I have access to exactly one deadly weapon. I use it almost daily. Sometimes because I have to and other times just for fun. I have had some accidents while using it. On neither occasion was anyone substantially injured, but they easily could have been.
I’m talking of course about the car I drive. According to rough estimates by Wikipedia, 32,367 people died in motor vehicle related accidents in 2011. Gun related deaths came in at slightly less, totally 31,940. No one is talking about banning cars though.* Why?
Because car related deaths are part of the plan. They are hardly ever malicious or the result of dark premeditations. We expect them, and have become quite comfortable with the tradeoff involved in being able to drive to work when it’s cold, or scramble down to the store for a last minute carton of ice cream.
The Newtown massacre was not according to plan. Not least of all because of where it happened. Children just aren’t shot in Newtown, Connecticut, or in most other suburban and rural communities. When children die in North Philly it’s a sad reminder of the ongoing epidemic of inner-city violence. When they’re shot elsewhere it’s a national tragedy. The point isn’t that what happened in Newtown isn’t terrifying and tragic. It was and remains so. The point is that we are surrounded by terrifying and tragic events, and need to remain vigilant about being shocked into unreasonable or contradictory positions concerning how to limit them.
Sam Harris has written one of the most thoughtful and well argued cases for smart and limited gun control that I’ve read. His analysis has two major prongs. The first is that guns make us safer. The second is that they can also be extremely dangerous and need to be controlled in specific ways. I’ve always agreed with the second part, but now I also agree with the first. I want the police to have access to guns, but I also want them to be forced to undergo extensive training and to be held to a higher standard of justification when it comes to discharging them**.
The liberal hostility to guns, when unexamined, leads to all kinds of silly proposals. Banning only “assault” weapons being the clearest example. Aren’t all guns fundamentally for assault? And as Harris points out, the kinds of guns responsible for most gun deaths aren’t even the ones most liberals are talking about banning. In most cases policies are being recommended which have little causal connection to the phenomenon we’re trying to prevent.
As other smart people have suggested, the single most effective way of addressing gun violence would actually be to end the War on Drugs. But what about addressing random gun massacres? The solution is hardly self-evident, and the complexity of the problem so immense that I’m not sure there is “a” solution, or even a series of solutions, which could meaningfully and reasonably address it.
Banning guns outright would be a sort of prohibition. And when a prohibition against something millions of people love is put in place, well we know how that goes. As many have noted, the sheer number of guns currently in circulation would make such a policy both costly and extremely ineffective***.
However, making the process for obtaining a gun license much more rigorous and costly would certainly discourage gun ownership, while at the same time encouraging those who would own guns to be better trained in their use and safety, and to do so legally. Subsequently it would be that much more important to make guns easier to track. Many cars have black boxes in them. Guns should as well.
Which is to say that if we treat guns as a piece of technology which is at once both deadly, but also a necessary part of society, we can start to tailor policies to reality rather than unrealistic fantasies or nightmare scenarios.
Children die in car accidents. But in so far as we agree that some amount of cars can perform an important societal function, the answer is not to ban them. And in so far as guns are an important tool when it comes to deterring criminal acts, and detaining someone once they’ve committed a criminal act, we likewise have to decide upon policies for their smart and responsible use, rather than simply trying to limit the overall number of them.
*I’m using what I suspect would be the common reaction here: that banning cars is silly and stupid. While that might be, I am certainly in favor of greatly limiting the number of them on the road, as well as decreasing their size. In so far as public transportation, when implemented correctly, is both safer and more environmentally sustainable than a culture of individual car ownership, I am in favor of limiting the latter.
**I recognize that just because I want the police to have guns, doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant segments of the population who are, in some ways, more at risk of gun violence because of 1.) the relative ease with which a police officer, by virtue of being a police officer,can shoot someone else, especially if they’re Black or Hispanic, and 2.) the increasing militarization of municipal police forces. As such, while I think it’s necessary in general for law enforcement to have access to guns, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m alright with the status quo. To go back to the car analogy: my father drives a school bus and probably has to go through more annual training and physical check-ups to do his job than a police officer needs to operate a gun.
***I have more or less bracketed the Second Amendment in this post because, in so far as we are recommending courses of action and future policies, whether or not a certain proscription runs contrary to the Constitution is beside the point. If a complete ban on guns really were the right course of action, then the fact that the Second Amendment forbids it would be cause only for also supporting the repeal of the Second Amendment in addition to the policy which would require doing so. For the record: I think the Second Amendment should be amended, though I am undecided on the issue of outright repeal.