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October 02, 2015

Subjective explainer: gun debate in the US

In the wake of the tragic events in Roseburg, I decided to briefly return to the topic of looking at the US culture from the perspective of a person born in Europe. In particular, I wanted to circle back to the topic of firearms.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the United States has witnessed a dramatic decline in violence over the past 20 years. In fact, when it comes to most types of violent crime - say, robbery, assault, or rape - the country now compares favorably to the UK and many other OECD nations. But as I explored in my earlier posts, one particular statistic - homicide - is still registering about three times as high as in many other places within the EU.

The homicide epidemic in the United States has a complex nature and overwhelmingly affects ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged social groups; perhaps because of this, the phenomenon sees very little honest, public scrutiny. It is propelled into the limelight only in the wake of spree shootings and other sickening, seemingly random acts of terror; such incidents, although statistically insignificant, take a profound mental toll on the American society. At the same time, the effects of high-profile violence seem strangely short-lived: they trigger a series of impassioned political speeches, invariably focusing on the connection between violence and guns - but the nation soon goes back to business as usual, knowing full well that another massacre will happen soon, perhaps the very same year.

On the face of it, this pattern defies all reason - angering my friends in Europe and upsetting many brilliant and well-educated progressives in the US. They utter frustrated remarks about the all-powerful gun lobby and the spineless politicians, blaming the partisan gridlock for the failure to pass even the most reasonable and toothless gun control laws. I used to be in the same camp; today, I think the reality is more complex than that.

To get to the bottom of this mystery, it helps to look at the spirit of radical individualism and classical liberalism that remains the national ethos of the United States - and in fact, is enjoying a degree of resurgence unseen for many decades prior. In Europe, it has long been settled that many individual liberties - be it the freedom of speech or the natural right to self-defense - can be constrained to advance even some fairly far-fetched communal goals. On the old continent, such sacrifices sometimes paid off, and sometimes led to atrocities; but the basic premise of European collectivism is not up for serious debate. In America, the same notion certainly cannot be taken for granted today.

When it comes to firearm ownership in particular, the country is facing a fundamental choice between two possible realities:

  • A largely disarmed society that depends on the state to protect it from almost all harm, and where citizens are generally not permitted to own guns without presenting a compelling cause. In this model, adopted by many European countries, firearms tend to be less available to common criminals - simply by the virtue of limited supply and comparatively high prices in black market trade. At the same time, it can be argued that any nation subscribing to this doctrine becomes more vulnerable to foreign invasion or domestic terror, should its government ever fail to provide adequate protection to all citizens. Disarmament can also limit civilian recourse against illegitimate, totalitarian governments - a seemingly outlandish concern, but also a very fresh memory for many European countries subjugated not long ago under the auspices of the Soviet Bloc.

  • A well-armed society where firearms are available to almost all competent adults, and where the natural right to self-defense is subject to few constraints. This is the model currently employed in the United States, where it arises from the straightfoward, originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment - as recognized by roughly 75% of all Americans and affirmed by the Supreme Court. When following such a doctrine, a country will likely witness greater resiliency in the face of calamities or totalitarian regimes. At the same time, its citizens might have to accept some inherent, non-trivial increase in violent crime due to the prospect of firearms more easily falling into the wrong hands.

It seems doubtful that a viable middle-ground approach can exist in the United States. With more than 300 million civilian firearms in circulation, most of them in unknown hands, the premise of reducing crime through gun control would inevitably and critically depend on some form of confiscation; without such drastic steps, the supply of firearms to the criminal underground or to unfit individuals would not be disrupted in any meaningful way. Because of this, intellectual integrity requires us to look at many of the legislative proposals not only through the prism of their immediate utility, but also to give consideration to the societal model they are likely to advance.

And herein lies the problem: many of the current "common-sense" gun control proposals have very little merit when considered in isolation. There is scant evidence that reinstating the ban on military-looking semi-automatic rifles ("assault weapons"), or rolling out the prohibition on private sales at gun shows, would deliver measurable results. There is also no compelling reason to believe that ammo taxes, firearm owner liability insurance, mandatory gun store cameras, firearm-free school zones, bans on open carry, or federal gun registration can have any impact on violent crime. And so, the debate often plays out like this:

At the same time, by the virtue of making weapons more difficult, expensive, and burdensome to own, many of the legislative proposals floated by progressives would probably gradually erode the US gun culture; intentionally or not, their long-term outcome would be a society less passionate about firearms and more willing to follow in the footsteps of Australia or the UK. Only as we cross that line and confiscate hundreds of millions of guns, it's fathomable - yet still far from certain - that we would see a sharp drop in homicides.

