Sunday, December 16, 2012

Doing What We Can

There is no response to the events in Newtown that will eliminate the murder of children and those that protect them.  All we can do is make these events less likely and less catastrophic when they do happen.  I am not an expert on gun control, but I understand only too well that politics is the art of the possible.  We have reached a moment in time where some stuff might actually be possible.... too many spree shootings this year (although one is, of course, too many).

To be clear, just like the terrorism fight should be more than just about killing terrorists, reducing these kinds of events requires a multidimensional approach.  When folks were juxtaposing gun control and improved mental health care as alternatives, I tweeted something that got re-tweeted a bunch:

People I don't know tweeted me as they saw the re-tweets.  Many seemed to agree wholeheartedly.  Others asserted that gun rights are gun rights.  My take on the latter is simply this: no rights are absolute.  They are regulated (well-regulated militia, right?) so that the rights of the individual and the conflicting rights of other individuals are addressed.  You can be punished for yelling fire in a crowded theater despite the first amendment's declaration of free speech.  Same is true for slander and libel, same is true for revealing government secrets. 

I would not propose to ban guns.  It is unrealistic.  I would simply propose that we ban any weapon that requires a magazine to work--rifles and handguns.  I would ban magazines.  Why?  Because one does not need to rapidly reload to hunt, to sport, to ward off an intruder.  The capacity to shoot many bullets is only good for killing heaps of people.  Who needs to do that? Sure, one could use a revolver quickly and re-load quickly, or toss aside the expended revolver and then use another one but this would still be slower than swapping in fresh magazines which are designed for exactly that purpose--to reload quickly.  One would need five revolvers to equal the capacity of the magazine in the rifle that killed the kids and their teachers.    And the killer would still be that much slower. 

I am not looking at this as a means to end these kinds of killings, just reducing the number of people killed.  There will always people who are undiagnosed or who go under-treated or who snap after years of being quite stable.  There will always be evil people.  We do not live in an age of "Minority Report" where we can perfectly anticipate who will commit crimes, but we can do better.  We can do a better job of diagnosing and treating those with mental illnesses.  And we can try to reduce the harm that dangerous people do.  More guns is clearly not the answer (even if the Oregon shooting of this week that was crowded out by the events of Newtown might be the exceptional case where someone with a gun ended a spree).  Less guns has worked elsewhere (see Australia). 

So, I'd like to see a buy-back effort to get any weapon with a magazine out of the homes of the "gun enthusiasts" who might have crazy children, a ban on the selling of guns with magazines, a limitation on how many guns can be bought per month, much more regulation of gun shows and other big gaping holes in the gun industry, and more investment/re-thinking of how to provide better mental health services to those that need it.  Sure, criminals could still get such stuff, but it would reduce the ability for the random 12 to 20 year old kid from grabbing the family's guns and killing a bunch of people.

Is any of this likely?  No.  Democrats have been wimps on this issue for so long, with the NRA being able to ban the study of the health care consequences of guns by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. The Republicans have the House of Representatives so even if the Democrats found some guts, there would have to be enough GOP folks who split from their party on this.  Unlikely. But I do hope that at least an effort is made.  That we try now, we try again, and again until we make significant progress.  As friends have put it on twitter and facebook, it makes little sense to put gun rights above the lives of our kids (and everyone else).


brev00 said...


Anonymous said...

Prof. Saideman, you wrote an excellent post, full of insightful points and good sense. So it is a little frustrating to see you trot out the worn and overused Oliver Wendell Holmes "(falsely)-yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater" line.

I'll let Ken White at Popehat explain:

"Holmes' famous quote is the go-to argument by appeal to authority for anyone who wants to suggest that some particular utterance is not protected by the First Amendment. Its relentless overuse is annoying and unpersuasive to most people concerned with the actual history and progress of free speech jurisprudence. ... Holmes uses deliberately vague language susceptible to the interpretation that the government has the power to prohibit speech that might lead people to demonstrate against, vote against, and petition their government to alter conscription. This is a calculated blurring of the line between what the government wants to avoid (a drop in support for the war and the draft) and what it should have the power to prevent (active defiance of the law, on the one hand, versus criticism of the law, on the other)."

The Supreme Court used that rationale to uphold the conviction of a man who was jailed for handing out a pamphlet critical of the draft.

The line is an extreme example used to justify far more dubious acts of censorship and punishment. It's popularity in civil discourse is unfortunate. Please don't help the continued propogation of this meme.

Steve Saideman said...

Thanks for educating me on this. I will have to use a better example in the future. Still, I am better off for not having gone to law school. ;)

Anonymous said...

Still, I am better off for not having gone to law school."

No argument there.