Thursday, April 14, 2011

Interest group politics: why can't we have sensible gun laws?

A little item in the New York Times the other day pointed out that gun regulation proponents are trying again.

TUCSON — Kelly O’Brien lost her fiancé, Gabe Zimmerman, on Jan. 8 when a gunman opened fire at a constituent event held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Ross Zimmerman lost his son. The two appeared at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday to support legislation banning large-capacity ammunition magazines like the one used in the killing of six people that day.

“We don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” said Ms. O’Brien, a nurse at Tucson Medical Center.

The prospects for any kind of legislation remain low. Unfettered gun propagation has a devoted, activist constituency. The rest of us just have common sense and a lot of other things to worry about.
After the Tucson shooting, I went looking for a text that delved into what I find incomprehensible: some of my fellow citizens think they have a human right to own a weapon whose sole purpose is to kill or maim someone. I just don't get it. The standard text seems to be Robert J. Spitzer's The Politics of Gun Control.

Spitzer, a Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York, College at Cortland, uses an international relations analogy to discuss why gun regulation is a hot button issue. He explains

..a national policy that encourages and implements weapons ownership as a recognized means of self-defense invites a domestic arms race.

... On the individual level, it seems commonsensical that a crime victim has a better chance of self-protection and crime suppression if the citizen is armed. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, some store owners saved their places of business by the display and even use of weapons. Yet this bit of apparent common sense is never held up to examination in the gun debate. That is, to have any meaningful effect, such an arming process must take place systematically, on a societal scale. We must then ask, what is the cumulative consequence of an implicit or explicit policy that encourages civilian arming to counteract crime and lawlessness in a modern, developed society?

Look -- we have plenty of reason to know what a widely armed, fearful society looks like: think Iraq in 2006 or maybe Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where there were 39 murders over last weekend. (If past experience holds up, it will turn out that the guns used in the latter case came from the U.S. Maybe this country needs an international intervention ... ) More guns means more shooting people ... when emotions run high.

For the moment, sensible gun regulation in this country probably can't happen. The people who want to keep shooting care more than their adversaries. Spitzer is right that what looks like sensible defense to some people looks like offensive threats to other people. This one is a generational struggle: gun proponents -- according to Spitzer "overwhelmingly white males, [likely to] live in rural areas (especially in the South), are likely to be Protestant, and are from "old stock" (that is, have ancestors who came to this country longer ago than the more recent immigrant waves)" -- will perhaps decrease in influence over time. Or not.

The Tucson shootings, traumatic as they were, probably aren't enough to tip the balance against unlimited guns, for now.

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