Gun Control Couldn't Have Stopped It

The Tucson massacre should not lead to new restrictions on firearms.


A very public shooting spree, with victims including a congresswoman, a judge, and a little girl, committed by a known lunatic, using equipment that had until recently been banned: Jared Loughner's crime seems an unparalleled opportunity for gun control advocates to gin up support for new legislation to restrict the weapons legally available to Americans and to restrict which Americans will have access to those weapons.

Loughner reportedly used a Glock 19 pistol with 33-round magazines. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) therefore wants to restore a provision of the Clinton-era "assault weapon" ban that prohibited the manufacture or sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. McCarthy's proposal would toughen the expired law's requirements by prohibiting the importation or transfer of ownership of existing high-capacity magazines as well. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) intends to sponsor similar legislation in the  Senate.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has called for a ban on possessing weapons within 1,000 feet of a member of Congress. He didn't explain how such a rule would be enforced, given that politicians tend to move around. His law would do more to make meet-the-public events of the sort where Rep. Giffords was wounded legally untenable than it would to prevent a would-be assassin from getting close.

But Americans' attitudes toward gun laws have shifted since the mid-'90s, when Congress passed the now-expired "assault weapon" ban and the Brady Act, which instituted a federal background check for every potential gun buyer, to ensure that they were disqualified from gun ownership for such things as a criminal record, being an illegal alien, having been dishonorably discharged from the military, or having been adjudicated mentally ill. 

At the start of the 1990s, according to Gallup polls, 78 percent of Americans wanted stricter gun control; by 2009 that number had fallen to a historical low of 44 percent. As Americans' attitudes have shifted, at the national level, even Democrats have mostly avoided trying to expand gun control. (Some Democratic pols blame the Clinton-era gun control programs for Gore's defeat in key southern states in 2000.) Despite the McCarthy and King bills, no one thinks Loughner's crimes are going to change that. And they shouldn't. 

Loughner's shooting spree was an outlier. The constant expansion in gun ownership (with the number of new firearms entering American possession averaging around 4 million a year) and expanded rights to legally carry weapons have been accompanied by a 41 percent decline in violent crime rates over the past two decades. Many pundits have tried to explain Loughner's crimes by citing Arizona's "loose" gun laws, including no permit requirement for concealed or open carry (a right Loughner exercised, yes, but he would doubtless have carried the gun even if he was violating the law doing so). Yet there is no consistent association between easy access to guns or the right to carry them and gun crimes. Crimes such as Loughner's are so bizarre and rare that there is no sense in trying to craft laws aimed at preventing them.

In an interview with Salon, Daniel Vice of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence made his case as plainly as a gun controller could: "Our gun laws are so weak that someone who couldn't get into the military, who was kicked out of school, and who used drugs walked into a gun store and was able to immediately buy a semiautomatic weapon." But why shouldn't someone not allowed in the military, kicked out of school, and known to use drugs—characteristics shared by millions of Americans—be able to own and use tools of self-defense and sport if he has not been adjudicated as dangerous?

Such a person should be able to own a weapon for all the same reasons anyone might want to own any tool, especially one connected to the vital human imperative of self-defense. Snide declarations from people who would never want to own large-capacity magazines that they are good for nothing but killing innocent people ignore the fact that they are almost never used for that purpose and that law enforcement agencies regularly use them for self-defense. 

A CBS poll two weeks after the massacre found that 51 percent of Americans still think gun laws should either stay the same or be loosened. That was down from 58 percent in March 2009 but still above the level of support for keeping gun laws the same or loosening them in 2002, when 56 percent of respondents in another CBS poll supported tighter gun control. Americans understand that even strange people should be able to own weapons, and for the same reasons other free Americans own them. 

Senior Editor Brian Doherty (bdoherty@reason.com) is the author of Gun Control on Trial (Cato).