Monday, December 17, 2012

Guns and the limits of law

We really haven't have a mass shooting like the one in Newton. The thought of someone opening fire at small children is beyond horrifying. We don't have a word for it. Having said that, mass shootings have become a depressingly frequent topic

Now that a few days has passed, what does this incident - and other episodes of random gun violence - tell us about the need for stricter gun laws?

There are a few guiding principles for such a conversation. The first is that, however awful, mass shootings probably have little to tell us about what our gun policy should be. They get a great deal of attention but are a small fraction of gun homicides. Placing too much attention on them is likely to create misguided policy.

Second, such a conversation should be tempered by constitutional, political and practical realities. We are not about to ban the private ownership of guns in the United States. It would be unconstitutional and politically impossible. More fundamentally, it would be close to physically impossible. There are, by most accounts, well over 200 million guns in private hands in the United States. Even if we prevented another one from being made or sold, they'd be around for a very long time.

We might prevent sane, law abiding citizens from owning them but they are not the ones that we are worried about. Anyone who would shoot up a school or a shopping center is unlikely to be deterred because it is illegal to oen the gun with which he does it.

Third, the irony seems to be that gun controls laws offer relatively little prevention with respect to situations like this. In most cases, no set of reasonable regulations would have prevented the shooter from purchasing a firearm. The profile for a mass shooter has become almost a cliche. In most cases, he will turn out to be a "quiet guy" who was "strange" but who "no one would have expected" to do what he did. Perhaps people who were close to him knew that something was seriously awry but it's hard to imagine a legal screen that would take into account such amorphous "danger signs." Calls to stop selling guns to people with "mental illness," gloss over the difficulty in determining who those people are.

Fourth, we talk about regulation on the type of weapons that can be sold and the process by which they are purchased.  While it is true that "guns don't kill people,people kill people," it is certainly easier to kill a lot of people with a rifle than a baseball bat. But the list of restrictions that might make a material difference in the mass shooting context is short.

It might be reasonable to limit magazine size, but people who know guns better than I do say that this is not likely to make much difference. One could, I suppose, ban semi-automatic weapons - often misleadingly called "assault" weapons. That might slow a shooter down but how much difference it would make is unclear. Whatever "benefit" there is in such a restriction must be balanced against the cost in reducing the effectiveness of weapons for personal defense. There probably ought to be background checks for private gun sales, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that would be a momentous reform.

In the end, the desire to make this go away by passing a law is understandable, but misplaced. This type of tragedy cannot be prevented by fiat. It is, in fact, unclear that it can even be made less likely. The problem is not in our laws, but in ourselves.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

No. No. No. We are not powerless to change, through legal means, our culture of guns. We can reason. We can think. We can talk about these issues. Political impossibilities are not impossible when the NRA takes down its blog, because it can have nothing to say. The time to act is now.

The United States has between ten and twenty times as many gun deaths per capita as other advanced industrial economies. How many of them could be avoided if a depressed person or a squabbling couple didn't have ready access to a handgun? Even ordinarily sane and usually law abiding citizens kill themselves or others, or both.

You're right that we're not likely to outlaw private gun ownership. We needn't go that far, though. Sen. Joe Manchin, "A" rated by the NRA, points out that we don't need assault weapons to go hunting. We don't need assault weapons to protect ourselves against a home intruder, either. The UK enacted an assault weapon ban, and Australia enacted a near-ban, after each experienced a mass shooting -- and in both nations the legislation has been effective in eliminating the kind of mass shooting we've just seen here.

In France, gun owners are licensed (for five years, renewable) after receiving six months' training in shooting and passing a criminal and mental health background check. It is then mandatory for them to keep their guns in a locked safe. Would the Second Amendment prohibit that here? If Nancy Lanza's guns were in a locked safe, would Adam Lanza have killed 27 people?

The Founders were wise enough to foresee the need to amend the Constitution. The Second Amendment received precious little interpretation for the first two centuries of our history, and remains the subject of vigorous judicial debate today, as last week's 2-1 Seventh Circuit decision demonstrates. The right to keep and bear arms should be subject to reasonable regulation, and if we need to change the Constitution to make that clear, we have the power to do so. Now's the time to talk about it.

It is not misplaced to try to make this problem better by laws. Congress can't legislate away the likelihood that people will get into car accidents, but it can and has mandated seat belts and airbags -- and in so doing it's saved lives. Similarly it can't legislate away insanity, anger, or depression -- but it can certainly regulate access to and the use of the instruments of death.

And it's high time it did so.

Anonymous said...

"We don't need assault weapons...", which are functionally identical to semi-automatic rifles often used for deer hunting.

"If Nancy Lanza's guns were in a locked safe..." -- my guns are stored in a locked safe. My son knows where the keys are. I think it likely that Adam Lanza would have still been able to access his mother's firearms (or those belonging to someone else). Perfect safety is not an option.

At least you call for using the amendment process instead of just changing the clear meaning of the existing Bill of Rights.

Anonymous said...

Anony 2:20: How old is your son? Is he borderline autistic? Does he have frequent temper tantrums at school that trigger a need for you to go calm him down? If your son were autistic and suffering from frequent temper tantrums at school, would you allow him to know where the keys to your gun cabinet are? Or would you get the guns the f*** out of your house?

Death by gun in the US, whether by suicide or other homicide, is almost three times more likely in homes that have guns than in homes that don't. You can't practice cosmetology without a license; you can't build a shed in your backyard without a building permit. Would it be so unreasonable to have laws that say you've got to lock your guns up? And maybe if your kid had mental health issues, would it be so bad to have some kind of laws that, you know, maybe the cops could come check and see if your 20-year-old mentally ill son didn't have access to your guns?

