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Ten Lies Distort The Gun Control Debate
In a ritual as central to American life as football on Thanksgiving, each new mass shooting spawns a wave of unfocused political energy that quickly dissipates into “thoughts and prayers.” No matter how many people die, no matter the cruelty of the methods or the youth and innocence of the victims, we cannot translate our outrage into sensible gun control measures.
Key to this failure has been a dense fog of misinformation, shrouding debate and thwarting any potential response. Cutting through the gun lobby’s campaign of confusion will be key to building public consensus around reform. Unless we pierce this fog and develop a focused political agenda, Las Vegas will recede from consciousness, one more mass slaughter on our way to the next one.
Here’s a review of the top ten lies obscuring the gun debate.
Lie #1: There is no connection between mass gun ownership and gun deaths.
Obvious answers are never enough for us, so America has been running a deadly experiment on this question for decades. The results are exactly as you would expect. Mass gun ownership leads to higher rates of gun death. Careful regulation can limit that death toll, but not eliminate it.
Though gun ownership among the Swiss is relatively common, regulations are tight by American standards. All guns are tracked. Many of the guns in private hands are issued by the government. Sale and possession of ammunition is tightly controlled. With a few exceptions for less-lethal weapons, every private gun sale is recorded.
Thanks to careful regulation and lower rates of gun ownership, the Swiss suffer lower rates of gun related deaths and injuries than the US. Despite these constraints, Switzerland experiences much higher rates of gun death than their less-armed neighbors. In other words, regulation can help, but the connection between gun ownership and gun deaths is unavoidably linear.
Lie #2: We don’t need stronger gun regulation because gun violence is declining.
This lie is fun because of the way it depends on careful framing. Gun violence, defined as crimes committed with guns, has been declining for decades. That makes sense, since crime in general has been declining for decades. However, despite a lower crime rate, guns are now competing with automobile accidents for one of the leading causes of premature death in the US. When accidents and suicides are included in the statistics, gun deaths have been consistently rising while most other causes of death declined. And when gun deaths and injuries are compared to rates in other countries, it is hard to build a chart big enough to properly picture America’s towering rates of slaughter.
Lie #3: We didn’t have this problem “in my day” because people loved Jesus and didn’t play violent video games.
According to Franklin Graham, gun violence happens because Americans “turned our backs on God.” His “kids these days” explanation of gun carnage is a favorite of drunk uncles in MAGA caps all over the country. Though these claims frequently sour Thanksgiving dinners, they lack empirical support.
Mass murder has always been a feature of American life, from the slaughter of Native Americans, to the lynchings of black citizens. We just haven’t always had such broad, unregulated, cheap access to such incredibly lethal toys. There’s nothing new about “lone wolf” killings, either, though our modern flood of unregulated high-powered weapons has made them more common and deadly. School shootings are as old as school. Young Matthew Ward murdered his teacher in front of the class in Louisville in 1853. He was acquitted.
Until fairly recently, our most lethal single instance of “lone wolf” mass murder was a school bombing carried out in 1927 in rural Michigan, killing 44 people. The most lethal era to be a police officer in the US was the first third of the 20th century. Thousands of black Americans were killed in mass-violence in the same era, like the white riot that destroyed Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” in 1921.
In general, we are living through an era of declining crime and mayhem. Gun deaths stand out now against a backdrop of relative public calm.
Lie #4: The Second Amendment blocks gun regulation.
Americans happily place curbs on our rights to religious freedom, blocking people from committing acts of violence, fraud or abuse in the name of faith. Free speech is limited by laws banning libel or incitement. Americans have a constitutionally protected right to obtain an abortion, yet many of the same people advocating Second Amendment absolutism suddenly lose interest in the constitution when the subject turns to reproductive rights. As a general rule, people tend to cite constitutional protections when they don’t want to debate the merits of an issue. Gun advocates are passionate about civil liberties until those liberties become inconvenient.
Lie #5: The solution to gun violence is more gun ownership.
This lie would be too bizarre to earn column space, but politicians are actually using it build policy, putting guns in places like schools, churches and bars. There is no empirical basis for the claim, but it is sometimes accompanied by one misleading data point.
In a twist on Lie #2, gun advocates sometimes point out that a massive rise in gun sales in recent decades has coincided with a long decline in crime rates. Reductions in crime have also coincided with a long trend of rising ocean temperatures, and an increase in the number of black quarterbacks in the NFL. Without some explanation of cause, this factoid is useless.
