A recent Tweet pointed me to an opinion piece that Nicholas Kristof wrote a few months ago for the New York Times on the subject of reducing gun deaths through what he calls a “harm reduction” approach, similar to what we’ve done with alcohol, tobacco, and cars. It’s a few weeks old, but it sparked an urge to respond. For someone who is sort of anti-gun, he takes an interesting approach:
Harm reduction for guns would start by acknowledging the blunt reality that we’re not going to eliminate guns any more than we have eliminated vehicles or tobacco, not in a country that already has more guns than people. We are destined to live in a sea of guns. And just as some kids will always sneak cigarettes or people will inevitably drive drunk, some criminals will get firearms — but one lesson learned is that if we can’t eliminate a dangerous product, we can reduce the toll by regulating who gets access to it.
I’m normally skeptical of things like this (especially given the source) but Kristof surprised me with an unexpected example: Machine guns.Yes, I am using “machine gun” as a colloquial term for all fully-automatic weapons, even though machine guns are technically a subset of fully-automatic weapons. The National Firearms Act of 1934 didn’t actually outlaw fully-automatic weapons, it just placed a lot of strict requirements on owning one, including hefty taxes and lots of paperwork. Even the 1986 amendment didn’t ban machine guns, although it did prevent the introduction of new ones to the civilian market. But the older fully-automatic firearms remained available to people who met the licensing requirements.
According to Kristoff, there are 700,000 legally owned fully-automatic weapons in the United States, and they are almost never used in crimes. The nation-wide death rate from legal machine guns is well below 1 per year, even including suicides. This is gun control that works, and Kristoff surmises that if we can solve machine guns we can solve other gun problems.
Kristof argues that it the machine gun laws work because rather than trying to ban guns, the laws keep guns out of the hands of bad people. He even sort of acknowledges the NRA’s familiar refrain:
It’s not that the N.R.A. was exactly right when it said that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But the person matters at least as much as the gun, and the person may be somewhat easier to regulate.
Kristof then goes on to list his proposals, which I’ll just summarize:
- Set the minimum age to possess firearms to 21.He says “buy” but in context he seems to mean “possess.”
- Extend the ban on felon ownership of guns to include those convicted of violent misdemeanors, including domestic violence and maybe stalking.
- Also maybe those who abuse alcohol.
- Universal background checks to buy guns.
- Universal background checks to buy ammunition.
- Licensing to own a gun.
Compared to the gun restrictions that we already have in many places, most of these proposals don’t seem too outrageous. People with a more absolutist attitude toward the Second Amendment will undoubtedly disagree, but I’m just trying to deal with the reality that the Supreme Court is not absolutist and seems to be adopting a level of scrutiny tending toward “reasonable.” E.g. if convicted felons are not allowed to buy guns, it’s not unreasonable for somebody to check your criminal record before you buy a gun to ensure you are not a convicted felon. The courts have allowed a lot worse restrictions than any of these.
Still, I do have a few objections. Why do you need a background check to buy a gun when you already have a license, given that getting the license will already include a background check? Just verify that the license is still valid and be done with it.
Also, people who commit felonies are prohibited from owning guns forever, but maybe the prohibition for violent misdemeanors and alcohol abuse doesn’t need to be forever. Forever is a long time.
Some of Kristof’s other ideas are more objectionable:
Waiting periods and limits on how many guns one can purchase at a time may also help.
What’s the point of a waiting period? To keep someone from buying a gun to commit murder? That will only work for their first gun, and even then they will have waited for the license.
Red flag laws are also promising, particularly for reducing gun suicides — which get less attention than homicides but are more common. Red flag laws allow the authorities to remove a gun temporarily from those who appear to be a threat to themselves or others.
