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The (Current) Gun-Control Debate Is Not Really About Gun Control

The Second Amendment got us into this mess. So we can hardly expect it to get us out of it.

"Society has only a few tools in its toolkit to solve public-health crises. Perhaps the most powerful of these tools is legislation." (Photo: David Becker/Getty Images)

"Society has only a few tools in its toolkit to solve public-health crises. Perhaps the most powerful of these tools is legislation." (Photo: David Becker/Getty Images)

It has been a little over a month since the Stoneman Douglas mass shooting, a week since hundreds of thousands of high school students walked out of class to protest government inaction on gun control, a few days after the shooting at Great Mills High School, and a few days before the national March for Our Lives.

Having vigorously debated the gun-control issue with my Advanced Criminal Law classes at LSU Law School and having read extensive commentary from both sides – both the pro-gun-control crowd and anti-gun-control crowd – I only recently arrived at a crucial insight. While I used to believe that they disagreed only about how to solve the gun-violence problem in the U.S., I now believe that one side doesn’t even think that there is a gun-violence problem to solve in the first place.

In full disclosure, my own position is not only that there is indeed a significant gun-violence problem in the U.S. but also that the Second Amendment is the main culprit; that it lies at the very root, both legally and culturally, of the United States’ pathologically high rates of homicide, suicide, serious injuries, and PTSD.

The more common view, of course, is that the Second Amendment is overall a good thing, that it is necessary to protect our natural or “God-given” right to self-defense, especially now that there are over 300 million guns in circulation. The problem with this position, however, is that it is strangely circular. The entire reason we have 300+ million guns to defend against is because decades-long efforts to stop this proliferation (mostly by Democrats) have been defeated by public officials (mostly Republicans) insisting that these efforts conflict with the Second Amendment. In this way, the Second Amendment is being used to solve the very problem that it was instrumental in creating.

This is not unlike a cybersecurity firm hacking into otherwise fully protected computers in order to drive up demand for their software – or the gun lobby proposing to help us defend against all the guns out there by putting even more guns out there. In what other context is the proposed solution to a problem simply to exacerbate the problem? And in what other context do so many people passionately support this counterintuitive logic? The Second Amendment got us into this mess. So we can hardly expect it to get us out of it.

In the end, Second Amendment “absolutists” just don’t seem to agree with the majority of Americans that there is in fact a gun-violence problem in the U.S. To be sure, they concede that mass shootings of innocent people, for example, are wrong. But deep down, they believe that these harms are not nearly as bad as the harms – at least graver injustice and possibly more deaths – that would be caused by any government efforts to restrict the Second Amendment’s application.

By analogy, I suppose, 30,000 car fatalities every year is terrible, but even more terrible would be the harms wrought by government effsorts to restrict the manufacture, sale, purchase, or possession of cars. Unfortunately, this analogy is not very persuasive. The government has quite successfully reduced car fatalities by pressuring car manufacturers to install safety mechanisms such as auto-lock brakes and stiffening penalties for drunk driving, reckless driving, and failure to wear seatbelts (all on top of requiring drivers to have reached a threshold age, demonstrated training and competence, and maintained a valid license). So why should guns be treated any differently? If anything, guns should be regulated even more rigorously than cars because, given their relatively small size and potent design, they are capable of killing many more people in many more places.

Society has only a few tools in its toolkit to solve public-health crises. Perhaps the most powerful of these tools is legislation. While laws don’t always successfully solve the problems that they target – and occasionally make things much worse (for example, laws against marijuana possession and use) – they usually do. Murder laws, for example, have not come even close to preventing murders. But they most certainly have dramatically reduced the number of murders that would otherwise have occurred if they didn’t exist at all. There is no reason to think that additional laws restricting access to guns, and to the most dangerous kinds of guns, would not – and actually do not – similarly reduce the great number of homicides, suicides, accidental deaths, and injuries in the U.S.

This commonsense assumption, however, is a non-starter if one side doesn’t believe that the number of homicides, suicides, accidental deaths, and injuries in the U.S. should be reduced in the first place. So if we are ever to have any rational dialogue with Second Amendment absolutists – that is, most Republican politicians – the question we must first address is not whether banning bump stocks or requiring universal background checks or any other particular legislative reform will help reduce gun violence. It is whether there is even a gun-violence problem worth solving to begin with.

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Ken Levy

Ken Levy is a professor of criminal law at LSU Law School.

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