What To Do About Guns
Enough of the despairing conversations. Here are realistic policies to ameliorate America's epidemic of gun violence.
There’s an old Onion headline that came out right after Sandy Hook. Here was the headline: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.
It’s a smart, dark joke. It also has the rare distinction of never getting old.
That Onion headline resurfaces every few weeks—lately, every few days. Tulsa. Buffalo. Uvalde. Philadelphia. Chicago. And on and on and on.
If you’re like me, you’ve had too many despairing conversations about the epidemic of gun violence in this country to count. I’m sick of those. I want to know about what can actually, practically be done.
That’s why, on our most recent episode of Honestly, I invited two people who have thought deeply about how to curb gun violence in this country.
David French is a senior editor of The Dispatch and the author of “Divided We Fall,” among other books. David is a veteran of the Iraq War; he is also a gun owner. Rajiv Sethi is a professor of economics at Barnard who has been researching gun violence and writing about innovative solutions to the problem—even in a country with a robust Second Amendment.
Some of the solutions they discussed with me are part of the gun-safety proposal that a bipartisan group of senators put forward just yesterday, including funding for red-flag laws; enhanced background checks for minors; and toughening laws against straw purchasing, which help deal with one of the key ways that criminals obtain guns (this is a particular passion of Rajiv’s).
When I asked David what he thought of the senators’ proposal, he said that, beyond the specifics, one deeply encouraging thing “lies in watching politicians be competent again.” He added: “Politics should be the art of the possible, and this is what good faith compromise looks like. We’ll see if it survives the ideologues in the House.”
I learned so much from this conversation with David and Rajiv and suspect you will, too:
If you love what we’re doing on Common Sense I suspect you’ll love what we’re doing on Honestly—even if you don’t think of yourself as a podcast person. We’re hoping to do more roundtables and debates about contentious issues, and we think conversations, more so than essays, are the right format for those.
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Meantime, below is a highly edited and condensed version of my conversation with David French and Rajiv Sethi about what we can do about guns.
On whether our problems with gun violence are uniquely American:
BW: As of 2020, the leading cause of death among children is guns. That was also the year that we had the highest rate of gun sales in American history. To what extent is that problem uniquely American?
RS: I think it's uniquely American in at least two different ways. One is statistical and one is cultural. Statistically, we have very high homicide rates relative to countries at comparable levels of prosperity. We have about four times the homicide rate of Canada and about ten times the homicide rate of the United Kingdom. Culturally, we are very different because there's a widespread belief that there's a sacred right to bear arms that's enshrined in our most cherished document through the Second Amendment. It's not just that the Second Amendment exists, it's that it's celebrated. So certain kinds of policies that other countries have adopted in the wake of mass shootings are not available to us. In those two respects, it's uniquely American.
BW: David, do you understand it the way that Rajiv does?
DF: There's one aspect that’s unique and one aspect that is not unique. One thing that's absolutely, unquestionably unique is our gun ownership rate. I think it's about 120 guns per 100 people. In other words, there is more than one gun per person in the U.S. That's quite exceptional.
Where we're not all that exceptional is in the murder rate and homicide rate. There are a host of countries, especially in Latin America, but also in parts of Europe, where there is a higher murder rate than the United States, even though they have a lot lower rate of owning guns. For example, Russia has a homicide rate higher than ours and a gun ownership rate that might be about ten percent of ours. Ukraine has a homicide rate that's higher than ours and a gun ownership rate that's less than ten percent of ours. And we can really go down the rabbit hole in South America.
RS: Certainly, El Salvador and Panama have much higher homicide rates, but they are not economically advanced in the way that we are. I do think that the comparison with Western Europe, with Australia, with New Zealand, Canada and with Japan and South Korea, these are meaningful comparisons.These are countries that have roughly similar economic systems and roughly similar levels of prosperity and to throw El Salvador, Panama, and Latin America into the mix is perfectly accurate, but I think that it muddies the picture a little bit.
On the state of the gun debate, ‘person control,’ and the Australia comparison:
DF: The gun debate is in many ways a proxy for a lot of our cultural debates: We have reached a point where the two sides almost can't understand the other’s perspective. But there's a pretty straightforward and compelling analysis for gun control which goes something like this: Guns, particularly semiautomatic weapons, are extraordinarily deadly. It is very easy to get them and purchase them in the United States. And how many times do we have to see somebody who's obviously not fit to own a weapon be able to so easily purchase one and then go in immediately commit murder with it? And why would putting additional hurdles in the way of a person who is a threat to themselves or other–like a waiting period, for example—be such an impediment to your right to self-defense? And what is it about preventing a weapon like an AR 15, that's very much like the M4 I carried in Iraq? Why can I get that so quickly when we've seen time and time again, people buy these weapons quickly and then use them quickly to commit mass murder?
