Sunday, April 28, 2013

Comparing outcomes of gun control measures

For the present, we have no new gun control laws at the federal level. The latest gun control flap has, though, added new laws in some states; some of these laws seem to me ill considered. New York's SAFE Act appears to be nonsensical, serving mainly to harass gun owners and invade their privacy, and we have other instances of what I regard as infringing behavior from some other states' legislatures.

The good part about this is that state laws give us a chance to compare laws side by side, by comparing outcomes in one state against those in another, something federal laws give us no chance to do. We can look at what happens and ask whether the new laws in New York, Maryland, Colorado or elsewhere actually make anyone safer than people in states without such laws. This is a very good aspect of organizing our country as a federal republic. When a state has a good idea in legislation, events will reveal that, and other states can copy what was done. Likewise, laws that fail of their purposes give other states clear examples of what not to do.

Something this new crop of state gun laws does is point us toward a question of ends and means: What is the purpose of the laws? And what is their effect? For the laws do little or nothing to thwart gun use by criminals or the criminally insane. They do, however, place new and sometimes onerous burdens on the law abiding. The question arises: Since that is the outcome of the legislation, can we say that infringement was, all along, the real purpose?

On that view of things, all the talk about public safety and criminals and lunatics was only pretext. That view may be overly suspicious, casting legislators as malice-driven who are, perhaps, only incompetent: legislating their feelings and not sound sense. We need to remember that for some people, firearms are icons of fear and dread, rather than valuable tools that need a good deal of caution and respect when we handle them. Many legislative types appear never to handle and shoot guns, themselves, and consequently they have little to go on besides their secondhand fears.

In any case, the test of practical outcomes--of real world consequences--is before us as we consider the new gun laws enacted in several states. A clear-cut contrast may be drawn between states with different laws. A pair of states that contrast very much in their gun laws are New York and Arizona. In Arizona, you may do nearly anything with a gun that does not present a danger to other people, such as carry it from place to place, load it with the magazines for which it was designed, and shoot it for appropriate reasons in appropriate settings. Arizona has more open space than New York, but New York is not without its own out of the way areas. Arizona has its dense urban centers, too: So you cannot say the cases are wholly dissimilar. People are people either place, and guns are guns. Arizona's experience suggests that most people will behave sensibly and responsibly. In both New York and Arizona there are a few people who will misuse guns, and they will do it whether the laws are strict or lax.

Other contrasts between states can be drawn that are not quite so extreme. Of course you can also compare the outcomes within one state over time: Was New York any less safe before the SAFE Act? What I am pointing to here is the need to weigh outcomes and then decide what is a sensible gun law and what isn't. That is something we hear little of from the strict gun control crowd: We hear little to justify their presumption that more and more laws, imposing greater and greater burdens on lawful possession and use, actually serve the social good. We should start insisting that they come up with such justifications, or that they try.

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