Events in the last couple of week have once again highlighted for me the tensions in the gun control debate. The United States has had yet another mass shooting—a real one, with lots of victims—and not just one event, but two. And just a few days earlier I had my own brush with illicitly-used firearms. Someone shot up my front door, either by mistake or bad aim, apparently intending to shoot at my neighbor.
I completely understand why some folks would renew their cry for additional gun control. The more shootings of this sort there are, the more strident the cries will be, and the more powerful the emotional pull will be. Everyone seems to think that we ought to do something, but I don’t think the suggestions have really improved.
Gun control advocates struggle to convincingly claim that they aren’t after all guns, even those owned and operated legally. Often their suggestions betray basic ignorance about guns themselves, or propose policies that already exist, or that wouldn’t meaningfully affect the mass shootings that have recently plagued our society. They often don’t seem to appreciate that most meaningful restrictions on guns really will require a constitutional amendment, and that without an amendment, private gun ownership is a civil right. I think it’s wishful thinking to believe that the 2nd amendment was ever intended to be so narrow as some critics suggest, and relying on the courts to restrict guns would just add to the list of cultural hot-buttons that have been removed from the democratic process.
Now, I am not opposed to seeing a constitutional amendment. I increasingly think that a carefully-constructed amendment might be just the right approach. A model that shows the strategy and the danger might be Prohibition. The federal government, seeking to end the scourge of drunkenness in society, actually got the Constitution amended to permit bans on alcohol. Prohibition mostly had its intended effect, a fact not often admitted. Of course, it also had many unintended effects, sometimes in surprising places, and which arguably outweighed its benefits. But as a one-time “surge” of enforcement to change the culture, it seems to have done the trick.
Perhaps something similar could be done for guns. Gun rights advocates also seem unserious about stopping mass shootings. They point out that the shooters have a variety of other issues, and they’re not wrong. (Most notably, these shooters are nearly always young, male, mentally unstable, and fatherless.) But the relatively easy access to guns is obviously also a factor. True, violent boys could do a lot of damage with knives or other deadly weapons. But a knife attack would be a low slower and a lot easier to stop. It is also true that most of the proposals for restricting guns focus on cosmetic features, rather than actual deadly effectiveness. Yet insofar as one of the problems is the sheer number of guns in the society, any limitations, however arbitrary, might have a good effect.
Another possible advantage of a Prohibition-style constitutional amendment would be the possibility of varying local laws. Big cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago might essentially ban guns entirely, while small towns in Wyoming, Utah, Texas, or Maine might not be so strict, thereby reflecting the different typical uses of firearms in these various places.
One reason that I still remain skeptical about gun control was highlighted for me by the events in my household over the last week. As I said at the top, someone shot my apartment door four times last Sunday morning. Two bullets went all the way through, and one of them ended up on the other side of my apartment, having gone through an interior window and hitting a flashlight on my desk. It happened around 3:45am. My wife got up right after it happened, thinking that someone was knocking on the door. She literally stood right in front of the door that had just had new holes punched in it before she realized what had happened. Thankfully, my kids mostly slept through it all, and woke up a couple of hours later to police investigators in the living room.
We found out this week that this is not the first time this person has shot at my neighbor this month. At the beginning of the month, he shot at my neighbor in the parking lot in the middle of the day. We were out of town, and didn’t find out until after he had tried again.
This is what gives me pause about the Prohibition model: without some means of powerful, legal self-defense, we’d end up entirely dependent on the police for protection from these kinds of people, and I’m not convinced they’re up to the job. I’m not anti-police. They usually serve well, taking risks instead of me, caring for people who are hard to care for, etc. I’ll even stipulate for the sake of argument that the various high-profile cases of police misconduct are extreme outliers. My worry is that they might not be up to the task of enforcement for something so profoundly society-shaping as a huge gun-control program. The current track record of enforcing the laws that already exist isn’t great. I think it is perfectly reasonable to be not “pro-gun” but rather “government-skeptical.” Nor does it seem likely that someone like the shooter here would care much about rules forbidding gun ownership. It would matter a lot how exactly the law would be enforced.
None of this is to say that I could have done anything with a gun myself. The shooter didn’t even come all the way up to the level of my front door; he just shot from the steps. I assume he was long gone before I could have responded personally. Though it seems hard to find good information about how many crimes mere private possession of a firearm has prevented, my case couldn’t get added to the list regardless, since it was all over before I was even really awake.
As far as I can tell, my local police haven’t caught the guy who shot my door, even though they seem to be pretty sure who did it. They also haven’t been willing to talk to me about it. The officers who responded last Sunday were kind and helpful—just the sort of police you’d want. But since then it’s been crickets. I’ve learned more from my neighbors than from the men and women who asked me to waive some of my Constitutional rights so that they could collect evidence in my dwelling. I have nothing against their moral standards, but I’m not yet convinced by the organization’s competence.
For now, at least, I think this is my biggest hesitation about gun control. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, but that the mechanism for doing it relies too much on an institution that all too often doesn’t seem up to the tasks it already has. But stopping the slow-motion riot of mass shooting is a compelling aim too, so I am pulled in two ways.