Guns again/still

The world is not short of discourse about guns and violent crime at the moment, but some facts bear highlighting, and more emphasis, throughout that discourse.

First, the NRA is the lobbying and PR arm of a small industry whose business is to make and sell as many guns as possible.  If the corn merchants could make up a story about high-fructose corn syrup protecting Americans from government and burglars, and find a piece of the constitution to misread, they would do it and we would all gain ten pounds.  The NRA’s business is not freedom, or recreation, or American tradition; it is money. Mass killings are especially profitable for their masters, as frightened citizens run out and buy more weapons.

Second, there are guns and guns. When I was a teenager, before I got interested in girls, I was something of a firearms hobbyist and dispatched reams of paper targets and some small game, even spending a year on the college rifle team before I got bored with it. Distinctions can be firmly drawn among guns whose purpose is target shooting, guns whose purpose is killing animals in the wild, and guns whose purpose is killing people. The ideals in the last category are automatic pistols with large magazines, short-barrel cylinder-choke shotguns, and machine guns; the last of these are illegal but fairly easy to make out of their close cousins, semi-automatic assault rifles and carbines. Killing (i) a lot of (ii) people, period. The targets with which these are practiced are human silhouettes, with higher scores for hitting lethal areas.

Sporting firearms are almost entirely owned by a shrinking but still large group of people who keep them locked up and use them for hunting and target (paper or clay pigeons) practice. They teach their kids to shoot safely for people and lethally for the game, and know not to mix gunpowder and alcohol. No firearms legislation contemplated or proposed by anyone puts those weapons at risk, or should.

Most of the people-killing hardware is in the hands of two categories of owners. One is plain criminals, and everyone agrees they should be relieved of them. The second is folks who are more or less deranged in one or more of three ways. Some are afraid that the US government is going to take over the country and become the government of the US, and have the completely loony idea that their firepower will be more than a bee sting against the real army, should the US government try to compel them to obey the laws of the United States.  Others imagine violent criminals accosting them in the street or in their homes, and expect that they will get their piece out of the drawer by the bed, or their holster, like a movie action hero in time to make a difference.  Both groups ignore the amply demonstrated fact that their self-defense weapon is many times more likely to kill a loved one, in an argument that escalates or in a suicide, than to ever deter a crime.

Many years ago, my colleague Mark Moore floated an idea that makes more and more sense to me in the current political paralysis. Congress should require everyone owning a handgun, or a long gun not suitable for hunting, to have a license, renewable every five years at no charge, and should authorize/deputize, and fund, the NRA as the sole issuer of that license. When a firearms outrage takes place, it will be a matter of public record which NRA functionary, supervised by which NRA executive implementing what protocol, thought it would be OK for that perp to be armed, on the basis of what evidence, and not just that Wayne La Pierre is mouthing bromides about abstract rights. (That history would of course be of special interest to plaintiffs’ lawyers.)

The constitutional provision requires deference, and I am quick to say that I am a strict constructionist on this issue.  I have no problem explicitly authorizing every citizen to possess the most lethal weapon the founders could have imagined when the second amendment was drafted: any muzzle-loading black powder single-shot flintlock (or touchhole) firearm, from a dueling pistol right up to a naval cannon, is OK with me as an American birthright privilege, and I would march in the street to protect your right to have any of those things.

Yes, you can have a bayonet on the rifle.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

12 thoughts on “Guns again/still”

  1. "First, the NRA is the lobbying and PR arm of a small industry "

    I thought we were going to do facts here, and right out of the gate, fiction. The firearms industry has a lobbying and PR arm, it's called the NSSF.

    The NRA is a membership organization for gun owners. I ought to know, I've been a member most of my life. Now, perhaps you don't like the NRA's positions on a bunch of issues, (I don't always agree with them myself.) but that it is a lobby for the firearms industry is just a common slander by people who don't like to admit there are THAT MANY folks who agree with the NRA, and whom the NRA represents.

    As for the rest of it, I'll agree the 2nd amendment is limited to firearms available at the time of it's ratification, when you agree the 1st amendment is limited to the sort of printing press Ben Franklin used. Nah, just joking, I like both amendments, and am not groping around for specious excuses to violate either. ("Hey, it says freedom of the press, but how about we ban ink! It doesn't say anything about ink!")

    In a way this post, like Stuart's comment above, has an air of unreality about it. The gun control movement is at a historic low ebb, as weak as it has ever been, concealed carry reform is the law of the land in practically every state, open carry spreading like wildfire, not one state 2nd amendment analog repealed in living memory, and here you are spinning out regulatory proposals the gun control movement didn't have the strength to impose at it's zenith.

