Why Have Progressives Abandoned Gun Control? A Really Boring Answer

In the wake of the Colorado horrors, lots of people want to know why gun control is not on the national agenda, with the usual responses about feckless liberals.  While I certainly never hesitate to castigate the invertebracy of progressives, I think that there is a simpler answer:

Violent crime went down.

Crime rates are at lows not seen since the early 1960’s.  Even in the era of shrinking police budgets, violent crimes are sharply down from their heights in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s.  It makes sense to try to solve the problems you have, not the problems that you used to have.  (I should quickly add that this in no way should be taken to undermine Mark’s crime control research agenda, which I think is superb and should be immediately and lavishly funded!)

I think that this really highlights the often-mentioned difference between American progressives and conservatives.  Progressives are basically pragmatists, trying to solve public policy problems.  Conservatives see everything as a matter of High Principle, even when the principle itself is obscure (e.g. foaming at the mouth about “liberty” in the health care context but not caring one whit about it when it comes to surveillance, state secrets, or other civil liberties).  Progressives began to support gun control because it seemed like a useful way to reduce violence.  Despite the fantasies swirling around the fever swamps on the Right, there was no conspiracy.  Many progressives might not understand or take to gun culture, but they — we — don’t have a problem with it as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

Note how this turns one of traditional calumnies against liberalism on its head.  American progressives actually don’t have abstract utopian dreams of how to engineer society.  They — we — see a problem and say: okay, how can we fix it?  It is conservatives who actually revel in abstractions, whether it was the “activity/inactivity” distinction made famous in the health care cases, or the “free market” that exists nowhere but in the imagination of the Cato Institute, or the “policy of strength” that now animates right-wing foreign policy “thinkers” totally untethered from any actual facts about the world, or even strange fears of same-sex marriage undermining traditional marriage with no notion of how that would actually work.

Of course, sensible gun controls like limiting high-capacity magazines (which might have saved lives in Colorado) or closing gun show loopholes are clearly good policy.  But they aren’t as salient because of the reduction in violence.

I wish that conditions warranted caving on all issues.  If conservatives have an actual plan to cover the uninsured, and it could actually work, I’m sure progressives would join them.  The Right would then abandon their policy.  Oh, wait: that already happened.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

20 thoughts on “Why Have Progressives Abandoned Gun Control? A Really Boring Answer”

  1. “I think that this really highlights the often-mentioned difference between American progressives and conservatives. Progressives are basically pragmatists, trying to solve public policy problems. Conservatives see everything as a matter of High Principle, even when the principle itself is obscure.”

    To quote Mark Kleiman, really?

  2. “Progressives are basically pragmatists, trying to solve public policy problems. Conservatives see everything as a matter of High Principle, even when the principle itself is obscure (e.g. foaming at the mouth about “liberty” in the health care context but not caring one whit about it when it comes to surveillance, state secrets, or other civil liberties).”

    Sorry, Jonathan, but I’m not buying that.:( That’s basically part of the argument that Popper made against Marxism in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” and last I checked, Marxism wasn’t a particularly conservative movement.

    What you’ve been observing, I think, is that the Republican party has fallen more and more under the thrall of extremists for the past decades (most recently, the Tea Party and various libertarian ideologues [1]). That’s where a lot of utopian ideas on the right come from. It also doesn’t mean that this doesn’t happen on the left (for example, the OWS movement).

    More generally, plenty of activists on either side have embraced approaches that focus on moving the Overton window (or keeping it in place) rather than focusing on implementing sensible public policy (note that this is not a “pox on both your houses” statement; whether you choose such a political strategy is independent of being right or wrong). Abortion is a good example here: The “pro choice” and “pro life” positions seem to be more dictated by a desire to control the Overton window than by an interest in forging a lasting public policy with respect to abortion and maternity protection.

    With respect to gun control, I’d argue that it’s not directly the reduced level of violent crime (which is still pretty huge compared to other Western countries), but the enormous amount of political capital needed to implement even such moderate gun control (especially in the face of District of Columbia v. Heller). In the end, yes, you could save lives, but you can probably save even more through universal healthcare and reducing poverty. It’s about politics as the art of the possible and trying to fight the battles that you can win (for a decent return on the political capital you invested).

