Newtown, gun control, and accepting America as it is
In the last few days, more than a few voices, almost all on the political left, have decided to use the Newtown, Conn. school shootings as an occasion to call for efforts to take away Americans’ guns. There’s nothing wrong with this: any political movement that believes strongly in something ought to use every opportunity, even every tragedy, to forward its agenda. And there’s certainly some point into thinking about gun control now: if the United States had gun control policies similar to those in the United Kingdom — individuals basically aren’t allowed to own firearms — it seems less likely that the Newtown event would have transpired. Even if one concedes this point, efforts to put serious gun control into place in the United States are a practical and political impossibility.
Practice first: With nearly 300 million privately owned firearms in the United States (more than one for every adult in the country), no practicable policy could implement extensive gun control. Efforts that don’t impact significant numbers of firearms such as “assault weapons” bans that limit magazine capacity or aesthetic features are politically practicable but won’t prevent anything from happening. (A magazine takes about a second to change; the “folding stocks” banned in the 1995 assault weapons bill have no impact on deadliness.) And true military weapons designed for offensive killing operations aren’t in civilian hands anyway: With some extremely limited exceptions, private citizens haven’t been able to buy machine guns for decades.
If they’re useless in practice, gun control laws are even worse politics. Public support for gun control has generally tracked crime rates and, right now, with crime at its lowest levels since the 1960s, crime barely registers as a major problem for American voters. And gun control, which was relatively popular in the past, has also seen its popularity plummet as crime has fallen. Countries with more gun control don’t do it any better. Contrary to geopolitical stereotypes, the United States’ overall level of crime (a little more than 460 violent offenses per 100,000 individuals) is actually lower than that of almost all other large western democracies.
The U.S. does have a higher homicide rate than those other countries but it has dropped considerably in recent years whereas those elsewhere have trended upwards.
Just as importantly, while there’s a very strong grass-roots pro-gun movement made up of hunters, target shooters, and people who simply want to protect their families, a true grass-roots anti-gun movement seems very unlikely to emerge. Major anti-gun organizations rely on smallish, elite memberships and wealthy foundation support. While many Americans can and do join groups dedicated to fighting crime and reducing violence, it takes a peculiar person to see taking away a right to keep and bear arms as a grass-roots cause worth organizing over. Quite simply, even if support for gun control reaches the levels of the 1980s (when crime was much higher), people who want to keep guns will always be better organized and better prepared than those who want to take them away. Taking away guns is an abstract cause that ultimately will not impact most peoples’ lives. Keeping them is a passionate issue that will move votes at the polls.
Many reform-minded Republicans, me included, have criticized elements of the conservative movement for failing to accept America as it is. But a large portion of the political left, in its support for gun control, does exactly the same thing. Yes, Newtown was a great tragedy. Yes, it’s plausible to suggest that a vastly different gun control regime might have prevented it. But firearms ownership in America isn’t going to change. Right now, however, it’s most important to help the families impacted to deal with their grief. Accepting American society as it is means that we’re all going to have to live with the consequences — and benefits — of an armed society.