Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times would like to see us get over our “political failure to regulate guns,” and he suggests some sensible measures:
A starting point would be to limit gun purchases to one a month, to curb gun traffickers. Likewise, we should restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines so that a shooter can’t kill as many people without reloading.
We should impose a universal background check for gun buyers, even with private sales. Let’s make serial numbers more difficult to erase, and back California in its effort to require that new handguns imprint a microstamp on each shell so that it can be traced back to a particular gun.
All these measures have some merit, potentially, in the fight against ordinary crime. I’m particularly intrigued by the linked story about laser-engraved firing pins that stamp a tiny code on each bullet. I imagine this won’t stop professional criminals with a little bit of know-how (surely machining off the stamp can’t be that difficult), but it might well result in more effective prosecutions of crimes of passion and crimes by amateurs.
But none of these plans (including, as I explained yesterday, limiting magazine size) will likely work very well to deter or hamper a mass shooter like the ones at Aurora and Newtown. A one-purchase-a-month rule doesn’t deter someone who plans out his attack in advance; nor does it deter someone who lives in a house with multiple guns. Reloading is a brief nuisance, not a serious impediment to destruction. A background check did not keep the Aurora shooter from purchasing weapons. Many mass killers have not been found mentally ill or committed felonies prior to their sprees. (And in any event allowing gun store owners, or even the FBI, blanket access to everyone’s mental health records spawns large problems of its own.) And clearly the spree shooters don’t give a damn about being caught and tried, since they usually commit suicide or suicide-by-cop at the scene.
(It should, of course, also be noted that the majority of gun deaths each year are by suicide. None of these measures would deter that, either, though a lengthy waiting period might curb gun suicides.)
Juan Cole doesn’t understand why civilians need semi-automatic weapons. I feel like I’ve covered this. But he has a lot of interesting links to gun crime statistics, the most interesting of which are:
- Mass shootings are on the rise, and 2012 was an epic year for them.
- About 2,000 of the 9,000 gun murders every year are gang-related.
- There are about 5,500 murders every year committed without guns.
- The number of gun murders is about 1/3 the number of auto accidents, and less than the number of gun suicides.
Make of all that what you will. It doesn’t add up to anything. It’s just interesting.
Pro-gun folks have been highlighting the story of another recent shooting, this one in Clackamas, OR. During the shooting, a citizen who was carrying concealed drew his weapon and got a bead on the shooter, but didn’t shoot because he was afraid of hitting bystanders:
The break in gunfire allowed [Nick] Meli to pull out his own gun, but he never took his eyes off the shooter.
“As I was going down to pull, I saw someone in the back… move, and I knew if I fired and missed, I could hit them,” he said.
Meli took cover inside a nearby store. He never pulled the trigger. He stands by that decision.
“I’m not beating myself up cause I didn’t shoot him,” said Meli. “I know after he saw me, I think the last shot he fired was the one he used on himself.”
Pro-gun advocates are spinning this as a story about a citizen hero defeating the cowardly shooter with his steely glare and forcing him to run away and commit suicide. I’m not sure how you get that from these facts. I actually think this kind of undermines the idea that a citizen John Wayne is going to take out a mass shooter with a well-placed shot. Responsible gun owners like Meli and Joe Zamudio (on the scene at the Giffords shooting) don’t charge in blazing precisely because they understand the risks and are careful of them.
That’s not to say that resistance is futile. This extremely unscientific, but interesting survey of mass shootings (posted by Davi Barker of “The Daily Anarchist” — I didn’t ask) actually suggests that in many cases, someone standing up to the shooter is somewhat successful. I could quibble with some things about his methodology (does it make sense to exclude shooters who committed suicide before the cops arrived?), but the overall point is interesting. If you read through Barker’s cases, it’s the very rare situation where an armed civilian takes down the mass shooting by actually shooting him. Far more common are unarmed tackles, and occasionally armed civilians actually manage to subdue the shooter without firing a shot. So it’s an interesting mixed bag. The overall message seems to be, though, that it’s worthwhile for someone to resist — though the effectiveness of resistance is probably highly variable.
Finally, this interesting graphic by Richard Florida made the rounds five months ago after the Aurora shooting and came across my radar again today. It shows gun deaths by state, and Florida then makes some associations with strictness of gun control. There’s some correlation, as it turns out, between gun freedom and gun deaths.
We should be wary of reading too much into this sort of thing. First, we have to be careful to distinguish between gun deaths and interpersonal gun violence. Florida’s graphic is based on gun death statistics. Since over half of all gun deaths are from suicide, and many more are from accidents, it makes sense that in places where there’s tight gun control, there would be fewer gun deaths across the board. (People who commit suicide by gun are, on average, probably less likely to have access to black market guns, and less likely to know how to take advantage of the private sale loophole.) Thus, there’s a conversation worth having about whether a policy of gun control (especially waiting periods) can save lives. But that is separate from the question of whether such methods reduce interpersonal gun crime.
The second thing I’d say is that if you look at the article linked above, you’ll notice that among the things most highly correlated with high gun death rates, on a statewide level, are poverty and lack of educational and economic opportunity. And the things most highly correlated with low gun death rates are things like education and wealth.
Third, we should note that there’s a causation issue — it’s very hard to show that gun control policies aren’t an effect of having a local culture that’s set against gun violence, rather than causing a drop in such violence.
And, of course, we have to come back to the original question: does mild, reasonable gun control prevent mass shootings? I suspect not, for all the reasons I’ve outlined in the past few posts. The draconian gun control exercised on military bases did not deter Nidal Hasan. And Connecticut’s strict gun control laws did nothing to thwart the Newtown killer.