WASHINGTON — When it comes to gun control, conservatives have been fortunate in their enemies. Every time there is a mass shooting, the left renews its calls for gun control, but it spends a great deal of energy on futile and ahistorical arguments about the wording of the Second Amendment, or making hackle-raising, invidious comparisons with Europe. And when it comes time to actually suggest what should be done, Democrats generally suggest policies recycled from the 1994 crime bill, such as background checks and a ban on assault weapons. There’s little evidence that these policies did anything to curb gun violence the first time they were tried, which undercuts the calls for redoubling those efforts.
Yes, conservatives have been fortunate in their opponents. But when it comes to gun control, the right has been equally unfortunate in its allies, and in the end, that may matter much more.
Forget the arguments about whether President Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants did or didn’t cause the alleged El Paso shooter to go on a murderous rampage. I’m talking about a much more treacherous conservative ally: the National Rifle Association.
Every time there’s a mass shooting, the NRA rushes to suggest that the real problem is mental illness or violent video games or anything except guns. These claims have little evidence behind them, but of course that’s beside the point — the NRA just wants to say something that sounds vaguely plausible and doesn’t involve restricting guns. And that single-minded focus on simply avoiding gun restrictions has carried them to victory after victory.
But a closer look at that gun bill demonstrates why those victories may prove Pyrrhic.
Former vice president Joe Biden has been taking a lot of grief from young progressives over that bill, which he helped author as a senator.
But as James Forman Jr., a former public defender, pointed out in his 2017 book “Locking Up Our Own,” the policies advanced in the legislation had a great deal of support from African Americans, who were among the biggest victims of criminal predation. Which points us to the true driving force behind the 1994 crime bill, one that the young activists are missing, even though it’s right there in the name: crime.
Between 1960 and 1991, the United States’ violent crime rate nearly quadrupled, from less than 200 per 100,000 citizens to 758. Anyone who lived in a city during that era remembers what it felt like to never quite stop being afraid of victimization. As a teenager growing up in New York City, I was forbidden by my parents — not at all overprotective — to ride the subway system after dark. Though these sorts of strictures offered only modest protection; a classmate was brutally mugged on Park Avenue, in broad daylight.
The left took most of the blame for the crime increase, because for most of the 20th century it had been working to make the criminal-justice system more humane. Those reformers were right about a lot of things: Harsh punishment is morally problematic and often, perhaps usually, counterproductive. It’s also incredibly costly — for taxpayers, prisoners and the communities those prisoners are drawn from.
Unfortunately, when crime rates began to rise, the timing made it look as if liberal policies were the culprit. That was probably unfair, but by the 1990s, the country was too frightened to listen to any more liberals murmuring about how hard criminals had it. Thus, the 1994 crime bill.
Many of the policies in that bill failed. The longer sentences didn’t do much to deter criminals, and the gun-control measures didn’t do much to reduce gun violence. But the American public wasn’t going to give the left another 50 years to work on crime’s “root causes.”
The right should take note: Just as Americans were not going to let their cities turn into slaughterhouses, they are not going to let their Walmarts become war zones.
If tragedies like last weekend’s shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, keep happening at the current rate, the American public is eventually going to demand that the government take guns out of private hands. None of the firewalls that have worked thus far will hold. Constitutions can be amended, or courts packed with judges who read them differently. Even seemingly impregnable political coalitions can be broken by the weight of enough dead bodies. So if the right is interested in keeping its guns, it needs to get even more interested in finding an alternative policy that will actually work for the country to keep men with guns from doing terrible things.