Warning: No poker content.
Since about 1998, I have spent an inordinate amount of time on the subject of gun control--reading about it, writing about it, discussing it, lobbying for or against legislative proposals, etc. I'm particularly interested in empirical evidence about what can actually be shown to be effective or ineffective at reducing crime, and the results often--usually, in fact--turn out to be other than what one might expect.
The subject comes up now, obviously, because of the most recent mass shooting, this time in Tucson, Arizona. As predictably as the sun rising, politicians who hate having guns in our society (well, except in the hands of government officials, of course--such people always want to disarm only ordinary citizens) have responded with a flurry of gun-control proposals, some of them new, most of them taken down off of the dusty shelf, where they have been sitting, waiting for just such an opportunity.
Here's the basic problem: It's hard to make it more illegal than it already is to shoot a member of Congress through the head, to execute a federal judge, to murder a 9-year-old girl and several others, and to wound another dozen or so people by shooting indiscriminately into a mass of people. I mean, I suppose you could add a provision that the assailant be boiled in oil or drawn and quartered instead of just executing him in the usual ways, or maybe put his severed head on a pike as a warning to would-be copycats. Other than that, there just isn't any room for raising any higher the criminal penalties for this kind of behavior.
The despicable Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik clearly implied, soon after the events of Saturday, that part of the blame lies with Arizona's liberal concealed-carry laws. "I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want, and that's almost where we are." (Quoted here. See video clips of his statements here.) In order to accept such a causal connection, you'd have to accept this premise: That if it had been against the law for Jared Lee Loughner to have been carrying a concealed pistol, the whole calamity would have been averted. Apparently this moronic sheriff thinks that Loughner would have thought along these lines: "Oh, I am SO ready to go kill that Gabrielle Giffords and whoever else might be hanging around near her! And I'd do it, too, if not for that pesky law that makes it a misdemeanor for me to carry a gun in public! Curses--foiled again!"
(It's hard not to lapse into sarcasm when the position you're responding to is so patently ridiculous on its face. It's kind of like what I remember reading about Stanley Kubrick: He originally intended to make a serious film about "mutually-assured destruction" as our national nuclear arms policy, but found it so absurd that there was no way to take on the subject seriously, so instead he ended up making "Dr. Strangelove.")
Just as idiotic is Rep. Peter King's call for a federal law that would make it illegal to knowingly carry a gun within 1000 feet of a member of Congress or other highly-placed governmental officials. Once again, it's hard to figure out how he can be so stupid as to think that such a law would have prevented anything last week. If one is willing--eager, even--to commit mass murder, one more statute making illegal a preparatory step to that ultimate act is simply not going to work as a deterrent.
I understand the reflexive reaction that we collectively ought to do something to prevent this kind of horrible tragedy. But when you start sifting through and critically analyzing proposals, nothing really seems both possible and plausible.
I mean, you could propose repealing the Second Amendment, but why bother? There has never been a time since the Bill of Rights was enacted when you could get 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states to agree to such a thing, and I can't imagine getting anywhere close to that now. It's a non-starter, dead on arrival. Tilt at that particular windmill if you want, but you'll just break off your lance.
How about a ban on handguns? Well, first, you again run headlong into that niggling little Second Amendment problem. In 2008 the Supreme Court squarely ruled that a ban on handguns is unconstitutional. You may disagree with that decision, you may hate it, but there it is, and, unless the Court chooses to reverse itself later, there's nothing that can be done about it short of a constitutional amendment overriding it--which just isn't going to happen, politically.
Even if it did, you have the problem of millions upon millions of handguns already being in circulation. You can deal with that by excluding from your ban those already lawfully owned, in which case you won't see any meaningful drop in the number of handguns in circulation for many decades, since well-maintained firearms last longer than people do. Alternatively, you could take the harder route and make it illegal to own the ones already in possession. But do you seriously think that people will just hand them over if told to? Some will, sure, but if you think you'd round up even half of them that way, you don't understand Americans very well.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy sees this as yet another opportunity to try to institute a ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. (Actually, in interviews with her that I've seen, she usually says she wants to ban "clips" that hold more than ten rounds. But a "clip" and a "magazine" are two different things. Glocks do not use clips, nor do any other semi-automatic handguns that I've ever seen. Somebody who doesn't understand the difference between a clip and a magazine is too ignorant of the subject to be proposing federal laws about it.) This is based on the fact that Loughner is reported to have used one of Glock's 33-round magazines in his model 19. Let me list the problems with this dumb idea.
1. Above is a photo (taken from here without permission) of this magazine. The pistol shown is a Glock 26, which is slightly smaller than the Glock 19, but you get the general idea. It's terribly unwieldy. I happen to own one of those magazines. It works in either of my two 9mm Glocks, but I use it only rarely because it's clumsy and heavy, and is more prone to jamming than regular magazines. (Indeed, though news reports are murky on the exact details, it seems that his magazine misfeeding a round was what stopped the shooting long enough for people to jump on Loughner.) My bedside pistol is a 9mm Glock model 34 with a 19-round magazine--much more manageable. I wonder how Loughner carried that thing, because it would be really difficult to carry concealed in any of the usual kinds of holsters. My point is that magazines like this are virtually never carried by either law-abiding citizens or by criminals. I've been paying attention to gun crime matters for more than ten years, and I can't remember another case of somebody using a pistol with this kind of magazine on it in a crime spree.
