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Gun Control: The New Moral Crusade

It used to be that the eeriest mass shooting in American history was the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, the slaughter of children just before Christmas, carols rendered as flippant taunts. But last week’s massacre in Las Vegas has proven even more unsettling, and not only because of the crime’s heinous nature. More than a week after Stephen Paddock opened fire into a crowd of concertgoers, we still have no idea why he did it, no history of mental illness or subscription to fetid ideology, just the details of a quotidian if somewhat private life. Into this void have naturally flowed conspiracy theories, setups and second shooters, made more mainstream than usual by the stubborn unavailability of answers.

On the policy front, too, there’s been little consolation. What new laws might have prevented the violence in Vegas? Paddock purchased his weapons legally; he never raised red flags through prior violence or brushes with the law. The usual panaceas—more background checks, clampdowns on “assault weapons,” denying those on the no-fly list access to guns—wouldn’t have stopped Paddock, something that’s been admitted by no less an anti-gun eminence [1] than Senator Dianne Feinstein. Even the flavor of the month, a ban on bump stocks, isn’t likely to make a difference, given that a similar effect can be achieved with a simple belt loop [2] and most firearm crimes are committed with handguns [3] rather than semi-automatic rifles.

What to do if you’re an anti-gun reformer? Two unusually clarifying pieces published in the aftermath of the Vegas carnage have wrangled with that question. David Frum is on deck, but first over to Bret Stephens, the allegedly conservative columnist for the New York Times, who last week took a break from clamoring for the usage of ordnance abroad to advocate against Americans using guns at home [4]. Stephens acknowledges most modest gun control proposals wouldn’t work—instead, he says, we should repeal the Second Amendment and its protections on gun ownership. “Expansive interpretations of the right to bear arms will be the law of the land,” he asserts, “until the ‘right’ itself ceases to be.” He finishes with a contrarian flourish, speculating that even James Madison would today welsh on gun rights.

Stephens’ column is hardly edifying. It doesn’t address how the daunting procedural hurdle of repealing a constitutional amendment would be cleared or how public support for such a move would be marshaled. It also fails to explicate what legislators are supposed to do once the Second Amendment is gone, glossing over that question with a mushy mean: “Gun ownership should never be outlawed…but it doesn’t need a blanket Constitutional protection, either.” Exacting stuff! Still, at least Stephens acknowledges this is all more complex than the left’s usual formulation: commonsense gun laws, popular with the public, congested in Congress thanks to the omnipotent NRA. As he notes, the NRA isn’t really that powerful, and those commonsense reforms wouldn’t accomplish much of anything.

The Second Amendment is a problem for gun controllers, a stout legal bulwark against the change most of them desire. But there’s a sturdier obstacle blocking their path, one identified more forthrightly by David Frum [5], the former George W. Bush speechwriter and current senior editor at The Atlantic. Frum places himself in agreement with Stephens: “I’ve come around more and more to the gun advocate point of view that there is something artificial and even dishonest about the technocratic approach to gun control.” The reason we have mass shootings, he says, is the availability and mobility of firearms, which his countrymen broadly support. And that popular support is the fly in the gun controllers’ ointment. “Until Americans change their minds about guns,” he concludes, “Americans will die by guns in numbers resembling the casualty figures in Somalia and Honduras more than Britain or Germany.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be the same An End to Evil-coauthoring Frum without some generalities launched out the Kalorama window. This time, it was a subsequent claim on Twitter [6] that the idea of the “responsible gun owner” is a “myth.” (The Southeast D.C. dweller who buys a gun after his house is burgled, irresponsible? Cylons are not this tin-eared.) Nonetheless, Frum’s earlier point is a good and frank and needed one. If modest measures won’t work, then logic dictates gun controllers must back more sweeping reforms, and those will never be enacted by our representative government unless Americans’ bedrock gun culture is somehow cracked apart. Specifically, a ban on handguns, the policy that (setting aside the absurdities of its implementation) would on paper do the most to tamp down violent crime, is opposed by three quarters of the public, according to Gallup [7]. Thirty-nine percent, meanwhile, say they keep guns in their homes. Fifty-nine percent say they’re satisfied with current gun laws, are dissatisfied but support keeping them the way they are, or want to loosen them.

