By Andy H.
We all know what gun control laws are supposed to do: Gun control advocates are totally sold on the idea that newer, bigger, stricter versions of the same tired old rules will “make us safer.” We also know that laws can pretend to be one thing while they actually serve another purpose. Voter ID laws, for example, claim to “prevent fraud,” but they’re really meant to prevent old, or poor, or brown-skinned people from voting. So, what is it that gun control laws are really supposed to do?
The people of the gun think they know: “What they really want to do is take away everyone’s rights. The gun-grabbers are control freaks and megalomaniacs. They want to have everyone under their thumbs. They hate America, they don’t believe in freedom, and they’re just plain evil.” That’s our go-to response, but it’s missing something.
Is that really how these people think of themselves? Of course not. I grew up in a family of liberal Democrats and didn’t take up guns until I turned forty, so I know where these people are coming from. They’re misguided, they’re ignorant of the subject, and they’re wrong, but they’re not wicked. Demonizing the opposition like this is every bit as unfair as it is when they mischaracterize us. We ought to be better than that and rise above the hate.
I remember the 1970’s, when McDonalds had swizzle sticks for coffee with tiny little spoons at the end. These things were popular with cocaine users, since they were just the right size for a little snort. So, the company changed to little paddles about the same size, because they didn’t want to appear complicit with cocaine use. That was perfectly understandable. But it was also silly. Sometimes, I try to imagine even one guy doing any less cocaine because he couldn’t use the tiny McDonald’s spoons anymore. It’s cute, but tragic that people will do anything when they feel they have to do something…even if what they do is purely symbolic and doesn’t make any difference.
A “black swan” event is a rare or unique occurrence that (a) takes everyone by surprise, (b) has a major impact upon our conception of the world, far exceeding the scale of the event itself, and (c) tends to get rationalized in hindsight as “predictable,” despite the fact that it wasn’t predicted by anyone. The term was originally coined to describe unforeseen game-changing occasions in financial markets and geopolitical dynamics, but terrorist attacks like Oklahoma City and September 11, and spree killings like Columbine and Sandy Hook are also perfect examples of “Black Swans.”
We tend to over-react to them because we feel like we could never do enough. Our instincts tell us to do something, and do it quickly…and the knee-jerk actions we take are usually pretty clumsy. They often fail to do any good and usually create piles of unintended consequences. Our first attempts have to be redesigned several times over before we even begin to accomplish what we wanted. That’s what happened with the 9-11 wars and the establishment of the TSA, and it’s also the heritage of most gun control legislation in this country.
My gun control-seeking friends and family always pushed for more gun laws because they felt like there weren’t any, or whatever laws we did have were woefully inadequate. Of course, there are hundreds of gun control laws in place all over this country, and it’s been that way for generations, but there’s never been a consistent gun policy. It’s a ragged mess of random legislation, most of which was quickly passed at the local level in response to tragic events or whenever political leverage allowed it. There was never any kind of overall plan or design. They were left with an apparent lack of regulation because half a fence will not keep cows in a pasture, even if parts of that fence are electrified barbed wire.
The same trend continues even now. Whenever there’s a push for a new law, it’s just some variation on an old theme: these firearms will be banned, but those will be permitted. Handguns are not allowed here but they’re still allowed there. Rifles can’t have this kind of stock but this other one is just fine. You can’t have fifteen rounds in the magazine, but you can have two magazines with ten rounds each.
It’s unclear how any of these rules would meaningfully enhance public safety, but the people who push them don’t seem willing or able to give up on the only strategy they have in play. The mess we’re left with isn’t just because of the resistance we’ve put up from the other side of the fence. Instead, it turns out that they don’t care what works. They only want to “take action,” every so often, regardless of whether or not it will do any good, in response to Black Swans.
As it turns out, the real purpose of gun control laws and “gun-free zones”… and drug paraphernalia laws and “drug-free zones”… isn’t public safety. It’s public indignation. These laws express condemnation, and they build moral distance between disagreeable objects and polite society, just like getting rid of the little spoons. When publicly declared ire takes the form of legal activism, any law that gets passed is seen as a moral victory, even if it doesn’t work. And, if you don’t believe in “gun rights,” there’s no apparent downside to any such laws.
Prohibition – of anything – doesn’t have a very good track record. We’ve tried prohibiting alcohol, pornography, and abortion. We’re still trying to prohibit pot and cocaine. It never works. The stuff just goes underground where it thrives and does even more damage than it otherwise would in a lawful environment.
It’s shocking how closely the logic of “gun rights” runs parallel to these other things, especially when you consider how fiercely each perspective is both championed and denigrated from opposite ends of the political spectrum. But people continue to try to ban things they hate because that’s how they publicly express that disapproval. That’s why gun control laws which haven’t been proven to reduce criminal violence remain on the books. That’s why there’s a cry out for more of the same, every time there’s a high-profile tragedy. These laws give voice to outrage, and they do a pretty good job of that. But they’re “successful” only insofar as they proclaim a moral position. And they only work as well as the Volstead Act.
More laws are not the answer, and neither is better enforcement of the laws already on the books. When the “But We Have To Do SOMETHING!” instinct kicks in, we should remind ourselves that serious efforts to get rid of things we don’t like always employ strategies other than legislation. At the very least, violence and crime reduction requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the root cause of violent behavior.
The whole problem the antis have with guns is “gun violence,” but they are inherently limited in how much violence they can prevent when they adopt a purely instrumental approach. Instead, how much would crime decrease if we were to resolve the issues of poverty and income inequality? How much would public safety improve if we decriminalized drugs and demilitarized the police? The real goal is societal change, not mere legality, because one thing laws have never done is make bad stuff impossible. And more often than we’d like to admit, our efforts at prohibition can make the situation even worse.