Further complicating this argument is an inconvenient fact – crime rates have been falling in recent decades all over the civilized world. How has the surge in US gun sales somehow triggered simultaneous declines in criminal activity in Britain, Germany, France and so on? It hasn’t, because there is no connection between US gun sales and declining crime rates.
There’s another interesting dimension to this lie. Gun sales have surged in recent years in the US, but gun ownership is declining. Fewer American households own a gun than at any point in the past half a century. Only three percent of gun owners possess about half of all the weapons in circulation in the US. Today in the US, the average gun owner possesses eight weapons. America has far more guns in private circulation than at any time in its history, but three quarters of Americans do not own one. Mass gun ownership has no relationship to declining crime rates.
Lie #6: Chicago has tight gun restrictions and mass gun violence. Ergo, gun laws don’t work.
Chicago’s seemingly intractable problem with gun violence is one of America’s fondest fascinations. It’s also a myth. Chicago has more gun murders than other large cities like New York and Los Angeles, thanks mostly to its long, unsecured border with North Alabamastan (sometimes called Indiana). However, Chicago’s murder rate still lags far behind the nation’s leaders, many of which are in red states with loose gun restrictions.
America’s capital of gun violence is in deep-red Louisiana. New Orleans suffers from four times the rate of gun murders as Chicago. Such terrifying urban hellscapes as Kansas City, Memphis and Atlanta all rack up much higher rates of gun violence than Chicago. Expand the inquiry beyond crime, to include accidental gun deaths and suicide, and Chicago simply recedes from the frame. The obvious conclusion also happens to be an empirical fact: states with high levels of gun ownership have higher levels of gun death.
With its supposedly restrictive gun regulations, why should Chicago even show up on the list? Only through a determination to avoid the obvious can one struggle with this question.
A Chicagoan can walk across a street into Indiana and purchase firearms from an unlicensed seller with no tracking of that transaction. That person can then walk back across the street into Chicago and commit a crime. This is a common practice. Most of the guns used in a crime in Chicago are originally purchased in Indiana or Mississippi. And of course, Indiana’s rate of gun deaths is roughly a third higher than in Illinois.
In a strictly technical sense, most of those untracked transactions are illegal. However, our gun laws have been crafted to make enforcement virtually impossible, a fine introduction to the next lie.
Lie #7: We should enforce existing gun laws before imposing new ones.
Calls for more determined enforcement of existing gun laws are the most darkly cynical lie in the debate over guns. Our gun laws are carefully crafted to be unenforceable.
One law stands out as the most critical obstacle to enforcement of gun restrictions. A minor provision of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act bans states or federal agencies from building gun registries. Six states already possessed some form of registry, thus were exempted, but further efforts to break the enforcement of gun regulations made it difficult for them to leverage that information in any useful way.
Congress has protected gun companies from lawsuits. Threats from the NRA have blocked the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun deaths. State and federal laws block law enforcement officials from effectively tracking weapons used in crimes.
Chicago’s frustrating efforts to crack down on gun traffickers illustrates the problems with existing gun laws. Absence of tracking makes enforcement impractical if not impossible. This blind spot fosters a rich climate for illegal gun traffickers in Indiana. Even when federal officials catch someone funneling weapons illegally into Chicago, obtaining convictions is difficult. Police invest little in enforcement efforts because prosecutors regularly decline cases. Prosecutors decline these cases because convictions are so rare. Without federal help, local law enforcement in Chicago has almost no means to stop the flow of guns. Without smart laws, even federal assistance has limited value. Calls to focus on enforcement of existing laws, rather than reforms, are a cynical ploy.
Lie #8: We need guns to protect ourselves from the government.
Claims of a Second Amendment right to overthrow the government may be false, but they get us very close to understanding the honest motives behind the gun lobby.
Until 2008, no federal court had ever recognized an individual constitutional right to own a firearm. If anyone imagined that the Constitution protected a right to use violence to overthrow the government, that idea was put to rest in 1794, when George Washington marched an army across Pennsylvania to squash citizens’ “Second Amendment remedies.”
If the Second Amendment was about resisting the government, why have we only enjoyed a personal right to firearms for less than ten years? And why don’t we have the right to obtain other critical supplies for our jihad, like mortars, land mines and fighter planes?
