Thanks largely to President Obama’s actions and words this week, it’s been impossible for anyone following the news not to think at least a little more about gun-related issues – even if they’re not your highest priority. Since I’m in that category, the following thoughts on a national debate that seems to keep getting more heated and less productive are presented in a spirit of humility.
First, I wonder if the president’s passion about the issue is blurring his focus and judgment. In his remarks announcing his new gun control measures, Mr. Obama made clear that his target (no pun intended) was the number of American lives (30,000) that each year are “cut short by guns….Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.” And don’t forget mass shootings, whether by the mentally ill or by terrorists (including domestic terrorists like Colorado Spring, Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic attacker Robert Dear).
Yet all these types of incidents have almost nothing in common aside from the use of firearms. They’re not even all tragedies – acts of terrorism should be described as outrages. Small wonder it’s been difficult for the president to convince many of his critics that he’s not ultimately seeking to limit gun access even to law-abiding citizens. And small wonder that Mr. Obama has been unable to persuade the vast majority of Americans that gun violence deserves so much of his attention. It continues to rank so low as a national priority in the polls no doubt because the public views these disparate challenges at least largely as symptoms of other problems.
Second, I suspect that the critics’ suspicions are also animated by the president’s analysis of mass shootings. On the one hand, Mr. Obama has upbraided those who charge that he doesn’t believe in the Second Amendment and that his support for expanded background checks, for instance, is “the first step in some slippery slope to mass confiscation….” On the other hand, whenever he talks about genuine tragedies like the killings at Sandy Hook or Aurora, Colorado or Charleston, South Carolina, he bemoans the fact that “we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency. It doesn’t happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close.”
What he doesn’t mention, though, but what many gun owners surely know, is that there’s nothing like the Second Amendment in those other advanced countries. So it’s reasonable to suppose that when the president is holding up these countries’ public safety records as a model for America to emulate, he’s also implicitly endorsing their qualitatively different legal gun regimes.
Third, there’s a strong case that the Obama – and mainstream liberal and thus media – view on those mass shootings and how they can best be significantly reduced is fatally flawed. I’m not talking about the large number of specific proposals coming from any number of quarters for keeping guns out of the wrong hands. Any number make perfect sense. Instead, I’m talking about the deeper belief that a major increase in gun regulation would make a real difference.
Here’s the problem. When you look at the situation today internationally, Obama unquestionably is correct. There’s much less gun violence of all types in Western Europe and Japan than in the United States nowadays, including fewer mass shootings. And as Mr. Obama has noted, mental illness is evenly spread all around the world, and violence-saturated popular culture is being guzzled by young men (and others) in most high income countries. The big difference between America and the rest is, as indicated above, that their gun regimes are much more restrictive.
But if you look at American history, this faith in regulation – short of seriously compromising the Second Amendment – seems completely unjustified. For guns were much more widely available in the nation’s earlier days, and even once the population became much more urbanized and therefore more concentrated. But mass shootings were almost unknown even though the first federal gun control laws weren’t enacted until the 1930s, and even though the only state-level curbs were short-lived post-Civil War regulations passed by southern states to keep firearms away from newly freed blacks.
As I suggested above, many worthwhile measures can be taken to alleviate some of the gun-related aspects of the disparate forms of violence lamented by President Obama and all Americans of good will. But the more I think about how to advance them, the clearer it is to me that a lower-profile approach, and often a shift in focus from role of guns to the conditions so often ultimately responsible, would bring much faster and better results.