Gun Control: When Hysteria, Panic and Spectacle Render our Decisions Ineffective

Posted on February 1, 2013


My beef with the hearings on Capitol Hill this week is that they are highly emotional, and high emotions do not make for good, logical decisions.  But I guess that’s politics.

Case in point:  we have had a spate of highly spectacular shootings in this country.  The public and lawmakers have become hyperfocused on “assault weapons” almost to the exclusion of all other factors.  For instance, both the Aurora shooter and the Sandy Hook shooter had mental / emotional problems, but calls for better mental health care and intervention have been overwhelmed by the outcry over “assault weapons.”  And although handguns do far more damage day in, day out, in run-of -the-mill crimes everywhere, it seems that only the showy “assault weapons” and mass shootings get our attention.

History does not repeat, but it rhymes sometimes, they say.   In January 1989, Patrick Purdy – very like Adam Lanza some 24 years later – went to his former elementary school with an AK-47 lookalike, and fired off some 100 rounds, killing 6 and injuring 30 before committing suicide.  The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was instituted as a result.  The National Institute of Justice was tasked to evaluate the effects of the ban.   Their conclusion, which was published just one month before the 1999 Columbine shooting:  while crimes committed with the banned weapons declined, “The ban has failed to reduce the average number of victims per  gun murder incident or multiple gunshot wound victims.”  There it is again:  it’s not “assault weapons,” it’s any weapons.  If a criminal can’t get the spiffy-looking “assault weapon” of choice, he’ll just get a shotgun, or a high-caliber pistol.  They are just as lethal.  And that is just what the Columbine shooters did at the height of the ban: they illegally obtained shotguns, a carbine, and a pistol, with horrific results.

Why do I keep putting “assault weapons” in quotes?  Because they are not military-grade.  They look scary, but in the end, in terms of the ability to pump out rounds, they are really not much different from any pistol, semiautomatic  shotgun or repeating hunting rifle.   One squeeze of the trigger yields one shot.  You cannot fire it any faster than your finger can repeatedly pull the trigger.  Moreover, The Washington Sniper aside, most gun crimes are committed in very close range; a pistol is easier to conceal, easier to handle, easier to swing around in a tight space.  Of firearms murders in 2011, according to the FBI, over 72% were committed with handguns.  So again: why the focus on “assault weapons?”  Because they are showy, and banning them would make it look like the politicians had done something.

Human beings tend to focus far more attention and worry on the rare spectacular event than they do on mundane events, even though those mundane events may actually be more dangerous.  What is more likely to kill you:  a texting driver, or a terrorist?  A non-newsworthy medical mistake, or a fascinatingly creepy serial killer?  You know the answer.  But we focus our fear on the terrorist and the serial killer.

Basing sweeping legislation on rare, spectacular events just because they inflame the public imagination is not good policy, because it is not effective.  I want effective policies, not feel-good, look-at-us-we-did-something policies that don’t really help.  Even Vice President Joe Biden said that new gun-control measures will not “fundamentally alter” the likelihood of another mass shooting.  If that is so, then why do it?  Why not do something that might actually work?

I’m all for the universal background checks for weapons buyers, but face it, laws only affect the law-abiding, and the law-abiding are not the problem here.  Criminals are not going to go to a nice, licensed, play-by-the-rules gun dealer.  They will steal their weapons, or buy them on the street, or… get someone else to buy the weapons for them.  Like the underage Columbine shooters didLike the ex-con Webster shooter did.  Like lots of those run-of-the-mill criminals do.  According to the ATF, up to a third of trafficked guns passed through the hands of straw buyers.  That is a huge problem!  Another huge problem:  sometimes the straw buyers are punished; sometimes not.  If I could institute just one gun-control measure, it would be to increase the penalties for straw buyers, and make those penalties stick consistently.