Certainly conservatism, which seeks to limit concentrations of power and takes a clear-eyed view of human nature, doesn’t necessarily point towards ever-more privately owned arms, especially if that means one can stockpile arsenals of highly lethal rifles as did Stephen Paddock. Should unreliable man be able to end dozens of lives in a matter of minutes? That’s a question worth pondering. What’s beyond dispute is that shaking America out of its gun hobby would be a radical project indeed, requiring punitive new laws to be enacted, the mass confiscation of weapons, the upturning of tradition—none of which can be accomplished short of a police state without first changing tens of millions of minds. Now, at last, some prominent anti-gun figures are waking up to the magnitude of what they seek; it’s a bucket of cold water to the face, surely.

Stephens and Frum aren’t technocrats calibrating the machine of progress; they’re Wayne Wheeler and Carrie Nation, throwing open our saloon doors and smashing our tumblers. Theirs is a moral crusade against what they perceive to be a national vice. America is sick and only they are enlightened enough to make it better. Perhaps that’s a bit flippant—some of our nation’s best (and worst) work has been done by those who set out to mend grand societal ills—but we should at least stop pretending that the kids-cup prescriptions of a Senator Chris Murphy can ever accomplish his jumbo-size ends. This is a nation with one firearm for every citizen, a thriving outdoorsman culture, a history of violent lawlessness, a frontier, a Second Amendment. Jamming those spokes is going to require a far larger stick than anything that fits through the ludicrously exaggerated “gun show loophole.”

The reason many of us take the (authentically) Madisonian view—in addition to our leeriness over a total government monopoly on arms—is that we reject such a crusade as impractical. We see it as premised on a fundamentally false conception of America, one that glosses over her indelible traditions of individualism and defiance. We worry it will result in more polarization and violence rather than less. We observe, too, that the public has lately grown weary of elite designs on their values, their pronouns, their national anthem—enough to elect Donald Trump in the hopes of making it all stop. Presumably an additional betterment campaign against their guns would be met with the same aggravation and pushback. It’s your move, gentlemen, but is this really where you want to go right now?

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

67 Comments (Open | Close)

67 Comments To "Gun Control: The New Moral Crusade"

#1 Comment By MM On October 12, 2017 @ 10:41 am

Kent: “Yes!”

I’ve yet to see any politican, Democratic or otherwise, propose any federal legislation to address the auto “epidemic”, specifically removing jurisdiction over licensing and other regulations from state governments. Nobody even brings it up. And there are much bigger “epidemics” in America, judging by the CDC data on causes of death.

But at least you’re consistent. I can’t say turning over the sole authority to regulate firearm rights, vehicle licensing, mental health records, etc. to the federal government is conservative at all.

Since 32,000 people die by falling and 42,000 by poisoning every year, perhaps the federal government should be given the authority to inspect our houses and medicine cabinets for safety hazards?

#2 Comment By Kevin on the Left On October 12, 2017 @ 10:55 am

“Does America have an auto “epidemic” of preventable deaths and injuries on par with firearms, based on simple government statistics, yes or no?

Ideological answers will not be accepted.”

When did you stop beating your wife?
Ideological answers won’t be accepted.

Guns take many American lives. Car accidents take many lives. Fatty foods take many more American lives than the two combined. All three represent distinct problems with very distinct sets of solutions, and putting all of them under the same rubric of “epidemic” is basically red herring.

But as two cars: in the last three decades, there had been a combined effort by the federal government, state government, car manufacturers and consumer groups to tackle car safety. It touches every single aspect of driving, from licensing to liability to cars increasingly restricting your freedom to drive them as you see fit. So, I can’t tell you if X deaths a year is an epidemic, simply because I don’t know what is the “natural” rate of deaths for operating a piece of machinery moving at 80 miles per hour, an operation that nearly all Americans engage in at least 10 times a week. I do know that cars are safer, and mortality is fraction of what it had been 3 decades ago, before the multi-thronged assault on car-related morbidity began. In the meanwhile, we don’t really even do any research into gun violence anymore..

“If 80% of gun homicide in this country is committed with illegal handguns, how is making them more illegal going to solve this?”

But.. where do illegal guns come from?
Are they manufactured undergound? (I wish- they’d be much more expensive and less functional..)
Are they smuggled from Mexico? (no, gun traffic flows the other way around..
The sources of illegal weapons are
1. Straw purchasing.
2. Stolen weapons (quarter million guns are stolen every year from American households.) [8]

There is plenty to be done to stem both sources:
Say, sanctions on gun store owners whose guns are disproportionately used in violent crime. (Vast majority of guns used in Chicago can be traced to a handful of shops in Indiana..), and liability reform forcing gun owners to seriously secure their weapons would both be enormous steps forward- and neither violates Heller.

