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U.S. Chooses Gun Rights Above Public Safety

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Joe the Plumber had it right. In May 2014, after six people were killed in a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, the erstwhile Republican campaign icon published an open letter to the father of one of the victims. 

I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds -- your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights.

Joe the Plumber's timing and blunt language may have been insensitive, with the effect of pouring salt in a grieving parent's unsuturable wound. But his analysis was unassailable: Gun rights reign supreme.

That reality has nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution. Guns were regulated in America both before and after the Constitution existed. (As this 19th century photo attests, you could get out of Dodge with a gun, but you couldn't get in with one.) Even the Supreme Court's creaky 2008 Heller decision, which by a 5-to-4 vote established an individual right to arms that previously did not exist, makes it clear that regulation of guns is both rational and constitutional.

The national paralysis on gun violence is a product of American political culture, not the Constitution. After all, if we can legally regulate guns to minimize violence -- and we surely can -- why don't we?

As my Bloomberg View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru eloquently stated, many of the frequently proposed regulations, including expanded background checks, would have had no impact on the massacres fueling the latest round of our interminable gun debate.

That shouldn't be a conversation stopper, however. If the San Bernardino killers obtained their guns legally, how is this evidence that more aggressive regulation doesn't work? In other policy realms, failures are treated as paving stones toward more viable solutions.

If you wanted to stop psychotics from obtaining firearms, for example, you would make it much harder to purchase firearms. Rigorous background checks. Waiting periods. Community input. Responsible, sane citizens would surmount those obstacles and purchase a gun. Your neighbor's schizophrenic daughter who's in the middle of a psychotic episode, however, would not.

Likewise, if you wanted to stop the carnage caused by gangs, you might require registration of all ammunition and guns. Ammunition, even properly stored, lasts only a decade or so. What would the murder rate in Chicago be 15 years from now if every bullet were registered under the name of its purchaser?

The history of aggressive gun regulation in Europe is a history of comparatively low gun violence rates. In the U.S., by contrast, we don't make even rudimentary efforts, such as carrying out  mandatory background checks.

Why?

Among Republicans, 75 percent say it's more important to protect the rights of gun owners while 24 percent say it's more important to control gun ownership. (Democratic views are more or less the inverse.) In effect, large numbers of Americans, ably represented in Congress and state legislatures, value unfettered gun rights over public safety -- just as Joe the Plumber does. Others, following gun movement logic, equate more guns with more safety.

Of course, guns are now marketed as tools of personal safety, albeit with a sprinkling of adjectives such as "tactical" to encourage that James Bond feel. We lack definitive research on the efficacy of firearms purchased for protection, but an effective ban on public research, inspired by the gun lobby, suggests just how much confidence the gun movement has in its own claims. The element of surprise always rests with the aggressor. That's why a well-guarded leader or a well-trained police officer can be shot by even an unskilled assailant.

Just as the gun movement uses instances of gun violence to encourage gun ownership, it cites weak laws as evidence that better laws won't work. When tougher laws are enacted in one region, they're undermined by the lowest-common-denominator effect of weaker laws elsewhere.

The result is that guns are sold essentially indiscriminately to people with alcoholism, depression, drug dependency, rage and more. They are sold to reckless parents who leave loaded guns within reach of toddlers. They are sold to gang members and aspiring terrorists. They are sold largely without qualm or qualification. There is no disputing those facts: The nation's morgues confirm them.

That's not a state of nature. As President Barack Obama pointed out, it's a choice: to value uninhibited gun rights above public order and safety. That choice is shaped by a professional gun movement that enjoys enormous political influence and considerable social respect even as it works to foster paranoia and anti-government zealotry. Ceding national gun policy to that movement has rendered practical long-term solutions beyond discussion, and beyond reach. Until Americans change that dynamic, this is Joe the Plumber's world. We're just living and dying in it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net