Allowing the authorities to restrict people’s rights because of bad things they might do is a license for abuse. Granted, it makes sense to take guns away from clearly dangerous people, but any such law needs clear definitions, evidence requirements, a real judicial process, the right to appeal, and a clear way to bring the restrictions to an end. We don’t want a rubber stamp system by which the authorities can disarm anyone they don’t like, and we would need to keep the process of taking the guns from turning into one of those police “knock and announce” raids with flashbang grenades and dead dogs.
Eventually Kristof abandons his original pretense of only wanting to limit who has access to guns and just starts throwing out random gun control ideas:
I still believe in tightly restricting AR-15-style weapons and large-capacity magazines, because they play a significant role in mass shootings,
I’ve explained before why I think most assault weapon laws are dumb.
Another harm reduction approach is graphic warning labels for guns and ammunition. “Health warning labels on tobacco products constitute the most cost-effective tool for educating smokers and nonsmokers alike about the health risks of tobacco use,” the World Health Organization said, so let’s apply the lessons to firearms. One proposed ammunition label has a photo of a bloody face and states that a gun increases the risk of someone in a home being killed.
Some of the proposed labels show the bloody face of a gunshot victim, to “educate gun owners about the dangers associated with gun ownership.” I’m not convinced this will change much. We are all exposed to tons of simulated gunshot injuries in TV shows and movies. Also, cigarette warning labels show the consequences of normal use of cigarettes. Since most gun owners fire nearly all their ammunition at things other than people, the disturbing warning images seem irrelevant. On the other hand, it’s just a picture, so it’s not the worst gun control idea I’ve heard.
A lot of Kristof’s ideas revolve around raising the cost of acquiring a gun:
Cigarette taxes reduced demand for tobacco, especially among young people, so how about gun taxes, particularly for 9-millimeter Glocks and other deadly handguns?
That would maybe work in the sense of reducing civilian gun ownership. Or it could create a black market of untaxed guns for criminals. Definitely at least one of those two things. Maybe both.
Or what about insurance? Automobile owners must buy insurance, and pool owners and trampoline owners may pay higher premiums, so why shouldn’t gun owners pay higher rates for higher risks?
This one mystifies me. People who propose insurance requirements for gun ownership seem to think it will be expensive enough to discourage gun ownership. Given that I can get a $1 million in umbrella liability coverage for a couple of hundred dollars that covers firearm injuries and practically every possible way someone could get hurt, why would I even want standalone gun insurance? Gun ownership isn’t much of a risk, either, given that the insurance company never even asked if I have a gun.
All I can think of is that these people believe firearm liability insurance would allow shooting victims or their survivors to recover full damages from the shooter. The problem is that insurance never works that way. Yes, if you accidentally run someone over in your car, your insurance will pay damages for your liability. But if you deliberately run someone over, that’s not covered. Intentional crimes are never covered by insurance. I think it might even be illegal to provide insurance coverage for the insured person’s criminal acts.
Then Kristof really goes off the rails:
Economists have proposed one clever idea to raise firearms prices that gun manufacturers might applaud: Impose heavy duties on imported guns and simultaneously give domestic manufacturers immunity from antitrust liability so they can collude and set prices. All this would enable American gun manufacturers to engage in monopolistic price gouging that would reduce sales — and deaths.
This is just sick. There’s something seriously wrong with anyone who wants to put their fellow Americans under the thumb of monopolist producers. The article Kristof cites as the source of this idea sells it as a blatant effort to buy the political support of gun manufacturers in reducing the availability of guns. The authors compare it to the anti-trust immunity given to major league baseball — which they’ve used to ruthlessly dominate the minor leagues and suppress player salaries — and to the horrendous 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement which rewarded cigarette makers with a highly profitable cartel so that part of the profits could be siphoned off to feed government budgets. And of course giving gun companies lots of money means they can afford more and better lobbyists.
Finally, note how Kristof’s goals have drifted, and how his prejudices have been revealed: At the start of the article, he explained that he wants to focus on keeping guns away from the wrong people. But by the end of the article, it’s clear that when he says “wrong people,” he means people too poor to afford his expensive guns.