There's a very straightforward logic to that that’s pretty compelling.
And the answer is often very unsatisfying. It is: We’ve tried that. It doesn't really work.
What happens when you put obstacles in the face of a purchase of a weapon is oftentimes a form of collective punishment for the law abiding—and it doesn't have any impact on the criminal. So if you’re going to regulate, your regulation should impact criminals far more than it impacts the law abiding, and most gun control measures impact the law abiding far more than they impact criminals.
So in my branch of the gun rights movement, we think of much more of person control than gun control, if that makes sense. Controlling who are the people who can purchase and possess versus controlling what are the weapons available. Now, I don't believe we should have freely available machine guns or bazookas or anti-tank weapons. But among the weapons that are commonly in use for a lawful purpose, it is much more practical to aim at the people who are not fit to possess a weapon than it is to aim at the weapons that are so common and commonly used for lawful purposes like self-defense.
BW: Rajiv, is that what your research has borne out?
RS: A lot of people who are in favor of gun control would like the kind of policy that Australia implemented after the Port Arthur shootings in 1996, which killed 35 people. That shooting led to an initiative that repurchased about 20% of existing guns, banned a large number of weapons, and implemented a 28 day waiting period. It was a very muscular policy. And the research shows that that was effective in reducing homicides and suicides in Australia quite substantially.
I think one of the reasons that the gun control debate involves so much paralysis and so much talking past each other and so much misunderstanding is partly because I think the advocates of gun control don't see why we can't just do something like that. Part of the reason is the following: I've been in the United States a very long time now, but it’s a gradual process of understanding my adopted country. One very important article that changed my perspective on these things was by Stanley Levinson in 1989 on the Second Amendment in the Yale Law Journal. It argued that the Second Amendment is actually part of a tradition in American society that is distrustful of authority, of government, of tyranny, and that it ought to be seen in that light, in conjunction with the other rights that are in the Constitution. So when you talk about policies that restrict the rights of legal gun ownership—even if it is banning assault weapons—people feel that it's an infringement of a right that they have as Americans. And they will powerfully resist it being taken away from them.
I think it's important to understand that that's a legitimate position. It may be a position that one disagrees with, but there is reasoning behind it. It's part of an American political tradition.
On the NRA:
BW: There's a popular perception in the mainstream press that if it wasn't for the NRA essentially owning enough Republicans in state houses and in Washington we would have more gun restrictions. Is that accurate?
DF: Obviously, a lobbying organization that has millions of dollars to throw around is going to have an impact. But the popular narrative suggests that the NRA has far more influence than it actually does. One piece of evidence is that the NRA is an organization in a state of crisis. It is wracked by scandal and it's got terrible leadership. It is hemorrhaging money. And yet that hasn't changed the underlying public support for the Second Amendment.
The NRA is powerful. But if it went away tomorrow, you might have the National Gun Rights League that would immediately form as the primary leadership. They're an organizational manifestation of widespread public sentiment of a very intense base.
BW: Rajiv, if it's not the fault of the NRA or other gun lobbyists, is it just the deep, widespread American belief in the right to bear arms without restrictions? And that this value is absolutely essential in determining who they’d vote for?
RS: Yes, I absolutely agree with that. The best evidence for that is actually something that David cited in a recent article of his. He talked about some of the pro-gun rhetoric that's exceedingly excessive and in fact, even offensive. You've got toddlers playing with guns, people using guns for Christmas cards, and politicians leveraging their attachment to guns because they think it would be effective. They think it'll be effective because the voters who put them in office respond favorably to it.
On practical solutions:
BW: Whether it's handguns that are killing tens of thousands of people in cities like Chicago or Philadelphia or it's these high-capacity weapons that are being used in school shootings, innocent people are dying. It seems that far too often this issue is being used as a political football and that as a result, real, meaningful reforms are not being put forward. What do you think should and can be done to stop this crisis?
RS: My focus is on the lost or stolen guns—the handguns that are used for most homicides in the United States. If we can do something about this, we will make a dent in the problem.
