Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gun Control and the Limited Liberal Imagination



The awful shooting in Aurora, Colorado has generated a predictable conversation regarding gun control. News articles, blog pages, and social media are buzzing about the perils of the US gun culture and the need for more gun control laws. As a Dissenting Justice, I like to examine critical issues that others push to the margins. Accordingly, I have attempted to shake up the liberal response to gun violence which focuses almost exclusively and mechanically on gun control. For several reasons, I find this conversation extremely limited and insufficient. 

First, there is a poverty of good research that documents the effectiveness of gun control. Many studies are inconclusive. Some show that such measures work, while others show failure. Many of these studies use poor methodologies. Despite the limited availability of strong research on this issue, gun control has been the singular response by many US liberals to gun violence. It is possible to question the effectiveness of gun control without conceding to the political agenda of rightwing organizations such as the NRA. Progressives should rest their arguments on sound data, just as they demand conservatives to do.

Second, it is abundantly clear that homicides -- whether they involve guns or not -- tend to involve these factors: mental illness, drug abuse, and emotional conflict. Indeed, in 2004 the CDC conducted a comprehensive study of gun deaths and reached this very conclusion. Despite the abundance of research that links violence with mental illness, drugs, and emotional conflict, the liberal dialogue that has emerged since yesterday's tragedy (and following similar events in the past) does not address mental illness and drug addiction. Instead, the dialogue has focused primarily on regulating gun purchases.  This response echoes the conservative approach to crime generally. It calls upon the criminal law alone to solve a complex social problem. Even if gun control works, only a multidimensional and comprehensive approach can reduce violence.

Third, I am very suspicious of heated policy discussions that follow extraordinary events because they are inevitably faddish. Although the Aurora shooting was extremely tragic and bloody, gun violence occurs daily in the US. In Chicago, for example, there have been 253 homicides this year alone, but this has not captured the national attention like the Aurora shootings. As in most large cities, most of the Chicago homicide victims are male and black. Indeed, homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men. The issues leading to this acute social problem include poverty, racial isolation, insufficient resources to address mental health, and lack of opportunity. In other words, gun control will not fix this problem.

Fourth, the typical assailant knows the victim which enhances the opportunities for violence, with or without guns. Often, homicides occur among intimate partners. Given the relationship between many victims and killers, it is unclear whether regulating guns would do much to curb routine violence and homicides, even if it could reduce random shootings and mass killings.

Final Thoughts

I do not oppose sensible gun control. I do oppose, however, robotic and predictable policy positions.  Even The Onion has satirized with its usual accuracy the national dialogue that has followed the Aurora massacre. Supporting gun control should not preclude advocacy of other responses to violence. Being a liberal does not require rote adherence to traditional liberal policies. It is fine to rethink longstanding agendas. And even if gun control is part of the solution to violence, it is not the only feasible and efficacious response.


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