The case for gun control

Published Dec. 24, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Let me start this Christmas Eve with a confession. I am, and always have been, a firm believer in gun control. This began long before the senseless massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School this month, at Virginia Tech in 2007 or at the Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, among other atrocities.

I have never understood why a supposedly civilized society, one that is truly concerned with the safety of its citizens, permits some of them to walk around with weapons with which they can kill children, students, teachers, co-workers and other fellow citizens (or kill themselves). If I were advising the prime minister – which, don’t worry, won’t happen in a million years – I would urge him to ask Parliament to ban the private ownership of firearms, and to implore Washington to adopt a similar ban in the United States.

In my capacity as unpaid and unwanted adviser, I would recommend that Parliament, having imposed a blanket ban, then craft a series of careful exemptions and controls for legitimate civilian gun users – for farmers, hunters, perhaps target shooters.

None of this is going to happen, alas. The Harper government appears to be in the thrall of the gun lobby and the Obama administration is terrified of the National Rifle Association and its Second Amendment followers. Barack Obama has talked a tough game since Sandy Hook, but his “initiatives” have been weak-kneed. He is simply asking Congress to reinstate an ineffectual earlier ban on the manufacture of assault weapons.

Even if he can get Congress to act, which is by no means certain, his half-measures will do nothing to address the gun culture in the Unites States – a country where, it is estimated, there are more firearms than there are people.

Let tell you a personal story. Twenty years ago, I moved from Toronto to Tampa, Florida. One of my coworkers there was a Canadian woman who was married to an American whom she had met and wed in Toronto. When I arrived in Florida, they invited me to dinner. After dinner, the husband took me aside to say: “Look, the first thing you need to do is get yourself a gun. This is not Canada. Down here, you have to protect yourself and your family.”

“What?” said I, the naïve Canadian, “You have guns?” He had seven of them, he replied, in his home, office and car, including two in the bedside tables of the master bedroom. “Any (expletive deleted) who tries to break in will be dead before he gets through the door.”

A few days later, he took me to a gun show in the Tampa armouries. I had never seen anything like it: table after table laden with everything from revolvers to submachine guns to bazookas, and creepy-looking customers in camouflage garb wandering around with automatic rifles slung on their backs.

Gun shows were – and are – a major source of illegal firearms. Knowing this back then, the state of Florida had introduced a pair of controversial measures that angered the gun community. It required purchasers of weapons to wait a day or two for a background check. And it changed the rules for itinerant gun dealers. Previously, they could sell weapons and ammunition out of the trunk of cars at gun shows; now they were required to have an address, although a hotel room would do.

Matters are not likely to deteriorate to this extent in Canada any time soon, but there are worrying signs. The government listens to an advisory committee that is dominated by gun lobbyists. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Harper was forced to intervene when the committee proposed to loosen controls on ownership of prohibited weapons.

Last week, his government, having already done away with the firearms registry, quietly scrapped regulations that would have required gun dealers to, among other things, notify the police before they hold a gun show.

I hope it’s not the start of a slippery slope.

Gun Control in the United States?

I’ve been meaning to write something in this space that draws upon some public policy theory to argue that this horrible shooting might actually spur meaningful policy change in the United States re: gun control. However, Andrew Gelman has a great post at the monkey cage which says much of what I had planned to say:

After this latest school shooting, things seem different. I have no idea if we’ll end up with meaningful bullet control (as Chris Rock would say), but the translation of grief, anger, and frustration into policy seems more likely this time, compared to previous mass shootings in recent years.

What’s special about this case? Some natural hypotheses:

– The event itself is particularly horrifying: an elementary school instead of a high school, more kids getting killed, and the killer using three guns that were just lying around the house.

– Cumulation: each new shooting is added on to what came before, eventually enough people become motivated to act.

– Political timing: no national election for 23 months, now is the time for politicians to act without fear of the gun lobby.

– Political alignment: the Republicans have had so much success getting gun voters to their side that Democrats now have nothing to lose politically by supporting gun restrictions. And, if the Democrats move to restrict guns, savvy Republicans can move toward the center on the issue, confident that their Democratic opposition won’t outflank them on the right.

– The pendulum: to put that last point another way, gun policy has swung so far to the right in recent years that the force of public opinion will tend to pull it back to the center. This latest shooting has given politicians a chance to realize this and act on it.

Beyond all these reasons, let me suggest another which arises from my preoccupation with political geography.

The shooting happened in Connecticut. When people get massacred in Colorado, Arizona, or western Virginia, that’s every bit as horrible, but I wonder if there is an implicit social contract: we recognize that people in the southern and western states have lots of guns, they demand to have lots of guns, and it will be hard to take these guns away. People in these states don’t seem to mind all the guns. So from the standpoint of a voter in the east coast, sure, a shooting in Colorado or western Virginia is terrible, but nothing can be done about it because the voters there don’t want to do anything. It’s sad, but there’s nothing that can be done.

But if there’s a school shooting in Connecticut, that’s another story. The citizens of New England have not agreed to be bathed in guns. Yes, I know the long history of gun manufacture in the northeast, Springfield rifles and Smith & Wesson and all the rest. But bringing semiautomatic weapons to school is another story. Or, perhaps more to the point, the most prominent Americans defending the use of semiautomatic weapons in schools—the people who wanted to make sure that people like Nancy Lanza had the right to own these guns—are not, by and large, anywhere near Connecticut.”

John Sides disagrees somewhat here.

I think the case can be made that the age group of the children (5-10) killed in Connecticut might be the difference maker for policy change this time around.  But this is the United States and gun control so change is unlikely.  We shall see.