Fred Hiatt, who runs the Washington Post's editorial page, has had it with incrementalism when it comes to gun violence. In the wake of last week's horrific mass shooting at an Oregon community college, he says the time has come to contemplate:
A gun-free society.
Let's say that one again: A gun-free society.
Doesn't it sound logical? Doesn't it sound safe? Wouldn't it make sense to learn from other developed nations, which believe that only the military and law enforcers, when necessary, should be armed — and which as a result lose far, far fewer innocent people than die every year in the United States?…
He's well aware of the political problems with such a solution:
Congress will not lead this change. There has to be a cultural shift. Only then will Congress and the Supreme Court follow.
As we've seen over the past 15 years with same-sex marriage, such deep cultural change is difficult — and possible. Wyatt Earp, the frontier mentality, prying my cold dead fingers — I get all that. But Australia was a pioneer nation, too, and gave up its guns. Societies change, populations evolve.
And people are not immune, over time, to reason. Given how guns decimate poor black communities every day — not just when there are mass shootings, but every day — this is a civil rights issue. Given how many small children shoot themselves or their siblings accidentally, it is a family issue. Given the suicides that could be prevented, it is a mental health issue. On average 55 Americans shoot themselves to death every day. Every day!
What the same-sex marriage debate shows—and the move to legalize pot, too—is that Americans can be surprisingly quick to embrace cultural libertarianism, especially after recognizing that the status quo doesn't work and that the change gives you one less hangup to have to keep on top of. People understand that pot, whether recreational or medical, doesn't lead to harder drugs; it just leads to mellower highs than booze tends to supply. Allowing gays and lesbians to live their lives openly, including the ability to officially get married, in no way invalidates a straight person's life. In fact, it makes society richer by giving different types of people one more experience that they might share.
But what is the status quo with guns? Over the past several decades at least, most states have liberalized their gun laws. It's easier to own guns, generally, and to carry them in a wider variety of circumstances, too. And over the same time period—and this is key—gun violence has declined to historic lows. In other words, the status quo, while far from perfect (as recent mass shootings and crime-wave reports from Chicago and other cities attest), is good and getting better. In fact, according the most recent government statistics, violent crime, a category including murder, rape, and armed robbery, is far below what it was in the mid-1990s.
Pew Research and others have documented this (see accompanying charts). The plain fact is that having more guns in circulation has not led to higher rates of gun murders. People get that, which is one of the reasons why popular sentiment has not turned against gun rights.
Here are figures from the Department of Justice/FBI showing murders and guns over the past several years:
Add to this other points, such as the fact that mass shootings are not increasing. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox writes in USA Today that the "Umpqua shooting [is] a tragedy, not a trend."
According to a careful analysis of data on mass shootings (using the widely accepted definition of at least four killed), the Congressional Research Service found that there are, on average, just over 20 incidents annually. More important, the increase in cases, if there was one at all, is negligible. Indeed, the only genuine increase is in hype and hysteria.
Over two-thirds of gun deaths a year are suicides. But even among suicides, the trends are basically flat.
Such data will not end the suffering and grieving of parents and loved ones in Oregon who were touched by the latest shooting. But it should help people in the media and the government understand that they are overreacting when they inveigh that the only way forward is via zero-tolerance for guns. Zero-tolerance has never worked in any other context and the idea that gun prohibition in a country as large and gun-friendly as America (like it or not) is several steps past delusional.
Just how delusional is the subject of Reason TV's "How To Create a Gun-Free America in 5 Easy Steps."