Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Gun Control Debate

I am struck by the similarities between the current gun control debate and the debate over abortions. Consider:

Both issues have highly polarized extremes who are framing the debate. The anti-abortion people believe that abortion is murder. The anti-gun people believe that guns lead to murder. The pro-abortion and pro-gun people defend their position in terms of fundamental rights.

The anti-abortion and anti-gun people would like nothing less than a total ban. The pro-abortion and pro-gun people see any restrictions as the thin edge of a wedge that will eventually lead to a complete ban.

Of course, there are significant differences. No one is rushing out to have an abortion because it might be outlawed and there are tens of millions of gun owners who will never hurt a soul with their guns. Still, the intensity and polarization of the issues is similar.

The biggest difference is that the positions are reversed between the two. Liberals are pro-abortion and anti-gun while conservatives tend to be pro-gun and anti-abortion.

Let's look at the current set of proposals. I've done this before but now some concrete legislation has been introduced.

Most proposals that have been introduced concentrate on either assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. The assault weapon ban makes the least sense. These weapons are very common but are seldom used in crimes. A complete ban would be statistically insignificant (so small you couldn't see it on a chart showing gun violence). The main reason for going after these weapons is simply that they look scary. There is nothing about a pistol grip of folding stock that makes a gun more lethal.

The attack on high-capacity magazines makes a tiny bit of sense. The reasoning is that the few seconds it takes a shooter to change magazines might give his victims time to fight back or run. There is no actual evidence  to support this, just a general feeling.

It should be pointed out that these proposals would outlaw the most popular rifle and pistol. Chances are very good that the laws will simply be ignored. In fact, in New York where such a ban already passed, thousands are vowing acts of civil disobedience by keeping their magazines. Any law that will be widely ignored is a bad law and should not be passed.

One proposal that is being pushed without any legislation yet being proposed is universal background checks. This is also known as "closing the gun show loophole". What it really means is regulating all private gun transactions. Because nothing has been proposed but the idea keeps being floated as "reasonable", talk of universal background checks in worrisome.

There are many open questions about how this would be handled. Presumably, if I wanted to sell an extra gun to my brother-in-law I would have to make a phone call or fill out a web form of some kind. Would he have to provide his Social Security Number or other unique identifier to me?

What about my wife or other family members living with me? If my wife wanted a gun for self-defense for her birthday would I have to submit her for a background check? What if I bought a gun and let her use it - would she be breaking the law for possessing a gun without a background check?

Then there is inheritance. Who is going to process the background checks for this?

Will the list of transactions be kept confidential or made public? Newspapers have already published lists of people with concealed carry permits.

Assuming a state or municipality outlaws some particular type of gun, will the list of transactions be shared with them so that they can seize the weapons? Given some of the laws being considered right now, this is a very big worry for gun owners.

What about identity theft?

This is likely to be another law that is ignored. It will be very difficult to enforce. Again, a law that will be ignored or cannot be enforced is a bad law and should not be passed.

One thing that is unacknowledged in this debate is how much of our gun violence is drug and gang-related. This is why Chicago's murder rate is so much higher than other large cities. These people are already ignoring the law so new ones will not affect them.

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