Presidential Debate

The President Can't Stop Gun Violence

Clinton and Trump agree on a fantasy of presidential power to keep guns out of bad hands in a manner that would be effective, constitutional, and not harass the innocent more than stop the guilty. It can't be done.


At tonight's presidential debate, both the National Rifle Association's candidate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton talked a lot about the fact that people are using guns to kill other people in America, in Trump's case particularly emphasizing the city streets of Chicago which is, as he points out, President Obama's hometown.

Andrew Gombert/Newscom

Knowing they had an audience to impress in thrall to the notion that all the ills and joys of the nation are in the hands of the imperial presidency, both candidates made it clear, not that they actually had a meaningful, workable, and constitutional solution to the problem of gun violence, but that they wanted to bluster as if they did.

Clinton declared that "we've got to get guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. The gun epidemic is the leading cause of death of young African- American men, more than the next nine causes put together. So…we have to tackle the plague of gun violence."

Hillary declares later that "Too many young African-American and Latino men ended up in jail for nonviolent offenses" but seems unaware that merely possessing a gun when one is legally prohibited from doing so is, in and of itself, a nonviolent offense (if one has used the gun to harm someone else, that's a different story), and one she wants cracked down on.

Clinton states, carefully using the new language that avoids mentioning "gun control" in favor of "commonsense gun safety measures" that she wants to, through unspecified means, get "military-style" weapons off the streets (though they are used in a vanishingly small percentage of gun crimes), and that we "need comprehensive background checks, and we need to keep guns out of the hands of those who will do harm."

We already have federal laws requiring background checks on guns sold by licensed firearms dealers, so what she's asking for is something like "universal background checks" in which every private firearm sale must by law go through a similar background check, usually in such proposals by using a licensed dealer as a middleman of sorts.

Given the wide range of Americans who by law should be prevented from buying a gun via such background checks, from felons to the adjudicated mentally ill to illegal drug users, such laws would, if stringently enforced, almost certainly cause more "young African-American and Latino men" to end up in jail "for nonviolent offenses" than it would keep guns from "those who will do harm" (as opposed to those who merely fall into a legally prohibited category, the overwhelming majority of whom would not "do harm" to another with a gun).

Trump tries to say the same thing about the president's power over gun violence but in language that sounds somehow tougher, calling on the old right-wing shibboleth of "law and order."

He openly called for a return to the discredited, legally and empirically (as Anthony Fisher explained earlier tonight), policy of just stopping people randomly on the streets to see if they have a gun on them and trying to take it away.

"We have to be strong, we have to be vigilant," Trump said, expressing his opinion as if it is policy without bothering to note that city police practices are neither in the hands of nor the business of the president of the federal government.

It's a bitter delight to see the NRA's man loudly proclaiming that being suspected of carrying a weapon in public is something that should leave you liable to being harassed by a cop and having to prove you are not a "bad [person] who shouldn't have them." That Trump's first, easy and certain, response to this perceived crisis in public order is an instant abandonment of core constitutional liberties like the 4th amendment should be disquieting, but it's not that we didn't already know.

Nor should it be a surprise that the two candidates are hand-in-hand in selling the lie that the president has or ought to have the power to prevent gun violence in city streets. We should remember the context that, despite a disquieting rise in certain cities in the past year or so (as Jesse Walker reported today), we saw as of 2015 "the sixth lowest homicide rate of the last half-century."