Another tragic mass shooting is making headlines, and with it, the expected calls to enact "common sense" gun laws. Sometimes they come with nasty accusations from anti-gun people toward those of us who oppose gun control legislation, accusations of being uncaring or callous, or even worse things.
Every decent person is rightly horrified by mass shootings (and by murder on any scale, by any means.) Opposing gun control laws doesn't necessarily represent an uncaring attitude, though, but a recognition that gun control measures are not only likely to be ineffective, but counterproductive. The impulse to "Do something!" about horrific events is a strong one, but it's often better to do nothing than to do something which hasn't been considered from certain important perspectives.
By far the most frequently proposed gun control measures is a universal background check, with the intent of keeping guns out of the hands of the bad guys.
There are several factors which make that unlikely to succeed, and likely to do more harm than good. It's wishful thinking, for instance, that any such program could possibly be universal in its application. A background check program must rely on gun sellers ordering the checks and then refusing to sell to people who don't pass. Black markets are a thing, though. As long as there is a demand for any product, there are people willing to make transactions behind closed doors and off the record. A look at the ongoing War on Drugs shows this to be true: Despite a few decades and a few trillion dollars, drugs are still pretty much readily available to anyone willing to do business on the shady side of town.
Also troubling is the implication that someone can be stripped of rights on the mere suspicion that he might possibly, at some point in the future, do something bad.
The most glaring problem, however, is that nobody seems to be able to identify who the bad guys are until they actually do something heinous. A common theme that runs through most cases of murder and mass murder is the shock and surprise of people who knew the perpetrator. "I never would have expected this." "He seemed like a nice, quiet person, kept to himself a lot." "I never had any trouble with him. He was a perfectly pleasant co-worker."
Few mass shooters have previous criminal records, so a criminal background check likely would not have stopped many. What's more, people convicted of felonies (even non-violent ones, and even those whose convictions resulted from a plea bargain rather than a proper jury trial) are already barred from owning firearms. How much tighter can that net reasonably be made? Misdemeanors? Jaywalking?
Psychological screening, then? There is no psychological profile that can accurately predict murderous rampages. Certainly, many mass murderers exhibited signs of various mental disorders and imbalances, but those are far from definitive predictors of the capacity for random violence. The vast majority of people who suffer from various mental disorders never even commit simple assault, much less bloody rampages, and many who have done such things are found to be clinically sane. Laws denying the right to bear arms to anyone with a history of depression or anxiety would unjustly bar large numbers of peaceful people while leaving plenty of gaps in the net for human time-bombs to slip through. We'd certainly get an expanded police state, with government snooping into our mental health and politicians making psychological judgments that they are profoundly unqualified to make, but little if any additional safety.
If any further reason is needed to doubt the effectiveness of background checks, consider the rising tide of violence and abuse by police officers against people, pets, and property. This is a group of human beings who have supposedly been carefully screened and trained, yet incidents of cops shooting unarmed suspects for minor offenses, or none at all, are far more frequent than news of mass shootings by civilians. In light of those facts, it's difficult to understand how anyone can take the idea that government is competent to decide who is or is not qualified to carry a firearm seriously.
In the absence of any sound scienctific principle, then, how will fitness to own a gun be determined? Politically, of course, and that's fraught with its own special hazards. Democracy tends to bring out the worst hysteria in the masses rather than the clearest thinking. (Don't scoff. Hitler was democratically elected by a German populace who, on balance, were not terrible people.) Politicians and bureaucrats have other, and often higher, concerns than the rights of their constituents, concerns such as expanding their power and influence and marginalizing their opponents. The danger that political minorities, disfavored groups, and people who are critical of the existing political power structure might be targeted cannot be casually dismissed. Don't think that being a libertarian, an atheist, a critic of our government's foreign policy, or (insert some group of which you're a member) could ever be classified as a dangerous mental disorder? I'm not so confident.
Well then, with background checks being either toothless or unfeasible, it seems we're faced with a choice between continuing horrific massacres or the total revocation of gun rights and confiscation of all extant firearms. Besides being a false dichotomy, in many ways that proposition is even more hazardous and less likely to succeed in its stated aim.
Even if it were possible to remove all firearms from society, it wouldn't abolish murder, or even mass murder, because it does nothing to address the underlying motivations that induce people to random acts of violence. Guns are only a means to someone's chosen end - maybe the most popular means, but by no means the only one. If you could magically make guns disappear, you might not see news of mass shootings any more, but there are myriad ways to wreak mayhem and destruction on unsuspecting people. Bombs aren't difficult to make. A car driven through a crowd could do every bit as much damage as firing a gun into it. A lot of innocent blood can be shed even by a deranged person with a knife or sword in a well-planned attack. No, taking away one means only drives a macabre sort of innovation; it doesn't destroy the motive or the will to kill.
But of course the dream of a gun-free world or nation is only wishful thinking. Even Australia's oft-touted gun confiscation program netted only a fraction of the guns in the country. There are many times more guns in the U.S. With a little know-how, it's possible to make firearms and ammunition from materials found at the local home improvement store. And with the rise of 3D printing technology, even that bit of expertise is rendered moot. Whatever your opinion of guns, they are here to stay.
Even the attempt to ban and confiscate guns seems likely to fail spectacularly, resulting in vastly more violence, the very opposite of what sincere gun control advocates desire. Just as in the War on Drugs, millions of peaceful people would be made criminals not by any wrongdoing on their part, but by a mere stroke of a legislator's or a president's pen. Just as in the War on Drugs, millions of people would be unwilling to comply. Just as in the War on Drugs, trade in contraband items would fall into the hands of the most unscrupulous sort of people. If you think drug cartels are bad, you probably don't want to see a gun cartel. And just as in the War on Drugs, a War on Firearms would lead to draconian measures and rampant abuse, more intrusive surveillance of private citizens, the slaughter of innocents in standoffs and botched raids, and vast economic costs that would impoverish millions. A total ban on guns (except in the hands of the enforcers tasked with taking them from civilians, naturally) might be the surest way to bring Police State U.S.A. to its fullest fruition.
Unfortunately, we probably will never completely eradicate the problem of murder and mass murder from human society. I suspect that the solution, when it comes, will come through changes in attitudes from the bottom up, not decrees from on high - attitudes toward guns, perhaps, but especially toward the culture of authoritarian political control that causes so much alienation and frustration. Somewhat counterintuitively to those who have grown up knowing nothing but the authority of the paternalistic state, perhaps the answer lies in expanding individual liberty, not ever-stricter control.