Democrats like Barack Obama and Andrew Cuomo are up in arms, gearing up to grab our guns. The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre was nearly incomprehensible in his press conference. With Republicans cowering in the corner, it’s time for Libertarians to speak up.
While we all feel horrible for the Sandy Hook victims and their families, we can’t make policy based on emotion and rash judgment.
To borrow from Herman Cain, we can’t solve anything until we first identify the problem. Over the past week there has been a massive media surge with talk about many different problems, including mass shootings, school shootings, violent crime, gun crime, gun accidents, and suicide. We should be clear as to what we’re talking about.
We have also faced a barrage of solutions, most of which have little to do with the problems being discussed.
This is the problem on the minds of most people. The Obama/Cuomo solution, banning so-called assault weapons, does not address the school shooting problem. Why not? Such weapons are rarely used in crime. Going through a list of school shootings, few of the guns were anything close to assault weapons. Most involved pistols or shotguns. Looking back until 2000 with more than 3 deaths:
- Oikos University (2012) – pistol
- Chardon High School (2012) – pistol
- San Jose State (2011) – pistol
- Alabama-Huntsville (2010) – pistol
- Northern Illinois (2008) – shotgun and 3 pistols
- Louisiana Technical College (2008) – revolver
- Virginia Tech (2007) – pistols
- Amish School (PA 2006) – pistol, shotgun, bolt-action rifle
- Red Lake High School (2005) – 2 pistols and a shotgun
- Arizona Nursing School (2002) – 5 pistols
- Appalachian Law School (2002) – pistol
Even the gun used in Sandy Hook was not an assault weapon. Connecticut already has an Assault Weapons Ban. It has been widely reported that the Bushmaster rifle used was legal under that AWB. Even the gun-ban-supporting Huffington Post acknowledges this and that the state’s ban was modeled on the federal ban that President Obama wants to reinstate. The infamous Columbine weapons didn’t involve an assault rifle either.
So if the problem is school shootings, military-style semi-automatic rifles are not the issue. If gun banners were serious about school shootings, they would talk about pistols and maybe shotguns.
Similarly the proposed ban on high-capacity magazines for such rifles is misplaced. Columbine shooter Eric Harris did use a semi-automatic rifle, but he used 10-round mags – 13 of them. Capping magazine capacity would be as rational as Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas.
The NRA solution to the school shooting problem is similarly disturbing to libertarians. In a rambling, barely coherent speech, NRA president Wayne LaPierre called for massive new federal spending to put more police in schools, a privacy-invading “active national database of the mentally ill,” and attacked the First Amendment by blaming “violent video games” and “slasher films”, describing the game companies and Hollywood as “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.”
The libertarian answer is rather different: The “school shooting” problem does not call for any federal action whatsoever. Most of these shootings involve state residents acquiring and using their guns in that state. Nothing crosses state lines. School violence generally should be addressed by local schools and local police forces, following the laws of their own states.
At the state and local level, spending money on police in schools is questionable for most schools even in good economic times. While we oppose government-run schools in theory, as a practical matter our schools need teachers more than cops.
Libertarians also oppose state gun prohibitions. The school shooting record shows Governor Cuomo’s shotgun is a greater threat than any semi-automatic rifle. Cuomo’s suggestion of confiscation should send shivers down your spine.
The deeper truth about gun control advocates is that most want to ban all guns, except of course for those held by bodyguards protecting the wealthy and powerful. Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post, like many others, points to Australia as an example. But the Aussies didn’t just ban semi-automatic rifles. They have an extensive system of regulation, with even Airsoft guns mostly prohibited. Western Australia banned crossbows.
The school shootings list leaves out other mass shootings such as the recent one in Aurora. The focus on assault weapons is mistaken here too. In Aurora the semi-automatic rifle jammed after only about 30 rounds, meaning that the majority of the 80 victims were hit by some other weapon, either the shotgun or the pistol. A list of rampage killers again shows that most attacks involve other weapons, typically pistols. The Tucson shooter used a pistol.
In one notable incident in Tuscaloosa the shooter did use an AK-47. The supposedly lethal assault rifle injured 17 people, killing none. Almost none of these incidents involved more than 20 victims, showing a ban on 30-round magazines to be irrelevant. Others talk about the Beltway Sniper Attacks but the Bushmaster killings were all single shots. Using a bolt-action or even single-shot rifle would have made no difference. And the Crandon shooter, a police officer, calls into question the idea that such guns should be limited to law enforcement.
Some in the gun control movement bring up suicide as an issue. Here more than anywhere else, the focus on magazine capacity is absurd. While multiple gunshot suicides do happen, they are rare and never involve more than 5 shots. Guns account for roughly half of all suicides, and half of those involve rifles and shotguns. Thus rifles account for perhaps one-quarter of all suicides (these numbers are rough guesstimates) and assault rifles are likely less than half of those.
While guns have been a focus of suicide prevention, Japan has a much higher rate of suicide despite having few or no guns. Some libertarians would argue suicide is not a government problem at all, leaving people free to kill themselves.
Others would argue that suicide is increased by societal pressures. The Bush/Obama education policy, with its heavy focus on high-stakes testing and No Administrator Left Behind penchant for laying off teachers during budget crunches, contributes to those pressures on teens. The federal government should get out of education entirely.
The ongoing economic crisis and endless wars are putting similar pressures on adults. Bringing our troops home and returning to the small government our founders envisioned will ease both.
The larger problem we should be talking about is violent crime. While the media frenzy over Sandy Hook and Aurora have brought school shootings and mass shootings front and center, cooler heads recognize such incidents are extremely rare. There were a total of 8 school shootings with 40 deaths (including suicides) in 2012. This year is actually an outlier. The school shootings list shows only 9 deaths in 2011, 12 deaths in 2010, and 7 deaths in 2009.
Per the CDC, there are approximately 17,000 homicides in the US every year, with 11,000 or so from firearms. School shootings are roughly one-tenth of one percent of all homicides.
Semi-automatic rifles are rarely involved in crimes. And while guns are often the tools of violent crime, they are not the cause. Causes of crime vary, and most of them are local issues. But there is one area that is federal – violence related to drug trafficking. These crimes are caused by drug prohibition, just as Alcohol Prohibition fueled all kinds of violence in the 1920s and ’30s (see Miron on prohibitions and violence).
What most people really want is less violent crime, and the War on Drugs causes crime. The Libertarian Party opposes the drug war. If we want to reduce violence, the biggest step we can take at the federal level is to repeal the Controlled Substances Act. Going along with the liberal pro-choice movement and conservative supporters of the Second Amendment, we should end all government interference with the individual right to choose which medications to keep and bear. At the very least, the federal government should respect the many states that have chosen to legalize marijuana, whether for medical or recreational purposes.
Warren Redlich was the 2010 Libertarian candidate for Governor of New York State.