Monday, July 23, 2012

Firearm Legislation: Why We Have So Much Trouble Talking About It

This past week, there was a terrible massacre at an Aurora, Colorado theatre on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises.  The perpetrator used tear gas and a variety of firearms to inflict numerous casualties before being captured.

As with the Gabby Giffords shooting and many other high-profile acts of extreme firearm violence, there was an immediate call for increased firearm legislation.  This is an understandable reaction, but debates on the topic are almost universally unproductive, typically because they aren't actually debates.  They are usually online shouting matches and polemics that are designed to draw agreement and ire.  I'd like to give my perspective on firearm legislation and why discussions surrounding it often go so poorly.

I grew up in Wisconsin, a state with a large population of hunters.  Though my father hunted when he was young, he did not hunt at all as an adult.  I had a BB gun and a pellet gun, but never had a non-air-powered firearm.  My mother hated guns and still hates guns of all kinds.  A few years ago, I started taking handgun safety classes and eventually purchased a Colt M1991, an updated version of the .45 ACP sidearm used by American armed forces from WWI to Vietnam and beyond.  I also purchased some lever-action rifles, some military surplus WWII-era battle rifles, and a pump-action shotgun.  I went to local indoor and outdoor ranges by myself and with friends who were also interested in firearms.  I talked with range masters, gun store employees, and fellow shooters at the range on subjects ranging from practical to political.

My interests were mostly academic.  For better or worse, many video games feature firearms, and I don't like being ignorant about the things I work on.  Don't get me wrong: I also enjoy shooting and maintaining firearms, but that enjoyment followed the academic interest.  As with many of my hobbies, my interest peaked, tapered, and has fallen off.  I'm about to sell most of my firearms, mostly because I don't have any practical use for them and I just don't get out to the range that often.  I'm glad I learned what I have, but it's just not a big part of my life.  One of the most important things I've learned is what it's like to be a gun owner in America.  I believe it's helped me understand these debates much better than I previously had.

In my (admittedly short) time as a gun owner, I've heard a lot of complaints from other gun owners about why they hate gun legislation.  Some of it is rabid hostility, but it's foolish to dismiss all of it as such.  I've also had a lot of criticism come my way for owning firearms and for going to ranges.  From these two general perspectives, I have developed some theories about why gun control debates get very unproductive very quickly.

Many of the people who are most vocal about firearm legislation are the people who understand firearms the least.  A subset of these people are even proud of the fact that they don't know anything about firearms.  I believe this attitude is extraordinarily foolish.  Ignorance leads to bad legislation, regardless of the subject.  Most firearm legislation is bad because the public's understanding of the realities of firearms in America is bad.  When I say the legislation is bad, I don't mean that it's bad because it tramples rights or isn't constitutional, but because it doesn't even accomplish the things its advocates want it to accomplish.

The 1975 Firearm Controls Regulation Act (a.k.a. the D.C. handgun ban) accomplished virtually nothing because the legislation ignored the practical realities of how firearms are trafficked across state lines and how available they are across the country, legally or illegally.  The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was similarly ineffective because "assault weapons" as defined by the AWB are used in a fraction of firearm-related crimes.

Many of the people who are most vocal about firearm legislation are transparently disingenuous about their end goals.  If your end goal is to reduce firearm-related crime, present your ideas and desires sincerely with that in mind.  If your end goal is for all firearms to be banned and all extant civilian-owned firearms to be reclaimed and destroyed by the government, be sincere about that as well.  There are many, many cases where people advocate legislation disingenuously.  They suggest a modest restriction under the pretense of reform, but their actual desire is to make the United States a nation without civilian firearm ownership.

If you wonder why some firearm owners react to talk of incremental gun control as though their houses are going to be raided and they are going to be arrested for owning a bolt-action varmint rifle, it's because they don't believe in the sincerity of people advocating incremental legislation (and they are often right not to).

The NRA is awful.  I know some firearm owners and NRA members are going to read this blog and be upset by that, but I find it hard to defend the NRA.  It's an organization that frequently rabble-rouses and presents an eternal us-vs-them conflict to firearm owners.  Many of their positions are extreme and unsupported.  The NRA, along with many firearm manufacturers and gun store owners, "predicted" a huge storm of firearm legislation after Obama was elected.

Before his inauguration, there was an astounding market run on items that they "predicted" would be legislated or banned: >10 round magazines, certain types of ammunition, and anything previously covered by the AWB (that they said would be renewed despite virtually no signs the administration had any interest in doing so).  AR-15 receivers were among the most insanely market-inflated, but many types of ammunition were also hoarded in large quantities.  Gun store clerks were even re-selling ammunition "under the table"  with dramatically increased prices.

