Politics & Policy

Some Advice for President Clinton

Handgun on dislpay at a gun store in Smyrna, Ga., in 2012. (Reuters photo: Tami Chappell)
Elevating the gun debate from culture war to real reform

Madam President:

Criticized for his advising Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Milton Friedman offered the only persuasive response: “I gave him good advice.” I cannot congratulate you on your election — no sane person could — but I can offer some good advice.

There is not much to like about you. You are intellectually and morally stunted, a creature of pure politics who has never had a single interesting or original idea. You are deeply corrupt yourself and a source of corruption in others. The republic truly deserves better than you. You don’t just do discredit to your party and your country, but to your species. Unhappily for us, better wasn’t on the menu, only different varieties of horror.

That being said, there is one thing about you that gives me a little hope: You are a coward. You are so risk-averse politically and personally that you have a natural tendency toward what might be described as a kind of conservatism — not conservatism of the Buckley–Goldwater–Reagan variety, but a certain conservatism of disposition, at least in comparison to such sans-culottes specimens as Bernie Sanders. I expect, and hope, that you will give into that salubrious terror and proceed with extreme caution.

Unlike Elizabeth Warren, your heart isn’t in it when it comes to organizing a political firing line for your benefactors at Goldman Sachs, and you were, oddly enough, somewhat to the right of your Republican opponent in the presidential election on foreign policy. Watching you talk about “green energy jobs” is like watching that awkwardly dancing guy who doesn’t know that he’s a little too old for the club into which he has wandered on a Saturday night. You’re more in the Wilson-FDR tradition than in the Noam Chomsky tradition — a totalitarian and a would-be tyrant, sure, but also a conventional welfare-statist of the conventional Bismarckian variety.

Hooray for us.

Still, one suspects that you are going to feel the need to throw a few mackerel to the barking seals who make up the largest and most energetic part of your daft and monstrous political party, and I fear that you will settle on gun control as your symbolic issue. It has been a while since Democrats have burned their fingers on that particular stove, and the electorate and culture have changed a bit since then.

You could, if you’re halfway clever, actually get this one right.

Let us begin with the basics: The United States of America may be a beacon of liberty and prosperity to the world, but it is also a horrifyingly violent society. Firearms are not the live variable in this: We are off the charts when it comes to stabbings, beating people to death, strangulations, homicidal drownings, any kind of murder you can think of. We also have very high rates of deaths from drugs and alcohol, motor-vehicle mishaps, accidents, and the like. The question of why, exactly, that is the case is a matter of intense scholarly interest, and there is, so far, no conclusive answer. But any discussion of homicide in the United States, whether it is of the Chicago street-corner-gangster variety or the lonely-misfit-shoots-up-the-school variety, must begin with the knowledge that we are an unusually violent and unruly people, and have been for a long time. The Swiss keep the prime criminal demographic, young men, armed to the teeth, not with what your friends like to call “military-style” weapons but with actual military weapons, and they have fewer murders in a year than Chicago has on a bad Saturday night. The issue is the character of the people, not the state of gun laws.

But that is not to say that there is not room for improvement when it comes to the intersection of guns, crime, and violence. And that’s where you could, if you were so inclined, proceed in a way that not only wouldn’t antagonize Second Amendment partisans such as myself but would in fact invite our cooperation.

The first thing you should do is have a conference call with your U.S. attorneys and insist that they either start prosecuting straw-buyer cases or start putting their personal possessions into shoeboxes and scooting their lazy asses out the door. We have, at the federal level, robust laws for the prosecution of “straw buyers,” people who have clean criminal records and act as proxies for felons and others unable to legally purchase guns. Straw purchases are not the only or even the main way by which firearms find their way into the hands of those forbidden to possess them, but they aren’t a negligible one, either. Unfortunately, many federal prosecutors (including the one responsible for Chicago) as a matter of openly stated policy refuse to prosecute these cases unless there is a sexier angle to the case, such as a shot at a major trafficking ring or an opportunity for a headline-grabbing organized-crime prosecution.

Not every defendant is sympathetic, and prosecuting a few of the sympathetic ones might be useful, too.

What’s worse is that a great many straw buyers are sympathetic defendants: girlfriends, grandmothers, and kid sisters of hard career criminals bullied (or worse) into making those illegal purchases. But not every defendant is sympathetic, and prosecuting a few of the sympathetic ones might be useful, too. Lying on the paperwork submitting to purchase a firearm is perjury, and suborning perjury is a crime, too, one that should be prosecuted more frequently than it is. (For example, you probably should have faced that charge once or twice in your career. But never mind that for now.) The ATF simply refuses to prosecute these crimes, a refusal blessed from the White House itself. In a meeting with NRA leaders, Vice President Joe Biden scoffed at the idea of prosecuting these crimes: “We simply don’t have the time or manpower to prosecute everybody who lies on a form,” he said.

