Friday, July 20, 2012

Killing In the Name Of...

Does this make you feel better, California?
Let's be very clear: The Second Amendment of the US Constitution is an absurd basis for national firearms policy.  It results in the bizarre condition where cars, knives and even swimming pools are more tightly regulated than handguns.  However, that said, we are stuck with it - there is a very large constituency that approves of a Constitutional guarantee of the right to unfettered ownership of lethal weapons, and much more importantly, to try to bring the Second Amendment into alignment with modern societal needs and expectations would open the door to all manner of tinkering with the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, for example.  It is an odd but undeniable truth that there is a large American constituency for authoritarian government and fewer civil liberties, and if we ever open the door to significant constitutional changes, it's frightening to consider what they might want to do.

Even if our communities are prevented from enacting real common sense restrictions on the sale, possession and use of firearms, they MUST have the flexibility to at least define and enforce a set of norms of behavior that make sense in today's world.  Unfortunately, even when we find communities with the political will and wherewithal to act, they frequently adopt pointless, even counterproductive measures that address problems that don't actually exist.  The worst of these are the so-called "Type Bans".  The quintessential type ban is the Assault Weapon ban, which may be the most pointless, ineffective type of gun control legislation there is.

Assault weapons are not our problem.  We do not see our kids killing each other at Taco Bell with M-16s.  George Zimmerman did not gun down Trayvon Martin with an AK-47.  Our problem is overwhelmingly handguns, and yet, like the drunk who lost his keys in the bar but is looking for them under the streetlight because the light is better there, we squander what political will we can muster on banning a rifle that costs thousands of dollars and cannot be concealed.  Meanwhile, anyone can spend a few hundred dollars and walk into a crowded venue with an automatic pistol and a hundred rounds of ammunition.  Even worse, in order to ban Assault weapons these laws have to define what an Assault Weapon IS, and as soon as they name specific features the manufacturers can simply change those features and continue selling what is, essentially, the same weapon.  Sure, it would be nice if our corporations would partner with us in trying to make our communities safer and healthier, but any notion that a corporation has a role to play in the community died hard in Mitt Romney's "Shareholders" America.  California has an Assault Weapons ban in place.  One of its provisions is that the magazine shall not be detachable without the use of an external tool.  So what did the manufacturers do?  They recessed the magazine release, and sure enough you can't operate it with a finger.  You CAN, however, use one of your loose .223 rounds to drop the magazine effortlessly - it's referred to in the industry as the "Bullet Button" and is a classic example of why type bans are a waste of political capital.

We see similar local efforts to ban certain kinds of ammunition, typically that which by nature of of its ballistics or components has an ability to penetrate body armor.  Often frantically called out as "cop killer" bullets, these laws are yet another dead end for our communities. How many people, for that matter, how many cops are killed by these rounds every year?  At the same time, the most common modern bullet, the 180 gr .40 S&W (or maybe the 115gr 9mm?) kills thousands of Americans every year and can be purchased at Walmart.  Occasionally we see a panicked call to ban the powerful .50 BMG rifle, out of fears that it might be used by a terrorist.  This is a rifle that costs between five and ten thousand dollars, firing ammunition that costs $5.00 a round.  If a terrorist was going to use one, why do we think a local ban is going to influence his behavior?

OK, smart guy, I hear you saying, this must be the part where you tell us the answer.  The fact is, I don't have a clue.  Despite the nightly body count in our cities and towns, despite the legions of young men incarcerated for decades, despite the grieving families and children who will never know their father, there is a surprising lack of popular support for any kind of handgun restrictions.  If the people demanded it, we could do the same thing with handguns we have done with drunk driving.  But instead, the majority of Americans seem hell bent on a massive social experiment where you take a diverse and innately tribal society and you do everything you can to make sure they are as heavily armed as any civilian population has ever been since the dark ages, just to see what happens.

So in light of the unusual legal and constitutional status quo in the United States, nothing can happen until we can build a much stronger consensus that something has to be done.  Obviously, the vast majority of handgun murders are committed by the poor in the inner cities, and that's something most Americans have no difficulty ignoring - it just doesn't have an impact on their lives, and they frankly don't place a high value the lives being lost.  If we do eventually develop a popular consensus around firearm, and particularly handgun restrictions, an effective course of action would be restrictions and taxes on manufacturers and importers with the goal of creating scarcity in the handgun market.  This would drive up prices and make people less likely to risk losing their gun by carrying it all the time, and it would make it much harder for criminals and poor people to replace lost guns.  Like any situation involving such a huge and complex market, it would take years for these restrictions to begin to take effect.  And that frustrates people, makes them believe the regulations and restrictions aren't "working", and they dash off in pursuit of flashier, ultimately ineffectual type restrictions.  We need to develop the political will to take effective action, take those actions ruthlessly without allowing the lobbyists to insert all manner of loopholes, and we need to stick with the program long enough for it to have an effect.  It took us centuries to get to this point - we can turn it around in a generation.  But first we have to start.


  1. Given all the damage that lower taxes and deregulation have done, you'd think we could do something about those, too.

    But no dice.

  2. One key is far fewer young men. In our glorious transhuman future male babies should be squished in the test tube.

  3. here's my best shot at reducing the body count: Less desperation.

    There are any number of ways to do that. I suspect almost all of them are unacceptable to Grover Norquist and Rush Limbaugh.

    Can I go back to talking about punk music?

  4. And I suppose that you believe victims of crimes are to blame because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and presented themselves as too much of a temptation for the disenfranchised individual who was a victim himself of societies inability to recognize and help them with their situation.