#3 Comment By Tom S. On October 12, 2017 @ 11:10 am

MM:

As noted above, motor vehicles are used far more frequently than firearms. If you calculated deaths/injuries per number of motor vehicle uses or trips per year, you would most likely get a miniscule death/injury rate. I suspect if one attempted a similar calculation for firearm use, the death/injury rate would be considerably higher.

#4 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 12, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

Kent,

The same as this fellow in Vegas. He wasn’t mentally capable of safely using firearms. He should not have been allowed to have them.

Pardon, but which specific document that existed before the Vegas tragedy stated that Paddock had a mental illness that prevented him from owning guns, motor vehicles, hazmats etc.?

#5 Comment By MM On October 12, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

@Tom S.

Would you mind performing those calculations for me and reporting back, please? I’m tired of being the only one bringing facts to this argument. And I’d really like to know the answers.

Thanks!

#6 Comment By MM On October 12, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

Kevin on the Left: “Putting all of them under the same rubric of ‘epidemic’ is basically red herring.”

I agree, but I’m not the one who came up with that red herring. The elected official in the Deep Blue state in which I live, and elsewhere, use that term all the time, without bothering defining it. If I came across as provocative, it’s because I never see hear anybody in the press, commentators, or politicians, ever crunch the numbers and justify that rhetoric.

If gun violence is a largely preventable “epidemic”, and it claims a little over 30,000 lives a year, I can cite 50 diseases that claim over 1,500,000 lives a year, a good chunk of which might be preventable, given enough government involvement in peoples’ lives.

But if every public safety issue is an “epidemic” which demands strict federal government regulation, then say goodbye to federalism. I doubt very much a federal takeover of vehicle licensing would attract much popular support.

And for the record, again, I’m not arguing against gun control. I’d be fine with individual states outlawing all firearms that aren’t revolvers, pistols, or shotguns. But it won’t make a dent in the overall homicide rate. Suicide rate, probably, but that’s all.

Just my two cents…

#7 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 12, 2017 @ 6:59 pm

Kevin on the Left,

But.. where do illegal guns come from?

And where do they come from in countries where you cannot buy them freely? If you think that all of those countries can sport a lower rate of gun crimes than the US, you’re wrong.

***

MM,

I’d be fine with individual states outlawing all firearms that aren’t revolvers, pistols, or shotguns. But it won’t make a dent in the overall homicide rate. Suicide rate, probably, but that’s all.

Neither homicides, nor suicides. The most effective method of shooting oneself to death is eating a buckshot. 97% mortality (the remaining 3% probably survive do to not pulling the trigger again after jamming). I guess it can only be rivaled by hemlock poisoning. But, oddly enough, I don’t hear the demands to mow all the hemlock from politicians and activists too often. To be honest, haven’t heard it a single time.

#8 Comment By Tom S. On October 12, 2017 @ 9:42 pm

MM:

Happy to oblige.
Deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2016, based on a total of over 3 billion vehicle miles traveled: 1.18. I’d do the percentage, but there are not enough zeros on my calculator.

Deaths per 100,000 are 11.59 for 2016, which is a slight increase from the year before, but still represents a massive decrease from the 1970s, when the Federal government began to regulate automobiles in a big way.

Source: [9]

#9 Comment By Mike W. On October 13, 2017 @ 1:24 am

You have a God given right to defend your own life. You have an obligation to defend those you are responsible for, i.e. your spouse, family. The most effective means for this is a firearm. In fact I believe it to be a moral imperative to have a firearm and be proficient in its use. It is as important as providing shelter and sustenance for your family. If you are the head of a household and do not do this, you are being derelict in your duties.

If you disarm the populace, you leave the physically weakest members at the mercy of the strongest. By this reason, if you do this, you are then morally culpable for denying them the right to defend themselves effectively.

How is an elderly person or woman to defend against a home invasion or assault by a man in is physical prime? Pick up a knife, a baseball bat or umbrella? Call the police?

Respectfully, as good as many are, the police are usually just historians. They usually arrive after the fact and document the crime in hopes of solving it.

Ownership of firearms has nothing to do with herbertsen’s claims. All the gun owners I know have them for the specific reasons I mentioned above. We do not own them as a “hobby” or “weird fantasy”. We own them in the hope we never will need them, but know if they are needed there is no substitute. We train with them for the same reason.

The purpose of a rifle is not to cause mass casualties. Its purpose is to accurately place rounds at a distant point.

Specifically, the AR-15 rifle is not considered a high powered rifle. It uses a .22 caliber round which has 20% less power than that used in .30-30 deer rifle. In fact it is illegal in many states to harvest deer with the round.