    [1] I think I’ve said before that I consider libertarians to be extremists. They are the extremist versions of classical and social liberals, just as communists are the extremist versions of social democrats.

    1. Well, no, no, and sorta.

      Progressives are by-and-large pragmatists (in the philosophical sense) but they are certainly not pragmatic (in the sense of solving policy problems). Progressives are unwilling to allow culture and society to develop free from their coercive interference. They want to design and control what they do not yet understand, and perhaps cannot understand. They have a sense of fairness different from the conservative notion of fairness. Rather than let people sort this out themselves, Progressives want give guys with badges and guns authority to enforce their particular brand of fairness. I suppose this is practical policy-making in the Mussolini sense, but it’s hardly a practical way to achieve ordered liberty.

      More guns in a society does not imply more murders. In fact, more guns doesn’t even correlate with more murders. There’s some evidence of an inverse correlation: more guns may correlate with fewer murders.

      Libertarians are extremists on some issues. On most issues though, libertarians are within the historical norms of American political debate.

      1. To be blunt, your second paragraph is just as much nonsense as the claim that conservatives cannot be pragmatists. For example, I tend to classify myself as a social liberal, which is a center-left political philosophy (i.e., progressive) that’s pretty much as far from coercive interference — while still having a functioning, fair society — as you can wish. There are many more political leanings in America (let alone the world) than the cliché Democrat and the cliché Republican and just generalizing based on clichés is not going to get us anywhere.

        Regarding more guns in a society implying more murders, I didn’t say that. I said that gun control could save lives. For example, by a prohibition of weapons that have no reasonable use for legitimate purposes, one could likely limit the effect of mass shootings without unnecessarily infringing on personal freedom. A large number of mass shootings (especially school shootings) are committed with legally obtained weapons (often by a parent of a student); and making more dangerous weapons harder to obtain would likely at least some mass killers to use less deadly weapons. That said, I agree that the numbers of lives saved would likely be fairly small and that I’d rather see the underlying causes of such crimes be tackled as a far more effective use of our country’s resources (poverty being a prime example).

        I could probably write an entire book on why I consider Libertarians to be extremists. The short story is that they have simple solutions for every problem, even for complicated ones, which is the hallmark of extremist ideologies (or, in medicine, charlatans). Extremist ideologies are almost always about making the world fit their model rather than having their model fit the world, which is how they end up being overly simplistic. Libertarians rely on unproven theories as the foundation of their beliefs, using a considerable amount of saving hypotheses to justify their model when it is endangered. Most importantly, implementing their ideology would require a radical remaking of our society from the ground up (which is where the “extremist” part comes from, and where you can apply Popper’s critique of communism in the Open Society almost completely mutatis mutandis).

        In short: It is an extremist ideology because it desires a radical restructuring of society based on a simplistic worldview.

        I personally also think that the libertarian utopia would be a Lord of the Flies remake, which is why I consider them a danger on par with communists (more so, since communism has been pretty conclusively debunked).

        (Note that this does not mean that all aspects of libertarianism are wrong, just as communism had a few genuinely good ideas.)

    2. for example, the OWS movement

      OWS takes exception to the obscene (mal)distribution of U.S. wealth, the contraction of prospects for the vast majority of Americans, and the incapacity of political institutions to address the problem or see to the needs of the better part of the population. Labeling this philosophy “extremism” is just…. bizarre. The response that suits is something like slack-jawed astonishment.

      Extreme? Really, Katja? Really?

      1. Ugh, poor editing on my part. I deleted a transitional sentence and that changed the meaning of what I intended to write. I apologize. While I do think that OWS harbors its share of nutcases and lacks pragmatism (which is what I was trying to get at, and where they can be very Tea-Party-like), I didn’t meant to say that their position was an extremist one.

  3. “Violent crime went down.” But it’s still much, much higher than in other OECD countries. Kieran Healy’s now justly famous graph:

    On the same lines, actual gun ownership is going down too, as the perceived threat recedes.

    So the pragmatism you are praising is partly a cognitive illusion: things are getting better (true), so they must be all right (false).

  4. Progressives still defend the programs that grew out o the war on poverty that are responsible for most of the drop in violent crime, though. Yet there’s little similar resistance when it comes to backsliding on gun control. I don’t remember a single prominent liberal calling out Scalia’s absurdly dumb logic in the Heller decision (where he said a common-sense reading of the constitution plainly means we have a protected right to anything as powerful as a handgun but no more because, you know, handguns are 21st century muskets). Yet, liberals were up in arms about citizens united and the overturned part of obamacare.

