Book Mini-Symposium Part V: The Hard, Simple Truth of Gun Control

There is one, and only one, form of gun control that has been shown to reduce murders: anything that reduces the number of handguns in general circulation. Handguns matter most because they account for at least two-thirds of gun-related murders and about half of all murders. No other affluent nation has anything approaching the level of lethal violence as does the United States. That is the case, quite simply, because other nations rigorously restrict handgun possession. Most so-called commonsense measures that U.S. politicians, and the gun control movement itself, promote have not been shown to reduce lethal violence. Moreover, the regulatory model that both gun rights advocates and gun control advocates support – denying guns to the untrustworthy while allowing the trustworthy to possess them – is patently unworkable. It is, and will always be, impossible to effectively differentiate between the two groups. That is the hard, simple truth about gun control.

That is bad news indeed. In the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court held, for the first time in the nation’s history, that the Second Amendment grants citizens an individual right to possess weapons unconnected to service in the militia, guaranteeing, at a minimum, the right to have a handgun in one’s home. As long as that holding remains the law of the land, gun regulations intended to reduce handgun possession will be unconstitutional.

Did the five justices who comprised the majority in Heller believe, deep down, that their decision did not unduly endanger public safety because commonsense controls were still permissible? If so, much blame must be laid at the feet of gun control organizations, which – in the perpetual hope of short-term victories – have been assuring everyone that all they want, and all that is necessary, are commonsense measures. So timid have gun control organizations become about advocating what is truly necessary that they do not even call themselves gun control organizations any longer, preferring instead to identify themselves as gun safety organizations.

The victories that strategy has produced are few and far between, and truly meaningful victories fewer still. Meanwhile, the strategy has led everyone to abandon – indeed, to not even think about – potentially effective regulation. Here is one measure of just how counterproductive the strategy has been: In 1960, the Gallup Poll reported that 60 percent of Americans favored banning the possession of handguns, except by police and other authorized persons? By the time the Supreme Court decided Heller, that number had fallen to 29 percent.

America can have effective gun control – not today, but someday. Public attitudes change. So does law. But to get there, gun control organizations need to take a longer view and tell the truth: there is medicine that can drastically reduce gun violence in America, but it is strong medicine. Doing that will shift the debate and make discrete but meaningful measures, such as banning high-capacity magazines, appear more moderate, increasing the likelihood of their adoption too.

[Ed. Note: This post is part of a mini-symposium from the contributors to the new book Guns in Law.]