A dark truth lurks in the “Second Amendment remedies” lie. What fuels the most passionate wing of the gun lobby is the American tradition of mob violence. A population armed with infantry weapons is no match against the organization and equipment of a modern nation-state, but with the inaction or complicity of local law enforcement a well-armed population can run riot over unprotected minorities.
What happens when citizens take up arms against the government? Study the history of the Black Panthers. Despite being reasonably well-armed and organized, they were systematically hunted down and killed until the movement died out. Absent some zone of safety, protected by complicit law enforcement or benefiting from a smaller “sub-state,” private use of weapons is ineffective. Reconstruction featured many similar examples. Racist militias failed to capture New Orleans in the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 despite being reinforced by Confederate veterans and strengthened with weapons captured from US forces. However, these same militias found success in the rural countryside, where they enjoyed the complicity of local law enforcement.
Private weapons are ineffective in resisting the government, but highly effective as an unrecognized extension of government. Well-armed white paramilitaries were the lynchpin of Jim Crow, waging a campaign of terrorism in black communities. Their private activities allowed local governments to impose crippling limits on black citizens while escaping accountability. Many black Americans were armed as well, but their weapons did them little good. Racist militias could operate with the tacit backing of local law enforcement, while any use of force by black residents in self-defense was be ruthlessly punished.
Behind the “Second Amendment Remedies” lie lurks a dark reality: private arsenals have always been the bloody left hand of white supremacy. When gun enthusiasts shrug off the mass slaughter of innocent civilians to preserve “freedom,” they aren’t talking about your freedom or mine.
Lie #9: No legislation can curb gun deaths in the US.
Americans now have more guns in circulation than citizens. No credible regulatory scheme, no matter how smart or ambitious, is likely to bring the rate of gun deaths in America in line with global standards anytime soon. Whatever we achieve politically in the near term can only be a down-payment on a better world for our children.
There are a few smart measures that could begin to slow the carnage and place us on a path to a safer future. If we start soon and persist over time, future generations can enjoy lives relatively free from mass gun violence while preserving their historic right to own weapons. Perhaps our most promising model would borrow lessons from the regulation of our other most dangerous product – automobiles.
No one is permitted to drive on our roads without obtaining a license. Every automobile is registered. Every transaction is taxed. All vehicle owners are required to maintain insurance to cover potential harm. Despite tight regulation, car ownership is ubiquitous. Cars remain a major cause of injury and death, but insurance has played a critical role over the years in driving safety improvements. More than any other force, insurance companies’ advocacy and political pressure has driven the industry to improve safety and curb highway deaths.
Our habit of imposing complicated and confusing restrictions on weapons by type and shape is largely theater, designed to create a sensation of progress while avoiding the fundamental problem. Instead, we should adopt a simpler, more powerful solution. Register every gun and every gun sale. Require gun owners to obtain a license. Make liability insurance a requirement for every gun owner, tracked to every gun. Require proof of insurance for every sale. Track sales of ammunition, just like we track the sale of Sudafed. Make these gun and ammunition registries available to law enforcement. It is a simple, constitutional approach that preserves the right of responsible adults to own as many weapons as they want, so long as they can demonstrate responsible, safe ownership.
Registration and insurance would not stop every crime, just like they fail to stop every automobile death. They would, however, begin to bring down gun deaths almost immediately. Faced with registration and insurance costs, declines in casual gun ownership would accelerate. It would become very expensive to maintain a gun-nut arsenal of dozens of weapons. Insurance costs would power the spread of trigger locks, gun safes and other safety protections. Registries would empower police to enforce gun laws. Liability suits and criminal actions against irresponsible gun owners would severely constrain criminals’ access to weapons. Instead of waiting for the ATF to crack down on illegal sellers, lawyers representing murder victims would quickly bankrupt today’s crop of amateur gun smugglers. Liability risks on sellers and insurers would make it more difficult for the obviously mentally ill to build an arsenal.
Personal freedom, constrained by personal responsibility, with limits imposed by markets rather than government. It’s an approach to gun control that any Republican should love, right?
Lie #10: Americans oppose tighter gun regulation.
When presented with concrete proposals to regulate guns, majorities of Americans almost always favor them. That support is so universal that it spreads across partisan lines. In fact, a ballot proposal on gun control passed in Nevada of all places. More than 90% of gun owners support universal background checks. A majority of Republicans support a national gun registry.
These ten lies have confused the public and diffused the political momentum of gun control advocates. A clearer understanding and concentrated focus will be key to achieving any legislative progress. We should approach this problem like our lives depend on it.
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