“Gun control has emerged as an unusually clarifying test case for how Congress really works.” –Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas
It was not all that long ago when many American cities and neighborhoods were cesspools of fear, drugs, and death. As the 20th Century waned in this period of societal entropy, people started to act. The federal government twice reformed gun laws—President Reagan effectively banned assault rifles; President Clinton later outlawed certain specified models of semi-automatic weapons and ammunition magazines. The D.C. basketball team evolved from Bullets to Wizards (the capital of the Free World doubling as Murder Capital, U.S.A. might have been a bit awkward). There was a bipartisan focus on being tough on crime, which produced everything from the war on drugs to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.
The results of these policies have ranged from beneficial to symbolic to insidiously disastrous.
In 2013, one of the most disturbing communal ills being debated in the public sphere is the ongoing epidemic of gun violence. There are no easy answers, but a defining feature of this debate—like so many others—is the difficulty in producing consensus policy even where there is general agreement. Not only do Americans nigh unanimously favor universal background checks, but several conservative Republicans went on record with their support back in January. Nevertheless, the devil is always in the legislative details, and the newly emerging Manchin-Toomey proposal for reform faces hostility from left and right.
Aside from the NRA and Michael Bloomberg, the problem with reforming gun policy comes down, in part, to deep-seated, ongoing distrust between opposing camps. Hardcore proponents of the Second Amendment suspect a long-term push against their civil rights—including gun confiscation by expansive government—and are unwilling to yield an inch to that agenda. Meanwhile, influential gun control enthusiasts chalk up the popularity of certain “military-style” semi-automatic weapons and “high-capacity” magazines to evidence of their opponents’ hysterical paranoia.
Overall, the political rhetoric of the loudest and most agitated proliferate at the notable expense of the arguably more sensible concerns of the disengaged and uninterested majority. For these and other reasons, public opinion and the bully pulpit have long ago lost the power to compel Congress. But in considering the now reliable disconnect between what is popular—with the public or the elite—and what proves politically feasible, it may also be worth acknowledging the gap between what is popular and what is effective.
Support for specific gun control proposals varies widely, with most being at least somewhat popular. Yet the estimation of how effective the enacted measures would be diverges profoundly from what could be described as elite consensus on best practice.
Proponents of banning certain semi-automatic firearms and magazines argue that if the Newtown shooter had been required to reload more than six times in five minutes, more children might have survived his 154-bullet rampage. The truth of this claim is impossible to know, but “rapid-fire” ability is not new. In 1862—nearly a century before the first AR-15—someone could fire 120 bullets from a lever-action repeating rifle (a design much less efficient than modern semi-automatic weapons) after reloading at least 13 times in under six minutes.
In 2013, gun owners—who are more familiar with common weapons—mostly oppose assault weapon bans. Curiously enough, younger Americans are less supportive of bans on weapons and magazines than older people. In any event, there are several hundred million semi-automatic weapons in the U.S., and any of them may be used for good or ill—the deadliest school shooting in American history was perpetrated with handguns and standard 10- and 15-round magazines.
While outright opposition to universal background checks may occupy the polling fringe, a majority of Americans do not believe such protections will be an effective deterrent to violent crime. Likewise, a plurality of those charged with enforcing our laws agree that even universal mental health checks would not help reduce—let alone stop—mass shootings.
According to a comprehensive study of officials around the country, more than 80 percent reported that proposed gun control measures would not improve officer safety. More than 90 percent believed banning certain semi-automatic firearms, or “assault weapons,” would have either a negative effect or none at all on reducing violent crime. By contrast, most officers indicated the best crime deterrents are stiffer punishments, concealed carry laws, and a better armed citizenry. These findings might shed some light on the ongoing resistance from law enforcement to aggressive gun control.
But whatever the efficacy of background checks (when enforced) or bans in substantially reducing violent crime—which overwhelmingly involves neither any kind of rifle nor 10-bullet attacks—it will be worthwhile to better understand how criminals procure their weapons. Whether or not current proposals to address straw purchasing and gun trafficking will be effective remains to be seen.
The battle against violence and other ills in America is ongoing and fraught with difficulty, confusion, frustration, and, perhaps, occasional glimmers of progress. Whatever policy emerges—or not—from Washington this time around, the fight will continue.