Gun Rights and the Density Divide

Jeffrey Goldberg makes an important point about the politics of gun rights:

An important, and overlooked, fact of the Sandy Hook tragedy is that it took police 20 minutes to arrive at the school. The police are spread too thinly across many American communities to stop shootings in their first moments. And armed civilians have been instrumental in stopping shootings at New Life Church in Colorado, Pearl High School in Mississippi and elsewhere.

The great American crime decline has been uneven — crime has fallen further in New York city and Los Angeles than in other large U.S. cities, and it is far lower in neighborhoods with high concentrations of college-educated adults than in other neighborhoods. And so the expectation of relatively high-quality police protection is arguably stronger now among “influencers” than it might have been twenty years ago. Strengthening police protection in high-crime neighborhoods in dense cities is and ought to be a high priority, not least because it promises significant economic dividends.

But low-density regions will never achieve the same levels of police protection found in urban areas, for the simple reason that it is impracticable for law enforcement officials to traverse long distances at extremely high speeds — until we create teleportation devices, that is. The subjective experience of many Americans in low-density regions is thus that they are the first line of defense against any number of threats. This is one of the fundamental reasons why national efforts to regulate firearms will always be contentious.

Advocates of more strenuous gun regulation would do well to appreciate the subjective experience of Americans living in low-density regions — and of course opponents of gun regulation should give more leeway to elected officials like Gov. Chris Christie, who serve dense constituencies where pervasive, high-quality police protection is an achievable goal density gives rise to strains (anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia appear to be more common in dense urban environments) and tensions (life in big cities inevitably involves frequent and occasionally stressful interactions with strangers, not all of whom are friendly) that give rise to deep fears of armed violence. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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