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Why the Latest Gun Debate Already Sounds Stale

11 days after Stephen Paddock gunned down 59 people in Las Vegas on Oct. 1,  gun control is back in the spotlight with the usual suspects lining up on either side of the fence. 

After some 72 hours of flirting with a possible ban [1] on “bump stocks,” which can increase the rate of fire of a semi-automatic weapon, the National Rifle Association (NRA) came out swinging last weekend, with the group’s Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre suggesting that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) was using a potential bump stock ban as a cover to “turn this all into some Christmas tree on the Hill where she brings all her anti- gun circus …into this.”

While it is not clear how Republicans on the Hill are responding (several had already expressed interest in banning the devices), it would seem that for now, the gun lobby is falling back into its usual ready position, girding for a fight. In this case, a new “law” is less preferred to merely regulating bump stocks. “We believe that bans have never worked on anything,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s legislative arm.

Regardless of what happens with bump stocks, the October 2 mass shooting in Las Vegas, perpetuated by a legal gun owner with no criminal record, has reignited the debate over ready access to firearms in this country.


One reality that gun control advocates must come to grips with is the fact that unlike other democracies around the world—for better or for worse—gun ownership is a Constitutionally protected right, as enshrined by the Second Amendment. So substantially reducing gun ownership or getting rid of guns (such as has been done in England and Australia) is not a simple “technical” solution. As such, they may have to deal with daunting task of actually repealing the Second Amendment [2].

Short of that, there is certainly room to debate whether the Second Amendment allows for reasonable regulation of firearms and what “reasonable regulation” means.

To begin, of all the amendments to the Constitution, the Second Amendment is the most “poorly” written [3]: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Compared to the rest of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and knowing that our Founding Fathers were otherwise eloquent speakers and writers, it’s frustrating that so much here is left to interpretation. Especially so in our modern era.

Is it about having a “well regulated Militia”? Well, we don’t really have one. Yes, the National Guard is under the purview of governors. But the reality is that it’s a federalized entity [4]. And why did our Founding Fathers want such a militia? Because they wanted the states to be able to resist a strong, centralized federal government. Maybe in the late 18th century it might have been possible for the armed citizenry of states to resist a federal government that the Founding Fathers saw as being too strong or tyrannical—especially since at the time, they didn’t believe in having a large, standing national army. But that is pure fantasy today.

If so, what if the Founding Fathers envisioned regular Americans as the “militia,” itself, hence, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”? So it would serve that the Second Amendment ensures this right, and twice now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that it does—District of Columbia v. Heller [5] in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago [6] in 2010.

The Supreme Court has ruled on several occasions that no right is absolute, however. Even free speech has its limits. In Schenck v. United States (1919), [7] Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” So, should the Second Amendment be regulated such that it would make it impossible for Paddock to buy 33 guns in the span of a single year [8], as well as all the hundreds (probably more like thousands) of rounds of ammunition?

This is where “well regulated” can come in and complicate things for the purists on either side.

Certainly, there is some truth to the NRA mantra that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Gun rights advocates have long argued that we need to keep
guns out of the hands of criminals and restrict gun ownership of law abiding
citizens. Fair enough. But what constitutes a law abiding citizen? Arguably,
Paddock was a law abiding citizen right up until the moment he decided
to pull a trigger and shoot people.

One could argue that after a tragedy like Las Vegas, where Paddock was able to amplify the number of dead and wounded by using a bump stock that the NRA might use this moment to show it truly supports reasonable curbs, especially since it’s been quite adamantly against banning other devices, including such flash suppressors, bayonet mounts, and folding stocks, as well as as high capacity magazines.

But the NRA, and in particular, gun owners across the country, are skeptical of the other side’s motives when it comes to regulation, and with reason. Much of the rhetoric following high-profile shootings like Las Vegas, or the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, are to “take guns off the streets” and to “end the gun culture,” comparing American firearm policies unfavorably to that of England and other countries in Europe, where there is no individual ownership. Even with the Second Amendment behind them, owners see this as code for eventual confiscation, spotting a slippery slope right behind the soft tones of “responsible measures.”