I'm going to put forward a very hypothetical scenario that might sound a bit bizarre, but it has a purpose. Imagine if the Constitution protected the right of individuals to own and operate motor vehicles so that there were restrictions on the ability of legislators to infringe upon that right. There are elements that are really key in terms of motor vehicle regulation. They are licensing liability and mandatory insurance. In terms of licensing, if you fail a vision test, you can’t drive. There are eligibility criteria. With liability, if you injure somebody with your vehicle, you are responsible for that injury and that harm. And you may be responsible even if it's done with somebody who has taken your vehicle. You are responsible for keeping your vehicle safe. And with mandatory insurance, you have to have insurance so that you can meet your obligations under that liability. If there was a Second Amendment for cars, which of these things wouldn’t be able to be done? It seems to me that we could do various versions of all of these things.
BW: So you're saying we don't need to repeal the Second Amendment? We can keep our right to bear arms. But we can ask gun purchasers to undergo something like the process of what people do when they get a driver's license before they are allowed to get behind the wheel of a car.
RS: Yes. And ensure yourself against the injuries that could be caused by the firearm that you may have left laying around. Your child takes it to school and shoots somebody you are liable for not having kept it safe. That is a much more powerful incentive for safe storage than any state safe storage law with criminal penalties, in my opinion.
I wouldn't shed any tears if we got rid of the Second Amendment. I know I know that many people would. I know that it's a heartfelt issue. I don't have any particular attachment to it. In fact, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. But I do accept that it's there, it's meaningful, it's popular, and it's part of American political tradition. And we need to understand that and acknowledge it, even if we don't necessarily agree with it. So leave that in place. Don't try to reduce ownership, but impose burdens on the owners that they might consider to be reasonable and acceptable—and that they consider perfectly reasonable and acceptable with regard to motor vehicle ownership. Cars are durable like guns. And cars can cause a lot of injury and death like guns. I would like people to think along these lines.
DF: The fundamental reality is if you impose anything that puts a subjectively determined governmental barrier between you and the possession of a firearm, there's going to be extreme resistance. Also, it's probably going to be deemed unconstitutional within the next thirty days because of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association case that's going to strike down the New York State's very subjective test that it's imposed on whether or not someone can bear arms outside the home.
I do think there's a great deal of support for measures that take a look at actual behavior and objectively categorize certain kinds of behavior as disqualifying. That's the felon and the violent domestic offender. That's when someone has indicated that they're a threat to themselves or others through a red flag law. The default is I have a right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, but I can lose that right by conduct. There's a lot of support for that.
BW: Rajiv, you have a number of suggestions that involve new tech, like fingerprint or facial recognition. Can you tell us about those?
RS: It's contentious. There are these so-called smart guns where you can have biometric technologies that prevent use by others other than the legal onus. If you lose your phone it's very hard for somebody else to just use it. They'd have to go through some steps. We could have that with firearms also. We have those technologies. You can have systems that involve bracelets, radio communication, and technology that you need to go through in order to activate your gun.
A message to each party:
BW: What do you want to tell Democrats that they are wrong about? And what about Republicans? What should they give up on and what should they focus on?
DF: Democrats, stop trying all or nothing. And this goes beyond gun rights. Does everything have to be big? Why not go for attainable reform? Go for reform that can get Republican votes even if it's not everything you wanted. Republicans have to stop with maximum resistance to any reforms.
RS: To Democrats, I would say that even if you disagree with the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, accept the fact that it's not entirely unreasonable and that it has a lot of support in the population and that it's consistent with various other American political traditions and history. And because of that, understand the maximalist position. As David put it, the Australian solution is out of reach for us, so you have to think about other alternatives.
To Republicans, I would say, you talk a lot about personal responsibility, but think about personal responsibility for somebody who has left their firearm unsecured. Maybe they’ve left it in a glove compartment of a car and it is stolen and trafficked and taken somewhere else and results in death. There's a responsibility.
On repealing the Second Amendment:
BW: How much of this debate just comes down to the fact that whether we like it or not, America has this right enshrined in our Constitution. And that we're going to see significantly more guns in our country unless we decide to change the Constitution?
RS: The Constitution constrains our legislators quite considerably. I don't agree with the view that one can simply ignore the Second Amendment because of the militia clause. And I think that the honest position for somebody who would like a maximalist policy is to make the case for repeal, not the case that the Second Amendment can be ignored.
DF: The bottom line is we’re going to have a country where people own a lot of guns. I’m someone who supports the Second Amendment. I think it is enshrining a right of self-defense. An amendment that would say you, law-abiding citizens, no longer have a right of self-defense that's meaningful, in a nation awash with weapons, would be a great injustice. So I'm against repealing the Second Amendment. I believe in a robust interpretation of the Second Amendment. But here's the good news. We don't have to crack down on the Second Amendment to do something really meaningful about gun deaths in this country.