Anonymous said...

Query: Should Jared Loughner have been able to go to a Sportsman's Warehouse and buy a Glock semi-automatic pistol after he dropped out of high school, had a conviction for possessing drug paraphernalia, became incapable of communicating lucidly, and was suspended from community college and told to get a mental health evaluation? Or should there have been some kind of system in place to make sure that guns aren't sold to folks who are, quite clearly, paranoid schizophrenics? Would the Second Amendment be offended by some kind of law that actually looked into whether people who buy guns are stark raving lunatics?

Dad29 said...

Death by gun in the US, whether by suicide or other homicide, is almost three times more likely in homes that have guns than in homes that don't

Remarkably, criminal drug-gang members usually have guns in their homes.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Dad29 said...

we don't need assault weapons to go hunting

All of a sudden, politician's words mean something?

Define "assault weapon" in such a way that the definition does NOT include any gun or knife.

Please!

Anonymous said...

Shall we talk about Fast & Furious & all the illegal guns going to criminals? Why should Obama & the Cops go home at night & protect their families & we as normal citizens cannot? This is what Obama & Holder want?

Randy from monona said...

To bad we dont spend half as much effort in curbing DRUNK driving in the state and country.. More citizens are killed by alcohol and the misuse of vehicles while impaired. Stop trying to stop this law keeping this vet from being able to own whatever weapon i chose to protect myself, for sport, hunting or defense .

Anonymous said...

First we need to hold the parents accountable
Second maybe we need more "God" and right and wrong: in schools instead of lell
Third how many gory video games and TV shows from hollywood influenced this kid? Maybe we should regulate them more?
Forth how many lives could have been saved if the Principal or Janitor had a weapon to defend the school with?
Finally, gun regulation doesn't impance the bad guys, only the good guys.

Anonymous said...

Anony 9:57:

1. Nancy Lanza has been held accountable. Doesn't bring back those kids, though.

2. Adam Lanza attended Rose of Lima school for a while, as well as Sandy Hook. He heard about God. Do you think talk of God will stop the Adam Lanza's and Jared Loughner's of this world?

3. Yeah, let's just give every school principal and every janitor a gun. And every teacher, too. Why, let's give every kindergartner and every first grader a gun! That'll work, won't it?

4. If you are of the faith I suspect you are, you were taught that they are no good guys, only bad guys. We are all sinners, saved only by the grace of God; in Adam's fall we sinned all. Let him who is without sin shoot the first bullet. Every human being is capable of anger, of desperation, of evil, of mental failings. That's why we have laws: to cabin our baser instincts, and punish them when we act upon them.

Anonymous said...

Randy from Monona: Actually more people are killed by guns than by drunk drivers. In 2007, 31,224 people died by guns (12,632 of them homicides and 17,352 of them suicides). In 2010, 10,228 people died in drunk driving accidents (down from 17,941 in 2006). A fair number of the drunk driving fatalities were, of course, the drunk drivers themselves.

And no, I don't think you should be able to have whatever weapon you want. You can't have a machine gun, and you don't need it or a semiautomatic rifle with 100 rounds to hunt, for sport, or to defend your family.

Anonymous said...

Why is nobody talking about our schools and the fact that they are not secure. I would think that as a parent you should have a reasonable expectation that your children will be safe while in school and our security at our schools is a complete failure.

Mike said...

11:13 Our country was founded on the right to have and keep military grade firearms. Of course we should be able to have whatever we want. You can own machine guns if you pay the government for a class III license. Don't ban the tools or we'll have to make food illegal because there are too many fat people.

Anonymous said...

First off it is legal to for a private citizen in the state if WI to own machine guns. You have been surrounded by them for decades and had no idea.
Second Aasult weapons are the boogie man again. What does the FBI statistics say about murders by rifle in 2009?
Murders total – 13636 Murders with handguns – 6452 (47.32%)
Murders with rifles – 348 (2.55%) Murders with shotguns – 418 (3.07%) Murders with unknown firearms – 1928 (14.14%) Murder with knives or cutting instruments – 1825 (13.38%) Murders with other weapons – 1864 (13.67%) Murders with hands, fists, feet etc.. – 801 (5.8%)
The national debate is going to be about banning weapons that are used in less than 3% of murders? They ifhave course get thethe most newspeople coverage too. Yet weapons used 47% of the time aren't even on the table why? Is it because politicians are really interested in doing any thing about guns or is it more important to look like it?

Anonymous said...

Oh, only 348 murders were by rifle? No worries then. No problema.

How many gun murders does it take to make this an issue? The Talmud says, whoever saves one life saves the entire world. Maybe the murders of 20 little kids by rifle will make this an issue.

The regulation (or prohibition) of certain types of rapid loading weapons is part of the solution. Mental health background checks are part of the solution. Making background checks mandatory for all weapons, and making them serious -- like what ATF does for a machine gun license -- are part of the solution. Enforcing laws that require guns to be kept in locked safes is perhaps part of the solution.

And these things won't make murder by gun go away. Airbags and seatbelts haven't ended fatal car crashes. There are fewer of them, though.

Anonymous said...

BTW it may be legal to own a machine gun in Wisconsin, but it is by no means easy. It is illegal to own one manufactured after 1986, and therefore they tend to cost upwards of $10K. You need an ATF license and need to pass an ATF background check. Perhaps if these kinds of procedures were in place for all guns, Jared Loughner wouldn't have been able to walk into a store and buy an assault weapon.

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