To be sure, gun control advocates like to say if guns are less accessible, or less lethal, people like Paddock wouldn’t be able to accumulate them and kill people. Fewer guns, fewer deaths. But we know it is more complicated than that. 

Leah Libresco [9], a statistician and former writer at Nate Silver’s data-obsessed FiveThirtyEight [10] who describes herself as anti-gun, used to think gun control was the answer but her research [11]told her otherwise [11].

According to Libresco, “the case for the policies I’d lobbied for [e.g., banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes] crumbled when I examined the evidence” and that the best ideas were “not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.” FiveThirtyEight’s research showed [12] that of the 33,000 people killed by guns each year in the United States:

“Far more people were killed in these ways than in mass-shooting incidents, but few of the popularly floated policies were tailored to serve them,” said Libresco. “By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout.”

Perhaps it comes down to this: Until we find a different way of thinking about—and talking about—guns beyond the shrill rhetoric of both the anti- and pro-gun lobbies, there will always be loopholes that the Stephen Paddocks of the world can exploit. Today, bump stocks, tomorrow something else. The purists need to stop putting up the same old roadblocks and let a new conversation begin to be able to find practical and workable solutions.

Charles V. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and former Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism [13].

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Why the Latest Gun Debate Already Sounds Stale"

#1 Comment By Pat Hines On October 11, 2017 @ 11:57 pm

There is no debate re: guns.

What there is is the noice of communists, let’s call them what they are, shouting into an echo chamber and calling that a debate.

#2 Comment By connecticut farmer On October 12, 2017 @ 8:26 am

Good article.

All rights, even those enshrined in the Bill of Rights, have limitations. And as a supporter of the Second Amendment I have long since come to grips with this fact. Even though I am an NRA life member I have become increasingly unhappy with their leadership over the years. They would go a long way in making themselves more sympathetic to the public if they advocated two procedures:

1. Registration of all firearms with the individual state governments in the manner of motor vehicles.

2. Make it mandatory that anyone who wishes to purchase a firearm must pass an NRA-approved firearms safety program.

#3 Comment By Robert Charron On October 12, 2017 @ 10:56 am

Yes this argument that letting the people possess guns enables them to resist tyranny, well the last time that some states sought to resist the Federal government, the States that resisted the government were crushed.

#4 Comment By david On October 12, 2017 @ 11:32 am

The writer like so many people both left and right get it wrong. Madison a skilled writer knew exactly what he was saying and why he was saying it in the manner he said it. The problem for modern day readers is that we need to understand what certain expressions meant at the time HE wrote the words. Start with the militia clause which is a dependent clause. In English grammar that means that it can be deleted from the sentence without adversely impacting the meaning. What is the militia. The writer is correct it’s not the National Guard. George Mason when asked said it’s everyone save a few public officials. That’s how Madison understood it and that’s how everyone else did too. He wasn’t writing just about those who belonged to the formal militia and drilled on the village green on Saturdays. Well regulated is misunderstood too. When Madison wrote that phrase he meant well trained. The most conservatives or liberals get out of this clause is a training requirement. But those who think you have to be formally part of an organized group are simple wrong.

Madison used “the people” in several other amendments and in each of them it basically a universal right. Why would he in this ONE amendment restrict it? Because he didn’t and neither did the Founders. It’s not just the states they wanted armed it was the people themselves. Madison said the one advantage we have over Europe is that our people are armed theirs are not. They did not want the government to have a monopoly on deadly force. They knew what would happen. In every act of genocide in the last century the victims were disarmed before the assault on them took place.

The idea that armed citizenry today can’t take on an oppressive government is wrong. Western governments in particular have shown that they cannot fight stage three/four wars successfully. And in any case citizens must be armed, must have the ability to defend themselves against as Jefferson said in the Declaration despots. That is what the Second Amendment is all about.

