A very public shooting spree, with victims including a congresswoman, a judge, and a little girl, committed by a known lunatic, using equipment that had previously been banned: Jared Loughner’s crime seems an unparalleled opportunity for gun control advocates to gin up support for new legislation to restrict the weapons legally available to Americans and to restrict which Americans have access to those weapons.
Loughner reportedly used a Glock 19 pistol with 33-round magazines. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) therefore wants to restore a provision of the Clinton-era “assault weapon” ban that prohibited the manufacture or importation of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. McCarthy’s proposal would toughen the expired law’s requirements by prohibiting the sale or transfer of ownership of existing high-capacity magazines as well. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) intends to sponsor similar legislation in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has called for a ban on possessing weapons within 1,000 feet of a member of Congress and certain other high government officials. Taking another tack entirely, a bipartisan pair of congressmen, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) vow to start packing heat themselves, and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) wants to allow congresspeople to carry weapons in D.C., something normal citizens still can't do.
King didn’t explain how such a rule would be enforced, given that politicians have an annoying habit of moving from place to place—though such a law could provide a presumptive excuse to search everyone getting near a politician in public. The primary result of King's law would be to make meet-the-public events of the sort where Rep. Giffords was wounded legally untenable. (In a cliche that bears repeating: Someone preparing to shoot others has already demonstrated their willingness to break the law.)
Meanwhile, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, representing over 600 city leaders, wants to toughen background check requirements and increase communication between different federal, state, and local databases—something they have little power to do on their own.
Americans’ attitudes toward gun laws have shifted since the mid-’90s, when Congress passed the now-expired “assault weapon” ban and the Brady Act. Brady instituted federal background checks for every potential gun buyer. The goal was to insure would-be buyers were disqualified from gun ownership for such things as a criminal record, being an illegal alien, having been dishonorably discharged from the military, or having been adjudicated mentally ill.
At the start of the 1990s, according to Gallup polls, 78 percent of Americans wanted stricter gun control. By 2009 that number had fallen to a historical low of 44 percent. As Americans’ attitudes have shifted, even Democrats have mostly avoided trying to expand gun control at the national level. (Some Democratic pols blame the Clinton-era gun control programs for Gore’s defeat in key southern states in 2000.) Despite the McCarthy and King bills, no one thinks Loughner’s crimes are going to change that stance. And they shouldn’t.
There is no consistent association between gun crimes and easy access to guns or the right to carry. Crimes such as Loughner’s are so bizarre and rare that there is no sense in trying to craft laws aimed at preventing them. Despite constantly expanding gun ownership—the number of new firearms entering American possession averages around 4 million a year—and expanded rights to legally carry weapons, the last two decades have seen a 41 percent decline in violent crime rates. Since the 2004 expiration of the "assault weapon" ban, murder rates are down 15 percent. Many pundits have tried to explain Loughner’s crimes by citing Arizona’s “loose” gun laws, including the lack of permit requirement for concealed or open carry. It's true that Loughner exercised his right to carry without a permit, but he would doubtless have carried the gun even if he was violating the law doing so.
Daniel Vice of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence made his case plainly: “Our gun laws are so weak that someone who couldn’t get into the military, who was kicked out of school, and who used drugs walked into a gun store and was able to immediately buy a semiautomatic weapon.” But why shouldn’t someone not allowed in the military, kicked out of school, and known to use drugs—characteristics shared by millions of Americans—be able to own and use tools of self-defense and sport if he has not been adjudicated as dangerous?
Such a person should be able to own a weapon for all the same reasons anyone might want to own any tool, especially one connected to the vital human imperative of self-defense. Snide declarations that large-capacity magazines are good for nothing but killing innocent people ignore the fact that they are almost never used for that purpose and that law enforcement agencies regularly use them for self-defense.
A CBS poll two weeks after the massacre found that 51 percent of Americans still think gun laws should either stay the same or be loosened. That was down from 58 percent in March 2009 but still above 2002 levels, when 56 percent of respondents in another CBS poll supported tighter gun control.
Americans understand that even strange people should be able to own weapons, and not just for deer hunting. The very rare crimes of very unusual Americans should not dictate how everyone's right to self-defense is managed, and even in the wake of tragedy that is fortunately unlikely to change
Senior Editor Brian Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Gun Control on Trial (Cato). This column first appeared at Reason.com.