â€œGun-control advocates are hammering at the issue of children and guns as never before, in the hope that it will be easier to enact gun controls aimed at adults in an atmosphere of panic about children,â€ the Independence Instituteâ€™s David Kopel reported two decades ago in reason (â€œGun Play,â€ July 1993). Kopel warned that â€œthreats to children, whether real or imagined, tend to short-circuit rational discussionâ€ and argued that â€œgun-control proposals should not escape critical examination simply because their supporters paint a horrifying picture of children at risk.â€
Kopel had in mind proposals such as the Brady Bill, enacted later that year, which created the current system of background checks for gun buyers. Nowadays politicians seeking to expand that system likewise invoke The Children, citing in particular the murder of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. Unveiling a background check bill in April, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) referred to that horrifying crime, saying, â€œNobody here in this great Capitol of ours with a good conscience could sit by and not try to prevent a day like that from happening again. I think thatâ€™s what weâ€™re doing.â€
It was hard to see how. Manchinâ€™s legislation, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), was aimed at requiring private firearm sellersâ€"those without federal licensesâ€"to obtain background checks for transactions initiated online, via print ads, or at gun shows. Yet the Newtown gunman, Adam Lanza, did not obtain the rifle he used at the school through any of those methods. Instead he took it from his mother, who bought it legally from a gun store after passing a background check. Even if Lanza had tried to buy a gun on his own, it looks like he would have passed a background check, because he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record.
President Obama also pushed broader background checks, along with a renewed ban on â€œassault weaponsâ€ and a 10-round limit on magazines, in response to the Sandy Hook massacre, although he never explained how those policies could have prevented it. He preferred to speak in general terms about the need to protect children. â€œIf there is even one thing we can do to protect our kids,â€ he said in an April speech, â€œdonâ€™t we have an obligation to try?â€