#5 Comment By R Beal On October 12, 2017 @ 11:34 am

It’s sad, but true. Extreme rhetoric on both sides, makes it almost impossible for trust. On one side, politicians call for bans and on the other side no gun control laws can be embraced.

If the children in charge could get over their own ego’s and stop feeding their extreme base with rhetoric, there are actually some easy changes that could reduce the risk of more mass shootings and more domestic violence killings.

#6 Comment By Scott H. On October 12, 2017 @ 11:44 am

I completely agree with Connecticut Farmer. Responsible gun owners, like me, need to tell the NRA over and over again that every effort to regulate gun ownership isn’t a secret attempt to disarm society. All gun sales should go through background checks and be registered, all gun owners should be required to pass a gun safety course, and military style weapons-such as AR 15s- should be tightly regulated in the same way that automatic weapons are. And I don’t say this as a “communist,” as Pat Hines says, but as a combat veteran who loves, and has bled for, this country.

#7 Comment By Terence Gore On October 12, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

They were probably having the same debate and the wording was a compromise.


#8 Comment By Rossbach On October 12, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

I am old enough to remember a time when there was no requirement to register firearms or obtain background checks, and very few restrictions on the type and number of firearms one could acquire. Yet, I can recall no mass shootings or the escalating inner-city carnage that we have today. If gun laws actually reduced gun violence, we would have had far more gun violence 50 years ago than we have today.

Clearly, something else is going on here that can’t be fixed additional laws and proclamations.

#9 Comment By Nevada Smith On October 12, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

Who are you to tell me what I may or may not have?

#10 Comment By PrairieDog On October 12, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

I’m sorry, registration of guns has only one possible use,in practice–and that’s the one use that I’m sure Connecticut Farmer and everyone else advocating registration will deny desiring. Would any kind of registration scheme have stopped Paddock? How? Would registration allow the state to keep tabs on anyone acquiring “too many” guns? How will it be decided what number constitutes “too many”?

Paddock’s misuse if those guns(some of them) is the problem, not the fact that they weren’t registered, and registration is unlikely to solve that problem.

#11 Comment By Chris Mallory On October 12, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

What part of “shall not be infringed” is so hard to understand?

The NRA is the largest pro gun control organization in the USA today.

#12 Comment By andy On October 12, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

Thanks for a well written and thought provoking article!
Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question- We’ve been asking whether banning such and such a variation on a machine is legal and acceptable, a much better question would be, “Why do people in other parts of the world generally refrain from shooting their neighbors?”

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 12, 2017 @ 8:48 pm

Bump stock bans are not going to solve random mass murders.

I found this a curious observation:

“And the last notable group of similar deaths was the 1,700 women murdered per year, usually as the result of domestic violence.”

I am not sure the list is relevant as to any of the homicides unrelated to mass murders. But this one was a standout. He did not murder his so called “girlfreind.”

#14 Comment By charles cosimano On October 12, 2017 @ 8:48 pm

There is no debate. Vote to take away our guns and we vote to take away your office.

That is all that needs be said and there is nothing to discuss.

#15 Comment By J Harlan On October 13, 2017 @ 9:26 am

The author gives away his lack of knowledge on the subject:

“….hundreds (probably more like thousands) of rounds of ammunition?”

The cheapest way to buy ammo is in bulk- normally cases of 1,000. A target shooter in certain disciplines can easily use 400 rounds per session.

#16 Comment By J Harlan On October 13, 2017 @ 9:32 am

““Why do people in other parts of the world generally refrain from shooting their neighbors?”

Of course they don’t. Do I really need to give examples- Brazil. Mexico, Honduras, South Africa, the Middle East.

The murder rate is currently lower in western European countries, Canada and Australia than the US but it was before they brought in their most restrictive gun laws and the rates have remained largely unchanged. The obvious observation one can make is that gun laws have no effect on murder rates. If they did the south side of Chicago would be a paradise.

#17 Comment By Benjamin W. On October 13, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

If gun control were popular, this wouldn’t even be an issue. But an elite minority wants to foist rules, regulations, and bans on something that is specifically protected to the people under a “shall not be infringed” standard, and they’re confused as to why people might be opposed?

