In the wake of tragedies we tend to react out of emotion. When dealing with policy-making, however, we all benefit if logic enters the discussion. It is difficult to imagine a more heart-wrenching event than the Newtown, Conn. shootings. The inevitable calls for more gun control legislation reflect an understandable desire to do something after 26 defenseless and innocent people are slaughtered.
The more important question, however, is what can we do that will make a difference? That, I suggest, is the best way to honor those who lost their lives. Making us feel better should not be the measure. We should try to make a difference.
That is exactly what those who advocate stricter gun control laws suggest will happen if we follow their advice. Whether it is re-enacting the assault weapons ban, limiting the capacity of magazines, closing the “gun-show loophole,” or requiring background checks for all private firearms sales, gun control advocates state with conviction that these measures will reduce future shootings. For the most part, they are wrong.
Virtually all academic studies of the expired assault weapons ban, even those conducted by researchers who generally favor gun control, found the effect to be almost negligible. Given that the ban was based as much on appearance as functionality, and all existing guns were grandfathered, it would be illogical to think it would have been effective.
There are between 2 million and 3 million AR-15-type firearms in the United States today. Prohibiting the manufacture of more will make it only marginally impact the ability of a criminal or mentally ill individual to obtain one. This is to say nothing of the weapon-substitution effect — many other firearms will do the same thing as an “assault rifle,” but they appear less menacing, so they won’t be banned.
Likewise, limiting magazine capacity is largely an exercise in futility. A reasonably experienced shooter can change a clip in a couple of seconds. In other words, three 10-round clips are nearly as effective as a single 30-round clip. To be fair, there is some evidence that limiting capacity might reduce the death toll somewhat in mass shootings.
Individuals who are intent on committing mass murder won’t be deterred by any of the above measures. Seung Hui Cho used two legally purchased handguns, which he accumulated over months, to kill 32 and wound 17 people at Virginia Tech. Timothy McVeigh used only fertilizer and racing fuel to kill 168, including 19 children, and injure 450 others at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
So, is there nothing we can do? Clearly, we cannot eliminate all threats, and those who desire to kill will find a way to do so. That said, there are some areas on which everyone can agree: Everyone wants to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are mentally ill.
In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, Congress amended the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to provide incentives to states to report to prevent mentally unstable people from purchasing firearms. According to a Homeland Security report, 30 states did not make any non-criminal records available to NICS, as of May 1, 2012. Concerns range from privacy issues to cost to technological and bureaucratic barriers. To borrow a phrase from President Obama, “Is this the best we can do?”
Fixing this problem would not draw the ire of gun owners or gun rights’ groups. It would not require any additional Congressional action, unless it was necessary to alleviate legal privacy issues. The cost would not be that great.
There is a strong consensus that guns in the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable is the problem. Making access to guns more difficult for the vast majority of gun owners who are law-abiding, responsible citizens, parents, and grandparents does not make any of us any safer. Once we have strengthened the NICS checks, then it may make sense to discuss expanding those checks.
Finally, it may be worthwhile to consider the school safety recommendations originating with the National Rifle Association. Promising to assemble a group of security experts overseen by former U.S. Attorney, Congressman, Homeland Security and DEA official, Asa Hutchinson, and to go beyond a recommendation of armed personnel at schools, that group could offer concrete suggestions to improve school security.
Focusing on firearms alone does not address the underlying issue regarding why a person believes that killing many others is the solution to their “problem.” We must examine this societal problem and search for solutions that would do more than just make ourselves feel better in the wake of tragedy.
Harry Wilson, Ph.D. is the author of "Guns, Gun Control and Elections." He is the director of Roanoke College's Institute for Policy and Opinion Research, where he also serves as professor of political science.