Sunday, January 13, 2013

Let's Talk About Guns

Have you ever shot a gun?

No, seriously. Did you ever go out to the gun range, rent a handgun, take it out and just start shooting at a target? Perhaps you had relatives that lived on a farm and had guns and, on a holiday visit, took you out back to shoot at empty bottles.

I'm not going to lie. There is a visceral thrill to picking up, handling and shooting a gun. It has an excitement that very few things can match.

But guns, as we all know, are serious business, and as we've learned recently, if not managed responsibly, or even if they are managed responsibly, the sole purpose of a gun is to be used as a tool of destruction, regardless of the motivation of the person using it.

The tragic events in Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO and suburban Portland, OR, along with the exceedingly violent series of deaths that are plaguing inner city Chicago, may have finally tipped the scales of civil discourse in the United States in the favor of those who seek to impose some degree of limits on the process of acquiring a gun, what types of guns people really need to own and how they should be permitted to use guns in defensive situations.

As with the voting rights issue, discussing Gun Control is a complex and multi-layered issue. So my hope here is to start to peel back the onion on the issue and provide a framework for discussion.

Gun Control

What does this mean? Well, whatever you want it to mean, by and large.So let's start with guns.

By some estimates, there are 280,000,000 guns in private ownership in the United States. At the current rate of gun acquisition, there will be one gun for every person in the U.S. by the year 2020. We are already approaching an era where, statistically, every American is armed. From this, I think we can conclude the Swiss solution isn't practical.

When we talk of guns, we really need to approach guns in three different categories. There are tactical/assault weapons a ban upon which expired in 2004. There are handguns, which these rulings more or less permitted people to own, and there are hunting rifles.


If you have a liberal friend who thinks we're going to gather 280 million guns up and melt them down, thus solving our gun violence problem, ask him why he left Rhea Pearlman. Certainly, governments at all levels can create incentives for people to voluntarily do so, in the form of tax credits, and this is a worthwhile course to pursue. But the idea that we can eliminate guns by melting them all is silly.

By the same token, the idea that arming everyone will solve our gun violence problem is equally absurd. Beyond the anecdotal evidence that armed people panic in live fire situations, the limits of this situation can be expressed by the story of what happened earlier this summer when all nine bystanders in a shooting near the Empire State Building were wounded by the NYPD. And these are officers trained in the most dense urban area of the United States. Not random CCW license holders.

Let's express, and dismiss, the foolishness of arming everyone with a cost-benefit analysis. The NYPD estimates it's hit rate, the rate at which officers who use their firearm to hit an intended target, as 34%. Which means that, 66% of the time, they miss. But for argument sake, let's assume that everyone is as good as the NYPD, and none of the bullets that miss their intended target cause any collateral damage whatsoever.

The UK ban on handguns administered after the 1997 Dunblane shootings resulted in a 40% decline in the number of handgun related homicides over the subsequent 10 year period.

So even an equally absurd, best case scenario can't top the effects of a simple ban, where none of the existing weaponry was taken from the population at large.

Hunting Rifles, and Bridging the Urban/Rural Divide

The trick to winning support from conservatives and responsible gun owners, in my opinion, is to make clear up front that hunters are not the problem. There's a story that says that while the President and First Lady were campaigning in one of the Dakotas, Michelle remarked to the President "You know, I could understand why you'd want a gun if you lived out here."

And there is a fundamental lack of communication between Gun Control advocates, who tend to be urban, and view gun violence as urban, and the rural audience of gun owners who, due to their isolation or lifestyle, have a reasonable and respectable right to own a gun that facilitates their hunting related hobbies and self defense.

Bridging this communications gap is the key to enacting common sense gun ownership regulation. Neither a group that is commonly engaged in the purchase and stockpiling of tactical assault weapons, and neither group supports it. But seeing the perspective of both sides, and avoiding regulatory limitations on weapons that are reasonably classified as hunting weapons, is important. This is the role that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin needs to play in this debate.

Tactical Weapons/Assault Rifles

The first order of the new Congress will be to propose and pass a ban on weapons similar to the original 1994 ban. With Newtown fresh in the minds of most Americans, and broad support for such a measure, there is no reason this shouldn't be done by the time you're finished reading this sentence.


But passing a Tactical Weapons ban is the easy part. The hard work comes with handguns. Cheap and easy handgun access, legal or otherwise, plagues violence in urban areas. DC v. Heller and Chicago v. McDonald put an end to outright handgun bans in the U.S., although Heller, in particular, left open state and local municipalities rights to place restrictions on gun acquisition and ownership. This is a hard question with no easy answers, and would force the Democratic Party to expend considerably political capital it may not have to address.

Still, there are loopholes that can be closed. The federal government could actually enforce and prosecute Brady Bill violators. The Gun Show Loophole in particular needs to be addressed and closed. In a society with mobile communications and tablet PCs, there is no reason Gun Show dealers and organizers shouldn't be able to perform background checks onsite.

Finally, there's always the Chris Rock Rule. In one of his routines, Chris Rock suggested that guns should remain legal, but bullets should cost $5,000 apiece. And while he was joking, he has a point. The federal government could, in theory, do nothing on guns themselves, but ban ammunition, or make it cost prohibitive. It's a difficult parsing of the law, but a smart way to pursue addressing this issue.

My own personal opinion is this. We will never rid our country of the gun. It is engrained in our culture, the one English speaking culture that was not raised on the British tradition. The political will doesn't exist to do so, and the paranoia inherent in a significant swath of our political sub-culture will never allow it. Regardless, we still need to address the issue proactively around the edges, and the political will exists to do at least this much. Tactically speaking, the issue is a winner for the Democratic Party. So address it.