Washington is capable only of imperfect legislation. And in this case, no legislation might be better than imperfect legislation
It's probably worth accepting the cold, hard fact that gun control won't work.
Liberals who think it would prevent the next Sandy Hook are likely kidding themselves, and conservatives who fear it will dramatically curtail their rights — at least in the short term — are being overwrought.
Don't get me wrong. I understand why there's a revived national debate taking place. When there is a serious problem, the natural tendency is to do something — anything! — to fix it. We like action.
The problem is that for most people, the efficacy of the action is of little importance, so long as one cares enough to take some action. Even if the action has unintended negative consequences, stasis is rarely rewarded.
We may have a legislative system designed for gridlock, but our human urge is for decisive action. The notion that we should tolerate the horrible atrocities committed in Connecticut seems unconscionable. Whether true or not, we convince ourselves that we have some control over the future. And in this case, since the person who deserves the blame is dead, we must now assign new blame.
Yes, mental health, violent movies and video games, and bullying have received deserved attention in the weeks since Sandy Hook. But the vast majority of discussion has revolved around gun control. (The fact that the shooter didn't purchase the guns — or that Connecticut has some of the most onerous gun laws in the nation — is apparently of little import.)
Guns are, forgive the pun, the obvious target.
This is not to say that gun control couldn't curb violence. Of course it could. Were we to confiscate the hundreds of millions of guns currently in homes — and impose a sort of police state — there is little doubt it would cut down on shootings. The evil and the insane would have to resort to knives and hammers.
But let's get real: America is not going to engage in all-out gun confiscation anytime soon. Not only is it hard to imagine such a bill passing the GOP-controlled House; even President Obama had to be prompted by David Gregory to even mention gun control during his Meet the Press interview on Sunday. And do you think Democratic senators in West Virginia, Arkansas, Alaska, and Louisiana are eager to cast that vote?
Don't expect any sweeping legislation. What we might do — if anything — is to impose a handful of feel-good solutions. And these likely won't have much effect.
Consider what happened the last time we attempted to ban "assault weapons." Bill Clinton's assault weapons ban actually didn't reduce gun violence — nor did its expiration elevate levels. Liberals may sincerely believe "common sense" gun control will make a difference. History suggests otherwise.
Conversely, for conservatives who worry about a slippery slope — that allowing modest gun-control measures will lead to full-bore gun bans — the fact that the last gun ban expired as scheduled indicates that while rights are typically lost incrementally, not every encroachment will lead inexorably to tyranny.
So why not pass something, anyway? It will at least make us feel better, right?
Maybe. But even if a scaled-down law passed, the imperfection of any legislation would likely lead to unintended and negative consequences.
Again, let's look at Clinton's assault weapons ban. The law allowed for a loophole that grandfathered in guns manufactured before the ban became law. And according to Paul Barrett's Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, the company outsmarted everyone by stockpiling guns with high-capacity magazine (which were legal before the ban). As such, the ban led to skyrocketing prices for the now illegal (to produce) weapons, meaning that Glock actually profited from the ban.
Glock then pulled off the ultimate maneuver — convincing police departments to trade in their current guns for newer ones. Glock sold the used police weapons (which were also grandfathered in) on the used gun market for a tremendous profit.
Adam Lanza used a semiautomatic Bushmaster in Connecticut, a gun that would have been perfectly legal had the Clinton gun ban been renewed. As gun control advocate Tom Diaz recently told Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "[The Bushmaster] actually rose to prominence after the 1994 semi-automatic assault weapons ban because they took off all the truly irrelevant bells and whistles and just produced a basic gun."
Would new legislation be so tightly crafted as to ensure that similar flaws don't arise again? No. Any new gun control would likely result in many of the same unintended consequences, such as allowing gun companies to profit off the scarcity, while simultaneously putting more guns on the streets. Passing flawed legislation might be worse than passing none at all.
Gun control might make some feel better, but it won't prevent the next horrible tragedy. The only question is whether it would a) leave people to conclude gun control simply doesn't work or b) leave them to conclude they just didn't go far enough.
The former scenario is why liberals might want to think twice. The latter is why conservatives worry that even "common sense" gun control might, in fact, be a slippery slope.
Other stories from this topic:
- Controversy: Is it wrong to publish the names and addresses of gun owners?
- The Bullpen: Congress won't act on gun control. But Obama and the states can
- Analysis: Why the NRA's press conference was actually quite smart