The call for a muscular governmental response each and every time that something bad happens in America is an unsavory reminder of what can best be described as our dumb first instinct — a hard-coded human reaction that is closely and dishonorably related to the same primeval impulse that leads frightened children to respond to disasters, abominations, and tragedies with a touching, but useless refrain, “make it better, Mommy.” This itch, which our 24/7 media and expansive government only make worse, should be steadfastly and reflexively resisted by those who value reason and liberty, and resisted especially vehemently when the proposed reaction would likely violate rights explicitly protected in the Constitution. Today’s shooting at the Naval Yard in Washington, D.C., is no exception to this rule.
Predictably, some of our self-appointed arbiters of taste have been quick to jump on the incident and to conclude that it justifies their particular desire for a change in the law. Among these are commentator, David Frum, and Happy Days actor, Henry Winkler, both of whom took almost immediately to Twitter and began proselytizing for stricter gun control. The pop-culture website BuzzFeed, meanwhile, joined a handful of other progressives in trying its hardest to link the shooting to the National Rifle Association. When the cooling period has been observed, others will inevitably follow suit. (Dianne Feinstein has since done precisely that.)
Horrific as they are, the events of today have few wider implications. If there is a more “gun free” zone in the United States than a Washington, D.C.–based Naval facility that houses non-combat groups such as the JAG Corps and the Navy Band then I would like to know where it is. Washington, D.C. itself is now so locked down that there isn’t even a (legal) gun store within the city limits (one has to get one’s firearms through a dealer who works out of the city’s police headquarters), it remains the last place in the country without a concealed-carry regime, and it inexplicably limits its residents to buying weapons that have been approved by the states of California and Massachusetts. At the Navy Yard, meanwhile, most military personnel are not armed, and neither are the civilians who make up most of the workforce. All visitors to the Yard are asked for ID on the way in, and, if it is deemed necessary, they are searched to make sure that they are carrying neither firearms nor contraband.
The first and most important question to ask those who reacted to today’s shooting with the predictable call for more laws — or, more amorphously, “outrage” — is, “what exactly would your desire changes do about this?” The most likely answer, as so often when unpredicable and imperfectable human beings are involved, is nothing. The federal Toomey-Manchin gun-control bill failed earlier this year in part because the American people instinctively oppose gun restrictions but also because none of the included proposals would have done the slightest thing to have prevented the abomination in response to which it was allegedly contrived — and everybody knew it. It is no accident that crime has dropped consistently over the last two decades while gun laws have been loosened in most states and at the federal level, and it is strange that the opponents of the right to bear arms have not bothered to master their subject sufficiently to respond to this stubborn fact with anything more than spluttering.
So, what from the usual laundry list would have stopped today’s slaughter? Banning “assault weapons”? Hardly. In 2011, just 323 deaths (including suicides, which make up around 66 percent of any “gun violence” statistic you’ll read) were caused by all types of rifles combined, let alone by those cosmetically “scary” rifles that progressive politicians pretend are the source of all America’s ills. According to reports, the shooter did not only have an AR-15, but was also carrying a shotgun (responsible for 356 deaths in 2011), hands and fists (responsible for 728 deaths in 2011), and a handgun (responsible for 6,220 deaths in 2011). If advocates of stricter gun control were as knowledgeable and consistent as they are morally hysterical, they would use this incident as a launching pad from which to propose further restrictions on the handguns and shotguns with which most of American violent crime is committed. But they won’t. Instead, they will continue to be morbidly fascinated by the AR-15 and by other black guns, and they will once again reveal themselves as ludicrous and unlettered to the weary swathes of the American electorate who know what the hell they are talking about.
Indeed, Vice-President Biden has already done his best to make himself look silly. Biden is not merely indifferent toward shotguns, but he actually wants you to buy one for your protection. Railing against the AR-15 earlier in the year, Biden started hypnotically telling audiences to “buy a shotgun, buy a shotgun.” Are we to presume from this, as gun-controllers inevitably conclude from Second Amendment advocates’ defense of “assault weapons,” that Joe Biden is an industry shill with “blood on his hands”? If not, why not?
How about stricter limits on gun types or magazine size? Would they have prevented today’s attack? Nah. Washington, D.C., already has all of the gun laws that the President and his acolytes wish to see imposed nationally, and more. What about “gun free zones”? Risible. Indeed, contrary to the impression under which most people evidently operate, military bases are generally deliberately devoid of firearms. It seems that, like Fort Hood, the base on which this shooting occurred was even more locked down than is the city in which it sits. But perhaps the administration has a neat solution to prevent military-contractors-turned-serial killers from stealing the identification credentials of licensed military personnel and illegally gaining entrance to federal facilities?
What about a longer-term plan slowly to “dry up the supply of weapons” à la Diane Feinstein? In America, forget it. Even if this incident spurred the federal government to push an “assault weapons” ban, strict limits on magazine size, background checks on private sales, and so forth, no bill in America is ever going to include an open confiscation provision — ever. Firearms not being perishable, this means that whatever weapons and magazines that are currently owned are going to remain available, and that criminals are not going to have any trouble availing themselves of them. And there are hundreds and hundreds of millions of guns.
This is key. Leaving to one side for a moment the constitutionality of gun control, it should be remembered that America is a nation with around 300-million-plus privately owned guns and a much-cherished constitutional amendment protecting the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. It is, in other words, like neither Britain nor Australia, both of which are favorite examples of the (admittedly rare) hard-liners who shy away neither from using the word “ban” nor from arguing that the country would be better off if an outright ban were imposed. In Britain, the 1997 gun ban prompted around 2,000 people to protest; in Australia, critics were a little louder, but they still allowed themselves to be disarmed without much of a fight. In the United States, conversely, it is neither hyperbolic nor unreasonable to predict that any attempt at either confiscation or prohibition of common weapons would start a second civil war.
To put it politely: Gun controllers should accept that, for better or for worse, in America the firearms ship has sailed. To put it bluntly: How naïve do you have to be to look at an event like this in a nation with hundreds of millions of privately owned guns and an explicit constitutional amendment that protects ownership and conclude, “let’s pass a law!”?
Efficacy notwithstanding, the only legal way of attempting to deal with what is, sadly, a highly unpredictable problem in America would be to criminalize the behavior of everybody in order to prevent the violations of the few. Earlier today, David Frum inadvertently demonstrated where the authoritarian mindset goes in the face of evil when he called for doing just that. On Twitter, Frum wrote sarcastically:
Rule 3: All gun owners are to be complimented as responsible and law-abiding until they personally have hurt themselves or somebody else.
Aha, a Minority Report-style Pre-Crime system! Perfect.
I understand that David Frum considers this to be amusing. But I do not. In fact, his suggestion should be taken literally. Treating “all gun owners . . . as responsible and law-abiding until they personally have hurt themselves or somebody else” is precisely how one should treat free people in a free country. It is, of course, much more scary to conclude that there is nothing the government can do about American gun violence, nor about the ugly proclivity toward evil that a few among us display. But it is also the truth, and the truth is no less the truth because it is unpleasant.