Sympathy for Barbara Boxer: Why Shouldn't Gun Law Advocates Declare Victory?


California Sen. Barbara Boxer earned a lot of incredulous "who the hell is she kidding?" responses last week for saying to reporters, after 14 people were murdered in San Bernardino, California, with weapons that were partially legally obtained (but entirely illegally used): "Sensible gun laws work. We've proven it in California."

The Blaze collects many examples of thinking the senator must have gone mad.

Let's think about the implications for a minute before joining the chorus of jeers. Anyone opposed to more stringent gun control than already exists would agree in principle that it's not absurd to believe one can have sensible gun laws that work (as well as gun laws can be expected to work) and still have people commit horrible murders with guns.

Boxer unsurprisingly followed up with the idea that California laws alone are "not enough" and "that is why we need national laws." She seemed to be trying to say that if all the country had California's laws, things would be better. Since the guns used to commit the San Bernardino murders were purchased in-state, even if illegally transferred, nationalizing California's laws would have had no effect on this tragedy. That is the usual situation when people talk about toughening gun laws in reaction to tragedies caused by people using guns.

Boxer's statement would have been a more meaningful "gotcha" against someone who is against expanding gun laws, the sort of supposedly callous thing you can expect from someone who doesn't believe in an Arcadia of a world with zero gun violence, brought to us by sensible but tough gun laws.

Whether Boxer meant it that way or not, it was interesting to hear a gun controller of her stature simultaneously seem to believe that gun laws can be sensible and work and that people could nevertheless still murder people with guns. It's the kind of truth-gaffe that gets all the more abuse for how true it is.

Boxer's comment and the mockery storm it riled up made me re-wonder something I've often wondered contemplating trends in gun violence in America over the past couple of decades: why don't gun control advocates just declare victory?

After all, they won their greatest national legislative victory, the Brady Law instituting national background checks on gun purchases from federally licensed dealers, which became law in 1993.

And what do you know? CDC figures for firearm homicide rates per 100,000 plummeted since then from 7.0 to 2013's 3.5. That's a cut in half in fatal firearm violence, in just 20 years after imposing what gun controllers saw as a smart, necessary law.

But they never crow about it. It's rare they even acknowledge that good news even exists. And the good news continues even in this alleged age of gun violence epidemics; from 2010 to 2014, the FBI's Uniform Crime Report figures show gun homicides down in total numbers by over 8 percent, with reductions in the total number of gun murders ever year except from 2011 to 2012.

Human reality is a complicated, multicausal thing. Despite that correlation between new law and amazing policy result, which is very true, the consensus of the social scientists who look into such things is that, at least as of 2003 (after which most of the positive effects of fall in gun violence had already happened) the Brady Law didn't really seem to have much to do with it.

However, lack of a solid and unimpeachable link between a law or a prospective law and a positive outcome doesn't tend to stop most gun control folk from lauding any old proposed law they consider tough. But this is one they don't seem to want to take credit for.

And what of California specifically, the state Boxer was talking about, one with much tougher gun laws (which I detailed in broad overview here)?

California has done even better in the past decade, at least with homicides, both total and gun homicides. This is just as people who believe in tougher gun laws might have predicted. From 2005 to 2014, total homicides went down 33 percent in California. Homicides committed with guns went down slightly more, by 36 percent. And those are whole numbers, so would look even better compared to population. (Nationally, CDC gun homicide rates per 100,000 went down from 4.2 in 2005 to 3.5 in 2013, only around a 16 percent drop.) The total number of homicides in California went down every year in that interval, except from 2011 to 2012.

It could easily become a quotable factoid that "California, with its tougher-than-average gun laws, outperformed the rest of the nation in gun homicide reductions by 20 percentage points, over 100 percent."

Now, we have no reason to believe the laws caused this outcome, but gun control people often credit gun laws with effects that they have no good reason to believe the laws actually caused.

How can we be pretty sure the gun laws didn't have a ton of independent causative power? While this is an issue that could benefit from some more rigorous regression analysis, we can note off the top of our heads that total violent crime rates also went down 25 percent from 2005-14 in California, property crimes went down 26 percent over that period, and even arson went down 45 percent, which indicates a whole lot of things are feeding into crime declines in the state than gun laws. (That doesn't preclude the idea that perhaps the laws had some positive effect on gun homicides. To the extent California gun laws keep guns out of the hands of the law abiding or prevent them from carrying them, they also impose costs that are rarely accounted for in gun social science, in terms of crime, personal safety, and liberty.) One would also want to compare various other states with similar and different gun laws to see how their gun murder numbers have done in the same period to be more sure what the laws did or didn't do.

Still, a simple factoid could be declared by a Boxer or anyone else: California has tougher gun laws than the nation at large, and what do you know? It has also had better gun violence reduction results. I don't consider California's current set of gun laws to be entirely rational or defensible in terms of safety or liberty. But it would be easy, for those who think laws reliably shape outcomes with guns, to take that rhetorical tack, either in California or nationally.

For those who like gun laws that make things easier on gun owners, they can look to the simple huge advances in citizens legally able to carry in public that also accompanied our amazing reductions in gun murders over the past couple of decades. Again, this is not rigorous social science, but it does tell us that massive increases in public carry of weapons can accompany gun crime reduction.

That gun controllers almost never try to declare that kind of good news, and Boxer was mocked for seeming to suggest it even casually, is likely a sign that they wish and hope that gun laws can achieve results they cannot actually be expected to achieve; or that the controllers won't be happy until civilian gun ownership is just banned. (Which also wouldn't end gun violence in America.)

But gun controllers do always seem to want to push further, treating past good results as irrelevant, even, as the New York Times did this weekend, going so far as to call for complete bans on (nearly completely irrelevant to gun violence) classes of weapons, including confiscations.

In other words, rather than look soberly at progress already made and think hard about exactly how much gun laws could realistically be expected to make things significantly better than they already are, they'd prefer to pursue a likely useless and even malign fantasy that would create a world where there are goodness knows how many more grenades tossed into babies' cribs and men shot dead like dogs by the side of the road.

Why? Because in a world of that kind of confiscatory gun control, the generally harmless (if left alone) contraband our militarized police would need to be rooting out in our homes and car trunks actually are potentially dangerous weapons.

Given those horrible costs of a serious gun control regime that includes confiscation, it is worth asking every time someone into gun control asks for more and more laws, chasing likely smaller and smaller possible gains: why don't gun controllers ever consider declaring victory?