Monday, December 17, 2012
A thoughtful post about the rhetoric of asking for the debate on gun control to "begin", at The Atlantic, via Instapundit.
It seems possibly inappropriate to be discussing this during what is rightly a time of mourning, but as it is being discussed, and this is a small, obscure blog anyway, I think I can make a few, I hope non-incendiary observations.
This morning I heard on NPR Senator Lieberman suggesting that something should be done while we were still in the paroxysms of grief from this terrible event, at least that is how I took what he was saying. (Here's a link on him from ABC.) This is an obvious point but perhaps still worth making -- generally, one thinks the way to act reasonably is not to do so in the grip of strong emotions, however appropriate an emotional reaction may be to the particular event. Anger, fear, rage, sorrow, grief and so on, are usually not the best basis of sound public policy. So when Lieberman says something like, let's act while emotions are still strong, he's appealing not to public reason, as it were, but to emotions roused by terrible events. This is not the appeal of a statesman.
A different point and a thought experiment. Suppose there was some very targeted, specific policy intervention that could be enacted (I don't know what it would be -- just an experiment here) that would keep guns out of the hands of the sort of shooter that perpetrated the atrocities at Newtown, CT and also at Aurora, CO. Suppose some scientist were to discover there was a way to identify this sort of at-risk young man and treat him, for example. One has the feeling that gun control supporters would almost be disappointed by this.
Everybody wants to stop events like Newtown, but one suspects the gun control supporters want to do more than that: I think they want to promote an idealistic vision of "a peaceful society without guns" or something like that. I think that agenda is unrealistic on several levels -- I don't think a society without guns would be more peaceful and secure, unless you imposed a lot of other social controls that would not be imposed and you might not like if they were, and I don't think such changes would be accepted by more than at best a bare majority of the American people, if that. It seems barely possible that sweeping anti-gun legislation could be shoved through Congress a la Obamacare after 2014, but such legislation would be very socially devisive.
Another point -- do we really understand how very widespread gun ownership fits into what you might call the political economy of public order in this country? To take another thought experiment: could there be any reasonable doubt that some sort of program (and I'm not saying mainstream gun-control advocates are calling for this, at least I hope not) that would require everybody to hand over any and all semi-automatic pistols and rifles they have to the government and own them no more, and was actually enforced (which would be very difficult) would result in unpredictable and possibly dangerous changes in the balance of forces between the law-abiding and the criminal in this country? I don't know how much public order in this country is actually enforced by the latent threat of private citizens with guns, but I bet it's a lot more than your typical well-meaning gun-control advocate would think, and I'm confident that she has not thought about that question in much depth. I bet you would find gun-control advocates live disproportionately in the safest, most heavily policed parts of this country, that is, relatively affluent, urban or suburban areas. Their cognitive biases I suspect lean against taking very seriously the personal security of people very unlike themselves in terms of social status, lifestyle and other such identifiers. All this points in the direction of legislation, if there is any, that is specific and targeted at the problem that needs to be solved. I have no confidence Congress is capable of this, as it is a hard problem and even easy problems seem beyond their ability to address sensibly, but one can hope.
It seems foolish to attack what is a specific problem -- mentally ill people getting their hands on guns -- with a blunt and politically controversial instrument as broad gun control would be. But, as I said above, I think it is precisely the blunt instrument that most interests many gun control supporters. I suspect some version of what Glenn Reynolds says when he says "it's not about guns, it's about control" is true. Though I don't think it's so much the case that progressives (or what you will) value control for its own sake (though some of them clearly do) as it is that they place relatively little value on some people's high valuation of what they consider their rights and their desire to be independent of government and generally self-sufficient. It's not unlike the secularists' attitude toward religion: it's not important to them, they think it's stupid, and they can't imagine it's really that important to anybody else, and in any event it shouldn't be, and so, if religious toes get stepped on a little bit, it's no big deal if that's necessary to acheive some important social good. Meanwhile, the religious person feels outraged and violated by the little policy tweak. (Why progressives should have such an active sense of the importance of sexual identity, for example, but no similar sense of religious identity, I'm not sure, but it probably has much to do with some people's inability to imagine lives very different from their own, at the same time as they are confident in their ability to govern them.) My imaginary progressive presumably thinks the loss of a certain sense of personal security and hobby-interests (target shooting, hunting, gun collecting etc.) is a small price to pay for even a notional increase in public safety (including that of children). One suspects some of them get the same sort of thrill from taking away somebody else's cherished liberty that that person gets from having it, but let's hope these sorts are at least as rare as insane shooters, though they're probably not. In any event, it's not comforting, as the Atlantic piece suggests, that "calls for debate" are actually calls for an end to debate and a rush to act while tears are still wet on our faces.