the same government, of course, that kills foreign Muslims almost indiscriminately, that imprisons blacks at six times the rate it imprisons whites, that systematically harasses young men based on their ethnic background. But for some reason people think new gun laws would be enforced fairly and equitably.

—It’s worth pausing to think about how gun laws would be enforced, and I think drug laws are one helpful comparison. Laws that criminalized certain types of gun possession, or that added more steps to the process of obtaining guns legally, would undoubtedly be used in the same way drug laws are: They would function as pretenses for searches and stops against otherwise law-abiding citizens. Parole violations for being around guns would go up, and police and prosecutors would have new tools with which to harass the same segments of the population they currently prey on. Terrorism, too, would be an issue. It’s not hard to imagine attempts to purchase a gun being used as “evidence” that some young Muslim who has landed on the FBI’s radar is bent on attacking America. It fits perfectly with how the FBI has operated over the last decade.


—The demographics of this issue are important. I can’t help but notice that the most vocal advocates of gun control tend to be middle-class and affluent whites—the kinds of people for whom the government is a helpful, protective force. It is understandable but unfortunate that these people would have a hard time imagining that there are entire swaths of the population who, for good reason, fear and suspect the government’s intentions.

It reminds me of the push for “Caylee’s Law” (another law enacted in the heated aftermath of a tragedy), which made it a felony for a parent not to report a missing child to the police. To most people the logic is obvious: Why wouldn’t a parent report a missing child, unless he or she was guilty of something? Well, of course, there have historically always been groups—blacks, immigrants, members of fringe political parties, etc.—that would rightfully fear involving the police in something like this. On the issue of gun control, I imagine there are people who are wary of giving the police one more thing to arrest them for.


—And, of course, it’s not entirely clear that gun control laws are effective in reducing gun violence. The evidence is mixed. Many people, in the aftermath of Newtown, are bringing up the assault weapons ban, but most of the damage done in the nation’s deadliest mass shootings has come from handguns. People have suggested that we limit who can purchase guns, possibly screening for mental illness, but Adam Lanza, Friday’s shooter, was using guns purchased legally by his mother. Are we going to limit gun ownership based on the mental health of someone’s entire family?


—We ought to be very wary of the argument that says, “Why do people need these guns?” As Gail Collins wrote, “I’m tired of hearing fellow citizens argue that you need that kind of firepower because it’s a pain to reload when you’re shooting clay pigeons. Or that the founding fathers specifically wanted to make sure Americans retained their right to carry rifles capable of mowing down dozens of people in a couple of minutes.”

This logic is tempting, but it’s slippery. It sounds an awful lot like, “Why do you need to get on an airplane without getting a full-body scan?” or “The founders never meant the First Amendment to apply to something like the Internet” or “If you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t worry about the government reading your emails.” Just because you personally can’t imagine a use for a specific liberty doesn’t mean you should surrender it so quickly.


—And as to the idea that citizens don’t need military-grade weaponry, remember that there may be as many as 30,000 surveillance drones flying over your head in a few years. Is it so crazy to fear a government monopoly on firepower?


–I’m not trying to bait or antagonize proponents of gun control. I, too, think there needs to be a real discussion about how to limit gun violence. As I said after Aurora, it is utterly sickening that this keeps happening. But we ought to be wary of the wishful thinking that says, “If we’d only had the right laws, this all could have been prevented.” It would be nice that if that were true, but that doesn’t make it so. It would be nice if a woman’s body really could “shut that whole thing down,” and if global warming really were just a cyclical change, and if confiscating toothpaste really did make airplanes safer, and if candy were good for you. But when we actually think about those things, we know they aren’t true. So let’s take a second to think first…

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on December 18, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    Your point about the need for military grade weaponry reflects a nuance of this debate that is particularly vexing to me: it’s not just about GUN control. It’s much easier for me to buy into the “more weapons” kind of thinking if I’m imagining everyone carrying swords at the hip. Still pretty easy if we’re talking about muskets. But then you get to something like grenades, and the ability of any number of armed citizens to defend itself against a deranged attacker is fundamentally different, and lessened.

