For reasons that I find mysterious, most intelligent people, and almost all commentators, have responded to the recent school shooting by demand a new gun control law. Their hypothesis goes like this: 1)it was legal for Adam Lanza to take firearms to the Newtown, Connecticut school; 2)a new law must be enacted to make that illegal to prevent future school shootings; and 3)a new law will be enforced. Lost in the debate is the fact that we already have the Gun Free School Act making it a federal crime to possess a firearm within 1000 feet of a public or private school. 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(2)(A). (The law was first enacted in 1990, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Lopez (1995) and then re-enacted in a slightly different form in 1997. The current law has been upheld by every federal court in the country to consider its constitutionality.) Connecticut has a similar law. C.G.S. sec. 53a-217b. Neither law stopped Lanza. Why not? We've been though several high-profile school shootings since the Columbine massacre in 1999.
The answer lies in enforcement, the bane of all statutes. What have the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), enforcer of the federal school gun ban and the State of Connecticut done to enforce these nice-sounding bans? Not much. There are fewer than 50 reported decisions interpreting the federal ban and none under the Connecticut ban. This means the bans are not being taken seriously by the authorities. The public has a right to be outraged at the tragedy in Connecticut -- outraged at the ATF and the State for allowing Lanza to violate existing laws.
I have no ideal how to enforce these laws and recommend nothing on that score here. But if they are largely unenforced until after a school shooting has occurred, then why should we demand a new law be passed rather than enforcement of the ones we have? This is misguided outrage. Add to that the outraged have no idea how any new gun ban would be enforced and we have a dangerous situation -- a legislative lynch mob.
Anyone who advocates a "ban on assault weapons" or some other simple sounding law needs to explain how it will work. We had an assault weapons ban at the time of the Columbine school shooting. It was in effect for 10 years and did not have much effect on gun violence. The solution would seem not be in legislating guns away. But if it is, then the advocates need to come forward with specifics. Who is going to enforce the new law, how much will it cost, will ATF be charged with this huge task, and how will that agency carry out the mandate? The more these questions are asked, the less we will demand more laws.