Politics & Policy

How to Spot a Serious Gun-Crime Proposal

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
There is not much cause for a panicked crackdown on the legal sale of firearms through firearms dealers. But demagogues benefit from panic.

There was another massacre, this one in Midland and Odessa, Texas. As usual, tragedy was followed by stupidity.

The New York Times, in its poetical mode, observed that the crime “clashed with the typically serene and dusty rural landscape of the region.” In reality, Odessa is the most dangerous city in Texas, with a murder rate about twice the national average. So much for “serene.” It is not particularly rural, either, though you pass through a good deal of rurality on the way there: Midland and Odessa effectively run together to form a city about the size of Madison, Wis., or Buffalo, N.Y. So much for “rural.”

It is dusty.

The killer was — see if this sounds familiar — well known to police, and well known to his neighbors as a raving lunatic who lived in a commercial shed without running water and at night fired his rifle into the darkness.

The usual ghouls were on their usual soapboxes before the blood had even dried. “Background checks!” they cried. Federal authorities then revealed that the killer already had been denied during an earlier attempt to purchase a firearm; our background-check system works when we work it. Which we do not always do: Sometimes, sales are approved when they should not be, as the result of delays in the background-check system; when the authorities become aware that such a sale has been wrongly approved, they make no effort at all to recover the firearms. It just is not done. Why? Bureaucratic inertia.

After the Midland-Odessa shootings, Joe Biden brought to bear his trademark alloy of dishonesty, sanctimony, and stupidity, insisting that only scheming special-interest groups had prevented us from taking the obvious measure of banning “magazines that can hold multiple bullets” — which is to say, magazines, categorically, inasmuch as holding multiple bullets is what magazines do. A proposal such as Biden suggests would mean an effective ban on nearly all modern handguns and most rifles, along with a goodly portion of shotguns.

“You don’t need a semiautomatic weapon for duck-hunting!” they cry. The word “semiautomatic” contains some emotional resonance, some connotation of “tacti-cool,” but in fact semiautomatic shotguns are pretty standard duck-hunting equipment.

Question: How is Biden’s ignorant puffery any less risible than the “thoughts and prayers” that our progressive friends so enjoy mocking in these incidents? Biden, and most other Democrats, propose almost exclusively unserious measures on the matter of firearms and violent crime, either through plain ignorance — you’ve heard people talk about how anybody can walk into a Walmart and buy a fully automatic rifle, no? — or through dishonesty and cowardice, which are closely allied in politics.

What might a serious proposal look like?

For one thing, a serious proposal would not carry the hallmark of the unserious proposal — i.e., it would not be focused, as progressives’ proposals almost exclusively are, on creating additional restrictions for federally licensed firearms dealers and the people who do business with them, people who constitute one of the statistically least criminally inclined demographics in these United States. It is difficult to become a licensed firearms dealer, and doing business with one — which is the exercise of a constitutional right — requires a lot more scrutiny than does, say, voting: valid photo identification from a small list of approved sources, background check, copious paperwork, etc.

The so-called assault rifles that make up a large part of the dealers’ inventories — because they are the most popular sporting firearms in the United States, owned by millions and millions of Americans — are used in crime so rarely that the FBI doesn’t even bother keeping statistics on them. Yes, they are sometimes used in the theatrical public shootings that sometimes command our national attention — which is what these acts of theater are intended to do — but those acts constitute a vanishingly small portion of violent crime in the United States. All “long guns” together — all rifles, shotguns, etc. — account for about 3 percent of murder weapons. For perspective: People who are beaten to death with the bare hands of their assailants are about double that percentage of all murder victims.

What’s missing is ordinary, unglamorous, labor-intensive law-enforcement and public-health work — i.e., the one thing no one employed by government will seriously contemplate and no politician answering to government workers and their unions will seriously consider. Instead: We complain about “straw buyers” but rarely prosecute them; some federal prosecutors refuse as a matter of publicly stated policy to take a straw-buyer case unless it is part of a larger (sexier) organized-crime investigation. Chicago manages to convict fewer than one in five of those arrested on weapons charges. A New York Times investigation found that about 90 percent of the killers identified in New York murder cases had prior criminal histories, often histories of violent crime. (About 70 percent of New York’s homicide victims also had prior criminal arrests.) On and on it goes: Ordinary crime and ordinary criminals, ordinary bureaucratic failure, and the occasional act of armed histrionics to keep the headlines churning.

The dentist laying down eight grand for a Wilson .45 down at the local gun shop, checking his email on his iPhone as he waits for his background check to be processed, is not likely to be a very important contributor to our national problem of criminal violence. But he is easy to police, and the licensed businesses (with fixed addresses, operating hours, business records, etc.) catering to him are easy to police, inasmuch as they largely police themselves.

The actual criminals? Chasing those troublesome scamps around the block is a lot of work. And expensive: By the end of the first quarter of 2018, the Philadelphia police department had used up all of its $57 million allotment of overtime pay for the year. The Philadelphia police department pays actual police officers substantial compensation to do things like act as program managers at the Police Athletic League. Philadelphia being Philadelphia, they manage even to do that corruptly.

The failings of our prosecutorial, probation, parole, and mental-health systems are fundamental and in some cases catastrophic. In spite of that, the U.S. homicide rate today is about what it was in the Eisenhower years. There is not very much cause for panic, and there is not very much cause for a panicked crackdown on the legal sale of firearms through firearms dealers. But demagogues benefit from panic. Demagogues love nothing better than a population that is ignorant and terrified, one that needs only someone to blame. Joe Biden, in his nearly pristine ignorance, is ready to supply whatever — whomever — suits on that front. Most Democrats and some Republicans are ready to go along with him.

Send a fool on a fool’s errand, they say. There, we have an embarrassment of riches. On the matter of intelligent measures to reduce crime, we are paupers.

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