Years ago, when visiting for the holidays, I asked my father-in-law, Jack, how many handguns he owned. He didn’t know. I suggested we count them; the total was 13. He’s got well over 15 now, having acquired a couple of palm-size .38s last Christmas. He likes his guns.
And guns have been heavy on my mind in the last week. It would be self-indulgent to feel that I can share in the grief of those in Newtown, or worse yet, use it as an excuse for moping about. But the problem, the inexplicable fact that America is an outlier both in gun deaths and mass killings, keeps turning around in my head. And lord knows it’s not an easy problem to solve, despite what anyone may say.
One thing I know for certain is that emotional reactions to tragic events don’t make for good policy. In the weeks ahead, we’re certain to see many poorly-thought-out, reactionary attempts at gun control. It’s an understandable impulse to want to do something, anything, to not have to have another Newtown. But again – emotions are not a good foundation for policy.
Two things we know about gun control measures: First, the vast majority of the gun control regulations that have been tried in the US have been woefully ineffective. They simply haven’t lead to any meaningful reduction in gun violence. And secondly, most of those laws are now unconstitutional.
It’s a hard truth. But it’s a sorry state of affairs when the best argument you can muster about the effectiveness of a gun control statute is that things would be “so much worse” if not for the law (as the District of Columbia did to support its blanket ban on handguns). While many gun control proposals are high-minded, they just don’t work. And the test of any government regulation isn’t whether it feels good – it’s whether it accomplishes something material enough to justify imposing a regulation.
As for the Second Amendment, there’s little use in parsing the semantics. The debate over the relationship between the operative and prefatory clauses in the Second Amendment was exhaustively, painfully, litigated and resolved by the Supreme Court four years ago in the case that tossed DC’s handgun ban – District of Columbia v. Heller. Until or unless the issue is revisited by the Supreme Court (or in the exceedingly unlikely event of a constitutional amendment), the Second Amendment will remain an individual right, subject only to government regulation that can survive the tough standard of review for impingement on fundamental freedoms.
But back to my father-in-law. While he doesn’t remember the exact number of handguns he owns, he does take a great deal of care with them. He keeps his guns under lock and key, and takes pains to instruct his grandchildren – my kids – in the safe handling of guns. Even, yes, as he tries to instill in them his love for guns (my son is a life member in the NRA, thanks to grandpa Jack).
And I wonder if this tells us something about why the US is such an outlier among developed, prosperous economies when it comes to gun deaths. While Jack takes great care of his guns and is hyper-diligent about gun safety, we’ve developed a culture of casual gun ownership. Not enough gun owners take their responsibilities seriously. There are numerous reasons for this, but two that loom large in my thinking are a) the mania among gun control advocates on outlawing certain types of weapons and b) the NRA’s pivot into politicizing gun ownership a generation ago.
The NRA has always had a significant educational component. I took NRA-sponsored hunter’s safety courses as a teenager, and shotgun courses as an adult. They do gun safety videos and materials for children. But since the 1980’s, this part of the NRA’s mission has taken a back seat to the organization’s push for expansive gun rights. At the same time, anti-gun activists have focused on trying to ban particular types of weapons, rather than concentrating fire on gun education, certification and licensing, or enforcement. The result has been a pitched battle over which weapons will be allowed or disallowed, leaving the rest of the regulatory field unplowed. This has created a system that is largely binary: Once you’ve got a gun – any gun – we’re counting on your good sense and judgment to use it wisely.
This isn’t to say that certain types of weapons can’t be outlawed. But anti-gun activists are wasting their time arguing for bans on handguns and semi-automatic rifles. There are legitimate reasons for gun owners to possess these weapons, and under the second amendment, there’s little question they have a right to do so. Gun control advocacy that recognized that gun ownership is a fundamental right – but a right that comes with significant responsibilities – would be far more effective than what we’ve seen to date. No, it wouldn’t realize any dreams of a gun-free society. But it would be better positioned to push for the sort of changes that could tackle our current culture of casual gun ownership.
Emotions are a powerful thing. But regulators looking to prevent another Newtown need to resist the urge to pass laws that run counter to Heller, and instead focus on pragmatic solutions: driving more education, enhanced penalties for crimes committed using guns, and graduated systems of licensing, certification and training to account for differences in weapon type.
It may not be as emotionally satisfying as just banning something, but this kind of approach has a better chance of actually getting us somewhere.