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Guns: Bad Journalism and Bad Politics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Are you opposed to "common sense" gun laws? These are what liberals like Hillary Clinton are always proclaiming their support for. In their telling, expanding background checks, closing the "gun show loophole," and restricting Internet sales will, in the words of liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, "(limit) the carnage on our streets, in our schools and houses of worship, and at our movie theaters." That's not an argument -- it's moral grandstanding, and not a word of it holds up under scrutiny.

As someone who doesn't love guns, and who believes that the Second Amendment does not forbid all regulation of gun ownership, I am open to the idea of gun control. The facts, though, are stubborn things. We've always had plentiful guns in this country, but we haven't always had the frequency of random, mass shootings in public places that have so disturbed us over the past couple of decades.

As many critics, including the fact checker at the Washington Post, have observed, President Obama's suggestion that "A violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked" is rubbish. "A gun dealer must comply with federal laws that require gun sellers to have licenses and perform background checks ... without regard for whether the sale is arranged on the Internet or in person," quoth The Washington Post.

None of the reforms proposed by President Obama would have prevented the awful mass shootings in Newtown or Roseburg or Aurora or San Bernardino. As the AP showed, the killers in those cases legally purchased their weapons and passed background checks; or used straw purchasers (already illegal); or used weapons owned by family members. The Charleston killer should not have passed the background check (he had a drug arrest on his record), but government bungling allowed the purchase to proceed.

Are we in the grip of an epidemic of gun violence? Writing in Reason magazine, Brian Doherty notes that the gun homicide rate in 1993 (when there were approximately 192 million guns in circulation) was 7 per 100,000 Americans. In 2013, the gun murder rate had declined to 3.8 per 100,000, by which time there were approximately 300 million guns in private hands. More guns do not seem to equal more gun murders.

If we're not awash in gun violence, we are certainly in the grip of bad journalism about gun violence. As a 2015 survey published in Preventive Medicine magazine showed, only a tiny percentage of criminals purchase their guns from shops. Most obtain them through informal networks or gangs. Is the "gun show loophole" responsible for lots of guns in the hands of bad actors? Doubtful. A 2001 survey of federal prisoners found that only 1 percent had purchased their weapons at gun shows, and as Charles C.W. Cooke has patiently explained, the "gun show loophole" is a misnomer in any case. FFLs (federal firearms licensed sellers) must perform background checks no matter where they transact business, and private sellers are under no obligation to perform checks whether they sell from their kitchen or at a gun show.

About two thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides. It's possible that one proposed reform, adopting so-called "smart guns" that could be fired only by the owner, might be useful in preventing some fraction of gun deaths. One thinks of teenagers who commit suicide with the gun belonging to their parents, or children who die in gun accidents. Smart guns might make it more difficult for criminals who steal guns to use them (though that Preventive Medicine survey suggests that only about 3 percent of criminals' guns are stolen). We can't be certain that the technology would work, and we know that many of the recent mass shootings have been carried out by legal gun owners. So, guarded optimism, maybe, but no magic bullet there.

Showcasing one's feelings about mass shootings -- especially when you can ratchet up your indignation at the "gun lobby" and Republicans -- is emotionally satisfying. But the truth is that no one really knows why we've suffered mass shootings in such numbers in recent years. It may be partly the copycat effect; or the lure of the publicity shooters invariably receive in a culture that has trouble separating fame from infamy; the decline of character-building institutions like churches and families (the vast majority of mass shooters have been males raised in divorced or single-parent homes); or the failure of our mental-health system to provide treatment to those who need it most.

But those explanations don't yield convenient villains. If you want to weep about something, it should be that.

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