We all want to live in world where people can go about their lives without fear of suffering violence. No one wants to experience the mortal terror of confronting a murderer. No one wants to suffer the unimaginable and crushing pain of losing a family member or friend to violence. Maybe we can start with that common ground and try to have a real conversation about culture, guns, and policy in the aftermath of the Boulder murders.
A world without guns?
To start digging into the relevant issues, consider, as a thought experiment, what would happen if, instead of snapping his fingers and wiping out half of all living beings, Thanos (from the Marvel films) instead snapped his fingers and made every last gun and round of ammunition disappear in the United States. Lots of gun-control advocates would, if they could, do precisely that.
Let’s further say that, at that point, guns and ammunition became outlawed across the board, except for police, government agencies, and the military.
Would gun-related crimes fall? Yes, obviously. Initially they would fall to zero. However, violent criminals quickly would enter the black market to illegally import and produce guns. Domestic gangs as well as international drug cartels quickly would expand their operations in gun trafficking. Gun bans would work about as well as drug bans have worked—not very well. We would soon live in a world where only criminals and government agents owned guns.
Even though gun-related crimes would fall, various other sorts of violent crimes would skyrocket. Criminals no longer would fear getting shot when they break into people’s houses to rape or plunder the inhabitants, as they now often fear. Nor would they fear facing armed opposition from the half-million or so Coloradans with a concealed-carry permit. Notably, people legally carrying a handgun sometimes stop active attackers. Criminals who rely on physical strength, weapons other than guns, illegal guns, or the help of accomplices would be emboldened to attack the disarmed citizenry.
In terms of criminal justice, a total (non-governmental) gun ban would turn an untold number of formerly law-abiding American gun owners formally into criminals as they manufactured or bought illegal guns for self-defense. So we’d periodically read news reports of violent police raids of the homes of people who never harmed a soul but who violated the law or were suspected of doing so. As Breonna Taylor became a victim of the violent war on drugs, so others, inevitably, would become victims of the new war on guns.
Still, homicides overall probably would fall in this hypothetical world. However, it would be simplistic to think that homicides would fall by the fraction currently committed with a gun. Some criminals still would get guns illegally (as they do now), and some criminals would substitute other weapons.
Compared to many other high-income countries, the United States is a relatively violent place (Wikipedia shows how we rank globally). In a 2019 paper, Erin Grinshteyn and David Hemenway review 2015 statistics—a little dated but still illustrative. The paper reports that 73% of the 17,000 U.S. homicides involved firearms. Does that mean that, even if no criminals had guns, the homicide rate would have fallen by 73%? Obviously not—many of the perpetrators would have victimized people by other means.
The terrible fact is that the non-firearm homicide rate in the U.S. is about double the total homicide rate of the high-income countries the paper considers. Obviously we have broader cultural problems, not just a “gun problem.”
It is worth noting, however, that, even with last year’s spike in homicides, “the rates are still far beneath their peaks in the ’90s,” as crime researcher Thomas Abt told U.S. News.
We can draw a number of lessons from our hypothetical example as compared to the real world:
* Law-abiding American gun owners stop some violent criminals and deter many others. Counting only the costs of guns while ignoring their benefits is dishonest and unhelpful.
* Just banning something does not mean that thing goes away. Alcohol Prohibition did not get rid of alcohol, the drug war did not get rid of drugs, and a gun war would not get rid of guns. Indeed, prohibitions often help drive black-market violence.
* In many contexts, not only can criminals often get illegal guns, they can substitute other weapons (especially against disarmed victims). Unfortunately, various researchers, politicians, journalists, and activists dishonestly limit their analyses to gun-related crimes, thereby ignoring weapon substitution.
* Although guns often contribute to criminal violence, they are not the fundamental cause of violence. Many things contribute to crime. And scores of millions of Americans peaceably own guns.
* Important American cultural and legal traditions support civilian gun ownership. Millions of Americans simply are not going to be disarmed. Advocates of gun laws should account for the American context.
With our hypothetical example, I’ve sought to set the general context of guns in America. Now let’s turn to today’s policy debates.
