I do not own guns, and the last time I discharged a firearm was on “Second Amendment Day” at a conservative journalism program many years ago. (Yes, dear reader, that’s how conservative journalism programs roll.) My political commitments are more communitarian than libertarian, I don’t think the Constitution guarantees a right to bear every kind of gun or magazine, and I think of myself as modestly persuadable in the gun control debate.
Of course that doesn’t mean I really am, since we’re all tribal creatures and gun rights advocates are part of my strange and motley right-wing tribe. But at the very least I understand why the idea of strict gun control has such a following, why it seems to many people like the obvious response to mass shootings — whether the perpetrators are ISIS sympathizers, mad right-wingers, or simply mad — and why the sorrowful public piety of Republican politicians after a gun massacre drives liberals into a fury.
That fury, though, needs a little more cool reasoning behind it. It’s fine to demand actions, not just prayers, in response to gun violence. But today’s liberalism often lacks a clear sense of which actions might actually address the problem — and, just as important, a clear appreciation of what those actions might cost.
Sometimes, it’s suggested that all we need are modest, “common-sense” changes to gun laws: Tighter background checks, new ways to trace firearms, bans on the deadliest weapons.
This idea was the basis for the Manchin-Toomey bill that failed in 2013 in the Senate. It was also, though, the basis for two major pieces of gun legislation that passed in the 1990s: The Brady Law requiring background checks for handguns and the assault weapons ban.
Both measures were promoted as common-sense reforms — in the case of the Brady Law, by none other than Ronald Reagan. But both failed to have an appreciable impact on homicides — even as other policies, like hiring more police officers, probably did.
But that claim’s very plausibility points to the problem: With 300 million guns in private hands in the United States, it’s very difficult to devise a nonintrusive, “common-sense” approach to regulating their exchange by individuals. Ultimately, you need more than background checks; you need many fewer guns in circulation, period. To their credit, many gun control supporters acknowledge this point, which is why there is a vogue for citing the Australian experience, where a sweeping and mandatory gun buyback followed a 1996 mass shooting.
The clearest evidence shows that Australia’s reform mostly reduced suicides — as the Brady law may have done — while the evidence on homicides is murkier. (In general, the evidence linking gun ownership rates to murder rates is relatively weak.) But a lower suicide rate would be a real public health achievement, even if it isn’t immediately relevant to the mass shooting debate.
Does that make “getting to Australia” a compelling long-term goal for liberalism? Maybe, but liberals need to count the cost. Absent a total cultural revolution in America, a massive gun collection effort would face significant resistance even once legislative and judicial battles had been won.
I suspect liberals imagine, at some level, that a Prohibition-style campaign against guns would mostly involve busting up gun shows and disarming Robert Dear-like trailer-park loners. But in practice it would probably look more like Michael Bloomberg’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, with a counterterrorism component that ended up heavily targeting Muslim Americans. In areas where gun ownership is high but crime rates low, like Bernie Sanders’ Vermont, authorities would mostly turn a blind eye to illegal guns, while poor and minority communities bore the brunt of raids and fines and jail terms.
Here the relevant case study is probably not Australia, but France. The French have the kind of strict gun laws that American liberals favor, and they have fewer gun deaths than we do. But their strict gun laws are part of a larger matrix of illiberalism — a mix of Bloombergist police tactics, Trump-like disdain for religious liberty, and campus-left-style restrictions on free speech.
I don’t think American liberals necessarily want to “get to France” in this illiberal sense.
But to be persuasive, rather than just self-righteous, a case for gun control needs to explain why that isn’t where we would end up.
Ross Douthat writes for The New York Times.