It has been a dismal decade for gun control advocates. They lost the federal so-called assault weapons ban when it expired in 2004. The Supreme Court made history by proclaiming an individual right to own firearms for self-defense. A Democratic president came into office vowing not to take away anyone's guns.
So it's no surprise that anti-gun forces would take the mass shooting in Tucson as a rare opportunity to reverse their fortunes. It's also no surprise that their proposals are models of futility.
Gun control has faltered mainly because it hasn't worked. And nothing in the new recommendations offers hope of success.
The first idea came from Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who wants to ban all ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds—which was the rule under the assault weapons law. Her rationale is that the rampage ended when the shooter exhausted a 30-round clip and tried to reload, at which point he was subdued. With a 10-round clip, he could have been stopped sooner.
Maybe so. But Jared Loughner apparently put some planning into this attack, and had the laws been different, he might have planned around them.
Suppose he couldn't go to the gun shop and buy a new 30-round clip. He could have bought a used one, which could be legally sold under the expired federal law. Or he could have bought extra weapons to avoid the need to reload—like the shooter in the 2008 Northern Illinois University slaughter, who had a shotgun and three handguns.
Passing a law to head off a freakishly rare occurrence is probably a waste of time. Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck says that of the hundreds of mass shootings that have occurred in this country, he knows of only one in which a gunman was stopped because he had to reload—a 1993 episode on the Long Island Railroad.
A measure offered by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), offers even less promise. He wants to make it a crime to knowingly carry a firearm within 1,000 feet of a president, vice president, member of Congress, or federal judge.
That would punish law-abiding citizens who have no aggressive intentions—say, someone who parks a block away from a campaign rally on his way to the target range. But it would have been only a paper barrier to Loughner, who ignored a host of laws on his way to shoot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns fantasizes that King's bill "would give federal, state, and local law enforcement a better chance to intercept would-be shooters before they pull the trigger." Not unless the gunmen announce themselves, it wouldn't.
A more serious complaint is that Loughner was able to legally buy a weapon even though he was weird enough to induce fear at his community college. School authorities finally told him not to come back until he got a bill of health from a mental health professional. But none of this showed up in the background check when he went to buy a gun.
Right now, federal law excludes a purchaser only if he "has been adjudicated as a mental defective" or involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility. But some states bar sales to those who have been voluntarily committed, which makes sense. No one would argue against better use of available records.
Stopping a troubled person whose behavior is not alarming enough to trigger action by his family or friends, though, borders on the impossible. We don't want to give every gun buyer the burden of proving mental stability—any more than we would require each taxpayer to take a polygraph when filing a 1040. The only real hope for keeping a lunatic away from guns is diligence by those who know him.
It's hard to imagine that stricter gun control laws would have any discernible value in averting tragedy. Homicides have actually declined since the demise of the assault weapons ban.
Utah has the nation's most permissive gun laws, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, but it has one of the lowest murder rates in the country. California, with the strictest laws, has a homicide rate higher than the national average.
There are plenty of lessons to be drawn from the ineffectuality of firearms regulations. But gun control supporters are in no mood to learn.
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