If you are serious about what you insist on calling “gun violence” — which is to say, murder and other violent crime — then you should see to it that these cases are prosecuted.

#share#Most of the responsibility for crime control lies with state and local powers. But, as it happens, most of the jurisdictions with the worst crime problems are dominated by members of your political party. (Strange, that.) While you cannot simply give them orders the way you can federal prosecutors, you can cajole and coerce them into doing the right thing, for example by making certain federal grants contingent upon actually enforcing the laws we already have regarding the illegal use of firearms.

Police departments in places such as Chicago and Philadelphia often put out press releases about sweeps in which a hundred or more illegal guns have been seized, generally accompanied by publicity photos of firearms arrayed on tables. “Look what we have done!” the mayor and the police chief will crow. That is all good and fine, but the next part — prosecutions for those illegal firearms possession cases — often simply never happens. The ratio of seizures of illegally possessed firearms to prosecutions in firearms cases is shocking. The statistics from places such as Chicago and Detroit suggest that not one out of 50 gun seizures results in a felony conviction.

You were savaged in the primary for your historical support for mandatory minimums and your loose and admittedly stupid talk about “super predators,” and so the next step — pressing for more numerous and vigorous prosecutions of violent crimes short of murder — may not appeal to you. But it must be done. In New York City, which you once pretended to represent as senator, the vast majority of murders — more than 90 percent by the New York Times’s count — are committed by people with prior criminal histories. Kathryn Steinle, the young murder victim upon whose corpse Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, was murdered by an illegal immigrant with seven felony convictions. There is no excuse for such a man to be anywhere other than a prison cell. But what this all implies is not only the need for a more serious approach to violent crime short of murder but also wide and deep reform to our probation and parole systems. Mental-health reform also will need to be a part of the program — another topic upon which you could, if you desired, offer policy solutions that would be supported by many conservatives, from former Texas governor Rick Perry to the editors of National Review.

Mental-health reform also will need to be a part of the program.

You know the problems you will face from my people. But the real problem you face in pursuing what we might call “common-sense” reforms come from your people. For your people, the question of the Second Amendment and access to legal firearms is pure culture war. So-called assault rifles are so seldom used in crimes that the federal government does not even bother keeping track of the figures. (All long guns — which is to say, all rifles and shotguns combined — account for the instrument of death in about 2 percent of our homicides.) It is for this reason that Democrats’ gun-control offerings have been targeted almost exclusively at law-abiding gun owners and federally regulated and licensed firearms dealers, two groups of people who, statistically speaking, commit essentially no crime at all. That they are disproportionately white, male, and conservative-leaning makes them attractive targets for the kulturkampf Left, and that they have fixed business addresses, regular hours of operation, and copious business records makes them attractive targets for law-enforcement officials, who are no more inclined toward hard work than are the functionaries of any other government agency. But leaning on them will serve only to inflame partisan passions and genuine constitutional concerns. It will do nothing at all to make our cities or schools safer.

That being the case, you should proceed with these assumptions: The Second Amendment does indeed, as the Supreme Court has decisively ruled, protect an individual right to keep and bear arms, including all of the arms that it currently is legal for civilians to keep and bear; the obsession with such armory exotica as fully automatic weapons (one legally owned by a civilian has not been used in a murder in modern history) or accessories such as sound suppressors and folding stocks does not actually contribute to public safety; the approach to reform that relies on harassing and restricting federally licensed dealers and their law-abiding customers rather than prosecuting criminals is intended mainly to humiliate hated cultural and political rivals in the service of culture war and will produce nothing but conflict and litigation; the situations in cities such as Chicago and Baltimore, and in cases such as that of Adam Lanza, represent institutional failures, both of law-enforcement agencies and mental-health authorities, the reform of which must be central to any serious effort at crime reduction.

We conservatives do not like you, Madam President, and we are not going to learn to like you. But many of us would in fact prefer to work with you on useful and productive measures than to be obliged to work against you on stupid and destructive ones. There will be plenty of time for the latter, I am sure, but if you are serious about the violence in our society, there is an opportunity for you to do something good — and a smart president would seize that opportunity.

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