Ruth Marcus demands that we take some action to reduce the likelihood of future incidents like the shootings in Oregon last week:
The Second Amendment protects a right to gun ownership. It does not forestall reasonable regulation. The sorts of small steps that now appear unachievable would not interfere with the needs of responsible gun owners.
It is too soon to know how the Roseburg killer obtained his weapon or weapons; how evident was his mental illness; whether he could have been stopped. It is not too soon for all of us, myself included, to feel ashamed by our willingness to accept the status quo as bloody but immutable.
There are, however, several questions she leaves unanswered. What “reasonable reforms” would have that effect? Chicago has or had regulations or restrictions that were among the toughest in the nation, so tough they didn’t make constitutional muster. It also has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country. Just last weekend we had a spate of violence that left six dead and eight more wounded. What reforms, specifically, would have changed that? Mayor Emanuel says there are too many guns but doesn’t have any proposals in mind that would both reduce the number of guns and meet constitutional muster.
Eugene Volokh points out the close association between gun violence and the consumption of alcohol:
Now I generally don’t support the “don’t just stand there, do something” school of criminal law. When all the proposals seem likely not to work, or do more harm than good, implementing one of them for the sake of “doing something” strikes me as a mistake.
But let me offer a concrete analogy (recognizing that, as with all analogies, it’s analogous and not identical).
Every day, about 30 people are killed in the U.S. in gun homicides or gun accidents (not counting gun suicides or self-inflicted accidental shootings). And every day, likely about 30 people are killed in homicides where the killer was under the influence of alcohol, plus alcohol-related drunk driving accidents and alcohol-related accidents where the driver wasn’t drunk but the alcohol was likely a factor (again not including those who died in accidents caused by their own alcohol consumption). If you added in gun suicides on one side and those people whose alcohol consumption killed themselves on the other, the deaths would tilt much more on the side of alcohol use, but I generally like to segregate deaths of the user from deaths of others.
So what are we going to do about it? When are we going to ban alcohol? When are we going to institute more common-sense alcohol-control measures?
I recognize that Mr. Volokh means this as a “modest proposal”. More about that later. The point is that in addition to the presence of lots of guns there are other factors involved. Among these are inadequate treatment of mental health problems, substance abuse, and low social cohesion. Rather than one grand (but ineffectual) gesture in gun control why not try some smaller moves in all of those directions?
Over the last few days I’ve heard praise for President Obama’s words as an attempt at moving the Overton window. What I believe they are missing is that there is no barrier to engaging in symbolic action aimed at redirecting the national discourse while proposing concrete steps that will effect your intended objective. If President Obama is trying to change hearts it’s not working. If anything, public opinion has moved in the direction of believing that we have gun control laws that are strict enough.
One more thing. I own two long guns, family heirlooms, neither of which has been discharged in living memory. I’m no “gun nut” but I understand where they’re coming from. There are many people in the United States who are absolutely as dedicated to the Second Amendment just as there are people who are dedicated to the First Amendment. I suspect that’s why few Democratic politicians other than a few backbenchers and no Republicans have staked any political capital on gun control. I’m not advocating despair—merely pointing out that when you hear a politician declaiming gun violence it may well be cynical and that goes for the president of the United States, too. Verbal advocacy for gun control while being unwilling to sacrifice anything for it may just be a form of signalling.