Finding common ground
Hardly anyone will say they’d prefer to ban all guns. Mostly people are talking about incremental reforms. Although it’s easy to get caught up in the heated debates, we should also note the widespread agreement about various issues.
Although Rocky Mountain Gun Owners continues to oppose Colorado’s relatively new “red flag” law, which allows police to confiscate the guns of people who are legally declared a threat to themselves or others, the bill drew bipartisan support. I’d like to see more due-process protections in the law, but I support the measure in principle.
One low-controversy measure the legislature could consider is to finance a public information campaign about the red flag law. Various reports indicate that the suspect in the Boulder murders should have been flagged under this law. His brother described him as “very anti-social,” paranoid, and mentally ill. In high school he attacked another student. His attorneys are claiming he is mentally ill. People who lived with the suspect were so upset by him “playing with” his gun that they temporarily took it away from him. So how did these facts not add up to someone reporting this guy under the red-flag law? By making a report, someone might have saved ten lives.
Although Senate Republicans continue to oppose expanded background checks at least in some forms, hardly anyone argues for rolling back existing checks at the federal or state level. Recall that Colorado passed expanded background checks following the Columbine murders. (The Boulder suspect passed a background check.)
I have an unusual take: I support universal background checks in principle, but I think the existing system is unnecessarily intrusive. But, bluntly, that ship has sailed. If I could recreate the system with the stroke of a wand, I would. Given today’s entrenched system, expanding the checks to gun shows and internet sales nationwide—hopefully excepting transfers within immediate families—seems inevitable.
I will point out here that gun-control advocates could help take concerns about self-defense off the table. A main reason I opposed the Colorado background-check expansion is that the system can delay a gun purchase based on bad records or coincidences of names. In those cases, someone can be denied the right of self-defense. And I still worry about that problem.
Consider this proposal: If the government denies someone who has not been convicted of a violent crime the right to purchase or possess a gun (say, through a red-flag action or a background-check delay), the person could request and obtain round-the-clock security funded by the government (say, a police officer parked in front of the person’s house). That seems fair, right? If government is going to leave a person defenseless, government should have to protect that person.
Gun-control advocates could even bring in this government-protection proposal for waiting periods. Alternately, gun-control advocates could call for waiting periods only for semi-automatic guns with detachable magazines, not for guns such as revolvers, bolt-action rifles, and many shotguns. I’d still oppose waiting periods, but at least gun-control advocates would be making some effort to account for the right of self-defense recognized by both our federal and state bills of rights.
The question of “assault” weapons
President Joe Biden quickly called for a “ban” on “assault” weapons, which I take to mean a ban on sales of certain newly manufactured guns (as with the 1994 ban that President Bill Clinton signed).
One big problem with the debate is that many people fail to note whether they’re talking about a ban on sales or one on possession. There’s a huge difference! If we’re talking about outlawing the possession of certain guns, then that potentially entails police breaking into people’s houses to forcibly confiscate their guns. That sort of talk tends to make millions of American gun owners nervous. If that’s not what you want, you should say so!
Boulder’s “assault” gun ban, which the courts recently threw out, covered possession, not just sales, although it grandfathered in guns owned prior to passage of the ban if people got a police certificate. But the city never enforced the ban anyway. Jacob Sullum reviews the idiocy of claims that the Boulder ban somehow would have stopped the suspect in the Boulder murders.
Of course, a lot of people do want government to confiscate certain guns. The main reason that Lauren Boebert now sits in the U.S. Congress is that Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” (among other guns), and Boebert publicly told him, “Hell no, you’re not.”
It’s unclear (to me) whether Colorado Democrats who talk about “a ban on ‘assault-style’ weapons” at the state level are talking about a ban on sales or on possession. As the Colorado Sun summarizes, other states with a “ban” grandfather in the guns people already own.
I do appreciate NPR putting “assault-style” in quotes. This is an admirably honest acknowledgement that what we’re talking about is banning (the sale or possession of) certain guns based on their “style” rather than their functionality.
