The Practicalities of Gun Control

by Jonathan Wallace

I said, "guns are an environmental issue." John Trentes says they are not.

One thing I've learned talking to Second Amendment advocates and travelling to places where guns are part of family culture: there's a big urban/rural component in our differences. The idea of a gun as our individual bulwark against crime works much better in a rural environment. Here you have what I call the "In Cold Blood" scenario: an isolated house, and an intruder with forethought and some rationality. As John points out, the knowledge that the household has a gun (or is likely to, because everyone has one) may be a significant deterrent to the criminal (at least the rational one). Most of the pro-gun practical rhetoric of self-defense is based on the "In Cold Blood" scenario.

Now contrast the urban situation. Buildings with large numbers of apartments and thin walls. Public spaces with large crowds of people packed together. The gun as a mechanism of individual self-defense has very different implications. My neighbor's ownership of a gun is an environmental issue if I am separated from him by a few inches of wall; the bullet he fires in self-defense may enter my apartment and hurt me. Similarly, it is not clear to me I am safer in a densely-populated public place if multiple fellow citizens are packing and ready to fire. Even New York's highly trained cops shoot a certain number of bystanders (more, with more serious injuries, since they got their Glocks). I don't want people defending me who only had to go through a day of training (or none at all) to get their concealed carry licenses.

John's reply to this might be that I am assuming bullets will be fired. What about the fact that criminals are less likely to act if they assume everyone is packing? My answer to this is that we are again possibly looking at an urban-rural distinction here. The classic "In Cold Blood" scenario assumes a criminal with some amount of forethought and a sense of self- preservation. In the major cities, we now have a phenomenon of young criminals pre-paying their funerals because they expect to be dead before age 25. And they are firing shots at each other, with the knowledge that all their peers are packing, and those shots are flying through urban windows and walls and killing people. None of the usual assumptions about deterrence are working--and on top of that the people getting shot are bystanders at a distance who, even if they were armed, would have no reasonable chance to defend themselves.

Here's the punchline: the majority of the guns these young criminals are using are legally purchased in the American South. One state-- I think it was Virginia--imposed a one gun a month limit on purchases because it was ashamed to be the major source of murder weapons for New York City. People are taking Route 95 to southern states, lining up a local resident to help out, and buying loads of weapons that they truck back to New York.

Guns are an environmental problem. I live downstream from you on a river--Route 95. Your lifestyle is creating byproducts--the guns that come downstream--that are affecting mine. From a practical standpoint, there are ways that you can preserve your lifestyle without harming mine. One state did it by imposing purchase limits. There are other solutions we could also look at--in a spirit of cooperation and compromise--that would help stem the flow of guns into places where the majority of people do not want them.

But this is not what I usually hear when I talk to Second Amendment advocates. Instead, I hear "Gun control doesn't work." Why doesn't it work? "Look at the murder levels in New York City." Yes, but the guns are purchased from your next door neighbor, the gun dealer. I never get a good answer to that. "The Second Amendment says...." or "People have an individual right to...." are not answers to a practical dilemma. What we are discussing here is not whether the cooperation I am asking for is LEGAL or MORAL. I want to understand why it is not PRACTICAL.

I also hear a lot of "if you had stricter laws.....locked 'em up longer.... the death penalty." Yes, we should pursue multiple solutions simultaneously. Stricter laws are not enough to solve the problem by themselves. Also, young criminals with prepaid funerals may not be much deterred by stricter laws, any more than they are by the fact that their peers, at whom they are firing, are carrying. Why won't you help out in limiting the number of guns that your next door neighbor sells to these criminals? From a practical standpoint, don't you think that would be at least a little help?

In the wake of the recent Arkansas school yard shootings, I heard some voices talk about ways that the families could have kept the guns more secure from the children, or raised them better. But I also heard people say that if the schoolteacher had been carrying a gun in her purse, she could have ended the incident or even deterred it from happening. Think for a second about a practical response which says that the answer is to put more guns in proximity to children, rather than keeping guns out of the hands of children. A variation of the same philosophy is what urban dwellers who don't want guns always hear: "If we increased the density of guns in your city, we would end the problem."

I believe in responsibility: in the truism, so often heard at high school graduations, that there are no rights without responsibilities. Too much of the time, gun advocates find excuses--the Second Amendment, or philosophical or practical arguments--to deny any responsibility. Again, in the Arkansas situation, there were voices ready to place the whole blame on Hollywood! I think there is enough responsibility to go around. I would like to hear gun advocates take some responsibility for guns getting into communities that don't want them.

John Trentes doesn't want to live in Walden Township. He has a right not to. He thinks no-one should want to live there. That's fine too. But when we go a step further and say that our laws should overtly or de facto prevent me from creating a gun free community, libertarians should object. It is a matter of personal liberty. As a real estate developer creating Walden Township, I should have the right to make that choice. Liberty allows me to make choices that you disagree with, or think are foolhardy or even fatal. The practical solutions I am suggesting promote diversity and cooperation. Many of the Second Amendment advocates I talk to strike me as wanting to impose their lifestyle on me, much as they accuse gun control advocates of dictating a lifestyle to them.