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The Price of Gun Control


Dan Baum is the author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip, which will be published by Knopf in March. He wrote “Happiness Is a Worn Gun: My concealed weapon and me” for the August 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He blogs at Our Gun Thing.

When you write about guns, as I do, and a shooting like the one in the Aurora movie theater happens an hour from your house, people call. I’ve already done an interview today with a Spanish newspaper and with Canadian radio. Americans and their guns: what a bunch of lunatics.

Among the many ways America differs from other countries when it comes to guns is that when a mass shooting happens in the United States, it’s a gun story. How an obviously sick man could buy a gun; how terrible it is that guns are abundant; how we must ban particular types of guns that are especially dangerous. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence responded to the news with a gun-control petition. Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times has weighed in with an online column saying that “Politicians are far too cowardly to address gun violence . . . which keeps us from taking practical measures to avoid senseless shootings.”

Compare that to the coverage and conversation after Anders Behring Breivik murdered sixty-nine people on the island of Utøya in Norway, a year ago next Sunday. Nobody focused on the gun. I had a hard time learning from the news reports what type of gun he used. Nobody asked, “How did he get a gun?” That seemed strange, because it’s much harder to get a gun in Europe than it is here. But everybody, even the American media, seemed to understand that the heart of the Utøya massacre story was a tragically deranged man, not the rifle he fired. Instead of wringing their hands over the gun Breivik used, Norwegians saw the tragedy as the opening to a conversation about the rise of right-wing extremism in their country.

Rosenthal is wrong, by the way, that politicians haven’t addressed gun violence. They have done so brilliantly, in a million different ways, which helps explain why the rate of violent crime is about half what it was twenty years ago. They simply haven’t used gun control to do it. Gun laws are far looser than they were twenty years ago, even while crime is plunging—a galling juxtaposition for those who place their faith in tougher gun laws. The drop in violence is one of our few unalloyed public-policy success stories, though perhaps not for those who bemoan an “epidemic of gun violence” that doesn’t exist anymore in order to make a political point.

It’s true that America’s rate of violent crime remains higher than that in most European countries. But to focus on guns is to dodge a painful truth. America is more violent than other countries because Americans are more violent than other people. Our abundant guns surely make assaults more deadly. But by obsessing over inanimate pieces of metal, we avoid looking at what brings us more often than others to commit violent acts. Many liberal critics understand this when it comes to drug policy. The modern, sophisticated position is that demonizing chemicals is a reductive and ineffective way to address complicated social pathologies. When it comes to gun violence, though, the conversation often stops at the tool, because it is more comfortable to blame it than to examine ourselves.

The temptation at times like these is to “do something” about guns. Australia and Britain passed tougher gun laws after mass shootings, and haven’t suffered another since. I would respectfully submit that Australia and Britain are full of Australians and Britons, not Americans. Moreover, neither country is home to an estimated 180 million privately owned guns, as ours is. Guns last forever. The one with which I hunt was made in 1900 and functions as well today as it did then. If tomorrow President Obama signed the ultimate gun-control law—a total ban on the sale, manufacture, and import of guns—we would still be awash in firearms for generations to come. Madmen like the murderer in Aurora would find a way to kill. Witness Timothy McVeigh.

In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control—no friend of the gun lobby—evaluated fifty-one studies on everything from the effectiveness of gun bans to laws requiring gun locks, and found no discernible effect on public safety by any of the measures we commonly think of as “gun control.” Two years later, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine did a similar survey and came to much the same conclusion.

Gun-control advocates have their own studies and statistics, of course, and off we go down the rabbit hole, shouting at one another about the benefits of gun control. But let me add a parallel concern: What about the costs? Why should gun control be exempt from a cost-benefit analysis? Gun-control advocates brush away evidence of gun laws’ dubious value with the argument that if even one life could be saved, it’s worth trying. What’s the harm?

The harm is that 40 percent of Americans own guns, and like it or not, they identify with them, personally. Guns stand in for a whole range of values—individualism, strength, American exceptionalism—that many gun owners hold dear. Tell a gun owner that he cannot be trusted to own a firearm—particularly if you are an urban pundit with no experience around guns—and what he hears is an insult. Add to this that the bulk of the gun-buying public is made up of middle-aged white men with less than a college degree, and now you’re insulting a population already rubbed raw by decades of stagnant wages.

The harm we’ve done by messing with law-abiding Americans’ guns is significant. In 2010, I drove 11,000 miles around the United States talking to gun guys (for a book, to be published in the spring, that grew out of an article I wrote for this magazine), and I met many working guys, including plumbers, parks workers, nurses—natural Democrats in any other age—who wouldn’t listen to anything the Democratic party has to say because of its institutional hostility to guns. I’d argue that we’ve sacrificed generations of progress on health care, women’s and workers’ rights, and climate change by reflexively returning, at times like these, to an ill-informed call to ban firearms, and we haven’t gotten anything tangible in return. Aside from what it does to the progressive agenda, needlessly vilifying guns—and by extension, their owners—adds to the rancor that has us so politically frozen and culturally inflamed. Enough.

President Obama, to his credit, didn’t mention gun control in his comments today. Maybe that was just a political calculation; maybe, during an election year, he didn’t want to reopen a fight that has hurt his party so dearly in the past. But maybe it’s a hint of progress, a sign that we’re moving toward a more honest examination of who we are. ?

A reader responds:

This piece seriously mischaracterizes two scientific studies in its criticism of liberal attempts to restrict certain types of gun ownership. Baum writes, “In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control—no friend of the gun lobby—evaluated fifty-one studies on everything from the effectiveness of gun bans to laws requiring gun locks, and found no discernible effect on public safety by any of the measures we commonly think of as ‘gun control.’ Two years later, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine did a similar survey and came to much the same conclusion.”

If one clicks through to read the hyperlinked studies to which Baum refers, one finds that the CDC study concludes, “The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes. (Note that insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness.)” Similarly, the linked AJPM article abstract states, “Based on identified studies reviewed in this report, the evidence is insufficient to determine whether the United States firearms laws affect violence. It is concluded that evidence for the effectiveness of a given firearms law on an outcome is insufficient. It is not implied that the law has no effect; rather, it is not yet known what effect, if any, the law has on that outcome. Additional research is recommended on how laws might affect firearm-related injury and death in the United States.”

In other words, both of the studies advanced by Baum as evidence that gun-control laws are ineffective conclude nothing of the sort; rather, they conclude that not enough evidence exists to make any conclusion at all.

Nat Crosman
Portland, Ore.

Dan Baum responds:

If fifty-one studies have been done to determine whether gun-control measures have an effect on public safety, and there’s no evidence to draw any conclusion at all, what does that tell you? And what does the CDC mean by, “Note that insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness.” Why shouldn’t it? To me, it’s always sounded like the CDC can’t bring itself to say the obvious: That if evidence existed that gun control measures save lives, we’d see it. And we don’t. And this conclusion is corroborated by the stunning drop in crime during the past two decades, when gun laws have only grown looser.


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