Monday, January 14, 2013

An open letter to both sides of the gun debate

After the tragic shootings in Newtown CT last month, and with Biden's proposals to be announced this week, there has been a ton of discussion about gun-violence and "gun control" (which I put in quotes because I think it is poorly defined and, as a result, people project their own meanings into the phrase).

I think both sides in the debate miss some key points, so I offer an open letter here to each.

To the folks who favor "gun control":

The 2nd amendment is not only a constitutional right, but the supreme court has determined that it is in fact an individual right.  You may not like this fact, but you can't change it in the short term; people have been trying for 30 years to overturn Roe v Wade without success; if your strategy involves getting around the 2nd amendment or getting a different supreme court decision around it, you have a long, long road ahead of you and you're not likely to succeed.

So forget about stopping law abiding people from having the guns they choose to have.  I don't personally agree with the NRA on much, but they're absolutely right when they say that law-abiding/responsible gun-owners are not the problem.  If your solution involves trampling their rights, then you need another solution.

There are many issues that lead to violent crime and gun-violence in particular.  We should try to address all of them, of course, but when it comes to gun-violence, I think the issue is not guns per-se.  The NRA is right on another count: guns don't kill people, bad people with guns kill people.  Not everyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic or a drunk driver; not everyone with a gun is a problem.

So the key thing to focus on in the gun-violence arena is stopping "baddies" from getting guns.  (I'll define a "baddie" here as anyone who should not have a gun: criminals, mentally unstable people, and unsupervised minors.)  And, to the degree that baddies are getting guns from leakage somewhere in the pipeline from gun-manufacturer-to-gun-owner, I'd suggest addressing the key leakage points, and focusing on ensuring that the NRA's lauded "law-abiding and responsible" owners are in fact both, and that the incentives and penalties around both are strong.

To the folks who are gun-rights advocates:

Nobody is coming to take your guns.  There are some people who advocate doing so, but they can't.  You have a constitutional protection, which is about as strong as it gets, and despite the crazy political rhetoric to the contrary, we are a nation of laws.  You just sound ridiculous when you go off about how the first thing that Stalin, Hitler, etc. did was to take the citizens' guns.  We're not anywhere close to that situation: we have a constitutional protection to the right to bear arms that was not present in any of those situations, and we don't live in a dictatorship. Our laws and our constitution actually do get enforced, and our politicians are not above the law.  I don't blame you for being vigilant about potential erosion of your rights, but you're not going to lose your guns.  Nobody takes you seriously (nor should they) when you react to everything as if it were the final step before confiscation.  Join the debate in a sincere manner already, please, and quit with the "they're coming to take our guns" whining.  They're not because they can't.

That said, the 2nd amendment is like every other constitutional right: it is not absolute.  In the same way that there are limits on the 1st amendment, there are legitimate limits on the 2nd amendment as well.  No rational argument has ever been made to the contrary.  One obvious example is that you don't have the right to bear nuclear weapons or surface-to-air missiles; another is that we all agree that felons and mentally unstable people should not have guns.

Wayne LaPierre said a few weeks ago that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  He may have been right about that, but he leaped over an important piece: how did the bad guy get the gun?  As I said to the "gun control" folks above, we have a problem of too many bad guys getting guns far too easily.  If we all agree that baddies shouldn't get guns, then we should agree that we can do more to make it harder for them to do so.  Nothing is foolproof, nothing will stop all baddies from getting guns all of the time, but I also don't buy for a minute the argument that nothing can be done that is effective, or that any non-zero imposition on "good guys with guns" is too much.  If you choose to exercise your right to bear arms, then you must choose the responsibility that goes with having guns to help keep them out of the hands of bad guys.  That will mean some level of imposition.  Perhaps more than you like, but if it actually works (the key question), and it lets you have your guns, then it's consistent with the 2nd amendment and worth doing.

Oh, and stop with the argument about bats and other weapons.  Baddies with guns are a distinct problem from baddies with bats, for two reasons: (a) when you have a gun, you can kill people much more quickly than with other weapons, and (b) with a gun, you can kill someone without having to get up close to your victim (thus putting yourself at risk), which lowers the threshold to shooting.  I think these two assertions are well borne out by the statistics about the rates of murder with guns vs. other weapons.

So to both sides of the debate, I'll offer this request: we all agree that bad guys with guns are a serious problem, don't we?  So why can't we find effective means for solving that problem?