February 10, 2011

The futility of visceral reaction



When Jared Lee Loughner pulled out a semi-automatic 9MM pistol with an extended magazine and shot 19 people in a Tucson parking lot, he set into motion another wave of emotional rhetoric and prompted the filing of a spate of gun banning bills. The usual suspects came out of the woodwork, hesitating not even a respectable 24 hours before resurrecting the specter of previously rejected legislation.

The emotional responses are, of course, misplaced. To begin with, we must recognize that Loughner was clearly mentally ill. None of the proposed legislation would not have prevented Loughner, or anyone so obviously deranged from purchasing a weapon or ammunition, and particularly not those used in this crime.

Even if all guns were made illegal and banned from every citizen, there remains the black market. The drug trade well demonstrates that those desperately desirous of illegal items can easily find them, and will be willing to pay higher cost.

The question then becomes, do we wish to make guns unavailable to the law abiding while recognizing that criminals will then be the only ones, other than law enforcement, who are armed?

The first reaction to this will undoubtedly be that we have the police to protect us. I submit that this is an invalid argument. The police are under no obligation to protect the citizens. In 1999 a young Denver area mother learned this the hard way.

Immediately following the Tucson murders, the advocates for gun control, and even some pundits who by now should know better, pointed to the Clinton era assault weapons ban (AWB,) saying that it should be reinstated to prevent such events. Contrary to those assertions, Loughner very likely would not have been affected by the AWB. The law banned neither the Glock 19 used in the attack, nor the extended magazines. What would have been banned is the transfer or possession of new large-capacity magazines. That particular gun was not among those banned, and previously owned magazines were exempted. Existing weapons and magazines remained commonplace in spite of the AWB.

In an article published in Businessweek, Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron writes that Loughner could easily have utilized pre-ban magazines, or found one on the black market. Alternately he may have simply carried multiple, lower capacity magazines, or multiple weapons. Had the latter been the case, since he was interrupted as he fumbled to insert a second magazine, Loughner could actually have found more victims and done more damage. The AWB may have caused Loughner to work a bit harder to gain the weapons he needed to do his intended damage, but would hardly have stopped him.

There is another argument against knee jerk reaction to this tragedy, as is eloquently stated in the Harvard Crimson by Peyton R. Miller. Gun policy should aim to minimize aggregate crime.

How a law operates at the micro level, as in the Tucson massacre, is relevant only insofar as it helps us understand the law’s broader impact. The appropriate question to ask in deciding whether to reinstate the AWB is not whether it would prevent certain isolated incidents, but the extent to which it would reduce overall crime, and whether this reduction outweighs the cost of imposing such a ban.


Certainly government has the responsibility try to prevent incidents like the Tucson shooting, but reasonable people must realize that crime and senseless events will happen in spite of any law. The mentally ill are unpredictable, and criminals do not care about laws.

The goal of the gun control advocates is preventative, which is a wholly impossible dream. Laws should show some demonstrable public benefit, and not simply be restrictive in hope of benefit. None of the legislation proposed can cite demonstrable benefit, yet all impose onerous restriction on the citizenry.

As a final argument, I submit that gun control actually aids criminals. With knowledge that the law abiding public is disarmed, criminals will certainly be more emboldened and less concerned with confrontation by intended victims. A known defenseless victim is a sweet target. Currently criminals must at least entertain the thought that a potential victim or bystander might be armed, and that they are at some risk.

Irrespective of laws, Loughner was clearly out of control and would have found a way to commit this crime. The terribly overused cliché applies very well in this case: guns don’t kill people, people do. The evil in this episode was not the gun or the large capacity magazine; it was mental illness.

Prevention should not entail futile efforts to remove a useful tool, but to identify and help (or incarcerate) those who would commit violence in spite of law. So instead of allowing visceral reactions to guide policy, let’s figure out how we can unite as a people to make guns less accessible to the mentally ill, and let’s work also to figure out ways to identify and help the individuals suffering from mental illnesses.

It should be noted that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the apparent intended target of this attack, was a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, and an advocate for reasonable, limited gun laws. Somehow I just don’t feel that she would be in favor of so many using her name to promote gun bans.

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2 Comments:

jeg43 said...

Good job. As usual.

Rogue Medic said...

Very well put.