THAT WHICH CANNOT BE DONE

Posted in Rants on June 29th, 2010 by Ed

Thank god the Supreme Court session has ended and we can stop talking about this stuff. Soon.

So, lots of weeping and rending of garments over the Chicago anti-handgun decision. Even more hysteria about the concept of incorporating the 2nd Amendment. As I don't subscribe to the slippery slope school of logic (incorporation today = striking down background checks tomorrow) and I think this will have shockingly little impact on substantive gun control legislation, I'm more interested in the underlying issue here – everyone, save for the NRA hardliners, recognizes the need for some kind of "control" on private firearms. The big problem is that we know exactly which guns are the problem and, as Chicago just discovered, it's virtually impossible to craft legislation to restrict them.

As a kid, my family was not big on guns. I think my dad had his father's WWII .45, which was more for sentimental reasons than any of the usual motivations for gun ownership. But as a public prosecutor for many years he always impressed upon me the futility of the kinds of showy gun control legislation produced by Congress. The mid-90s "assault weapon" panic was, and still is, a textbook example of a red herring. "Assault weapons" are involved in about 0.1% of gun crime, if that. The other 99%+ primarily revolves around one type of weapon: small, cheap pistols with large magazine capacities. The movies in the 1980s convinced a lot of people that criminals and gang members were wandering the streets with machine guns and AK-47s. Such instances are rare and exceptional. By and large, violent crime is committed with the bottom of the barrel in the firearm market.

Take the Virginia Tech slayings as an example. The killer used .22 pistols. They are usually used for shooting at paper targets. A decently heavy wooden door has a chance of stopping a .22 pistol round. This is absolutely the last kind of firearm that legislation would ever try to ban. Yet the small round (which enables many to be crammed into a single magazine, giving the handguns a high capacity) works just fine against "soft" targets, i.e. someone's chest. Focusing on the guns alone and not the killer's mental issues, on what basis could legislation be written narrowly enough to ban such things?

Given the obscene number of handguns already circulating in the U.S., bans on new weapon sales can't even begin to solve the problem. And as long as people persist in the delusion that having a gun in the house makes them safer, there will be howls of protest about such laws despite their relative ineffectiveness. Our solutions appear to be:

1. Take the right-wing argument to its logical conclusion; arm everyone to the teeth and live out some kind of Mad Max scenario.

2. Ban handgun sales and ownership – a move that, as gun propaganda rightly points out, will not stop people who aren't concerned about things like laws and licenses.

3. Ban all gun ownership. Same problem, plus the Constitution makes this untenable.

It seems like we're drifting toward #1 not because the conservative majority on the Court and in Congress for the last 30 years have been successful at executing a nefarious plot to manipulate the law, but rather because the other two options are some combination of ineffective, unrealistic, and unconstitutional. We've saturated this society with so goddamn many guns – especially the worst kind for criminals to have, the small, cheap, big-magazine ones – that I don't see how we can make this country "gun free" even if we wanted to. And the 2nd Amendment clearly does confer some kind of right to individual ownership (although we could reasonably debate in what context that applies).

The problem, in essence, is that we're out of answers and we, like the Courts, appear to have settled on the least terrible one. Yet we know that it's a non-solution, even when our bluster and attempts at self delusion indicate otherwise. We know goddamn well that the pistol isn't going to protect us when someone breaks into our home as we sleep or charges in through the front door, gun in hand, as we watch TV. Deep down we know or at least should know that the odds of using a firearm to successfully execute any of the fantasy scenarios presented by NRA types are close to nil.

So what is the answer? How do we do the impossible, or at least the highly improbable, and craft legislation that addresses the massive supply of guns already in circulation while protecting the basic 2nd Amendment right and parsimoniously targeting the kind of cheap, disposable handguns that actually fuel street crime? The next good answer I hear to any of these queries will be the first.