Why Liberals (and Conservatives) Should Be Careful With Gun Laws

02/11/2013 10:55 am ET

Since the Newtown, Conn., shooting, liberals have put gun control at the front of their agenda. I am a Democrat but worry that the solutions that are pushed and ultimately pass into law may do more harm than good.

The Liberal Approach

Since Newtown, there has been a renewed push by liberals to crack down on guns. Some of the legislation that has been filed or proposed includes, but is not limited to: re-instating the 1994 assault weapons ban; requiring that gun owners have insurance on their guns; or decreasing the maximum number of rounds held in a magazine from 10 to seven (in Massachusetts).

The concern I have with each of these ideas is that when we push ideas that aren't supported by evidence or are based on ideology rather than empirical evidence, we run the risk that the approach won't work. The 1994 assault weapons ban didn't reduce gun offenses, for example. When liberals do this and their chosen approach fails, it will give a platform for the opposing side to say, "See! Their approach didn't work, therefore we must do our approach." This is dangerous.

Not all gun crimes and solutions are the same. If we use a top-down approach that focuses too heavily on the gun and not the nuances of how the crime is committed, we are probably going to miss the differences between each of the different types of gun offenses.

The Conservative Approach

Conservatives have been throwing people afflicted with mental illness under the bus since Newtown. They seem to think through their overemphasis on mental health as a way to decrease shootings that this is the solution.

We all know that our prisons and jails are filled with people who have serious mental health concerns. However, many of these people are not violent and mental illness is a risk factor for being a victim of violence more than it is a perpetrator of violence.

I wrote in "The NRA on Mental Illness: A Complete Lack of Understanding" that the NRA's CEO seemingly doesn't understand the nature of mental illness. When we invoke fear of people afflicted with mental illness into the minds of people we do more harm than good. The NIMH states that 45 percent of the population has a mental illness in one form or another at some point in their life. The point being that there are many and probably most people living with mental illness are fully functioning people who are not a risk to themselves or others.

Another problem with overly focusing on mental health is that let us for the sake of argument say that we suddenly have a big and serious push for all of the mental health resources we need. What then will conservatives say when a mass shooting happens and it is not done at the hands of someone afflicted with a mental illness?

When we push ideas that aren't supported by evidence or are based on ideology rather than empirical evidence, we run the risk that the approach won't work. When conservatives do this and their chosen approach fails, it will give a platform for the opposing side to say, "See! Their approach didn't work, therefore we must do our approach." This is dangerous.

The point is that there is no one-size, one-solution to this issue that liberals or conservatives can offer.

The Progressive Approach

Let me define progressive as something different than what is commonly associated with a liberal. Progressive is a forward-thinking person who uses data. We can have old-school liberals and old-school conservatives -- people who don't necessarily use data and evidence. You can have progressive conservatives and progressive liberals.

The progressive approach would push evidence-based approaches to reducing crime, especially gun crimes. This approach should not cherry-pick, not be partisan, and it should not be loose with "what works." Here is why.

Progressives know that when we use evidence-based crime prevention, we are dramatically increasing the chances that our intervention, policy or law will produce the desired outcomes. They also know that if a feel-good measure based on ideology doesn't work, then there will be serious consequences to the credibility of the proponents of the approach that was taken.

The Kansas City Gun Experiment is one such excellent example of what works. Firearm offenses were reduced by nearly 50 percent. This was a very effective way to decrease gun crimes without displacement. This is an empirical approach to finding out what works. Success reduces the prevalence of the violence but any reasonable person knows we are unlikely to ever eliminate crime.

What to do When There is No Evidence

Sometimes a proposal is offered that has no evidence to support it. Some of these proposals are promising while others are clearly feel-good measures. Trying promising new ideas is the only way to expand the current base of "what works". But there are some things that need to be done when this happens.

  1. Have a Sunset Clause: A sunset clause would make it so that an ineffective idea will come to and end. Too often we have policies, laws or interventions that don't work but we do them because they are someone's sacred cow, jobs are on the line (but who cares if the programs doesn't work), or because people would rather do something rather than nothing even though it doesn't work. Which brings me to my second point.

  • Collect Data: When we do something new that is promising but not necessarily supported by existing data, we must, absolutely must collect data that will show that the approach does or doesn't work. This must be built into the administration of the approach from the very beginning. Outcome-based data collection is essential to any crime prevention approach.
  • An example of something that may be promising but isn't supported by existing evidence may be the following. In any other industry, when we find a product is too easily improperly used by consumers, we place restrictions and decreased availability on that product. For example, when Sudafed became a common drug of choice for abuse in creating crystal meth, we made it more difficult to obtain even for law-abiding users. We didn't do this for all over the counter (OTC) drugs, but we did it for this one OTC drug. But that wasn't the only thing that was done. We have continued to prosecute and increase the use of treatment to decrease illegal drug use. Perhaps that should be our approach with certain guns. It would behoove gun rights advocates to support making it more difficult to obtain a gun of choice commonly used mass shootings. To do so shows that there is some level of compromise. To not do so invites further criticism of all guns, which will result in the top-down approach that seeks to remove all guns instead of select guns that are the choice weapon for criminals.

    The argument goes that as with all rights, there are responsibilities and even limitations. While a gun enthusiast can still bear arms, all weapons are found on a continuum, from a slingshot to a nuclear weapon. Constitutional rights tell us that citizens can bear arms, but common sense tells us not all arms should be bore. An extreme view would say that there are no limitations on guns, just as the other extreme would advocate for the complete elimination of guns. Neither is extreme reasonable and neither will ever happen. Compromise to arrive at a middle ground is the way forward.

    I am not picking sides on this issue. I am not advocating that we ban all guns. I am advocating that we pursue evidence-based crime prevention. If something is promising but isn't evidence-based, then we need to 1) have have sunset clauses in place, and 2) collect data on whatever we do (evidence-based or otherwise) so that we know what doesn't work, and do what does.

    Both sides of this issue say they pursue evidence-based crime prevention but what they are really doing, as I have written in the past, is cherry-picking self -erving examples that are not representative of what is going on, or have not been empirically evaluated to work. This does more harm than good. An important part of finding a way forward is for each side to admit that neither side has all the answers and to appreciate the other side's point if view a bit more.

    Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He previously worked for a prison and a jail, and he has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at