By: Ridgeway Woulfe
Mythbusting Gun Control
At this point in PIAC’s comprehensive gun control series, we discussed the impact of guns on American life, including its intimate connection to suicide and inter-familial violence. Here, we will analyze some of the most common myths about gun control.
Myth: If you make guns illegal, it won’t stop bad guys from having guns.
This argument goes that criminals (“bad guys”) are willing to do things that are illegal, while non-criminals (“good guys”) are not. Therefore, bad guys will be the only ones willing to have illegal guns, leaving the good guys powerless to stop the bad guys from running amok
Myth Busted: Real world examples demonstrate national criminalization of guns drastically reduces the use of guns to commit crimes.
This myth is commonly debunked by explaining how other countries have gone about bringing gun-deaths to nearly none (compared to the U.S.A’s more than 15,000 non-suicide gun deaths), but often ignore cultural, historical, and governmental differences that would require the U.S. to vary their models. Despite the differences, these models prove that specifically-tailored and comprehensive national gun control laws can make gun deaths less frequent than deaths by lightning strikes.
A post later in this series will provide a more extensive comparative analysis, but let’s just look at the numbers for a moment, which will be fleshed out in the later post. Looking at gun death numbers in 2017 produce the following result: the United States has a gun death rate 51 times higher than the UK, 17 times higher than Spain,10.2 times higher than Australia, and 9.3 times higher than Germany, which are some of the most highly regulated countries in the world.
Further, the fact that gun ownership correlates with gun deaths is both demonstrated and self-evident. This is made more alarming for Americans by the fact that U.S. civilians own nearly half of all civilian-owned guns worldwide.
Myth: Heavily regulated cities and states still have a lot of gun violence, proving gun control doesn’t work.
This argument looks to use gun violence as the reasoning why gun control isn’t needed. It points to the fact that there are cities and states who have enacted some of the strictest gun control measure who still suffer from gun violence. Among the favorite examples are California, Chicago, and Washington D.C.
Myth Busted: The most heavily regulated areas already suffered gun violence, and the lack of national gun regulation has ensured a continued flow of guns into these areas.
Common sense and statistics point to the first point, as the governmental bodies governing over gun-violence-stricken areas are more motivated and supported in making strict gun control laws. Cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C. have long suffered from violence. States like California have many cities where density tends to yield further gun violence. The fact that they have since enacted gun laws cannot be expected to immediately resolve the violence facing them. As you can see, even though homicides persist, they have trended downward as years have moved forward (though a number of circumstance indicate national trends of less homicide).
This is especially true when considering the larger gun control landscape. Each of these gun-controlled areas are neighbored by places with far more lax gun control laws. In Chicago, for instance, is nearly a fifth of the recovered guns came from nearby Indiana, who has far more lax gun laws. 40% come from the less regulated parts of Illinois. The rest come from a sprinkling of less-regulated states.
Washington, D.C. is surrounded by low-regulation states, resulting in most all of the city’s guns coming from Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Though information about the source of California’s guns is not readily available, neighboring Nevada and Arizona are a short drive and have less restrictive gun control measures. And as Chicago’s guns show, guns held in lax gun control states will find a way to travel, even if they do not directly neighbor the strict areas.
Another commonly cited example is Mexico. Mexico suffers from civil-war levels of gun violence and death despite strict gun control laws. In some years, it even eclipsed countries currently fighting a war. Mexico’s problem, like Chicago and Washington, D.C., is that it is bordered by a country with extremely lax gun control laws. Many of the guns used by the cartels in their drug wars are purchased legally in the United States.
This myth illustrates that gun violence is a national and international problem. It cannot be solved by individual cities and states, it must be addressed by federal legislation or a coordinated effort by a majority of the states.
Myth: The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
One of the buzziest myths there are, the argument goes that guns will never be eliminated, and their lethal nature makes them unstoppable without a similar lethal force to combat them. This argument gives rise to ideas like arming educators.
Myth Busted: There are numerous ways to stop a bad guy with a gun without well-intentioned civilians with a gun, and the good guys often make the situation worse.
Let’s call the first flaw the Man of Steel problem, is where two powerful forces meet, causing far more damage to the general public than if they did not exist. General Zod and Superman have the same amount of power. One is a bad guy out to take over the world, while the other is the ultimate icon of American goodness. The two tore Metropolis apart in battle, before the good guy actually won. The greatly toned-down version of this is the best-case scenario for the bad gun meets good gun argument, where injuries and risk are increased, but ultimately the bad guy goes down.
