We have a large body of public health, epidemiological, and clinical data relevant to gun violence that could be employed in the service of gun control regulations. It won't be. In fact, we are already — the most liberal elected officials in particular — moving rapidly in the wrong direction.
1. Reining in the mentally ill. A principal meme in the gun control debate is that guns are getting into the hands of mentally ill people, which we must prevent. There may be a somewhat elevated risk of violence with people with some mental illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia), although not most (e.g., depression, anxiety). But this increment is small. More important, it is notoriously difficult to predict which mentally ill people are prone to become violent. The idea that we can reliably enumerate these people, then safely encapsulate them, is a fantasy — we can't deal with the mentally ill people we already know need help.
2. Violating patients' rights. The major element of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's new gun legislation is to lower the restrictions that mental health professionals observe before reporting patients whom they fear might harm others, and for judges to order these people into treatment. This was, of course a reaction to Adam Lanza, the disturbed shooter in nearby Connecticut. But it's not clear that, if such laws applied to Lanza, he would have been identified in the first place, or received treatment that he hadn't already been exposed to. Moreover, many of these protections for mentally ill people were introduced to make them more willing to come forward and to receive treatment, as well as to protect their human and civil rights.
3. Guns kill people — not assault weapons. A recent international survey found Americans at the bottom of a list of comparable countries in terms of health outcomes and life expectancy. One of the principal reasons for our dismal showing is gun violence. But the vast majority of these gun killings are not due to assault weapons and multiple bullet clips; they are the result of simple handgun violence, and more often occur in inner-city neighborhoods. And so the president's and many state initiatives involving assaults weapons and high-capacity clips — even if successful at their intended aims — will have little impact on gun killings in this country.
4. The symbolism of guns for Americans exceeds health concerns. The standard gun control advocate begins his or her spiel by saying something like, "I don't know of any hunter who needs an assault weapon and a 30-round clip." Right. But a strong strand of nativistic paranoia in America has recently grown to haunting dimensions, as some fairly mainstream media and political figures refer to the Second Amendment as a way for Americans to protect themselves against their own government. As former New Jersey judge Andrew P. Napolitano, now a Fox News analyst, put it, the Constitution “protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us.”
5. Americans hate — the president, the government, the world, their lives. Why are Americans running out and buying military weapons at record rates? Do they fear home invasions? Are they planning on having Waco-like, suicidal shoot-outs with the government? Are they going to draw against some homicidal shooter in a theater or school? The chances of any of these things happening for any given gun purchaser are just about nil. Something else is going on with us. And, in the words of Buffalo Springfield, "What it is ain't exactly clear."
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