“So, to the glib critics of America’s gun culture: You cannot continue to have it both ways. If vast reductions in the supply of guns are the key to stopping mass shootings, tell us precisely what policies you propose. And then tell us how you intend to square those policies with the fact that Americans already own hundreds of millions of firearms…
…If you cannot reconcile these two things, then you owe America’s lawful gun owners a different conversation: One in which you try to convince them that they’d be better off under policies that would disarm good people in a fruitless attempt to keep bad men from getting guns.”, Nicholas Johnson, “The Progressive Gun-Control Charade”, The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2015
The Progressive Gun-Control Charade
After tragedy, politicians glibly call for unworkable reforms—then blame the ‘gun lobby’ when they fail.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
By Nicholas Johnson
In the wake of horrific crimes like the recent mass shooting in Oregon, many in the political class respond as if there were an easy way to keep such tragedies from happening. If it weren’t for the stubbornness of the National Rifle Association, the story goes, these deadly incidents could be prevented. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton urged “sensible restraints,” and said if she is elected president she would use her executive authority to impose them.
This sort of rhetoric suggests that there is a workable policy sitting on the shelf, ready for implementation. It also attempts to have it both ways, suggesting that effective gun control is possible without reaching into America’s gun safes and disarming ordinary citizens.
It’s notable how much the rhetoric has changed since the peak of the national gun-ban movement, when politicians talked honestly about reducing violence by constricting the gun supply—and what that would require. In a 1989 Senate hearing, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a Democrat from Ohio, candidly explained: “If you don’t ban all of them you might as well ban none of them.” But gun bans proved unpalatable to American voters in even the most liberal jurisdictions. In 1976 Massachusetts voters rejected a handgun ban referendum 69% to 24%, with 86% of eligible voters going to the polls. In 1982 California voters rejected a handgun “freeze,” which would have barred their sale, 63% to 37%, with a voter turnout of 72%.
In the decades since, the politics of gun control have become a kind of minuet. Progressive politicians pander to a core liberal constituency with gun-control rhetoric, all while chasing the votes of the 42% of American households, according to Gallup, that own one. The photo-op of the candidate duded up for hunting or skeet shooting is a common ploy.
Once elected, these politicians advance incremental gun restrictions that are demonstrably inadequate—for instance, the now-expired ban on “assault weapons,” which barred new sales of a narrow class of rifles outfitted with pistol grips and adjustable stocks but allowed continued sales of the same guns minus those features.
Gun owners and Second Amendment activists understand that Howard Metzenbaum was absolutely right about the logic of supply-side gun control. So they resist incremental gun controls on the understanding that the latest proposal cannot be the last step. And when these half-measures fail, in either passage or effectiveness, progressives can always blame the “gun lobby.”
This interplay allows progressive politicians to claim they have no interest in gun confiscation, and still wax heroic about lost battles over glittery legislative proposals that in practice would not have prevented the crimes they purport to address. Everyone, across the political spectrum, should reject this kind of duplicity.
As a candidate, Barack Obama said that he had no interest in trying to take peoples’ firearms. Now, beyond the influence of voters, the president has begun to elaborate his true inclinations. This month he praised Australia’s far-reaching gun-control efforts. In 1996, after a lunatic used a semiautomatic rifle to kill 34 people in Tasmania, the Australian government banned all semiautomatic rifles and repeating shotguns. Owners of these roughly 700,000 firearms (about a quarter of the country’s three million total guns) were required to turn them in for destruction. The government called this a “buyback,” but no one had a choice.
This sort of confiscation effort would not work in the U.S., and actually would make things worse. For one thing, these types of guns have many easy substitutes. (An Australian-style plan would leave roughly 100 million handguns in U.S. circulation.) For another, Americans own roughly 325 million guns, orders of magnitude more than any other country. The U.S. equivalent of the 700,000 guns confiscated in Australia would be many tens of millions of firearms, virtually none of which can be tracked to a particular owner.
In 2007 the International Small Arms Survey studied 72 countries that had attempted gun confiscation or registration, and found massive circumvention of these laws: an average of 2.6 illegal guns for every legal one. So if Americans, steeped in Second Amendment and frontier culture, defied gun bans at only the average rate that has occurred internationally, the result would be many millions of guns flooding the black market.
Still, President Obama’s open praise of the Australian gun ban is progress of a sort. It sets us on the path toward an honest debate about the confiscation policies that supply-side gun control inevitably requires. The challenge is to get the politicians who continue to crave the votes of gun owners to speak as candidly about this as the president has.
For instance, after strident but vague criticism of the gun lobby following the Oregon shooting, Hillary Clinton two weeks ago tepidly endorsed the Australian model, while getting all the details wrong. She asserted that it focused on automatic weapons (false) and suggested it was a voluntary buyback, like the “cash for clunkers” plan for retiring old cars (false). The Australian model was “worth considering,” but she said, “I do not know enough detail to tell you how we would do it, or how would it work.” When an MSNBC reporter then asked the campaign’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Palmieri, whether Mrs. Clinton was “suggesting confiscation of guns,” the answer was “of course not.”
So, to the glib critics of America’s gun culture: You cannot continue to have it both ways. If vast reductions in the supply of guns are the key to stopping mass shootings, tell us precisely what policies you propose. And then tell us how you intend to square those policies with the fact that Americans already own hundreds of millions of firearms.
If you cannot reconcile these two things, then you owe America’s lawful gun owners a different conversation: One in which you try to convince them that they’d be better off under policies that would disarm good people in a fruitless attempt to keep bad men from getting guns.
Mr. Johnson is a law professor at Fordham University and the author of “Firearms Law and the Second Amendment” (Aspen Casebooks, 2012).