Had Wednesday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school been different in one respect — that is, had alleged perpetrator Nikolas Cruz shouted “Allahu akbar” during the course of his rampage — conservatives would be demanding another round of get-tough measures.
Tougher immigration laws. Tougher domestic surveillance. A rollback of Miranda rights for the accused. Possibly even a Muslim registry. Constitutional protections and American ideals, goes the argument, must sometimes yield to urgent public safety concerns.
But Cruz, like Las Vegas’s Stephen Paddock or Newtown’s Adam Lanza and so many other mass murderers before them, is just another killer without a cause. Collectively, their carnages account for some 1,800 deaths and close to 7,000 injuries in the United States since the beginning of 2013, accordingto The Guardian — though that’s only a small fraction of overall gun-related deaths. And conservatives have next to nothing of use to say about it.
Well, almost nothing. Some conservatives talk about the importance of mental-health interventions with the potentially violent. Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. The Obama administration tried to do that after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre by requiring the Social Security Administration to submit the names of severely unwell persons to the F.B.I.
Congressional Republicans and President Trump reversed the rule a year ago. Representative Salud Carbajal, a California Democrat, introduced a “red flag” bill last May that would make it easier for family members to keep firearms out of the hands of potentially dangerous relatives. The bill has 50 Democratic co-sponsors but not one Republican. Maybe the Parkland massacre will shame the majority into embracing the legislation.
But such laws can achieve only so much. Keeping track of dangerously unstable people who shouldn’t own guns but do is hard: Devin Kelley, the Texas church shooter, had once escaped from a mental health hospital and was legally barred from buying the weapon he used to murder 26 people in November. Nor can the federal government be in the business of getting unwell people to take their meds. That way lies the path to a Clockwork Orange.
Beyond that, the conservative answer is: more guns.
It’s true that a gun in the right hands at the right time and place can save lives, as the former National Rifle Association instructor Stephen Willeford proved when he shot Kelley as the latter emerged from the church. No sensible society should want to keep arms out of hands like his.
But that’s an argument for greater discrimination in terms of who should get to own a gun, not less. The United States has, by far, more guns in more hands than any other country in the developed world. It has, by far, the highest incidence of firearm-related homicides and suicides. Correlation is not causation, but since Americans aren’t dramatically crazier than other nationalities, what other explanation is there?
Gun advocates often make the claim that the mere presence of firearms deters crime. But research from Stanford’s John Donohue suggests that “right to carry” state laws have led to a 13 to 15 percent jump in violent crime. New York City, with the most aggressive enforcement of gun laws of any major U.S. city, has seen its homicide rate drop to levels not experienced since the 1950s. By contrast, in the permissive gun state of Missouri, St. Louis has the highest per capita murder rate of any major American city.
Nor is it remotely true, as gun advocates contend, that gun bans necessarily result in increased murder rates. The homicide rates in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have all fallen since enacting strict national gun control. Conservatives are supposed to be empiricists, not idealists. They should learn the lesson of experience.
So all this is an argument for tougher gun-control laws, right? Well, not exactly.
In October, after the Las Vegas massacre, I made the case in this column for repealing the Second Amendment. The column is still being criticized by conservatives for reasons that usually miss the point. We need to repeal the Second Amendment because most gun-control legislation is ineffective when most Americans have a guaranteed constitutional right to purchase deadly weaponry in nearly unlimited quantities.
There’s a good case to be made for owning a handgun for self-defense, or a rifle for hunting. There is no remotely sane case for being allowed to purchase, as Paddock did, 33 firearms in the space of a year. But that change can’t happen without a constitutional fix. Anything less does little more than treat the symptoms of the disease.
I know what the objections to this argument will be. What about John Locke and Cesare Beccaria? What about the preservation of American liberties and the encroachments of bureaucratic liberal despotism?
Right. What about another 17 murdered souls, and their classmates and families, and the inability of today’s conservatives to offer anything except false bromides and empty prayers?