Share this article

print logo

The Briefing: On guns, the ideas you never hear about

WASHINGTON – Three weeks have passed since a madman with a military-style weapon murdered 17 people at a Florida high school, and that's plenty of time for the issue of mass shootings to devolve once again into a battle of absolutes.

Either you think the National Rifle Association is the enemy preventing the only solution – an assault weapons ban and stronger background checks – or you think liberals want to tear up the Second Amendment and grab your guns.

That's a simplified encapsulation of the simplified gun-control battle that America lives through again and again – which, you may have noticed, tends to lead nowhere.

Beyond that debate, though, there are some deeper thoughts out there. So, before this issue once again gets buried beneath fresher headlines, let's take a look at them:

An assault weapons ban may not work: In arguing for an assault weapons ban, liberals often cite the example of Australia, which banned assault weapons after a mass shooting that claimed 35 lives in 1996 and has not had a mass shooting since.

Yet there is one little-mentioned difference between what Australia did and what America did in the early 1990s in enacting an assault weapons ban that was allowed to expire after a deadline.

Australia had a mandatory gun buyback program, and America didn't – and wouldn't under any assault weapon ban proposal that could, under any circumstance, win approval from Congress.

Seriously, how could Congress ever approve what's essentially a gun-confiscation plan in a country where guns are an integral part of the culture in many states – where, in fact, there may be more guns than people?

More likely, a new assault weapons ban would, like the one that expired, allow Americans to keep the assault weapons they already own while banning them from buying new ones. In other words, it would likely leave millions of assault-style weapons on the streets, as David French – a must-read source on the right on gun issues – details here.

And if you don't trust someone on the right's point of view on this, note that even Australia's ambassador to the U.S. doubts that an assault weapons ban would work here.

Other gun control measures might do some good: The best recent evidence about which gun control measures work – and which don't – comes in a report last week from the wonks at the Rand Corp.

Their report found inconclusive evidence as to whether an assault weapons ban would reduce mass shootings, and also failed to find clear evidence that any other gun control measure might prevent mass shooters from inflicting grave harm.

But the report also notes, as FiveThirtyEight did last year, that mass shootings remain a small proportion of overall firearm deaths – which, more likely, could be reduced by other gun control measures.

For example, Rand's researchers found that stronger background checks and preventing the mentally ill from getting guns could reduce violent crime.

They found that laws aimed at keeping guns away from kids could reduce accidental gun deaths and injuries.

And they found that those same child-access laws could reduce suicides – as could stronger background checks, laws aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, and minimum-age laws for the purchase of weapons.

Regulating guns like cars: Think about getting your driver's license. Think about what you learned first. Think about buying your first car – and the shock and disappointment of getting your first car insurance bill.

To hear New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tell it, there is a lesson in all of that which can inform the debate over gun violence in America:

"We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them – and limit access to them – so as to reduce the death toll they cause," Kristof wrote last fall. "This has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven by 95 percent since 1921."

Kristof wrote that taking that sort of public-health approach to gun safety would involve stronger background checks for guns and ammunition, age limits, tighter enforcement of current gun laws, preventing gun ownership among men who abuse their partners, a ban on "bump stocks" and research aimed at discovering how to make guns safer.

He also suggests ending the immunity from lawsuits that gun manufacturers currently enjoy – a move that would likely lead to new requirements that gun owners get insurance, just like drivers do.

All of that, Kristof wrote, would stand a better chance of succeeding than the gun debate the nation repeats after every mass shooting.

"The left sometimes focuses on 'gun control,' which scares off gun owners and leads to more gun sales," he wrote. "A better framing is 'gun safety' or 'reducing gun violence' ” and using auto safety as a model – constant efforts to make the products safer and to limit access by people who are most likely to misuse them."

An ammo tax: Few U.S. senators have ever proved to produce so many innovative ideas as did the late New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

And more than 20 years ago, he suggested an alternative way to reduce gun violence: taxing ammunition.

To Moynihan, it was pointless to try to ban particular weapons in a nation awash in hundreds of millions of guns, which are durable products that essentially last forever.

Instead, he suggested a tax of $75 a bullet. More dangerous bullets, like those used in assault weapons, would be taxed at upwards of $5,000 each.

Now that's probably way too extreme for this Congress or any Congress, but considering some sort of taxes on ammo might be more promising than repeating the gun control argument again and again after every mass shooting, noted Richard J. Gelles, the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence at the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Testing the price elasticity of an undesirable product and taxing vice is hardly a new approach and never 100 percent effective," Gelles wrote. "But reducing the number of bullets available for the existing 300 million guns is a much more promising approach than the futile attempt to limit ownership of the existing weapons."

Happening today:

President Trump speaks at the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit ... Kevin Hassett, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, delivers "the Economic Report of the President" to the Joint Economic Committee ... The Senate Foreign Relations Committee considers the nomination of career diplomat Joseph E. McManus – who has roots in Buffalo – to be ambassador to Colombia ... Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer unveils an infrastructure proposal to counter the one offered by President Trump.

Good reads

Politico shows how Trump's trade war broke the back of economic adviser Gary Cohn ... Ezra Klein of Vox argues that Cohn's departure shows the Trump White House is in the midst of a staffing crisis ... The Washington Post tells us that special counsel Robert Mueller even seems to be taking a close look at Trump's lawyer ... The Guardian reports that billionaire Michael Bloomberg's new target is the tobacco industry ... Are you a millennial? A boomer? A GenXer? In the New York Times, an economist calls for an end to generation naming ,– and shaming.

There are no comments - be the first to comment