Aside from the physical risks involved, there are increasing reports of good guys with guns making the police’s job harder. This can happen in multiple ways. On the one hand, there’s the fact that everyday gun wielders are not the fictional Superman. Accidental gun deaths are more likely than stopping a crime when the good guy draws his weapon. Another issue is that it makes the bad guy harder for police to identify. 911 operators rely on calls describing the location of gun shots and descriptions in order to ascertain where police are needed. When a series of shots ring out, this information becomes less clear, often dividing police forces responding to gunfire (the Las Vegas shooting exemplifies the problem caused from misidentifying the location). The issue can be exacerbated when police can’t even tell who the good guy is and who the bad guy is, as they have little to no background information to rely upon. Even after it is all said and done, the multitude of gunshots means that police need to spend more time identifying the correct suspect.
The idea that there are no alternatives is also false. Police forces have increasingly futuristic, accurate, and non-lethal solutions to combat guns. We have long seen a number of gases used, and the next wave may be sound. Police sharpshooters also provide targeted solutions to dangerous situations. Clearly, the police have many alternatives. For common individuals, some feel the problems listed above are worth it to feel safe. Kept at its simplest, there are a number of alternative, non-lethal weapons to use. For those that argue they won’t be helpful against mass shooters with advanced weaponry spraying bullets randomly, nor will handguns, which brings it back to the very point of gun control.
Myth: The Second Amendment protects our ability to own and carry any firearms we wish.
This myth suffers from a fundamental understanding of how the Constitution works. It argues that because, like free speech, the right to bear arms is a Constitutionally protected right, that the government cannot infringe upon the right.
Myth Busted: Like any other Constitutional amendment, the rights it provides can be limited in a variety of ways and can vary by circumstance.
Free speech, the right to bear arms, and any other Constitutional law can be, and frequently is regulated. With freedom of speech, the Supreme Court has carved out exceptions for shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, defamation, protest locations, obscenity, and more. The Second Amendment itself is already somewhat limited, as fully automatic guns made after 1986 are generally illegal or, more obviously, you cannot own a tank, a 120 mm cannon, or a THAAD battery. There are numerous limitations on our rights, even if we often fail to recognize them.
And this is where a legal discussion starts. When limiting a “fundamental right,” which includes all rights included in the Constitution, the test is whether the restriction is narrowly tailored to fit a compelling government interest. The test is fairly subjective, with a “compelling interest” being variable as society progresses, as it did on racial and sexual orientation issues. As long as the Second Amendment continues to be active, there will be a degree of right to bear arms. It is an absolute myth, however, that the right to keep and bear arms in unlimited and unrestricted.
Myth: Gun control is a states’ rights issue.
This argument is another which relies on a misunderstanding of the Constitution. States’ rights are often cited to defend against big government, arguing that the federal government cannot infringe upon the states’ rights to regulate themselves.
Myth Busted: With extremely limited exception, the federal government has the right to regulate guns.
This myth is another which is legally invalid. The Constitution does limit federal involvement where it has not been explicitly granted power, but the enumerated powers can be used to accomplish much of the federal government’s regulation.
The most prevalent power used is the Commerce Clause. Over time, this power has grown to include the Dormant Commerce Clause, whereby the federal government can regulate the channels of interstate commerce (e.g. interstate highways and railroads), the instrumentalities of interstate commerce (vehicles), and anything that substantially affects interstate commerce. Through this, if anything involved in the process of attaining a gun is involved or the gun could have a substantial impact on interstate economics, the federal government can generally regulate it. It cannot, however, regulate wholly non-economic activity, such as possessing a gun in a school zone. The Supreme Court has limited the federal government’s ability to regulate gun control, but there is still plenty of room for regulation. While the federal government has traditionally made gun ownership a states’ rights issue, that does not mean it is without the power to regulate. There are a number of federal enactments that could legally be made at any time.
Myth: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
This is more of a myth of omission. This relies on two fundamental truths. First, it recognizes that guns, absent of human interaction, would cause no harm. Second is that people have always and will always murder others. By relying upon these two facts, the argument goes that harmful actions should be penalized, rather than imposing restrictions on gun ownership itself.
Myth Busted: While people do kill, in tandem with guns they are far more lethal
In a purely logical approach, this argument could be made for any inanimate objects that kill people: cars, lawnmowers, whatever you’d like. The fact that something is inanimate doesn’t make it above regulation.
Turning then to the more relevant point that people murder, regardless of the tools. As great as a utopic murder-free society would be, this will probably continue. The point, then, is to reduce our efficiency in doing so. Technology has moved our efficiency forward in many regards, and guns are no different. We have moved from the days of the musket to Iron Man-like assault rifles. We already have limits on civilians’ gun ownership to reduce the efficacy of murder, but even the difference from an AR-15 (the favorite of mass shooters) and handgun is drastic. As for reducing it to other forms of lethal weapons, I leave it to this oddly monotonous replication of a Chris Rock joke that can be found on Netflix.
Myth: [Insert Mass Shooting] didn’t actually happen. It was staged by the government to control the people.
Myth: There’s no legitimate reasons to own a gun in modern society.
Myth Busted: Look for next week’s entry in PIAC’s gun control series to see an exploration of why gun ownership can still be valuable