In order to see new gun control laws as an appropriate response to the Las Vegas tragedy, one must assume the truth of several extremely tenuous claims, the most general being that such new laws would have any real impact on the ability of potential malefactors like the Vegas gunman to carry out their crimes. Available evidence gives us virtually no reason to believe that they would. To begin with, the most popular of gun control proposals do not target the kinds of behaviors that actually give rise to most gun violence.
Many recent mass shooters obtain their guns legally, after careful background checks of just the kind gun control advocates hope to extend. Would-be shooters who could not pass such a check will continue to avail themselves of one of the millions of firearms currently floating around the United States. If one is determined to kill, he’ll find a firearm (or other implement of death) rather easy to find.
One must also believe that the individuals charged with executing and enforcing strict new gun control measures are not themselves at least as dangerous as the general population. Most of the time, government is treated as a kind of benevolent deus ex machina, a disembodied entity that stands godlike, above and outside of society. This is a mistake of the most serious kind. That’s because the federal government is, under any rational standard, by any objective measure, the world’s most dangerous institution, responsible for more death and destruction than anything else currently operated by human beings. Every year, it is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, at war (officially or otherwise) all over the world.
When the subject of using public policy to save innocent lives comes up, these facts are conveniently overlooked, inconsonant with Beltway “respectable opinion.” But pause for a moment to step outside of the doublespeak and hypocrisy of politics, to consider the morally upside-down idea that the only institution to have deployed nuclear weapons should make the rules about firearms.
As UCLA’s Children of the Atomic Bomb research project observers, we will never know the true death toll of the atomic atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the end of 1945, up to 120,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki were dead. Upon even a moment’s reflection, the idea that we would allow such a government—a comparatively small group of human beings, after all — to dictate which guns the rest of us are allowed to possess simply boggles the mind. While the ineffectuality of gun control measures is well-documented and frequently highlighted, this other problem — which we can think of as a public choice or incentive problem — is almost never even noticed.
That we should believe these faraway government officials have the moral authority to dictate such terms is astounding on its face. The result of such a belief is a state of affairs fraught with moral hazard, for people, even those employed by government bodies, respond to incentives.
Available data furthermore indicate that gun control laws disproportionately impact minority communities. Progressives seem to think that we could somehow isolate gun control from the generally acknowledged problems with the criminal justice system. But as Meg Arnold and Nathan Goodman point out, “That same criminal justice system is responsible for enforcing gun control, and the results are tragically predictable.”
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, last year more than half of those convicted in the primary offense category of firearms were black. This is despite the fact that black Americans make up only about 13 percent of the country’s population. Not only are weapons charges and convictions concentrated among people of color, members of minority communities also receive longer sentences for nonviolent crimes. Thus, if we are at all sensitive to the available evidence, we should expect that stricter gun control measures will both fail to accomplish the goals as articulated and aggravate existing racial injustices related to criminal convictions and punishments. Jason Willick observes, “Gun control and tough-on-crime politics are two sides of the same coin.”
This combination of outcomes ought to dissuade us from calling for gun control, unless of course our calls have more to do with emotional satisfaction and virtue signaling than evidence. And, indeed, for its proponents, gun control, always vaguely-defined, seems to be something in the nature of a religious conviction. These facts suggest, at the very least, that we ought to be careful in our calls for empowering government officials at the expense of individual rights, that we should press politicians and bureaucrats to address the empirical record of both the government’s many violent crimes and gun control’s obvious failures to accomplish its ends.
Progressives imagine a government whose policies always function just as they are intended to, a government approximately flawless in its ability to tailor the policy means chosen to specific goals. This is to say that progressives imagine a government unlike any that has ever existed as a matter of fact, one morally pure of heart and perfectly omniscient. They would disarm peaceful Americans just as the country’s police forces are increasingly armed with military-grade weapons and tactical equipment.
David S. D'Amato writes for the Future of Freedom Foundation.