Since President Obama’s election in 2008, gun sales have been brisk. Actually, that’s an understatement; they have been phenomenal. In jest, a number of gun stores have referred to the president as “Salesman of the Year” — for multiple years now.
Since the tragedy in Newtown, however, gun sales and specifically high-capacity magazine sales have taken a giant leap upward from what was already a rapid sales rate. A representative of one of the online sellers of high-capacity magazines recently stated they had sold in 72 hours as much product as they usually expect to sell in three and a half years.
You might expect that being a supporter of gun rights, that I would be thrilled by this news. I actually have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I am gratified to see that a large chunk of the American public can distinguish the actions of a madman from the device that he used. The core problem is the madness; the weapon is merely one method of expressing that evil. I would also like to think that most of the people engaging in these panic-buying sprees are going to be contacting their members of Congress and saying, “Wait a minute — a gun ban is the wrong strategy to pursue.” (I would like to think that, but I also know that there are many gun owners who would rather wait in line at a gun store for 30 minutes and plunk down $500 rather than take five minutes to e-mail their congresscritters.)
But another side of this panic buying concerns me. Many of the people making these panic purchases have grown up around guns and are knowledgeable about them. But there are others who are not. I can remember reading several tragic news reports of gun accidents after the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban was passed that that involved people with no prior gun experience who purchased a gun “while they still could.” Because of lack of training in these circumstances, people died. These were not common, of course: Accidental gun deaths are actually pretty infrequent in a country of 300 million people (there were 613 in 2007). Still, every accidental death is a tragedy, and like all pieces of dangerous machinery, guns deserve a great deal of respect. It’s worrisome that the media attempts to force gun restrictions may be encouraging people to purchase guns who otherwise might not do so.
There are many Americans who may not legally purchase or possess firearms, depending on the states in which they reside: convicted felons; those convicted of domestic-violence (even misdemeanors); those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital or otherwise adjudicated mentally defective; those who are not lawful residents of the United States. But there are many people who are not legally prohibited from owning guns for whom buying one would still be an unwise decision.
If someone is prone to deep depression, having a gun in the house may not be a great choice. If someone is prone to binge intoxication, having a gun around the house may not be a particularly good choice: Alcohol and guns (like alcohol and cars, alcohol and power tools, alcohol and ladders, in fact, alcohol and almost anything dangerous) are vastly more dangerous than guns alone. If one has a very, very short temper and is prone to violence, again owning a gun might not be a good idea. There should be no little concern about people who might not be well-suited to owning a gun, and who until now have not felt any great need to do so, running out and purchasing a gun “while they still can.”
Inevitably, at least a few of these people who might be better off not owning a gun are going to do something stupid or tragic over the next several years because of today’s panic buying. If the past history of gun control’s ineffectiveness at reducing crime is indicative, the gun-control movement may actually end up taking more lives than any law it passes will save.
— Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012).