The Consequences of Gun Control
Lawmakers should not support gun laws they would not see enforced.
Within hours of a shooting at Michigan State University that left three dead and five in critical condition, Michigan State Rep. Ranjeev Puri took to Twitter to address the nation. "F*** your thoughts and prayers," he said, riffing on the progressive meme that thoughts and prayers in the aftermath of a school shooting distract from needed action on gun control. "Living in a society plagued by gun violence can be prevented," he said. "Our office will continue to work tirelessly to pass common sense gun control."
Forget, if you can, how embarrassed you would be if your son said something like that. Even on his terms, there is little chance the "common sense" regulations Puri had in mind would have prevented what unfolded Monday at Michigan State.
The shooter, Anthony McRae, was a disturbed forty-something who lived with his father. He had no connection to the university, had never been committed to a hospital, or been adjudicated incompetent. His only connection to law enforcement, save a handful of traffic violations, was an arrest in 2019 after he was found with an illegal firearm. Prosecutors dropped the felony charge and McRae pleaded down to a misdemeanor, resulting in probation. Had McRae been convicted of the felony, it would have been illegal for him to possess a firearm.
The standard menu of "common sense" measures would not have stopped the shooting. "Tightening up the background check system" wouldn't have done much; McRae didn't have a felony conviction or an outstanding commitment order, as would have been required to deny him a weapon under Michigan law. "Banning assault rifles" wouldn't have done much, either; police haven't said what weapon he used, and in any case, McRae had a record of obtaining guns illegally in the past and there's no reason to suspect he couldn't have done so again.
There are two only things, really, that could have prevented Monday's tragedy: confiscating every firearm in circulation, and enforcing existing laws against illegal possession. The first option, though it is probably the one Puri prefers, is a nonstarter. The second option—enforcing existing laws—is plausible, but as Connor Freirsdorf reports, progressive prosecutors around the country have been unwilling to do so.
In 2022, the New York Times reported that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg would “avoid prosecuting people for gun possession unless they were actually involved in violent crime." (He later changed his tune in response to pressure from Mayor Eric Adams.) Los Angeles's George Gascon filed 63 percent fewer gun-related sentencing enhancements than prosecutors had averaged over the previous nine years, saying "raw emotions and fear mongering" had resulted in a "tremendous amount of inequity" in the criminal justice system. Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner deferred seven times more gun possession cases between 2017 and 2018 than had been deferred in the two years before he took office.
Each was concerned that gun-law enforcement disproportionately burdened racial minorities. Others make more race-neutral arguments. In Michigan, defense lawyer Wade Fink defended the practice of pleading a first-time firearms defendant down to a misdemeanor charge to the Detroit News.
“It is exceedingly common for someone who doesn’t have a criminal history and was carrying a concealed weapon. If everybody went to prison for that, you would have an overcrowding problem and you would be giving a lot of younger people felonies, which hurts them their whole life."
Fink is right that better enforcement of existing weapons laws would increase the number of people incarcerated and the number of young people with felony convictions. That is a non-negligible human cost. But it is inevitable feature of gun control legislation.
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Prosecutors are tasked with enforcing the laws passed by legislators. Limited resources and the demands of justice may lead him to decline prosecution or plead particular defendants down. But at the level of principle, the passage of a law signals the state's willingness to prosecute those who violate that law. The legislature should not pass a law it would not see enforced, and gun control advocates should not push for new criminal penalties if they're unwilling to live with "overcrowding" in prisons or larger numbers of young felons.
Gun control advocates have to face that every "common sense" gun proposal, from expanded background checks to extensive permitting requirements, is backed by the threat of felony conviction. They also have to face another harsh reality: The group most disproportionately represented among the offenders of American gun laws are not evangelicals, downscale whites, Trump voters, or frat boys—the enemies of state—but African Americans. Nearly 50 percent of all people arrested on weapons charges in 2021 were black. Nearly 70 percent of Michigan homicide victims were, too.
If you enact the kind of "common sense gun laws" Representative Puri has in mind, you are going to create an entire class of gun owners who, overnight, go from being law-abiding gun owners to potential felons. A lot of them might be black. That is not necessarily an argument against those laws. It is a recognition of what might follow if gun control advocates get what they're asking for.