Harder Than Gun Control: People Control

Byron York has a column today about gun owners' reaction to gun-control proposals. His takeaway: Certain restrictions on so-called assault weapons are politically viable but won't have much impact on violent crime. He closes with this thought:

In the end, fixing the problem will have to involve dealing more decisively with crazy people like the Newtown shooter, as well as other mass killers. And that will require entirely different measures than regulating guns.

Along similar lines, in his bizarre speech last week, National Rifle Association Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre called for "an active national database of the mentally ill."

What exactly would it mean to "deal more decisively" with people like Adam Lanza? What would the federal government do with a "database of the mentally ill"? And since more than half of Americans experience mental illness during their lifetimes, who would be on it?

Any policy that focuses on the mentally ill to reduce crime seems likely to fall into one of two categories: minimally effective or totalitarian.

At the totalitarian end, you could try to identify and forcibly treat (or commit) potentially dangerous people before they act. The problem is that the vast majority of the people this approach would impact would never have committed crimes of violence.

Or you could take steps that respect the autonomy of the individual. These might include efforts to make mental health care more affordable and less stigmatized, without forcing the unwilling into treatment.

But such policies wouldn't be "decisive," and they wouldn't have impacted Lanza, who came from a wealthy family that could easily afford treatment. And tracking the mentally ill and treating them like potential criminals might discourage people from seeking treatment.

There is also, of course, the matter that most violent crime is not driven by mental illness.

I think York is right that an assault weapons ban similar to the now-lapsed 1994 ban would have little impact on violent crime. In order to meaningfully reduce gun crime, we would have to make it difficult for most members of the public to own handguns.

Maybe effective gun control like that is politically or logistically impossible. But that doesn't mean an effort to "deal decisively" with people who might commit violent crimes before they act -- you might call this "people control" -- is viable.

It's easier to identify dangerous weapons than dangerous people, and stripping someone of a firearm is a lesser violation of liberty than committing someone. That's why "Minority Report" is just a movie, and it's why people- control proposals are a distraction from policies that could actually save lives.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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