The saddest thing is that gun owners across the country bought into it.  All of it.  For the past year, the NRA has been building up for the 2012 election, promising that Obama is going to go into firearm legislation overdrive if he is re-elected.  Again, to date, there's no solid evidence this is going to happen, but the NRA is terribly good at spreading panic.

The media is just as ignorant as the public.  It's also sensationalist.  So despite the fact that the AR-15, one of the weapons used in the Aurora killings, fires a 5.56x45mm round realistically described as "mid-powered" (its parent round, .223 Remington, was developed for hunting "varmints" -- rabbits, coyotes, squirrels, etc.), many papers and blogs describe it as "high-powered" or "fearsome".

Writers will also draw similarities between situations that aren't really relevant, but promote radical panic.  The Aurora shooter used a Glock.  Jared Loughner, the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords, also used a Glock.  These facts shouldn't be that surprising considering that the majority of police departments across the country use Glocks and it's one of the most popular brands of semi-automatic civilian handgun around.

Some people may say that these points of contention don't matter.  When it comes to legislation, those points are very important, and popular opinion often drives legislation.  When gun owners scoff at advocates of fingerprinting when people buy "handgun ammo" or restricting the sale of "assault weapons", it's because those quoted terms are vague or nonsense.  Unfortunately, many members of the public become concerned about these specific ideas because they're the things that reporters in the media promote, regardless of relevance.

Proposed actions are often radical and irrationally focused instead of progressive and comprehensive.  These discussions happen in cycles, usually launched by a national (or international) tragedy.  Specific things happen in the tragedy: Glocks are used, large-capacity magazines are used, a certain type of ammunition is used.  Instead of looking at national (and international) trends in firearm ownership and crime, people get hung up on the specifics of the tragedy: ban Glocks, ban large-capacity magazines, ban this type of ammunition.  For many reasons, it's important to talk about the specifics, but legislating around the specifics usually doesn't solve larger problems.  Most of the time, it doesn't solve any problems, and the divide between firearm owners and gun control advocates grows even larger.

Widespread firearm ownership, legal and illegal, is a practical reality in the United States.  Gun violence, even adjusted for population, is also a much larger issue here than it is in most ostensibly "peaceful" countries.  It is sad that the salient times we have to discuss these problems are often preceded by terrible events like the Aurora shootings.  It is even more unfortunate that all sides of the debate spend so much of their energy locked in fruitless arguments instead of approaching the subject with sober, sincere, and considerate minds.


LeoJSaravak said...

"Many of the people who are most vocal about firearm legislation are the people who understand firearms the least."

Very true, at least from what I've seen.

A couple of days ago, CNN brought an "expert" on to talk about why more gun control laws would have prevented this "tragedy" (it wasn't *technically* a tragedy, but that's beside the point.).

He went into detail about how weapons like the "A-15 Assault Rifle" that Holmes used should be illegal, and then he went on to question why "high capacity ammunition" isn't illegal, since the use of it allowed Holmes to do even more damage.


Derek Murphy said...

I think your points are valid. There is, however, a reason for the histrionic nature of the debate beyond ignorance and disingenuous lobbying. Guns are both feared and romanticized in American culture, so they are a catalyst for getting an emotional response, whether via the media or as part of political debate. Rational discourse about the topic just isn't as useful to the framers of the debate.

Gun regulation, like certain other areas of governance (e.g., redistricting) should be de-politicized. Firearm regulation should be taken away from BATF, which has bad history with gun owners and dealers, and handed over to a more independent organization -- perhaps something affiliated with the National Guard. Yeah, that's probably a pipe dream.

As an aside, I was an NRA member for several years. While a lot of their claims were pretty ridiculous, I liked the magazines and the local range. Then they started printing scare stories about immigrants -- and since my wife has a green card, I dropped my membership (although I expect they would still claim me as a "member").

Some Dude said...

The saddest thing is that gun owners across the country bought into [the NRA's BS].

I don't believe that is necessarily true, I don't know of a single gun owner (including myself) that believes the nonsense contained in the NRA's robo-dials.

The problem, as I see it, is that the NRA not only has the money to buy ads on television but they also have their publishing business which has been used in the past to sway voters; the politicians of both parties know and fear that more than repercussions from their inaction on the topic.

Couple the above with the general distrust of the American Government to do anything properly (remember, they just need to stop the mentally ill from buying guns but no legislation is ever going to be that simple) then add in the knowledge that it is easy to buy guns on the street* and it is easy to see why gun control isn't popular at all.