|We're not sure how old this is, or which year is intended, but you get the idea. Courtesy of the Brady Campaign.|
Yesterday, while we waited for the kid to come home from kindergarten so we could hug him too much and then pretend that everything was normal, we had a little time to think about guns in America. We even took time to skim over the Supreme Court's decision in D.C. v. Heller, the case that overthrew the capital's handgun ban.
It's a well-written essay. It's easy to imagine how, were one inclined to believe that lightly-fettered gun ownership were a moral or social good, one might take great comfort from Heller.
Basically, Scalia -- we take it that the decision was principally Scalia's -- says that the right to keep and bear arms is a form of natural right, recognized by common law and affirmed, but not conferred, by the 2nd Amendment. He separates it, completely, from the ideas of "regulation" or a "militia," on linguistic grounds which seem to us feasible but by no means certain. Over and over, the decision returns to the idea that guns provide a means for individuals to protect themselves; ultimately, the right to own guns is founded on the right to defend one's own life.
The decision has nothing to do with, for example, a right to feed oneself by hunting, or to entertain oneself by collecting or competing at marksmanship. It is, entirely, about using guns for self-defense.
Surely you can see what's wrong with this idea.
Guns are not, by their nature, defensive weapons. If somebody shoots a bullet at you, the biggest gun in the world will not stop that bullet from hitting you. A vast pile of sand will. A wall may. A suit of body armor might, although it probably will not.
But do you know what works pretty well as a defense against guns? Fewer guns.
The trick is that it can't be a couple of guns fewer. If, like the United States, you have the world's highest rate of gun ownership (88 per 100 residents), it isn't enough to just cut the number in half -- Switzerland has 45 guns per 100 residents, and the second-highest rate of gun-related deaths in the developed world, after us.
To really cut the levels of gun violence, you can't just worry about the unlicensed guns, or the large-caliber guns, or the automatic guns. You can't trim a few Walthers here and snip a few Colts there and expect results. No, you need to change your laws in some pretty dramatic ways. A new and very strict regime of regulation, tracking and accountability is needed.
It's not just about reducing the absolute number of guns, either. Jamaica has a fairly low rate of gun ownership (7 per 100) but a sky-high rate of deaths by gunfire. El Salvador is similar. (On this terrifying chart, all of Latin America looks like a free-fire zone.) Clearly, these are places where the criminals can get guns, even if other people cannot. That's why regulation and accountability -- things that the developing world sorely lacks, but which developed nations can impose when they choose -- are so important.
Frankly, we don't have much hope of American laws ever changing that much. We love our guns too much; they are a deeply emotional symbol of individual freedom, of the power to defend oneself not only against criminals but against a coercive state. In much of the country, a politician trying to limit gun ownership will very quickly become a former politician. The supposedly (but don't kid yourself) apolitical Supreme Court is no help.
So far as we can see, there is no real way out of this mess. A country that cannot even stomach a ban on paramilitary rifles and submachine guns is certainly never going to accept the sort of laws that would make handguns and bolt-action hunting rifles as rare as hand grenades or sarin gas.
That's a shame, because until change on that scale takes place, we are at the mercy of the lowest common denominator. Perfectly legal guns, owned by reasonably responsible people, will still fall into the hands of criminals and crazy people. They are found in stolen cars or handbags, in burgled homes -- or in Mom's closet, Dad's pickup -- and then used in terrible, terrible ways. Although there is much we could do to help them, we can't make the criminals or the crazy people disappear. But we could take away their weapons -- if only we were not convinced that those weapons were somehow keeping us safe.