This brings us to the key problem of talk of “bans” on “assault” weapons: The category is entirely arbitrary. In many people’s minds, an “assault” weapon is basically one that they think looks especially scary. But there’s no basic functional difference between an “assault” weapon and a regular ol’ semi-automatic gun of the same caliber with a detachable magazine.
Talk of banning “assault” guns scares many gun owners partly because the campaign seems very much like (and is) an incremental step toward the total ban of all semi-automatic guns (at least those with detachable magazines), as they are functionally equivalent. That’s a big problem, because semi-automatic guns are extremely popular and effective choices for home defense and concealed carry.
Congressman Joe Neguse comes close to obliterating any distinction between an “assault weapon” and any other semi-automatic gun. In a March 25 letter co-signed by Representatives Ed Perlmutter, Jason Crow, and Diana DeGette (among others), Neguse calls on Biden to issue an executive order “banning the importation of assault weapons, including semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.” So he seems to be saying that every semi-automatic rifle is an “assault” gun, including rifles regularly used for hunting. Neguse’s letter leaves open the possibility of leaving some semi-auto handguns out of the “assault” category. Perhaps Neguse doesn’t really mean what his letter claims; maybe he meant to say that only some semi-automatic rifles are “assault weapons.” (I asked his office for an on-the-record statement but did not receive one.)
Notably, the anti-gun Everytown organization (which Neguse cites) claims, “Assault weapons are generally high-powered semi-automatic firearms.” So, by this absurdly broad definition, a common semi-auto .30-06 hunting rifle is an “assault weapon.”
Obviously if we arbitrarily categorize some semi-automatic guns as “assault weapons” and ban the sale or possession of those, criminals easily can substitute other guns that are not “assault weapons.”
As state representative and gun-control advocate Tom Sullivan told CPR, “We saw in Atlanta, the man . . . went and got himself a handgun and went out and murdered eight people that afternoon.” I’ve seen no indication that this was anything other than a common pistol. One common complaint about the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban is that gun makers made minor modifications to their guns to dodge the “assault weapon” category.
Bans on “assault weapons” do not stop criminals from substituting other guns. Because such bans are ineffective as crime-prevention measures, many gun owners rightly see them as a calculated effort to set the stage for future erosions of gun rights.
One problem with the debate is that “assault weapons” typically are thrown in with “high-capacity” magazines. But those are separable issues. You can take a 30-round magazine out of an “assault weapon” and put in a 10-round magazine. Or you can put a larger magazine in a semi-automatic rifle not deemed an “assault weapon.”
At least there is a semi-plausible argument for restricting magazine capacity. True, with a bit of practice people can quickly swap out magazines, so magazine restrictions are unlikely to slow down a mass shooter. Still, it does take a moment to swap a magazine.
In his letter, Neguse doesn’t define what he considers a “high-capacity” magazine, but presumably he means one holding more than ten rounds, which matches the 1994 law. But Colorado law restricts “high-capacity” magazines only above 15 rounds, so it would be helpful if people would specify what they mean. The cut-off is entirely arbitrary, of course.
Because criminals easily can carry multiple magazines (and even multiple guns), magazine restrictions have no significant impact on crime. Neguse claims otherwise, but the statistics he cites regarding past shootings do not support his claim. He improperly conflates mass shootings where the criminal targets random strangers versus specific individuals, and he ignores the fact that people easily can substitute multiple smaller magazines and other guns.
The argument against bans
Here, then, are the substantive questions: Should government restrict or ban some or all semi-automatic guns (some of which some people arbitrarily call “assault” guns)? And should government restrict or ban “high-capacity” gun magazines, however defined?
The question I have seen asked a hundred times over the past few days is, “Why do you need an assault weapon” (however defined) with a “high-capacity” magazine?
The most basic answer is that, in a free society, people do not have to justify their choices to politicians based on “need.” Charging government with deciding what people do and do not “need” (and therefore can or cannot have) is a pathway to tyranny.
In a free society, people have a right to do anything that does not violate the rights of others. Does someone who buys or possesses a large-caliber semi-automatic rifle with a “high-capacity” magazine thereby violate anyone’s rights? No. Millions of Americans own such guns without hurting anyone. Therefore, rights-respecting people have a right to buy and possess such guns.