As to a choice of rifle that is good for self defense, the AR-15 platform excels. It has a relatively light recoil, it is durable, reliable, it is accurate to 500 yards, and can be handled properly by almost anyone of any age, physical condition or size. This cannot be said of a shotgun or handgun of suitable power for self defense, both of which have either a tremendous recoil in comparison or cannot be used as accurately.

Yes, a rifle as shown can cause mass casualties, so can a truck or car. Ask the Belgians, Germans, French, Israelis, Swedes and English. Any object is morally neutral, it is the manner in which it is used. Anyone at any given time has the means to cause mass casualties. A single truck driver in Nice, France killed 40% more people in a shorter period of time than the Las Vegas shooter. You will not stop mass murders by banning firearms or a subset of them, you will just change the means in how it is done.

There are evil people out there who will acquire the means to commit the acts they wish to do regardless of the law. So go ahead and ban the rifles, who will turn them in? The criminal, terrorist or the law abiding citizen?

This country was primarily settled by the peasantry of Europe. They left to escape persecution of various types. Why were they so successfully persecuted? Firearms ownership was strictly controlled. Do you wish to see this happen here? Then repeat history, except now there is nowhere else to go.

#10 Comment By MM On October 13, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

@Tom S.

Thanks, but I was looking for the comparison between auto and firearm deaths, and auto and firearm injuries.

Would you please crunch the numbers for a complete comparison of both?

After all, that was YOUR original point, correct?

#11 Comment By MM On October 13, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

@Alex: “I don’t hear the demands to mow all the hemlock from politicians and activists too often.”

Put more broadly, politicians and activists prefer to take the easy road, not the consistent (hard) one.

Otherwise, they’d drop this “epidemic” nonsense and logically concentrate on alleviating the things that cause the most death and injury to the most people.

It’s strange that the Left no longer endorse pragmatism in public policy, but rather takes the position of further restricting everyone’s rights in the name of public safety.

And I’m sorry, but suicide is not something the federal government should be spending scarce resources addressing. Leave that to states and localities, or families, frankly…

#12 Comment By Kent On October 13, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

Responding to the Alex that like Ike:

“Pardon, but which specific document that existed before the Vegas tragedy stated that Paddock had a mental illness that prevented him from owning guns, motor vehicles, hazmats etc.?”

I don’t know if there were any. So you’re saying that simply using past documents are an ineffective form of background checks for mental disease? Interesting. I might have to agree with you.

#13 Comment By PrairieDog On October 13, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

Tom S,

You still only “suspect” that the death/injury rate for firearm use would be higher than that for the rate for vehicle use/trips. Want to do that calculation, too? Are you going to calculate the death/injury rate per rounds fired? Or will you find some other measure which would make that statistic sound scarier?

#14 Comment By MM On October 13, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

Thanks, PrairieDog

Tom S, yello? Third time asking!

Your point may very well be validated, but I’d like to see the comparative data.

In the absence of such validation, I’ll have to stick to my original point.

4.4 million serious auto-related injuries per year is over 50x the number of serious firearm-related injuries per year.

Seems awfully disporportionate, given the focus on gun safety in the national conversation, to the exclusion of all other public safety issues.

#15 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 14, 2017 @ 7:06 am

MM,

And I’m sorry, but suicide is not something the federal government should be spending scarce resources addressing. Leave that to states and localities, or families, frankly…

Not to mention that the lion’s share of suicides nests in economic and social problems. People with incurable diseases are few. People who philosophically hate life and want to end it are even less common (one needs to be into the philosophy to perceive something philosophically, after all). Hence, until the aforementioned economic and social problems are solved or, at least, mitigated, the situation with suicides will remain the way it is. But solving them is exactly that hard road you were talking about.

***

Kent,

I don’t know if there were any. So you’re saying that simply using past documents are an ineffective form of background checks for mental disease? Interesting. I might have to agree with you.

It would not be ineffective if mental health exams were carried out properly. And under “carried out properly” I mean that people with a tendency to harm anyone but themselves without any reason should not be just banned from buying vehicles, guns, hazmats etc. – they should not be allowed out of designated medical institutions, as it happened in previous eras. But try to enact such a system again – and you gonna get all sorts of human rights defenders squealing in falsetto: “This is unfair! You’re monsters! You’re fascists! You’re Hitlers! Set poor murderous psychos free!”

#16 Comment By MM On October 16, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

Yo, Tom S, we’re still waiting for some empirical wisdom…

#17 Comment By MM On October 17, 2017 @ 2:19 am

Anything, Tom S?

I thought the Left had a monopoly on facts, logic, and reason?

This should be a slam dunk for you, come on!