As I’ve written before, the intersection between tragedy and public policy is a tricky one. On the one hand, dramatic events can reveal problems with our laws, and in such cases we should fix them. On the other, the “do something” instinct can make it easier for politicians to push their current agendas by exploiting the tragedy.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest comments about guns are a combination of the two:
You’d think that if a congresswoman got shot in the head, that would have changed Congress’s views. I can tell you how to change it, just get Congress to come with me to the hospital when I’ve got tell tell somebody that their son or daughter, their spouse, their parent is not going to come home again. This past, this week, even though the murder rate in New York is so much lower than almost every big city, we still had a cop shot last week with a gun that somebody had even though the federal laws prohibited that person from having a gun.
You know, the federal laws say you can’t get a gun if you have a drug problem, psychiatric problems, criminal record or [if you are] a minor. And yet Congress doesn’t give moneys to make sure we can have a background check. They have too many loopholes. The background databases aren’t up to date. Private sector sales of guns are something like 40 percent and they don’t do background checks, I don’t know who has to get killed for people to start saying “wait a second, this is enough.”
The first paragraph, of course, is sheer exploitation — he simply mentions the Gabrielle Giffords case, a hypothetical but emotionally charged instance of a family member who falls victim to gun violence, and a police officer who was shot in an effort to tug on listeners’ heartstrings. These three cases are connected only by the idea that we should make more of an effort to keep guns out of the hands of people who are forbidden to have them. In the Giffords case, that means people who have a history of mental problems; in the case of the officer shooting he seems to be referring to, that means people who have already been convicted of felonies.
I have to say, though, that the second paragraph seems to be a step in the right direction for Bloomberg. He seems to be suggesting that we do more to keep the mental-health database up to date, and that we require private firearm sales to go through license dealers so that background checks are performed. (Under current law, licensed dealers have to perform background checks, but once a private citizen owns a gun, he’s free to sell it without a check.) Improving the mental-health database is an unambiguously good idea, and requiring background checks for private sales is at least debatable — a fair number of crime guns seem to come from private sources, and it’s not unreasonable to ask someone who wants to transfer a gun to drive to a licensed dealer first. (California allows dealers to charge $35 for the service; another option would be for the government to pay.)
That stands in contrast to the gun-control efforts Bloomberg has spearheaded in the past — including suing gun dealers when their legally sold products are used in crime.