The public knows that gun control is only a way to disarm them, the same way they know tax cuts only benefit others, and that tax hikes only fall on them. The wars are fought with their kids. The pollution and waste are put in their backyards. They are the cattle for the privileged few to herd and cull. The American people are the ones unrepresented in Washington.

#18 Comment By mojrim On October 13, 2017 @ 4:35 pm

J Harlan is looking at a data point and mistaking it for information. Chicago has all kinds of restrictive regulations, but the guns used in crimes come from Indiana. Federalism is sovereign laws without sovereign borders; what are you gonna do?

Bit that’s not the problem. The US has always had 4-5x the UK murder rate, even when neither country had any meaningful firearm restrictions. We have exactly the same “advantage” now, even as we have pursued diametrically opposing policies for 30 years.

Take away the guns and we’ll use knives. We’re just more murderous.

#19 Comment By Bob Hawke On October 14, 2017 @ 2:32 am

What’s so bad about Australia?

#20 Comment By Kelly On October 14, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

” . . . in the late 18th century it might have been possible for the armed citizenry of states to resist a federal government that the Founding Fathers saw as being too strong or tyrannical . . . [b]ut that is pure fantasy today.”

The events in Iraq and Afghanistan say otherwise. Those disorganized, dirt-poor savages (without a single tank, humvee, or helicopter among them) have given the world’s greatest military quiet a few headaches over the last decade or so.

People fighting for their homes and freedom, with no alternatives, can be quite vicious.

#21 Comment By Wizard On October 16, 2017 @ 11:03 am

connecticut farmer – Registration is a terrible idea. First and foremost, it does little or nothing to either prevent crime or catch criminals after the fact. Why waste time and money on something that has proven to be ineffective? The resources wasted on such registries could be put to far more productive use elsewhere.

Secondly, many gun owners would fail to comply because they suspect (with considerable evidence on their side) that such registration is merely a prelude to confiscation. When Connecticut enacted registration of “assault weapons”, compliance was estimated at about 15%. It was even lower in California. Australians, Canadians and plenty of Europeans similarly ignore registries and even outright bans. Passing a law that’s certain to be widely disobeyed does nothing to make anyone safer, and in fact only undermines respect for laws in general.

As for bump stocks, they’re silly range toys that enable rapid fire at the cost of making that fire wildly inaccurate. I’ve seen no evidence that they made the Vegas shooting any more deadly. If anything, more controllable semi-automatic fire (and a better choice of weapon) could have actually killed more people.

I’ve never owned a bump stock and probably never will, but I strongly oppose any proposal for further regulation. Since BATFE has already ruled that they comply with current laws, any regulatory change would be hard to justify on any rational basis. Any new law written to ban/restrict them would probably be sufficiently broad to affect plenty of perfectly legitimate weapons. I wouldn’t believe any promises to the contrary, given gun control advocates’ long track record of dishonesty and incrementalism.

#22 Comment By b. On October 16, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

Statistics about the actual impact – which kinds of gun deaths are the most common – is valuable, and will be similarly relevant in the contacts of discussing terrorists acts using vehicles.

That said, the 2nd Amendment is not hard to parse if one keeps in mind that it was a hack to reassure the plantation states that their right to maintain more-or-less regulated slave patrols would not be abridged. The rest of it – militias at Washington’s – man and government – beck and call – are not hard to understand in the context of a Republic that would not want professional firefighters, much less a standing, professional military.

The Supreme Court decisions that attempt to re-interpret this as some Constitutional right of individuals to bear military arms are just “poorly” written hacks.

It would have been an interesting turn of history if the occasional radical undercurrent of The Founding had actually let to some codified right to government nullification by force of arms, coherently leading us to a “right of the individual to bear nukes”. Certainly, the idea that militias could uphold some kind of persistent right to independence and secession had been put to the test, and regardless of historical outcomes (the slave patrols did end) the Supreme Court would have more cause to establish a “right to treason”.