The misdirected focus on gun control

by Alan Cohen

I don’t own a gun. I don’t have any interest in owning a gun. I don’t like guns. I am appalled by the Newtown massacre and other such massacres. I believe rational gun control laws (limits on magazine capacity, an assault weapons ban, background checks, handgun regulations) would be a good thing.

But despite this, I am not convinced that it is a good idea to pursue gun control now, and I strongly support Obama not having pushed for gun control earlier. The reason is simple: like Obama said about pot-smokers, there are bigger fish to fry. Gun deaths are horrible, but so are cancer deaths and traffic accident deaths. It is normal that we as citizens feel more appalled by some deaths than others, but one important role of government is to try to save all lives across the board, without necessarily prioritizing those with more emotional tug.

Why not do both? After all, putting gun-control laws in place probably doesn’t lead to more cancer deaths or traffic accidents. But it’s a question of political priorities. Gun control is highly symbolic left-right issue. It polarizes the country, and recently gun ownership has become highly predictive of party membership. Had Obama pursued gun control hard while he had democratic majorities, he might not have passed health care reform, and he might have lost the election. What would he have accomplished?

Well, there are roughly 30,000 gun deaths in the US every year, about 10,000 of which are homicides. The vast majority of these are committed with handguns (not assault weapons) and the vast majority do not involve mass killings where magazine capacity is important, so the sorts of measures being proposed now would have limited impact. (Background checks seem to have the most potential to bring down overall rates.)


Source: Wikipedia

Proponents of gun control love to point out the absurdly low rates of gun crimes and murders in other developed countries compared to the US:

However, places like Canada and Switzerland don’t have draconian gun laws, so these statistics actually show the opposite: absurdly high murder rates in the US may be partially due to loose gun laws, but are probably more due to poverty and all its associated problems.

What this suggests is that the best way to reduce gun crimes (and homicides generally) is not simply to ban guns (as satisfying as that would be for many on the left), but rather to even out the economic playing field. And how do we even out the economic playing field? We increase taxes on the rich, not on the poor. We give people free health care. We make education affordable.

Oh! What a coincidence! Those happen to be Obama’s top priorities! So you see, Obama has been working hard to reduce gun violence in the ways that matter most, and that also improve everything else in the lives of the poor and working class. He takes a lot of flak from the left, but, like Lincoln fighting the abolitionists in order to pass the 13th amendment (as portrayed in the recent movie), he has done more to advance their cause than they understand.

How much impact would the sorts of laws being proposed have on overall rates? Well, nothing would be done to get existing guns off the market, so there would still be assault rifles out there, and there would still be a black market for illegal handguns. I’m hardly an expert, but given the percentage of crimes attributable to handguns above, it’s hard to imagine more than a 10% reduction in homicides even with very effective laws. 1000 lives is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also nothing compared to what could be saved by reducing poverty and improving health care. I am in the process of publishing a medical research study (with co-authors) that, if we are right and if its recommendations are adopted, would probably save more lives than this annually. And I’m not president of the US.

Certainly, at this moment it seems like Obama may be able to pass some sensible regulations without too much political cost. If so, more power to him. But it would be a mistake to invest too much into this effort at the cost of other national priorities, especially with gun crime rates going down.

So, agreed, Newtown is an unimaginable tragedy, and it would be great to have laws that would help prevent future such incidents. But let’s not let our emotional reaction distract us from the truly important ways to save lives. Gun rights versus gun control is a much more symbolic than practical battle. I do sympathize with those who feel crazy extremists are defining the US in a way that makes many of us feel the country no longer represents our values. But people on both sides feel equally strongly about this, so let’s do what we can here and then move on.

Agree? Disagree? As always, let me know in the comments…