Ross Douthat, in his New York Times column, tackles the issue of gun control. Coming from a conservative perspective, he points out that if we frame the gun control debate in terms of a culturally rooted activity versus the negative externalities that it causes, we may end up back on the slippery slope to Prohibition:
The consumption of alcohol, like the ownership and use of firearms, carries all kinds of second-order risks, and it’s easy to run a Foer-style argument against the claim that the happiness people derive from beer and wine and liquor is worth the toll that alcoholic beverages take on life and limb and happiness: (How many of the thousands of Americans killed by drunk drivers every year does your desire for a cold Dogfish Head justify? How many lives ruined by alcoholism? How much spousal abuse? Etc.)
He also makes the valid point that because of the sheer ubiquity of guns in private hands in America today, reducing the numbers to anything close to a level that might make a dent in the gun crime rate would require the use of some very draconian tactics indeed:
47 percent of Americans report having a firearm in the home, and there may be as many as 270 million privately-owned guns in the United States. So if you actually wanted to put a real dent in accidental firearm deaths, you would need not just a ban on large magazines or stiffer background checks for gun purchasers, but an actual Prohibition-style campaign, complete with busts and raids and so forth, whose goal would be not only be a simple policy change but the rooting-out of a very well-entrenched aspect of American culture. And the experience of Prohibition itself suggests plenty of reasons to be dubious that such a campaign would ultimately be worth the cost.
This chimes very closely with my own views. Whether or not you think that stricter gun control laws are a good idea, the unescapable fact remains that there are so many guns in circulation in America today that anyone with sinister intent will likely not have a very difficult time in finding the weapon that they need to commit the offence that they wish to commit.
If a gun amnesty was held, in which people could return firearms that exceeded any future regulations concerning the type or caliber of weapon, only the law-abiding (and least likely to use their weapons for nefarious purposes) would do so, leaving the pool of “hot” weapons that are actually used most often in crime almost untouched.
And if the government were to really tighten gun restrictions and seek to enforce them on the population (not that this would happen in a million years given the power of the pro-gun lobby and American resistance to big government dictums), this would require the type of busts and raids that Douthat talks about in his column. Quite rightly, this would never be allowed to happen in America, or anywhere else.
As defeatist as it may sound at first glance, there really isn’t anything much that can be done to curb gun crime in America from the weapon supply side, aside from obvious measures (nonetheless opposed by the NRA) such as requiring background checks to be made by all vendors including at gun shows, and acknowledging the fact that no hunting, recreational or self-defence purpose can be filled with semi-automatic weapons or armour-piercing ammunition, and banning these.
Any political capital, legislative effort and community work should instead be directed at efforts that can reduce the rate at which people use the guns that are already out there – early intervention with troubled young people, more work to combat gangs and perhaps (shock horror) the legalisation and regulation of many of the drugs whose illegal trade forments so much violence.
Given that none of this is likely to happen, we can all be roundly ashamed that after more than a week since the horrific shootings in Aurora Colorado, after all the many words spoken and written by victims and commentators and policy makers, absolutely nothing is going to change.
I would dearly like to be proven wrong on this one.