Right Opinion

Las Vegas and the Gun Control Debate

Bill Wagner · Oct. 18, 2017

I generally steer away from this topic, primarily because most attempts to have a reasoned discussion of it end in frustration, but here goes.

First, some stage setting. I’m what’s known in the trade as a responsible gun owner and would like to see my right to bear arms continue. While not quite in the class of Phil Graham, who famously said that he has more guns than he needs but not as many as he wants (but close), I’m an NRA member, belong to a shooting club and spend several hours at the range every month. I’m a gun safety fanatic, participate in shooting competitions and have taken a number of personal defense courses. I carry occasionally with a Connecticut permit and would like to more often, but it’s tricky since my home is only a few hundred yards from the New York border. It’s virtually impossible for a non-resident to get a New York carry permit, and I could get five to 10 years in jail for putting a toe in New York while carrying (that’s a subject for another day).

I’m also a problem-solving, results kind of guy. So when I see something as horrifying and unnerving as the Las Vegas shooting, I am moved like so many others to want to do something about it. While thankfully mass shootings are rare, Vegas also highlighted the overall topic of gun violence, which I would also like to see something more done to minimize. But what typically happens is that potential solutions, many of which are extremely complicated and require good-faith adults in the room (and even then they might come up empty), devolve into clichés that do nothing to address the issues. It’s particularly frustrating when the conversations with those on the gun control side often wind up at the same place as my chats with climate change proponents: “Well, Bill, you just don’t get it.”

But what happened in Vegas was so disturbing that I thought I’d give it another try, perhaps from a slightly different perspective. Rather than get mired in the debate about actual steps that might be taken to address the gun violence issue, I decided to do a little background checking on what motivates folks on either side of the debate. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that there is the Constitution. Even there, the Second Amendment is not absolute, so there should be room for some reasonable limitations (more on that in a second).

When the gun control folks begin proposing ways to restrict gun ownership, it always raises suspicions from the gun rights folks about their true intentions. It’s hard to have a reasoned chat when nobody trusts anybody, and it’s hard to take the proposals at face value when they would restrict the rights of responsible owners but do virtually nothing to impact gun violence. That generally leads to a belief that the real intent is to take all guns away, and it doesn’t help the atmosphere when Nancy Pelosi says she hopes the potential restrictions on bump stocks would be the start of a “slippery slope.” This time though there have been more calls to consider “repealing the Second Amendment.” I’m not sure where the proponents of that think it would lead, but at least it carries a bit more honesty about their intentions.

But repealing the Second Amendment is not the same as taking guns away. If it were gone, it wouldn’t ban guns, it would just remove a constitutional right to have them. Essentially the same thing would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Absent any other action, control of the issue would revert to the states. Again, that might be music to the ears of the gun control crowd, but nobody is seriously pushing confiscation of all guns, Australia notwithstanding. But if someone wants to organize a repeal movement, there is a mechanism in the Constitution to do that. Have at it and let the process decide.

But why would the gun control crowd want to eliminate guns in the first place? The black helicopter folks might suspect that it’s a government takeover/power plot — disarm the folks and they will be easier to control. So those (typically on the Left) who want more power concentrated in government might theoretically support gun control for that reason. But that makes no sense. First, the government might not always be in the hands of the Left. Would it really want to make it easier for the government to “take over” (whatever that might mean) when it is controlled by, say, Trump? And second, we have come a long way since the Constitution was written. Part of the Second Amendment rationale was to assure freedom by mandating that the right for the folks to be armed would not be compromised. But this was a time when the collective force of the population in terms of numbers and types of weapons could actually rival that of the government. Somehow, I don’t see that confiscating my .22 Ruger Mark IV is going to make a big difference if the government decides to unleash the military.

So, absent that rationale, what do we hear? Surveys tell us that the main reason gun control advocates want to reduce or eliminate guns is the utopian dream that fewer guns mean less gun violence. And at the extreme, if nobody but the authorities had guns, I guess gun violence might be eliminated. That also sounds good, but if you have another couple hours, I could list the reasons why this is naïveté on steroids, and the proponents know it.

