Vester Lee Flanagan's brutal murder of two young WDBJ reporters has reignited the debate over gun control. That debate, which never really ends, is deeply frustrating to both sides because of a conundrum that does not get talked about enough: The most popular gun-control proposals would have little effect, while the most effective measures would be immensely unpopular.
Instead, we get the frequent assertion that voting against gun control exhibits "cowardice." This is an ad hominem, not an argument on the merits. We also get the assertion that gun-control advocates want only "common-sense" restrictions, and the lament that America needs an "honest conversation" about guns. None of these shibboleths sheds much light.
After every high-profile killing, the cry goes up that America must "do something," which is how an August 26 Washington Post editorial put it. This urge is so strong that it overwhelms critical thinking. "We certainly don't know if the gun-control measures that (Virginia Gov. Terry) McAuliffe or other would-be reformers favor would have prevented Wednesday's deadly attack," the newspaper said. "But it doesn't matter." Efficacy doesn't matter? Really?
Apparently not. The two most common proposals in the wake of any spree killing are universal background checks (Virginia Democrats are reviving that proposal now) and a ban on assault weapons—neither of which would have a measurable effect on spree killings.
Three of the most horrifying massacres in recent years, by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Ct.; James Holmes in Aurora, Co.; and Jared Loughner in Tucson, Az., all were committed with legally obtained weapons. Background checks did not stop them. Nor did a background check stop Flanagan, who passed his.
Better background checks might have stopped Seung-Hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech, and should have. The problem was not that the background check system was insufficiently broad, but that Cho slipped through the cracks of a system that would have caught him had it been working properly. The same holds true for Dylan Roof, whose arrest on drug charges might have stopped him from buying a gun (but, for complicated reasons, also might not have).
In fact, according to an ana lysis by The Atlantic, of 30 mass shootings from 2003 to 2013, broader background checks would have stopped only one: Douglas Williams' slaughter at a Lockheed Martin plant. Requiring states to report information promptly and thoroughly to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System might do more good than broadening the application of a system full of holes.
Likewise, bans on assault weapons would have a vanishingly small effect on spree killings. Such bans usually define assault weapons based on cosmetic characteristics, such as a pistol grip or a flash suppressor, that have no bearing on lethality. This is one reason few public officials have tried seriously to revive the 1994 federal ban that expired in 2004. Although there are millions of so-called assault rifles in circulation (3.3 million Colt AR-15s alone, for example), they actually are used in homicides less often than hammers and clubs. And that's true for all rifles, not just the scary-looking kind. In 2013, FBI data show, 285 people were killed with rifles, and 428 with blunt instruments.
To be fair, some gun-control advocates nod toward these realities by saying, as the Post did recently, that "no one piece of legislation or policy change will solve the problem of gun violence. Many actions are needed."
But which ones? Other possibilities include mandatory trigger locks; limiting gun sales to one per customer per month, as Virginia used to do; limiting the capacity of semiautomatic magazines, as New York tried to do; waiting periods; registration; licensing; and confiscation.
Some proposals stand on stronger legs than others. One that merits adoption is the gun-violence restraining order, or GVRO, which allows authorities to confiscate the firearms of individuals who have been adjudicated a threat. (Virginia considered such a proposal earlier this year but didn't pass it.) Laws like that rest on a clear, articulable suspicion about an individual, rather than on sweeping assumptions that, much like racial profiling, cast suspicion on the dangerous and the innocent alike.
The hard truth, however, is that while such reforms might reduce gun deaths somewhat, they are unlikely to have a transformative effect. They certainly are unlikely to make gun homicide rates fall by half, which is what has happened over the past 20 years, even as many states have relaxed their gun laws. After Virginia passed a law allowing guns in bars, for example, the number of crimes committed with guns in bars actually dropped. (You can't say the law's repeal caused the drop, but you also can't say it caused any increase.) That gun-related killings fell in so many places where gun-control laws were loosened should cast doubt on simplistic assertions that there is a direct relationship between gun laws and gun crimes. International comparisons, likewise, raise similar doubts.
After all: There are an estimated 300 million guns in America, and nearly one out of every three adults owns a firearm. The vast majority of gun owners will never hurt anyone with a gun. Moreover, the presence of a gun in the home does not always correlate neatly with getting shot: While whites are twice as likely to have a gun in the home as blacks, blacks make up 55 percent of all shooting victims.
Still, it's indisputable that if the U.S. were to confiscate all civilian firearms, only a very small number of people would die by gunshot. In Japan, where nearly all gun ownership is forbidden, the number of deaths by gunshot in any given year is less than two dozen. France, which also has extremely stringent gun laws, likewise has a gun homicide rate lower than America's by an order of magnitude (although, as some have pointed out, France's gun laws didn't stop the Charlie Hebdo massacre).
Gun-control advocates are willing to trade a marginal degree of liberty for a marginal reduction in gun deaths. But are they willing to stop there? If so, many gun-rights supporters actually might join them: Polls show gun owners support some modest gun-control efforts, such as broader background checks.
Defenders of gun rights are less likely to endorse stronger measures. Advocates of gun control think it is callous to accept tens of thousands of deaths a year just so gun owners can keep their toys. But is their own attitude toward, say, alcohol any less callous? The CDC reports that 29,000 people died prematurely because of alcohol in 2013—far more than the number who were murdered by someone using a firearm, and that's not counting deaths from alcohol-related accident or homicide. The lives of those who died were shortened by an average of 30 years. Yet the vast majority of Americans blithely tolerate this because they don't want to (and shouldn't have to) give up something nobody really needs: the occasional drink.
The real question is whether gun-control advocates would be satisfied with a minor reduction in firearm killings. Suppose for the sake of argument that the U.S. adopted the bulk of the gun-control agenda, and then witnessed another massacre like the one in Littleton. At that point, would gun-control advocates say: "Well, we tried all the common-sense measures, so there's nothing more we can do"? Or would they, like anti-abortion activists, press for ever-more-stringent restrictions?
That's one question any honest conversation about guns ought to answer.