From Aurora (CO) to Sandy Hook to Charleston to Chicago, violent gun tragedies in America, justifiably, have grabbed headline attention over the last few years. Activists decry the violence, the media spills much ink, and public officials engage in partisan grandstanding, but not a whole lot has been accomplished to solve the ongoing problem of homicide via guns. The violence continues, and thousands of innocent people are killed annually.
What do we make of all this? For sure, there’s a lot of
blame to go around. One major failure is the inability of liberals and
conservatives in Washington to bridge their differences and put forward effective
policies. A major factor here is the ideological differences between both
sides. This is what I’d like to focus on in this post. To explore these
differences, let’s take a quick look at four salient gun debates that liberals
and conservatives are currently engaged in. It’s the sharp disagreements on
these debates, in part, effectively hamper much problem solving on guns from
Conservatives are right that more laws aren’t a panacea, as
they don’t completely eliminate gun violence. Bureaucrats and their underlings
make mistakes, there are administrative screw-ups and legal loopholes abound.
For example, people who should be excluded from buying guns via background
checks frequently aren’t prevented from doing so. They don’t show up as mental
health risks, felons, etc.
But liberals are right, too, in that more laws can help
reduce gun violence. Well-written and enforced laws can make it more difficult
for miscreants and the troubled to gain access to weapons. It takes the White
House, Congress, States, the FBI, police, judges, and so on, to get on the same
page to craft and execute and monitor good legislation and to capture and
punish those who violate the law. True, but that’s something that’s much easier
said than done, however—as conservatives like to point out.
Conservatives emphasize personal responsibility. Do the
crime, do the time. They support strong, strict prison sentences for gun
violence, illegal possession of weapons, etc. And they also exhort people who
know and are in contact with gun violators and criminals to play their part by contacting
police and mental health professionals. It’s their job as moral citizens.
Liberals say that harsh criminal sentences haven’t been an
effective deterrent mechanism to prevent gun violence. Liberals would agree
that 3rd parties could do a better job in being a part of the
solution, but believe that there can be limits to their effectiveness and
willingness to do so. Gun criminals often hang around with people who
themselves aren’t great citizens, not particularly responsible, and aren’t
inclined to act as community watchdogs. Moreover, in some cases, tattling could
mean that people implicate themselves in crimes. So the incentive to
participate isn’t always there.
Conservatives argue that gun rights are enshrined in the
second amendment. They are a necessary hedge against a future tyrannical American
government. Additionally, conservatives argue that the right to self-defense is
a constitutionally protected right and has been upheld repeatedly, even expanded,
in legal cases. Hence, any attempt to sharply roll back the freedom of Americans
to acquire guns violate the Constitution and should be prohibited. Simple as
Most liberals are willing to bend on the primacy of the 2nd
amendment. They think the problem of gun rights is serious enough to create
laws that circumscribe gun rights. Besides, the 2nd amendment was
written at a time in which the American republic was nascent and fragile, and
when their experience with harsh British rule was fresh on their minds. Times
have significantly changed, say liberals.
Moreover, what can citizens really do by hoarding weapons
individually or collectively? The asymmetry in power between the government and
private citizens has only widened over time, particularly as technology has
improved. After all, Washington, backed by the military, has state-of-the-art
weapons and defense systems, and, of course, nuclear power. Americans can’t
compete with all that.
And then we have the data. They mean different things to
different people. Let’s look at just a small sample to illustrate my
As liberals point out, the US is an increasingly militarized
society—its military oversees the largest defense budget in the world, US
police forces are rapidly arming themselves to the teeth with military-style
weaponry, and US citizens are awash in guns. American citizens are speculated
to hold about 300 million firearms, or about .9 per person. That per capita
rate is 50 percent higher than the next most armed country, which is Yemen, a
war torn basket-case. The US is much, much more prone to gun violence compared
to other modern industrialized democracies. In fact, on gun violence, the US
looks more like Mexico than, say, Britain or France. And mass shootings are on
the upswing—though still rare.
But conservatives, meantime, are correct in highlighting the
fact that gun violence is actually down since the peak violent days of the
early 1990s. And while the US has recently averaged about 33,500 gun deaths
per year (from 2000-2010), a little under two-thirds of those fatalities have been
suicides, not homicides. Moreover, data indicate that defensive uses of weapons
occur just as often as offensive uses of weapons, and that such uses of weapons
are frequently effective. According to Slate.com, “studies that directly
assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which
a gun was 'used' by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening
an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime
victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”
So as we can see, both sides do make good points. But
partisan mudslinging, while appealing for political reasons, misses much of the
story of gun violence, as neither side has captured the full truth of what’s
going on here. Unfortunately, bridging the ideological differences has been and
will continue to be tough.
Entrenched partisan politics—interest group politics, the role
of money in elections, and the voice of the hardliners on both the right and
left in America—make compromise extremely difficult for those officials in Washington who might be
willing to bend on their ideological positions. And even in the face of
especially horrific events like the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school murders, which
claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 staff members (plus the gunman’s
mother and the shooter himself), the right and left in America really couldn’t
find much common ground—at least not enough to begin to work toward remedying
the problem of gun violence.