Like it or not the Second Amendment exists and the Supreme Court has ruled that its language guarantees an individual right to bear arms. Like it or not, the best estimates are that 40% of US households have guns and there are perhaps 270 million guns privately owned in the country. Like it or not, guns are not going away and even if the Supreme Court were to reverse itself and declare there is no individual right to bear arms, all the existing guns are not going away. Like it or not, banning guns in a mass way will produce a firearms bootleg problem that will make alcohol smuggling during Prohibition look like child’s play. Like it or not, for much of the country, guns are rooted in political culture of the United States–it’s God, guns, and the Constitution.
So what do we do after the Las Vegas killings? There are no simple solutions even though there are the usual recitation of simple slogans that are more about political posturing in the next election than they are about real policy solutions. We already are hearing talk from one side that we need more gun control, with predictable opposition from the other side. One side will say “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or the way to “stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” The other side will embrace universal background checks to screen out criminals or those with mental illnesses, or will, as is now the solution de jour, a ban on bump stops for guns as a remedy.
The gun debate is complicated for two major reasons: the politics and the multifaceted nature of the problems surrounding the causes of gun violence. The politics is about how the debate has been constitutionalized around the Second Amendment and weaving of guns within parts of the US into the very fabric of cultural identity. Urbanites, northerners, and liberal-Democrats largely are clueless about this. Moreover, the gun debate has been defined by the NRA which has taken an absolutist position of the Second Amendment. For many of its members, guns are the defining issue for them and they turn out to vote. For the opposition, there is no equivalent. The NRA has also captured the Republican Party, making guns, along with cutting taxes, the two defining issues for itself. So long as the NRA and the Republican Party define their raison d’etat around guns, little will change in terms of the politics.
But even if the politics were to change, defining both what the problems with guns are and what are the solutions is not easy. Right now the media is hyperventilating over the NRA saying it could support a ban on bump stocks. This is brilliant politics. Banning the stocks will do little so long as assault weapons are available. Gun manufactures no doubt love this proposal–instead of letting some people spend just a few dollars to modify a regular gun, make them spend more to buy a real assault weapon. Moreover, the focus on bump stocks takes the political focus over other reforms, and the NRA looks outright reasonable in favoring the bump stock ban. At best, a symbolic idea that solves nothing and which also plays well with some swing voters in 2018.
But what would actually work to curb gun violence? This of course is complicated. Part of the solution is understanding the underlying nature of the violence. Yes, some of it is rooted simply in the availability of assault and other weapons and they do need regulation. And regulation is constitutionally possible. At no point has the Supreme Court said that reasonable regulation of some weapons is not possible. Lower courts have upheld some regulations. Not even in the case of the First Amendment has the Supreme Court said that free speech is absolute–time, manner, and place restrictions are possible, and not all utterances qualify as constitutionally protected speech. There is nothing inconsistent in saying that possession of bazookas (which are arms) is unconstitutional, and the same is true for assault or automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Such regulation might solve some problems but certainly not all.
Increased penalties for weapons use is not a solution. There is little evidence, as I and others have show several times, that many people who commit crimes are rational actors deterred by the calculation of prison time. Moreover, the experience and failure of mandatory minimum and three strikes laws demonstrates the futility of this approach.
The call for background checks, especially if instant and without some waiting periods, will solve only a small part of the problem, if at all. Do we screen for mental illness and past criminal behavior, for example? When it comes to mental illness, are all who have a mental illness dangerous? The American Psychology Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists hundreds of conditions that count as mental illness, with estimates that more than 42 million qualify. To say that everyone with a mental illness is dangerous is a gross stereotype and demeaning. Moreover, what is a mental illness? Remember at one time the DSM listed being gay as a mental disorder. Additionally, are all those with felony records dangerous, and what about the idea of people having paid their debt to society? Finally, keep in mind that the Las Vegas shooter had no record of mental illness and no criminal record. A background check would have done little to deter him.
Finally, what do we do about all the guns that are used in cases of domestic abuse, suicide, crime, and street fights? Yes guns make such killings and violence easier, but the underlying roots are located in alcohol and substance abuse, in problems surrounding poverty, or in cultural values about manhood, masculinity, and honor. Decreasing the supply of guns will help, but there are underlying socio-cultural problems at play. One hypothesis worth testing is the connection between areas that have high levels of alcohol dependency or poverty and gun violence. There may be other correlations, but more research is needed and the NRA and the politics of guns has prevented that.
The point that is being made here is that the problems of guns are complex. The politics of guns makes solving the problem of guns impossible. The problem of guns is in part availability of some types of weapons and where, but it also about regulation of human behavior. Guns do kill people, but people also kill people, and any viable solutions must disaggregate the variety of problems surrounding gun violence into viable policies that have identified problems and solutions.