I understand why the idea of strict gun control has such a following, why it seems to many people like the obvious response to mass shootings and why the sorrowful public piety of Republican politicians after a gun massacre drives liberals into a fury.
That fury, though, needs a little more cool reasoning behind it. It’s fine to demand actions, not just prayers, in response to gun violence. But today’s liberalism often lacks a clear sense of which actions might actually address the problem – and, just as important, a clear appreciation of what those actions might cost.
Sometimes, it’s suggested that all we need are modest, “common-sense” changes to gun laws: Tighter background checks, new ways to trace firearms, bans on the deadliest weapons.
This idea was the basis for two major pieces of gun legislation that passed in the 1990s: The Brady Law requiring background checks for handguns and the assault weapons ban.
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Both measures were promoted as common-sense reforms. But both failed to have an appreciable impact on homicides – even as other policies, like hiring police officers, did.
With 300 million guns in private hands in the United States, it’s difficult to devise a nonintrusive, “common-sense” approach to regulating their exchange by individuals. Ultimately, you need more than background checks; you need fewer guns in circulation, period. Many gun control supporters acknowledge this point, which is why there is a vogue for citing the Australian experience, where a sweeping and mandatory gun buyback followed a 1996 mass shooting.
The evidence shows Australia’s reform mostly reduced suicides. But a lower suicide rate would be a real public health achievement, even if it isn’t immediately relevant to the mass shooting debate.
Does that make “getting to Australia” a compelling long-term goal for liberalism? Maybe, but liberals need to count the cost. Absent a total cultural revolution in America, a massive gun collection effort would face significant resistance. The best analogue is Prohibition, which did have major public health benefits … but which came at a steep cost in terms of police powers, black markets and trampled liberties.
Meanwhile, the French have the kind of strict gun laws that American liberals favor, and they have fewer gun deaths. But their strict gun laws are part of a larger matrix of illiberalism – a mix of Bloombergist police tactics, Trump-like disdain for religious liberty, and campus-left-style restrictions on free speech.
I don’t think American liberals necessarily want to “get to France” in this illiberal sense.
But to be persuasive, rather than just self-righteous, a case for gun control needs to explain why that isn’t where we would end up.