  5. The reason the Democrats went soft on gun control is that they saw that the Mountain West was in play: CO, NV, MT, AZ, NM, and ultimately TX. Gun control also doesn’t help in the purple Southern states, VA, NC, FL. Not to mention PA & OH. I’m afraid it has nothing to do with policy. You can’t win a national election with nothing but big city votes, and only the big cities are strongly for gun control.

  6. It’s not just that crime is down, but the decrease has occurred across the board – in jurisdictions that relaxed gun laws and in jurisdictions that kept strong restrictions. So the effectiveness gun control is not exactly an obvious fact.

    There’s also the problem of writing effective gun legislation (even in the unlikely event that the laws would be enacted and upheld by the Court). The goal is to will keep guns out of the hands of bad guys, but they are only a small minority of gun owners, and they often get their guns illegally anyway.

    A total ban on assault rifles and similar weapons (technically, Holmes’s AR-15 was not an assault rifle) might reduce mass killings. But European countries had stricter laws on such weapons, and mass killings there occur perhaps as frequently as they do in the US. (A list of these has been compiled by John Lott – yeah, I know, but you can check them out on Wikipedia.)

  7. Conservatives can be practical too. The decrease in crime, coupled with the strain on state budgets, seems to have turned conservatives away from their ideology of “more punishment, less crime” and towards more practical policies. You don’t hear much clamoring for more executions, longer sentences, mandatory sentences, adult sentences for juveniles, three-strikes laws, etc. You don’t even hear much complaining when states backtrack on some of these laws.

  8. I think Democrats got tired of losing elections over the issue. The drop in crime may be a contributing factor, but I think it was mostly about deciding that this 1 issue wasn’t worth it.

    For me personally, I think the problem is cultural, not legal. And gun culture is apparently actually on the decline (perhaps explains the increasingly nutball rhetoric).

    1. Gun culture is admittedly on the decline. The hunting demographic isn’t getting any younger, and the population keeps getting less rural. Emigrants to the South bring their folkways with them. But I still think Rob makes a category error.

      The NRA has little to do with gun culture any more. Just as Country and Western music has little to do with rural or western areas. They both reflect a culture of diminished manhood and increasing ressentiment. And this is not declining. It is increasing, driven by decreasing status and employment opportunities for less educated white men.

      NRA: Voice of needledicks everywhere.

  9. I certainly qualify as one of those liberals who don’t think much about gun control anymore. Too many other issues, all much more critical and immediate, have pushed gun control way, way, way down the list.

    Back in the days when I did care about gun control, I couldn’t have imagined worrying about elections being rigged on a huge scale — that was before Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004, Citizens United and those new voter ID laws.

    I didn’t live in the midst of a second Gilded Age and I didn’t live with the level of economic insecurity I am now surrounded by. It didn’t occur to me that the programs of the War on Poverty, let alone the New Deal, could ever be in serious jeopardy.

    I wasn’t watching the public school system being dismantled right before my eyes and holding my breath that my kid will make his way through his school days without being much more affected by it than he already is. (BTW, if this is a topic that interests you, Diane Ravtich’s new blog is fast becoming THE archive of this undertaking.)

    I could keep going on but I’ll just say Global Climate Change and call it a day.

    Meanwhile, as horrific as mass shootings like the one in Colorado are, I’m pretty sure I have a much better chance of dying in an auto accident and yet hardly a day doesn’t go by when I don’t find myself in a car.

    I also don’t worry about someone I know “accidently” shooting me, even if I surprise them in their motel room, because nobody I know owns guns (Yay for my SES). Too bad for those who are surrounded by gun owners, I guess, but I can’t help but suspect a lot of them have done their share to insure the laws that enable their loved ones to keep their guns remain in place.

    1. Yeah, I agree more with you, Ohio Mom, and Katja — what’s really happening is, the forces of evil have so many more resources and energy than the left that we are just spread too thin. Gun control is too far down the list. Even if you just asked, “how can I reduce killings of young black men?,” I’m not sure gun control would be at the top. You might put jobs or ed programs first. And without pissing off the NRA.