    This isn’t to say that the practical solution is to grant government the power to ban grenades or any weapon it deems “dangerous enough”…but it’s frightening to think that such effective weapons can be in the possession of lunatics.

    I wonder if it’s even reasonable to conceive of a privatized solution…wherein companies/schools/stores/whatever would contract private security companies that would monitor or restrict use of weapons (within private domains). These companies would of course not have a monopoly and could be relieved of their services at any time.

    Or am I even framing it correctly? The problem is that the debate gets so easily muddled (and perhaps rightfully so) by huge practical concerns. Imagine that there were a government solution that was 100% effective. All weapons were taken away and access was completely cut off. Even granting that purely theoretical level of efficacy, is it worth it to sacrifice the right and grant a monopoly? I’m tempted to think so, but I’m not sure. And we know better than to grant anything even close to that.

    I’m tempted, I think, because I’m not just persuaded of the “good” of weapons. It really is hard for me to conceive of a scenario where access to assault rifles, grenades, or even tanks would allow a citizen to ethically defend himself from government intrusion. It borders on preposterous to the point that it’s hard to imagine it as a negative right. I agree with you that we shouldn’t readily surrender it…but by the same token, perhaps we shouldn’t rush to insist on it either.


    • Posted by John S on December 20, 2012 at 1:41 AM

      Well, to your first point, that’s really just a natural result of the technological “advancement” in the human capacity to kill each other. Weapons are more deadly than ever before, but that’s true for everyone (and it’s worth remembering that probably every generation views its capacity to kill as unprecedented and horrifying; gunpowder probably seemed like a crazy thing for any “deranged attacker” to have, or machine guns more recently). But it’s also true that, by the very nature of the arms industry, the state is always going to have access to the most advanced firepower.

      Secondly, I think this debate gets very tricky when it becomes “guns vs. no guns,” yet that always seems to be how it’s framed. So many gun rights advocates are emphatically PRO GUN, which seems very strange to me.

      Obviously, if the choice is between guns and no guns, then most reasonable people would prefer no guns. Guns are violent, and violence is bad. But that’s not a remotely realistic scenario, so it’s counterproductive to frame the debate that way. There will always be some people with guns or weapons (even if it’s just the police), and so the real debate is over how access to guns is restricted.

      The proposed assault weapons ban is an interesting case study. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue against it since, as you say, it’s hard to imagine someone ever NEEDING an assault weapon. But I’m also skeptical of what good it could really do. Most of these spree shootings are done with handguns, after all. I’m reticent to invoke slippery slope arguments, but suffice to say we ought to think about how the restrictions would be carried out before we rush to enact them.


      • Posted by Tim on December 27, 2012 at 2:16 AM

        Scattered thoughts about your scattered thoughts:

        1. Way to emphasize the window of mourning by waiting like 36 hours to post this. And I’m sorry, but it’s two weeks later, and I’m still emotional about it.

        2. Re: the last paragraph in your response to Douglas: Maybe most shooting sprees are carried out with handguns. But doesn’t the benefit to stopping even one mass shooting a year outweigh the to-me-and-to-all-the-people-I-know-and-care-to-interact-with non-existent “benefits” of deregulating assault weapons?

        3. Did I use “deregulating” right there?


        • Posted by John S on December 27, 2012 at 2:48 PM

          1. Well, it wasn’t like I was the first person to bring it up.

          2. The fact that you and everyone you know doesn’t benefit from assault weapons shouldn’t factor too much into the conversation. You might not know a lot of heroin addicts, or people who make YouTube videos called “Death to America,” but that doesn’t mean the government ought to persecute those people.

          Look, if you say that the choice is between assault weapons and safe schools, I’m not going to pick assault weapons, but I just reject that premise. I’m dubious that banning assault weapons would prevent mass shootings, and I don’t think it’s worth giving the government another reason to send people to prison.

          3. Yes.


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