Sparked by the Sandy Hook school shooting, the national and state debate on "measures to prevent gun violence" is now on center stage. President Obama released his proposals on January 16, Vermont state Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), the Democratic majority leader, introduced his bill (S.32) a few days before.
Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of both proposals -- banning possession and transfer of certain semiautomatic firearms and high capacity magazines -- sharply divides the political world into two hostile camps.
The gun control faction has long wanted to put government in charge of all privately owned firearms. They are also eager to win a victory over their opposition, embodied in the National Rifle Association
The firearms rights faction is alarmed with their opponents’ push toward their ultimate goal of banning the possession of all privately owned firearms, or at a minimum requiring all private owners to obtain licenses, register their firearms, certify their mental health and good intentions, and supply all required information to a government registry.
At this point in the conflict legislators need to take a deep breath and focus on the question: what realistically promises to diminish the likelihood of deadly violence, and at what cost in terms of diminution of rights, invasion of privacy, "false positive" enforcement, new spending by a government awash in debt, creation of bureaucracies, diversion of resources, and further undermining federalism.
President Obama rightly reaffirmed that "the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms." He then offered four parallel policy thrusts.
He wants to reinstate the 1994-2004 ban on "assault weapons" and high capacity magazines (over 10 rounds). To put this in perspective, there are approximately three hundred million privately owned firearms in the country. Untold millions of them are functionally identical to the "assault weapons" Obama wants to ban -- they just aren’t "ugly" enough (folding stock, pistol grip, bayonet lug, etc.) to be labeled "assault weapons." All of these, including all existing "assault weapons," will remain legal. So will millions of existing high capacity magazines.
The National Research Council’s extensive 2006 study found that the ten-year national ban on possession of the same semiautomatic "assault weapons" had no visible effect on gun violence. So why is this a good idea? Is it only to placate the gun control lobby?
The president wants to incorporate all "potentially dangerous individuals" into the national background check system. That’s a good idea to the extent "potentially dangerous individuals" can be unequivocally identified -- for instance, by felony convictions and psychiatric commitments. But beyond that? If a social worker or teacher reports someone to the BATF as "acting strangely," should that person’s name be summarily put on a national blacklist?
The president proposes Federal spending on numerous new grant programs for mental health, school safety, school discipline and school resource officers. One would think that such spending would need to be far more than theoretically effective to be launched after four years of trillion-dollar-plus federal deficits.
The president is keen on making sure that young people "get the mental health treatment they need." But startlingly absent from his comprehensive program was any recognition that administering increasingly powerful psychiatric medications to combat "mental illness" may well be a significant factor in gun violence -- for instance the Columbine shooters. There is a dark side to "combating mental illness."
All of these programs have to operate through somebody -- social workers, police, doctors, BATF agents, and many others. Anyone proposing the programs advocated by the President needs to look closely at possibility that government officials, pursuing their own self-interest, might make our problems worse.
Improving the national background check system for acquiring weapons is worth doing. Will the Obama ban on new "assault weapons" and high capacity magazines, and all his new Federal spending programs, diminish gun violence? Almost certainly not. They respond to the political need to "do something" to prevent another madman from perpetrating another school massacre.
The real solutions, far more complex and imprecise, must focus on reducing the numbers of, or at least deterring and thwarting, "potentially dangerous individuals" likely to commit violent acts and do it without unduly invading their rights.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen-org).