Why Americans shouldn't despair about gun control
Mass shootings are so common nowadays that the sheer repetitiveness is becoming one of the most striking things about them. At a press conference to express sympathy with the most recent victims, a visibly frustrated President Obama mocked his own part in the macabre ceremony, all but predicting that he'd have to do it again before his term was up.
The Republican-controlled Congress will do nothing, that's for sure. The apparent imperviousness of the American political system to even token gun policy reform has led to outright despair among many liberals:
In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.
— Dan Hodges (@DPJHodges) June 19, 2015
This attitude is mistaken, if understandable. While there is little prospect of gun policy in the near or medium term, it's not by any means ruled out. Most Americans have not concluded that regular massacres are "bearable" — our stupid government structure just makes it very hard to change any law. But it's not at all impossible.
Consider ObamaCare. This messy, incomplete, yet workable framework for finally achieving some semblance of universal health insurance has been over a century in the making. Efforts towards it failed in 1917, 1937, 1939, and 1946, killed by various combinations of racism, red-baiting, and appalling selfishness on the part of the doctors' lobby. Big progress was made in the 1960s with Medicare and Medicaid, though it took 20 years to get the latter in every state. Further efforts failed in 1971 and 1993, until ObamaCare was finally passed in 2010 and implemented in 2013.
It's not a coincidence that America is just about always the very last developed nation to pass reasonable social protections that have been around in peer nations for decades, if not centuries. Our constitutional structure is ludicrously outdated. We make it all but impossible to pass legislation, so hair-on-fire problems tend to fester for decade after decade. Aside from health care, it took 90 years to get an anti-lynching bill. Almost alone in the world, we still have no paid leave policy and preposterously low family benefits.
But while the American government is a rheumy old geezer compared to New Zealand's slick and efficient one, it's not completely dead. Barring a total political collapse, every 20 years or so the stars align and the government horks down a colossal slug of policymaking. Chances are good that gun control will be included in the next Democratic slug.
Many Democratic Party elites have committed strongly to gun control, including President Obama. They have been helped along by the NRA, which is close to becoming a thoroughly partisan operation. Reasonable pro-gun Democrats now get virtually no support from the gun lobby, so party moderates increasingly don't stand to benefit politically from opposing gun control. As Paul Waldman points out, the NRA is to some degree a paper tiger. Public opinion supports many moderate gun control policies. Terry McAuliffe and John Hickenlooper both squeaked out victories for the governorship of swing states (Virginia and Colorado, respectively) over strong opposition from the group.
And on a grim final note, there is every reason to think mass shootings will continue on their current clockwork pace. Many people, including myself, have become rather disturbingly inured to them, but rest assured pressure will continue to build at the grassroots.
So what should be done? America is literally the most heavily armed society in the world, with 310 million civilian firearms — or roughly one per person (though the rate of overall gun ownership has been falling for years). As Ryan Decker points out, one would have to remove about 30,000 guns to prevent one homicide, making an Australia-style buyback policy stupendously expensive even if it could pass constitutional muster (which it probably wouldn't).
However, Decker notes that ownership is also heavily concentrated, with 20 percent of owners accounting for 65 percent of the guns. This suggests that much sharper restrictions on trade and sale, combined with background checks and waiting periods, could make some dent in the availability of guns for impulsive killers, while only slightly inconveniencing the collector and sportsman market.
Also, as Jamelle Bouie notes, while there is something uniquely horrible and traumatic about spree killings, the vast bulk of gun violence takes place in black communities. This is the predictable result of segregation, poverty, poor policing, and the drug war, but it is still a monster problem. Buyback and confiscation programs aimed at illegal gun markets in inner cities would be a lot cheaper than a nationwide one, and would be a lot likelier to work well. They would work even better if more stringent federal policy ironed out some of the differences between cities and the countryside — thus making life harder for gun traffickers.
This is just a napkin sketch of a gun program. The point is that some kind of reform is on the horizon. It will come too late for tens of thousands of gun victims, but it will come eventually.