Gun Control

How Could Anyone Deny the Need for Tougher and More Stringently Enforced Gun Laws in the Wake of the Vegas Slaughter?


How can anyone not realize that more, stronger, and more strongly enforced gun laws are absolutely necessary in the wake of last night's Vegas horror, the largest mass-murder committed with guns in modern U.S. history?

Håkan Dahlström via / CC BY

In order to get to that seemingly inexplicable place, you have to begin with a basic belief that it's a bad idea in general to use violent force against people who have not, and are very unlikely to, harm other people. If you believe innocent owners of some tool should be subject to control, harassment, and arrest or death if they resist, as long as some owners of that tool, even a vanishingly small number of them, harm other people, none of this will make much sense.

The above are questions of sensibility, and certainly arguable. Empirical understanding is in play as well.

To resist an instant call to more or tougher gun laws or enforcement in the wake of terrors like Vegas, you need to understand it is not only that existing laws and regulations will not reliably prevent such crimes as long as guns exist. All the new or expanded national gun control laws advocated as sensible and necessary would have had no effect on horrible crimes such as occurred in Las Vegas last night, even if perfectly enforced, as Jacob Sullum explained at Reason earlier today. (Nor, it seems to me, would wider skilled civilian possession of guns likely done much good in this particular scenario. Hard as it is to admit, some tragedies are not meaningfully preventable.)

With that understood, the only relevant legal response to nightmares like Las Vegas is a total ban and confiscation of at least types of weapons, as The New York Times argued in a rare front page editorial against what they consider "assault rifles" in December 2015 after the Orlando nightclub massacre.

Another idea on the minds of those who obdurately refuse to seize on a new legal solution when nightmares such as Las Vegas occurs is that public policy should rely on measured, proportionate reactions that consider and balance the demonstrated prevalence of any given public threat or crisis.

Despite Nevada's much-discussed "loose" or "lax" gun laws, over the course of the three years prior to 2017, rifles were used in murders four known times in the state, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime report.

Nevada's figures, though, show an unusually large number of gun murders where the type of gun used is unknown. But if you presume the ratio of handgun to rifle murders is similar for known and unknown gun type, you should add 20 more rifle murders, for a total of 24 in the three-year period. That larger number represents 4 percent of total murders in Nevada over that three-year period. For some context, killers used hands or fists to murder 25 times during that same period.

With its "lax" gun laws, Nevada saw 67 percent of its murders committed with a gun last year. That is one percentage point lower than the 68 percent for the country as a whole in 2016.

Reluctance to call for more gun laws also requires believing that some individuals are bizarre and horrific outliers who can and do horrible things. But noticing how rare are such events, despite the millions of rifles out there, might give one pause when imagining a national legal solution to such bizarre individual crimes.

Guns or rifles are not the only tools that allow an evil maniac to cause so much harm, as the driver of the truck that produced 84 casualties in 2016 in Nice, France shows. We normally recognize using an existing tool to cause harm is insufficient reason to ban the tool. And recall, too, legal solutions short of bans are largely irrelevant to these sorts of crimes.

The unwillingness to leap to a legal solution to mass gun murders requires recognizing that guns are tools, with genuine uses for personal safety, personal fulfillment, and convenience, just as are cars, as well as noticing that a tiny number of people who own or have access to these specific tools ever use them to harm another human.

Some people don't see this and it is a difficult thing to convince those who don't want, need, or enjoy guns to fathom how anyone else could, given their demonstrable ability to cause horrific harm. Those who resist calls for more and tougher gun laws believe that, even if you don't understand why anyone wants or needs one, that a third of Americans think they do need or want guns, and the hundreds of millions of guns that exist in America are proof of this.

There are a couple of reasons someone might not see getting rid of guns as a proportionate response to the actual demonstrated threat of rifles, even post-Las Vegas America.

One is the threat of, to put it mildly, severe civic unrest if the U.S. government attempted a mass confiscation, even with the promise of an absurdly expensive buyback, of that many almost universally legally and peacefully owned weapons.

That might not occur to those who think of those owners as just gun nuts, not worthy of respect. But even Americans with that attitude should have another reason to think twice about some new attempt to create mass national contraband: the historical evidence of previous national experiments in banning highly desired and available products, like alcohol and drugs.

Vast harm can come to individuals and communities from ultimately futile attempts to extirpate such things. One might consider how police, who would be the confiscators, behave, especially in America's poorest and least-respected communities. What might it be like unleashing them on a contraband potentially lethal to them?

You might disagree with these value judgments and assessments of proportionality, but a failure to fall back on a legal solution to mass gun murder events is a plausibly reasonable understanding of the extent and proportion of the problem weapons cause versus the costs in civic peace and innocent lives damaged.

For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster. There is intellectual room to understand and internalize the pain and damage that weapons can cause in the hands of an evil maniac, yet still sincerely believe that any effective legal solution is either impossible or requires an unacceptable level of police interference into innocent lives.