If we seriously care about liberty—and, granted, people today often do not—that is the end of the conversation. In a free society, government does not get to violate the rights of millions of people in order to stop violent criminals. It does not get to punish the innocent on account of the vicious.
I will make a stronger point: Not only do people have a right to own powerful semi-automatic guns with large magazines, that right is very important. There are basically three reasons why I want many rights-respecting Americans to own such guns. First, in the case of an extreme breakdown of law and order (as might result from an extreme natural disaster or an EMP blast, as examples), an armed citizenry can help deter and stop coordinated pillaging. Second, a heavily armed citizenry really is a deterrent to regional oppression or a possible fascist takeover. After spending months telling us that the former president was a fascist attempting a coup, Democrats can stop insisting “it can’t happen here.” Third, a heavily armed citizenry is a serious deterrent to any future threat of military invasion. Here the relevant timeline is decades, during which a lot can happen.
Of course, people especially in rural settings sometimes rely on such rifles for usual self-defense concerns, and some people use the rifles for hunting (Colorado regulates the number of rounds in the magazine when hunting).
Advocates of gun and magazine bans may regard the arguments above as implausible. But I hope they’ll bear in mind that millions of Americans seriously hold these views. Dave Kopel, for example, has written extensively about such issues. Would-be gun banners at least should seriously discuss such issues rather than presume out of the gate that their political opponents must have vicious motives.
I’ll point out here to gun-control advocates that they could propose restrictions other than bans of (some or all) semi-automatic guns and of (some) detachable magazines. Another possibility is to tighten up restrictions on buying such guns and magazines, say by requiring a more-extensive background check involving police interviews of the buyer’s associates. I’d oppose such restrictions as overly intrusive, but at least gun-control advocates would be making some effort to better-account for people’s rights.
Getting serious about crime
We can and should consider many other ways to address crime other than by restricting the rights of millions of rights-respecting Americans.
The economist Alex Tabarrok argues that we should have many more police than we do have. We should broaden the category to “public safety personnel” to account for the sorts of alternatives to traditional policing that Denver has tried. And of course we should ask police and other safety officers to focus on keeping people safe, rather than, say, hassling people for victimless “crimes” and harassing or assaulting young black men walking home from the store.
Other ideas: As mentioned, the legislature could better-publicize Colorado’s red-flag law. We can get more serious about making sure that people with mental illnesses get the help they need (while recognizing the complexity of the issue). We can use prisons more judiciously and make them more humane and truly rehabilitative. We can end drug prohibition and the black-market violence it spawns. We can improve educational opportunities for kids trapped in failing schools. We can better “harden” public areas against criminal attacks (hopefully in aesthetically pleasing ways). We can promote training for people who want it for how even unarmed civilians can help stop mass attacks. (This list hardly is exhaustive.)
At least some of those steps would be far more effective at curbing crime than imposing yet more arbitrary gun restrictions on millions of peaceable Americans. Some politicians, journalists, and activists are so fixated on the gun issue that they lose track of broader strategies to curb crime.
It is all too easy to look for scapegoats in the aftermath of a public horror. We should resist that urge, instead seek common ground, and pursue serious discussions about how to stop more criminals while respecting the rights of everyone else.
Our unofficial motto at Complete Colorado is “Always free, never fake, ” but annoyingly enough, our reporters, columnists and staff all want to be paid in actual US dollars rather than our preferred currency of pats on the back and a muttered kind word. Fact is that there’s an entire staff working every day to bring you the most timely and relevant political news (updated twice daily) from around the state on Complete’s main page aggregator, as well as top-notch original reporting and commentary on Page Two.
CLICK HERE TO LADLE A LITTLE GRAVY ON THE CREW AT COMPLETE COLORADO. You’ll be giving to the Independence Institute, the not-for-profit publisher of Complete Colorado, which makes your donation tax deductible. But rest assured that your giving will go specifically to the Complete Colorado news operation. Thanks for being a Complete Colorado reader, keep coming back.