Wednesday, the nation’s lighthearted Valentine’s Day festivities were cut short by tragic news out of Florida. A nineteen-year-old former student, who had previously been expelled for disciplinary issues, killed seventeen in a shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
In the immediate aftermath, a depressingly predictable cavalcade of political reactions flooded social media. For opponents of gun control, it was crass politicization. For proponents of greater restrictions, the shooting only underscores the need for action.
While those in Florida mourn and the nation goes through the rote ritualized debate about gun laws, it’s worth understanding why these incidents have negligible long-term effect on public opinion regarding gun laws.
The gun control debate is not between people who want fewer murders and those who just don’t care.
Public opinion polling on gun control shows an extremely divided public. While certain measures often poll better, in the abstract near-even numbers of Americans support and oppose making gun laws “more strict.” That figure is actually on a long-term decline: from the 1970s to the 1990s, support for gun control was much stronger, and American states often had greater restrictions on things like concealed carry.
That began to level off in the mid-early 2000s, and has been remarkably steady since. Recent high-profile mass shootings, in spite of heavy focus by the media, don’t seem to have any persistent effect on that.
For proponents of gun control, this is often alleged to be a sign of American indifference to the casualties of mass shootings. In fact, people continue to oppose gun control laws, for the most part, because they don’t believe they will work.
For Second Amendment advocates, it can often be frustrating to be accused of indifference or even complicity towards horrific acts murder, simply for not supporting laws that would have often had no effect on the ability of the killer to obtain a firearm.
It’s not bad faith to question the effectiveness of gun control
The federal assault weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004 had no discernible effect on either violent crime in general, nor mass-shooting incidents in particular. The deadliest school shooting to date, at Virginia Tech in 2007, saw the killer leave thirty-three dead with two common handguns.
Background checks would not have flagged most spree killers, either, since most don’t have the relevant criminal or psychological history to show up in the federal NICS database. All of the expanding databases in the world will never catch people who have a clean record, which is the case more often than not.
Mass shootings are also a problematic lens to examine gun laws through, since they are so relatively rare. As a percentage of total homicides in the United States, they amount to less than 1%. A policy that completely eliminated them, as desirable as that would be, would have little effect on the overall rates of violent crimes and murder.
More broadly, the debate about gun laws isn’t just one over statistics. It is a question of values and priorities. For some, it’s an underlying principle that the government should not criminalize actions that do not directly cause harm. There are millions of legal gun owners, including millions who have used their firearms for self defense, as is their constitutionally protected right. These are value judgements and experiences that can’t be wished away or expunged from the electorate.
When it comes to schools, there are also reasonable arguments that on-site defensive measures may be of more utility than laws that try to indirectly decrease the availability of guns. Others point to the ease with which gun laws are evaded, both by the black market and even amateur home manufacturers. For many, gun control laws are themselves the problem: with “gun-free school zones” becoming a sick mockery and undefended target.
These are arguments that advocates of these or other gun control laws may have their responses to, explaining on the merits why the beneficial effects of their preferred policy would outweigh the costs. They are entitled to make that case, and have that debate. But what it’s not, is a debate between people who want fewer murders and those who don’t care.
If sincere advocates of more gun laws want to be heard, and to persuade, they should not start from the assumption that anybody who disagrees with them, does so out of sociopathic blood-lust. There are good-faith debates to be had about the effectiveness and worthiness of gun control proposals.
(Photo of candlelight vigil held after the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting by C. Mendoza via Wikipedia)