POLITICS

The Big Problem With The New York Times' Gun Editorial

It ignores most gun violence.
In April 2007, a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. He used handguns. 
In April 2007, a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. He used handguns. 

On Saturday, The New York Times printed a front-page editorial -- its first since 1920 -- calling for greater restrictions on gun ownership in the United States. You can read the piece here, but be warned: It's deeply flawed.

The Times doesn't use the term, but the policy it's advocating is what's generally called an assault weapons ban. Assault weapons bans are hard to write and implement, and easy to undermine and circumvent. Even a perfect assault weapons ban wouldn't do anything about most gun violence, because most gun violence involves handguns that aren't forbidden under such laws.

The Times' editorial board claims, without evidence or argument, that "it is possible to define" "in a clear and effective way" "certain kinds of weapons ... and certain kinds of ammunition, [that] must be outlawed for civilian ownership." But previous laws targeting "certain kinds of weapons" in the U.S. have generally failed to achieve their goals. The federal assault weapons ban passed in the 1990s was riddled with loopholes, and a Justice Department-funded study found little evidence it saved lives. And, as my colleague Daniel Marans reported Friday, the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino on Wednesday used legally purchased rifles that escaped California's assault weapons ban because of a loophole.

Regular readers of The New York Times already know about the problems with assault weapons bans: Last year, the paper co-published a story by ProPublica's Lois Beckett on the subject. The Times headlined it "The Assault Weapons Myth." And as Beckett reported in another story, even gun control groups such as the Brady Campaign for Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety have de-emphasized assault-weapons bans, opting to focus their attention on measures that are more likely to be effective at preventing gun violence. 

There's a good reason for gun-control groups' caution: As Beckett noted in her piece, most gun violence in America involves handguns. But the Times editorial does nothing to deal with that hard truth. The word handgun does not appear in the piece. To the Times' credit, it mentions that its plan would require some gun owners to give up their weapons. But it doesn't explain how the government would go about getting people to surrender them. There are 300 million guns in American homes. Confiscating even a small percentage of these -- the Times' "certain weapons" -- would be an enormous, dangerous, and politically fraught undertaking. Banning civilians from owning "certain kinds of ammunition," as the Times also suggests, would be even harder.

Perhaps most glaringly, though, this editorial fails to mention that electoral politics -- specifically Republicans' dominance of the U.S. Congress and the fact that some Democrats seem to be more afraid of the NRA than they are of gun control groups -- is the biggest reason why President Barack Obama wasn't able to pass even modest gun control measures in the wake of the Newtown massacre. Congressional Democrats tried pushing new gun control measures again on Thursday, by the way. Republicans blocked them all. But "if you want gun control, vote for liberal Democrats for Congress" would be a short editorial.

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