Then we go to the “chip away” tactic that proposes all sorts of progressively harsher restrictions that are supposed to curtail gun violence. But when the onion is peeled away on almost all of these, there is no “there” there. Even if fully enacted they would do little to address the real gun violence problem, and none would have prevented the Vegas shooting, even though one might have mitigated it (more below). We hear about the usual suspects all the time.

Universal background checks: This sounds good, and it’s hard to argue with it, but to what end? The bad guys don’t submit to checks anyway, all retail sales have checks now and the so-called gun show loophole is a rounding error.

Banning “assault weapons”: Most of what defines these weapons is cosmetic, not functional. A very small percentage of gun violence is associated with them, and truly automatic weapons are either banned or heavily regulated already. Prior efforts in this regard have done zero to curb real gun violence. However, banning any device that might turn a semi-auto into a simulated full auto (like a bump stock) actually makes sense and is likely to get traction even with the NRA, so maybe there’s an exception to every rule.

Capping mag capacity: This also sounds good, but any competent shooter can change mags in a few seconds, so the practical impact on things like mass shootings is minimal.

No wonder then that a recent Rasmussen poll found that by a five to one margin, voters think that politicians proposing gun control measures are doing so for political reasons, not to actually solve problems. In contrast, my guess is that most individuals who are “anti-gun” associate guns with fear and danger. They are not comfortable around guns, are concerned about accidents in the home (particularly where children are involved), do not understand the sport, and do not see the need to have anything but the police protect them. Simply put, they don’t see good reasons to own guns themselves and have a hard time understanding why someone else would. It’s as much about fear of the unknown regarding a device that if misused could be deadly as it is a belief that no one else should have the right to own them.

What about the flip side? Surveys have found that while most folks who own guns do so for multiple reasons, almost two-thirds cite “personal protection” as the primary rationale. Hunting is second. Sport is number three (shooting is, after all, an Olympic event) and collecting is a distant fourth. Committing crimes and defense against government tyranny didn’t make the cut. Since my hometown has on average about one violent crime a decade, my reasons have sport on top. I don’t hunt, but it’s still comforting to know I can protect my family and home, which is isolated and probably at least five minutes away from a police response. Toss in the Constitution, and the debate doesn’t seem like a fair fight.

But if the real goal is to minimize deaths, wouldn’t it be useful to know the primary instances of gun violence? It may be surprising to know that two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides and another roughly 22% are gang-related, primarily involving males between 18 and 35 heavily concentrated in a few urban areas. Non-gang-related “mass shootings” that get a wildly disproportionate amount of publicity account for around 1%, as do accidents. Children are far more likely to die in swimming pools than by gun accidents. That leaves around 10% or so for everything else, including crimes like non-gang-related murder.

If you follow the Willie Sutton rationale that he robbed banks because that’s where the money was, addressing gun deaths would focus on suicide and gangs. The latter should be easy: Just target the handful of gang areas and vigorously enforce the law. But for some reason cities like Chicago have chosen not to. The former is far more complex and requires those adult discussions that never seem to materialize: Why do people commit suicide? How can we identify those at risk and take steps to get them help? When are we going to think differently about the stigma of depression and mental illness? What about medical privacy and litigation? Who decides when someone with mental illness tendencies should not be allowed to own a gun? When are folks cured so the restrictions can be lifted? Honestly confronting these issues may be really hard, but it would do far more to put a dent in the two-thirds of gun deaths than pursuing the tired cosmetic laundry list of ineffective gun restrictions.

In an ideal world, we would get politics out of the equation and go for results that actually curb gun deaths. Sure, eliminate devices that convert rifles to full auto, but stop wasting time and emotion on minor restrictions that are ineffective. Focus instead on the main gun death culprits with active policing of gang areas and prosecution of offenders and an open and honest discussion of how best to help those at risk of suicide. I may be in the minority, but I also believe that if you tossed in a heavy dose of gun education for those who are wary of firearms out of simple discomfort or unfamiliarity, you would go a long way to rallying public support for actions that might actually produce results instead of political talking points.

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