2. McCarthy's idea is that when a mass shooter has to stop to reload, that's an opportunity for him to be stopped. It's certainly true that points of reload have, in a couple of high-profile cases, been when a bystander has taken the initiative to intervene in a public shooting. But that's only because the shooters have been inexperienced. Want to see how long it takes to reload a handgun with practice? Watch this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJVoc5uJ2e4 That's Travis Tomasie, whom most of you won't have heard of, but he's one of the best competitive handgun shooters in the world. I've seen him shoot in competition; in fact, I've been the range officer (safety official) for him at least once that I can remember, and so was watching him from about two feet away. He really is that fast. Yes, his superb proficiency comes from many, many hours of practice. But reloading quickly is not a complex skill, and it doesn't take very long to get it to less than about two seconds between the last shot of one magazine and the first shot of the next. Laws that depend for their effective operation on criminals being incompetent with their chosen equipment can't be more than marginally effective under the best of circumstances.
3. The United States had a ban on the manufacture and import of magazines of more than 10 rounds between 1994 and 2004. Did crime soar after the ban ended? No. It continued to decline, despite moronic "the sky is falling" predictions by Dianne Feinstein, John Kerry, Sarah Brady, and others of their gun-hating ilk. This is really not at all surprising. The vast majority of uses of guns by both criminals and by law-abiding citizens in defensive situations involve only brandishing the gun, not actually firing it. The minority that do progress to shooting, either offensively or defensively, usually extend to no more than a few shots fired over the course of a few seconds. There is only rarely either time or need for a reload. The proposed ban is sort of like legislating a 100-mph governor on all vehicles under the theory that this will limit the speed of bank robbers' getaway cars and make them easier to catch. It's just ludicrous, and out of touch with the reality of how guns are actually used in real-world situations.
4. The ten-year ban had originally caught manufacturers off guard. Literally the day it ended, manufacturers set their factories to working around the clock to produce an enormous stock of full-capacity magazines, so that if such a ban were ever enacted again, they could ride it out for a long time without losing business to competitors who still had such magazines available for sale. (Pre-existing normal-capacity magazines could still be freely sold.) Similarly, gun enthusiasts learned their lesson and have now bought many more than they thought they would need, just in case such a ban comes around again. Smart speculators had bought large supplies of the magazines before the 1994 law went into effect, and profited handsomely as relative scarcity set in and prices went up. Whatever the effect on crime may have been when the ban went into effect (I don't know of any empirical evidence that it did any good, and doubt that there is any), there would be even less if it were ever repeated, because now the supply of full-capacity magazines is much greater than it was before. Theoretically, you could make it a crime to continue to own such items (and some gun control proponents are pushing for exactly that), but politically it is extremely difficult to criminalize possession of something that is currently legal to own, especially when there are tens of millions of the objects in question, owned by millions of people. Americans don't take kindly to being made criminals by inaction.
Finally, there are vague assertions made by any number of politicians and pundits with access to a microphone about making it harder for mentally unstable people like Loughner to buy a gun.
Well, that's fine in theory, but how are you going to actually write and enforce such a law? We do not deprive people of their constitutional rights lightly in this country--and I hope we'd all agree that that is a very, very good thing. The standard now is that one must have been adjudicated as mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. That's a high standard, to be sure, but it needs to be. What objective standard less than that would you propose? Do you want to have entered into a governmental database and permanently banned from exercise of constitutional rights everybody who has, e.g., filled a prescription for Prozac or Xanax? Everybody who a neighbor has thought might be a little loony? Everybody who has been to a psychiatrist's office? So far I have not seen any legislative proposals that would specify what lower standard would be used for this purpose, but surely you can see that anything lower than the current threshold is going to sweep up many more unthreatening, law-abiding citizens than dangerously unstable ones.
I am opposed on general principle to legislative proposals that can reliably be predicted to achieve nothing useful, that have no empirical data supporting their claims for what they will accomplish, that are enacted only because they satisfy an irrational emotional need to "do something," that will infringe on law-abiding citizens' rights with no compensatory social benefits, and/or that are unconstitutional or politically unworkable. Every gun-control proposal I have seen or heard about in the past five days has fallen afoul of one or more of these problems.
The President of the United States may be the best-guarded person on the planet, but we still have occasional nutters like Lee Harvey Oswald, Lynette Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, and John Hinckley who either succeed or come very close to succeeding in their efforts at assassination. In an open society awash in firearms, these things are going to happen from time to time. We collectively decided a long, long time ago that we're not going to have a gun-free society, nor are we going to lock people up for being crazy, short of demonstrable threat to themselves or others. Once those two decisions are locked into place, there's not a heck of a lot that can be done to prevent the intersection of mental illness and guns from causing occasional horrific events such as Saturday's.
It's terribly sad when some nutjob's craziness is manifested in such a gruesome, public way. But that doesn't mean that we should rush to enact new, ill-considered, ineffective laws in the vain hope that we can prevent such tragedies in the future.
I have one other gun-related response to this news story. I read this story in Slate about a guy named Joe Zamudio, who was legally carrying a concealed handgun near the site of the shooting. He rushed from the store to the scene when he heard the commotion. In the process, he came close to shooting the guy who had taken the gun away from Loughner:
""I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready," he explained on Fox and Friends. "I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket here. And I came around the corner like this." Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire."
He says later in the interview that he has had no professional training in firearms. I could have guessed that. First, it's terribly dangerous to take off the safety while the gun is still in your pocket. Just like the rule about not putting your finger on the trigger until the gun is on target, so it is with the safety: It is not to be disengaged until you are on target and ready to shoot.
More importantly, though, his story perfectly illustrates why it's usually a big mistake to play the hero, rushing into a situation where you don't need to be, and which you don't understand. You run the terrible risk of mistaking the good guys for the bad guys, and being mistaken by others for the bad guy.
Had Zamudio gotten professional training, he would have known these two basic facts and avoided his mistakes. Some are calling him a hero. I consider him a fool. Well-intentioned, no doubt, but foolish just the same.