Judging by the information that’s currently available, there is virtually no gun-control law that could have stopped Jared Lee Loughner from killing six and wounding 14 on Saturday. He bought his gun legally, and he’d had no serious brushes with law enforcement or the nation’s mental-health infrastructure. The magazine he used had been covered by an earlier gun-control law, but that law banned only its manufacture and importation, not its ownership or use. Even the standard conservative line about guns — that allowing citizens to carry guns will prevent public shootings — didn’t pan out; Arizona has some of the most lenient gun laws in the nation, there is no evidence that the location of the shooting was a “gun-free zone,” and there was even a concealed-carry permit holder nearby.
That has not stopped the gun-control movement, of course. Its latest attempt to capitalize on this shooting is a proposal by Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) that would ban the carrying of a weapon “within 1,000 feet of the President, Vice President, Members of Congress or judges of the Federal Judiciary.”
It’s rather difficult to tell what this is supposed to accomplish. If someone intends to assassinate a public official, he’s already planning to break a few laws; there is absolutely no reason to believe that one more law — a law that will presumably mete out less punishment than do laws against murder — will affect his calculations. And given how easy it is to conceal a handgun until one’s target is in sight, there’s little hope that this law will help security or police officers disarm assassins before they commence shooting.
This isn’t mere conjecture. We have a lot of experience with “gun-free zones,” and the results aren’t promising. Until this recent tragedy, pro-gun bloggers and commentators had been noting the alarming trend that most public shootings happened in these areas — which include schools, courthouses, and private businesses that don’t allow guns. If your intention is to commit murder, you can minimize your chances of being stopped by targeting an area where everyone else will be unarmed. The Giffords shooting was an exception, but the overall trend remains clear.
Further, there are numerous legal and practical problems with the proposed law. Recent Supreme Court decisions protect the right of the individual to own handguns, and most states allow citizens to carry them. Do these rights disappear if a public official frequently comes within 1,000 feet of you? The bill would prohibit only “knowingly” carrying within this distance, but what if I know a judge lives next door? Does the Constitution give the federal government the right to go to this length to protect federal employees?
This was a senseless tragedy, and it seems natural to assume that in a properly governed country, things like this wouldn’t happen. But the fact is that any policy will fail to prevent some acts of malice: Strict gun-control laws leave the innocent unable to protect themselves; liberal gun laws make it easy for the ill-intentioned to get guns; prohibitions against criminals’ owning guns are never 100 percent effective. Our goal should be to strike a balance between self-defense and the disarmament of criminals, without violating the Second Amendment. Measures such as King’s have a strong tendency to prevent self-defense more than they do crime, and they keep the law-abiding from exercising their gun rights — the worst balance imaginable.
— Robert VerBruggen, a National Review associate editor, runs the Phi Beta Cons blog.