The gun debate must break old patterns | Forum

The mass murder of children in Uvalde, Texas, coming just 10 days after the mass murder of shoppers in Buffalo, New York, has moved former senator Bill Frist – who was the majority leader of a Republican Senate when President George W. Bush was in the White House – to issue a statement on guns: “We can find ways to preserve the Second Amendment while protecting the lives of our children. … The time to act is now.”

The willingness to overcome long-standing divisions to find solutions is commendable. But the assumption behind Frist’s comment, and much of the rest of the national gun crime discussion, is that progress is mostly about getting enough Americans to have the right feelings.

There are three deep issues that not everyone who shares these feelings has been able to overcome.

First: the gun control agenda of the past 30 years would have negligible effects, even if adopted. When the Justice Department reviewed the assault weapons ban in effect from 1995 to 2004, it concluded that “the effects of a renewal on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small to a reliable measure. A 2020 review of assault weapons ban research by the Rand Corporation found that even the effects on mass shootings were “inconclusive.” Expanding background checks wouldn’t do much either: most mass shooters have already passed them.

Second: most people understand that these policies would have very small effects, and that makes their support weak. Proponents of expanded background checks often cite polls that show very large majorities in favor; some polls also show majority support for a ban on assault weapons. But polls also reveal considerable skepticism about the effects of such laws. In 2017, Gallup asked if “new gun control laws”, if passed, would reduce the number of mass shootings. A plurality of 42% said they would not, while a further 16% said they would import “a little”.

Figures like that help explain why opponents of new restrictions can prevail even when they are politically outnumbered. Opponents, who say the new laws would be or lead to intolerable restrictions on their rights, are highly motivated. Many supporters are lukewarm. And that in turn helps explain why even in a Democratic-led Senate in 2013, a new assault weapons ban garnered only 40 votes.

Third: More ambitious gun control proposals could have a substantial effect, but they are not valid. A rigorously enforced ban on civilian possession of handguns would reduce gun violence. But the latest poll has only 19% of the public backing that idea. Its support has been declining for 60 years. The Second Amendment to the Constitution prohibits it. And even if it could be enacted anyway, it would be impossible to effectively enforce it in a country estimated to have nearly 400 million guns – a country, moreover, where almost half of adults live in a household with firearms.

None of this means that Americans should give up and accept current levels of bloodshed. But it does suggest that there is a need to move away from the usual gun control debates.

In particular, it suggests that authorities need better ways to identify individuals who pose a serious threat of deadly violence and to act on that assessment. “Red flag laws”, which allow the disarmament of dangerous individuals, should be explored, although it remains to be seen whether they can make a difference while respecting civil liberties. State governments should also institute a duty to report serious threats: it is remarkable how many mass shooters have offered warning signs before committing their atrocities.

Better enforcement of existing laws, such as those against proxy gun purchases for those who cannot legally possess them, and against falsifying background check information, could also help reduce gun violence in general. – if not the mass shootings in particular – without adding to the burden on law-abiding gun owners and thus yielding to the usual political deadlock.

Such policies do not promise advocates the catharsis of taking on political and cultural enemies, which is one of the attractions of ritualized gun arguments. But these arguments led nowhere. Let’s act now, yes, but only after thinking.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners. Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

Melvin B. Baillie