The Gun Debate

Some of the weapons collected in Wednesday's Los Angeles Gun Buyback event are showcased Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 during a new
Some of the weapons collected in Wednesday's Los Angeles Gun Buyback event are showcased Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 during a news conference at the LAPD headquarters in Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office says the weapons collected Wednesday included 901 handguns, 698 rifles, 363 shotguns and 75 assault weapons. The buyback is usually held in May but was moved up in response to the Dec. 14 massacre of students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

My recent post on gun control generated more than 1,500 comments. At least 80 percent of them were from people who oppose gun control. Some were pretty scary. The rest, as a group, made five arguments that deserve a response:

First: Gun homicides in the United States have decreased dramatically over the past twenty years even without any significant gun control. This proves that the regulation of guns is unnecessary. It is true that the gun homicide rate has declined significantly over the past 20 years. But this fact alone is misleading. In fact, the gun homicide rate has merely returned to what it was in the early 1980s -- roughly four people out of 100,000 are murdered by guns in the United States every year. But from the early 1980s until the early 1990s, there was a huge increase in violent crime in the United States and gun homicide rates more than doubled. This was due largely to the crack epidemic. Since then, as our incarceration rates have climbed to the highest in the world, the gun homicide rate has returned to 1980 levels -- which is almost twenty times higher than in other "advanced" nations. The recent decrease in the gun homicide rate is certainly good news, but it still leaves us with a profound national challenge.

Second: Why pick on guns? Lots of other things, like cars, cause even more deaths than guns. Why not ban them instead? In 2011, approximately 32,000 people died from guns and 33,000 died in car accidents. We certainly should take steps to reduce auto deaths. In fact, a variety of traffic safety measures -- including government policies dealing with seat belts, air bags, car seats, anti-lock brakes, median barriers, rumble strips, laws against speeding and drunk driving, mandatory liability insurance, and standards for drivers' licenses have substantially reduced traffic deaths over the past 60 years. In 1949, there were 7 traffic deaths for every 100 million miles traveled; in 2011 there was 1 traffic death for every 100 million miles traveled. If the government could take similar measures to enhance gun safety -- measures that are fiercely and tragically opposed by the NRA -- then we might similarly reduce gun deaths in the United States, saving many thousands of American lives each year.

Third: What about the Second Amendment? There is no constitutional right to drive a car, but there is a constitutional right to own a gun! In District of Columbia v. Heller, a highly controversial five-to-four decision, the Supreme Court held in 2008 that the Second Amendment ("a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed") guarantees an individual right to bear arms. In light of that decision, it is reasonable for the NRA and its supporters to invoke the Second Amendment. But they must understand that the Court did not suggest that guns may not be regulated. To the contrary, in his opinion, Justice Scalia explained that, like other rights, "the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited." It is "not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose." Indeed, "nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions" on "carrying concealing weapons" or "on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." Moreover, Justice Scalia added, the Second Amendment protects only "the sorts of weapons" that were "in common use" in the eighteenth century. It therefore does not protect "M-16 rifes and the like." Thus, opponents of gun control should not overstate the breadth of either the Court's decision or the Second Amendment, both of which leave plenty of room for all sorts of effective and sensible regulations of guns.

Fourth: Gun control doesn't work. We have tried it in a variety of ways and in several jurisdictions and it has not reduced the gun murder rate. The plain and simple fact is that we have never had sufficient opportunity in the United States to experiment with serious gun control regulations to know how effective they might be. What we do know, however, as a Harvard University study concluded, is that "where there are more guns there is more homicide." This is true across "advanced" nations like the United States, England, Canada, Japan, Germany, Italy, Australia, etc., and across states (on average, states with the highest gun ownership rates also have the highest gun murder rates). In truth, there is no reason to believe that serious regulation of guns would be any less effective in reducing gun deaths than serious regulation of driving has been effective in reducing traffic deaths, and this is evident from the experience of a broad range of other nations.

Fifth: "I have owned guns all my life. If you attempt to use force to leave me defenesless I will defend myself against you and only one of us will walk away. I hope this sheds some light on the subject for you!" This sentiment was stated over and over again in the 1,500 comments to my earlier post, often in even more ugly terms. It sheds sad light, I suppose, on the "reasoning" of our nation's more vehement opponents of gun control. In a democracy, such threats cannot play a legitimate role in public debate. Whatever the right decision about gun control, we can never allow threats of terror to shape our judgment.