  10. “I think that this really highlights the often-mentioned difference between American progressives and conservatives. Progressives are basically pragmatists, trying to solve public policy problems. Conservatives see everything as a matter of High Principle, even when the principle itself is obscure (e.g. foaming at the mouth about “liberty” in the health care context but not caring one whit about it when it comes to surveillance, state secrets, or other civil liberties). Progressives began to support gun control because it seemed like a useful way to reduce violence.”

    You might be a bit too self congratulatory here. How about they lost repeatedly on the backs of gun control issues and they decided to listen to the electorate, focus on more important issues and move on? Now it is still a good thing to learn from losing elections and listening to the electorate. Heaven knows Republicans could use a bit of that at the moment. But doesn’t require as much self-puffery, and has the added bonus of being very likely the right answer.

    (Why do I suspect it isn’t the ‘basically pragmatists’ moving on since we won, answer? Because even very sober places like here are willing to buy into very sketchy ‘fewer guns, less crime’ correlations when they are incredibly resistant to tighter (though in my mind still potentially wrong) ‘more prison, less crime’ correlations.)

  11. This is actually an insightful post. I too have observed that conservatives are often the most fanciful of utopianists (where are the examples of miniarchy we should emulate? No where but their minds). and yet criticize progressives for that very sin. Heck, they do it in this very comment thread. How deliciously ironic of you Jeff.

  12. The great Sam Smith of Progressive Review:

    What gun owners and gays can teach us about America

     Sam Smith

    During Maine’s last referendum campaign for gay marriage, I argued that gays should form a lobby called Gays for Guns to help their battle. After all in a state with high gun ownership (and low murders) and whose largest city has been rated the 8th gayest in the country by the Advocate, it would have been a coalition that would have been hard to beat.

    Of course, the idea went nowhere. After all, liberalism has become more obsessed with self-righteousness than with collective progress.

    Yet gays and gun owners have a lot in common. They are classic cases of subcultures that the American Constitution was meant to protect but are constantly treated as a danger to the Republic, the former by the right and the latter by liberals.

    Such behavior is par for the course in the case of the right, but for liberals it is another reflection of how far their cause has moved from seeking the best for the most towards a form of elite fundamentalism in which their cause has become a club that is harder and harder to join. In fact, if today’s liberals had been calling the shots, much of the New Deal and Great Society policies would not have passed because they would have pissed off too many people.

    Once one accepts the right wing assumption that freedom is properly defined by a church or community, its compass inevitably contracts based on the wishes of those with the most power. And one moves dramatically away from what America was meant to be about, which is to say a place where people who disagreed, or lived and behaved differently, could still reside in concord. Liberty was to be reciprocal, which is to say that I can’t have my freedom unless you have yours. Or as my father used to tell us, “You don’t have to like your relatives, you just have to be nice to them.”

    I sometimes tell people that if they oppose gay marriage, then don’t marry a gay. The same thing can be said about guns: if you don’t like them, don’t shoot them.

    What this requires, however, is a concept that has seemed to disappeared in the American language: tolerance. Yet without it, you inevitably drift towards a land in which more and more people are mad at others and, in the end, liberty becomes a privilege of power rather than a shared virtue.

    I was reminded of this the other morning listening to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes grumping about guns in the wake of the Aurora shootings. He and his guests struck me as people who would much rather feel superior to much of America than care about getting it to vote for Obama. Yet when your guy can’t get out of statistical tiedom with Romney, it’s not the best time to anger everyone who owns a gun.

    I don’t own a gun, never have. But I have friends who do, live in a state which treats the gun as an admirable icon, and like a lot of people who feel that way including my late father-in-law, an avid duck hunter.

    I also know that much of the argument for further gun control doesn’t match the facts. Violence is far more a reflection of culture than of the availability of a particular weapon.

    I also live in a land where lots of people do things I don’t care for including playing golf, excessively loud rock, prissy restaurant menus, and believing that a place called heaven is going to solve all your problems.

    But I also grew up at time when we had another name for Christian fundamentalists and gun owners; we called them Democrats. Politics was about getting people to do the right thing on election day; what they did the rest of the year was their own damn business.

    And it worked. So the new fundie liberals could do us a big favor and shut up about guns at least until after the polls close in November. After all, it’s not likely that a President Romney would help their cause much.

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