This method of inquiry helps explain the visceral response from gun rights advocates: given the legislation's dubious benefits and its predicted long-term consequences, many pro-gun folks are genuinely worried that making concessions would eventually mean giving up one of their cherished civil liberties - and on some level, they are right.

Some feel that this argument is a fallacy, a tell tale invented by a sinister corporate "gun lobby" to derail the political debate for personal gain. But the evidence of such a conspiracy is hard to find; in fact, it seems that the progressives themselves often fan the flames. In the wake of Roseburg, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came out praising the confiscation-based gun control regimes employed in Australia and the UK - and said that they would like the US to follow suit. Depending on where you stand on the issue, it was either an accidental display of political naivete, or the final reveal of their sinister plan. For the latter camp, the ultimate proof of a progressive agenda came a bit later: in response to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, several eminent Democratic-leaning newspapers published scathing editorials demanding civilian disarmament while downplaying the attackers' connection to Islamic State.

Another factor that poisons the debate is that despite being highly educated and eloquent, the progressive proponents of gun control measures are often hopelessly unfamiliar with the very devices they are trying to outlaw:

I'm reminded of the widespread contempt faced by Senator Ted Stevens following his attempt to compare the Internet to a "series of tubes" as he was arguing against net neutrality. His analogy wasn't very wrong - it just struck a nerve as simplistic and out-of-date. My progressive friends did not react the same way when Representative Carolyn McCarthy - one of the key proponents of the ban on assault weapons - showed no understanding of the supposedly lethal firearm features she was trying to eradicate. Such bloopers are not rare, too; not long ago, Mr. Bloomberg, one of the leading progressive voices on gun control in America, argued against semi-automatic rifles without understanding how they differ from the already-illegal machine guns:

Yet another example comes Representative Diana DeGette, the lead sponsor of a "common-sense" bill that sought to prohibit the manufacture of magazines with capacity over 15 rounds. She defended the merits of her legislation while clearly not understanding how a magazine differs from ammunition - or that the former can be reused:

"I will tell you these are ammunition, they’re bullets, so the people who have those know they’re going to shoot them, so if you ban them in the future, the number of these high capacity magazines is going to decrease dramatically over time because the bullets will have been shot and there won’t be any more available."

Treating gun ownership with almost comical condescension has become vogue among a good number of progressive liberals. On a campaign stop in San Francisco, Mr. Obama sketched a caricature of bitter, rural voters who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them". Not much later, one Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post spoke of the Second Amendment as "the refuge of bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches". Many of the newspaper's readers probably had a good laugh - and then wondered why it has gotten so difficult to seek sensible compromise.

There are countless dubious and polarizing claims made by the supporters of gun rights, too; examples include a recent NRA-backed tirade by Dana Loesch denouncing the "godless left", or the constant onslaught of conspiracy theories spewed by Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. But when introducing new legislation, the burden of making educated and thoughtful arguments should rest on its proponents, not other citizens. When folks such as Bloomberg prescribe sweeping changes to the American society while demonstrating striking ignorance about the topics they want to regulate, they come across as elitist and flippant - and deservedly so.

Given how controversial the topic is, I think it's wise to start an open, national conversation about the European model of gun control and the risks and benefits of living in an unarmed society. But it's also likely that such a debate wouldn't last very long. Progressive politicians like to say that the dialogue is impossible because of the undue influence of the National Rifle Association - but as I discussed in my earlier blog posts, the organization's financial resources and power are often overstated: it does not even make it onto the list of top 100 lobbyists in Washington, and its support comes mostly from member dues, not from shadowy business interests or wealthy oligarchs. In reality, disarmament just happens to be a very unpopular policy in America today: the support for gun ownership is very strong and has been growing over the past 20 years - even though hunting is on the decline.

Perhaps it would serve the progressive movement better to embrace the gun culture - and then think of ways to curb its unwanted costs. Addressing inner-city violence, especially among the disadvantaged youth, would quickly bring the US homicide rate much closer to the rest of the highly developed world. But admitting the staggering scale of this social problem can be an uncomfortable and politically charged position to hold. For Democrats, it would be tantamount to singling out minorities. For Republicans, it would be just another expansion of the nanny state.

PS. If you are interested in a more systematic evaluation of the scale, the impact, and the politics of gun ownership in the United States, you may enjoy an earlier entry on this blog. Or, if you prefer to read my entire series comparing the life in Europe and in the US, try this link.