    What's with that?

    1. Yes, concealed carry is the law of the land in practically every state.
      And there's evidence that it kills people.
      Does that bother you, or is it all OK as long as your team has bragging rights over the rival team?

    2. Well, with a board of 76 and less than half its revenue coming from dues (the rest mostly contributions from manufacturers and advertising by the same) I think it's pretty clear who pulls the strings of your membership organization. And it's pretty clear who profits from massacres

      1. I'd suggest you compare the NRA in this respect to, say, the Brady Campaign. The Violence Policy Center. Or really any gun control organization. Do members get to vote on the board? What's the funding source?

        The NRA's funding:

        The NRA isn't a particularly impressive example of organizational democracy, I'll grant you that. I'm particularly pissed about the way the ballot is published in the magazine right next to the Board's own recommended slate. But it's still an elected board. They beat every gun control organization I know of in that respect. Heck, most gun control organizations are just PR fronts funded by some liberal foundation like Joyce. Not one I know of is organized so that members have any input AT ALL into policy. Entirely top down.

        That's what makes the claim that the NRA, with 4-5 million members, is astroturf, so hilarious. The other side is nothing but astroturf.

        But, go on claiming that an organization with 4-5 million members and an annual budget on the order of $300 million is just a PR front for one of the nation's smaller industries.

    3. Look, I fully understand that my proposal cannot be enacted in this country. However, it's useful because it refutes the argument that we can't have gun control because there are simply too many guns in circulation. That argument is clearly specious. After all, it's actually true that guns don't kill people; it's ammunition that actually kills people.

      1. Well, no, that's true. The reason we can't have gun control in this country isn't because there are too many guns.

        it's because there are too many people who don't want gun control.

        If those hundreds of millions of guns were all owned by people who didn't find gun control objectionable, the only obstacle to rounding them up would be the expense of compensating the owners for the taking, and that would hardly cost more than $200 billion.

        But in a nation where gun control is genuinely unpopular, and the NRA isn't actually an astroturf PR front run by the firearms industry, the real obstacle to gun control is that American democracy is still somewhat functional.

        And, isn't refusing to face that, refusing to admit that we had a national debate concerning guns, and the *other* side won it, itself a form of derangement?

    4. I don't see any way to subscribe to American Rifleman without joining the NRA, so the membership's adherence to the policies of the organization is unclear. Maybe a lot of those people just want to read about the newest deer cartridge.

    5. Does your admiration of the First Amendment extend to letting doctors decide what to discuss with their patients?

      I ask because lots of gun types seem not to think so, to the extent of passing laws about it.

  2. Michael: In your fifth paragraph, you write of folks who are deranged in one or more of three ways, but then only mention two ways. What's the third way?

  3. I have to say I disagree with your analysis of "derangement." I think the vast majority of the people – of the *men* – who enjoy collecting and shooting e.g. semiauto AR-18 or MAC-10 derivatives do it mainly because it indulges a fascination withmilitary glory. In the abstract, of course, and separated from any of the terror, trauma, pain, and intense weariness of serious military combat.

    Of course it would be "deranged," as you say, for anyone to outright conclude: "I'm okay with killing sprees being easier and more frequent if that's what it takes for me to act out boyish war hero fantasies in a marginally 'cooler' way," but the psychological equation doesn't actually work like that. Nothing compels them to acknowledge the connection; there's a whole industry-sponsored ideological apparatus dedicated to giving them reasons to ignore it.

    I can't prove it, but I think the "resistance to tyranny" is almost entirely cheap talk. Only a tiny fraction of those jagoffs actually participate in membership organizations like Oath Keepers or the militia movement, and they don't seem to have any particular interest in standardizing on calibres, stockpiling very large amounts of ammunition, training on or even book-studying actual infantry tactics, learning how to improvise explosives, mortars, artillery rockets; etc etc etc. In other words, there are an enormous amount of things that anyone seriously contemplating guerilla warfare ought rationally to be doing, and yet these guys are 99% interested in the one "preparation for guerilla warfare" activity that happens to resemble a hobby.

    So I don't accept that these people are deranged in anything like a diagnosable manner. They say deranged things because it's been normalized in their hobbyist community. They advocate a "deranged" political trade-off in favor of protecting their trivial hobby at the expense of giving criminals and maniacs more and better firepower. But that's the kind of at-a-distance political "derangement" that's not psychologically abnormal.

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