In today’s New York Times, Nick Kristof runs through some of the old gun-control clichés. “We regulate toys and mutual funds, ladders and swimming pools,” Kristof writes. “Shouldn’t we regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys?”
Cars are actually the best example of the public health approach that we should apply to guns. Over the decades, we have systematically taken steps to make cars safer: We adopted seatbelts and airbags, limited licenses for teenage drivers, cracked down on drunken driving and established roundabouts and better crosswalks, auto safety inspections and rules about texting while driving.
Let us leave to one side that Americans do not enjoy an enumerated constitutional right to own cars, and ignore also that gun ownership is far, far more heavily regulated than “toys and mutual funds, ladders and swimming pools,” and instead focus on just how silly this comparison is. Cars and toys and ladders and swimming pools are dangerous by accident. Those things can hurt people, yes. But they do so when the user makes an error or when the manufacturer has got something wrong. Guns, by contrast, are explicitly designed to kill and to hurt things. That is their sole purpose. The problem with firearms in the United States is not that they are randomly going off all over the place like a cheap plastic firework, but that too many people are using them to do exactly what they are supposed to do. Each year, America plays host to about 20,000 gun-performed suicides and 10,000 gun-performed murders. These happen because people point guns at themselves or at other people and then pull the trigger. As of today, there were at least 300 million firearms in circulation, most of which work extremely well. You can’t stop their abuse with better engineering.
Not that this greatly matters, for Kristof’s focus on regulation appears to be little more than a rhetorical ruse. Throughout, he is noticeably careful to avoid words such as “ban” or “confiscate,” and he makes an effort to come across as if he merely wants the same sort of industrial oversight that is applied elsewhere. Toward the end, though, the mask slips. He writes:
We need universal background checks with more rigorous screening, limits on gun purchases to one a month to reduce trafficking, safe storage requirements, serial number markings that are more difficult to obliterate, waiting periods to buy a handgun — and more research on what steps would actually save lives. If the federal government won’t act, states should lead.
Australia is a model. In 1996, after a mass shooting there, the country united behind tougher firearm restrictions. The Journal of Public Health Policy notes that the firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and the firearm homicide rate was almost halved.
Did you notice the sleight of hand there? In the first of these two paragraphs, Kristof is Mr. Moderation and he Just Wants Things to Work Better. He’s for improved serial numbers and tighter storage rules and stricter screening requirements and targeted purchase delays. But then, in the next, he’s praising Australia, which country not only outlawed the sale of most mainstream firearms but indulged in the forceful confiscation of those that had already been bought. Suggesting that you’re for limited gun control and then mentioning Australia in the next breath is akin to suggesting you’re for extending alcohol abuse education programs and then lionizing Prohibition. It makes no sense. Which is it, Nick? Do you want my guns to have better etched serial numbers, or do you want the police to come to my door and take them away by force? Time to decide.
Note: Kristof’s glib suggestion that Australia’s gun control laws lowered the gun-related murder and suicide rates is hotly disputed. The overall rates certainly went down (as is the case pretty much everywhere over the same time period), but academics still disagree as to whether this is related to the confiscation. The University of Melbourne, for example, found that there was “no significant effect.”