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|Gun control and common sense||| Print ||
|Written by R Lee Wrights|
|Thursday, 02 August 2012 22:00|
“One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation.”
- Thomas B. Reed (1886)
Having taken in much of the current shouting match on gun control, I think it’s time to apply a little common sense to the subject.
An effective gun control program can readily accommodate the legitimate needs of hunting, marksmanship, collection and self-defense. That’s not the problem. The problem has to do with the Second Amendment, which was placed in the constitution for two reasons. First, an effective citizens militia was regarded as essential to national defense. Second, it was thought to be more difficult for an unjust government to tyrannize over an armed citizenry than an unarmed one.
As regards the first reason, this country has not relied on the militia for over a century, and it seems unlikely that it ever will again. The Amendment is almost certainly not needed for national defense.
As regards the second reason, things are not so simple. We live peaceably under a benign government, and the threat of tyranny is perhaps the last thing the average citizen has on his mind. It can’t happen here. Or can it? It Can’t Happen Here was the title of Sinclair Lewis’s extremely powerful book, which described exactly how it could have happened here and the terrifying consequences, which ensued. Anyone who hasn’t read it should. The world was half-crazy when Lewis wrote in the 1930’s, and America was no exception. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin: they were the “wave of the future” to many even here in the land of the free. True, sanity won out in the end but it was a close call, and there have been times in America’s past when sanity did not win out. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Surely there is no controversy here. At least some of those would-be totalitarians are still with us. And an armed citizenry is a tougher nut to crack. Not impossible — there are no guarantees against tyranny — but it definitely makes the tyrant’s job harder. The Second Amendment offers real protection and is not anything we should abandon lightly. It is certainly not a matter for undue haste, especially in this period of near-hysteria following the recent spate of school and other shootings. I don’t know how others feel, but I always get concerned when the “talking heads” and other self-appointed guardians of the public weal begin screaming in unison.
I’m also concerned that we may have already abandoned the Amendment’s protection. The Brady Law and similar legislation operate normally to give government a list of all people who buy guns, other than hand-cocked sporting rifles. In another few decades, this will be a de facto list of virtually all gun owners. I’m not sure that keeping such a list is wise. I don’t hate my government, but I don’t entirely trust it either. And I’m mindful of Aristotle’s cautions about where abuses of democracy lead. Far from extending anti-gun laws, it may be time to roll them back.
I’m not sure about roll back, but it certainly ought to be considered. The key question is can these laws be made to operate without producing a list of gun owners. If it can and the method is foolproof, then roll back is not necessary. In fact extension might make sense. But I’m not sure a foolproof method really is available.
If the government lets up on gun regulation, where does that leave us?
I think the National Rifle Association has common sense on its side when it argues that, law or no law, most criminals will get their guns. This is a country that can’t even regulate its drug traffic. There are too many “underground” procurement sources that cannot be controlled in a free society like America. It is true that we have a higher murder rate than some countries with strict gun laws, but we also have a higher rate than some without such laws. One such country is Switzerland.
Actually Switzerland doesn’t “permit” its citizens to bear arms. It requires them to do so. And, because it is one of the few countries that still relies on a militia for national defense, these arms are usually either handguns or military-style assault weapons. An adult Swiss male can be fined if he doesn’t have a proper weapon. There are controls of course but they are lax, and there are many, many guns. Estimates run from 3 to 12 million (including non-military guns) for a country with only 7 million inhabitants. Yet Switzerland’s murder rate is a small fraction of ours and on a par with those of Japan and Britain, two countries that prohibit almost all guns.
Intercultural comparisons are tricky, and I don’t think they apply in this complex area. The fact that some countries with strict gun laws have lower murder rates than the U. S. is irrelevant.
It appears to me, then, that the Brady Law and other anti-gun legislation does not materially reduce murder or other crime, at least that committed by ordinary criminals. For such crime the NRA is right. But I doubt that this applies to crime (or other violence) committed by the mentally unstable, since these people generally don’t have the same access to underground procurement that ordinary criminals do. In fact it was just such a person who was responsible for the Brady Law in the first place. The man who shot Brady was not a criminal; he was insane and was sent, not to jail, but to an asylum. Furthermore, it is the mentally unstable who are responsible for virtually all of the recently publicized school and other shootings. Of course many stole the guns they used, and these people can’t be stopped by any law. For others, however, keeping or extending anti-gun legislation might make sense. But before we do this let’s answer some key questions.
First, how prevalent are shootings by those previously diagnosed as mentally unstable? All we seem to have so far is anecdotal evidence. Are there any hard numbers? In this context, the term “previously diagnosed” is key; we must be able to identify these people in advance if we are to stop them from buying guns. Secondly, what do the mentally unstable do when they find they can’t get guns? To what extent do they steal them or turn to other weapons, homemade bombs for example, which can’t be regulated? In other words, is there or (if anti-gun laws are extended) would there be an appreciable reduction in violence? And lastly — and by far the most important in my opinion — what can be done to prevent the legal process from producing a list of virtually all gun owners? I don’t know the answers to these questions. The subject is complicated, and perhaps there are no truly satisfactory answers. I do know one thing, however. We really haven’t tried to address these or similar questions in a productive manner. We seem content just to shout at each other. And that serves no purpose at all.
“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”
FG_AUTHORS: R Lee Wrights