The flaw in the progressive position on guns

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“When guns are banned, only outlaws will have guns.” The National Rifle Association doesn’t really use that slogan anymore, but it came to mind last week as I reflected on a fundamental tension in contemporary progressive thought: a strong defense of gun control coupled with growing skepticism about law enforcement and incarceration.

In Philadelphia, for example, progressive district attorney Larry Krasner has completely deprioritized gun possession charges, saying they fuel racial disparities and mass incarceration. At the same time, National Democrats are advocating stronger than ever for tougher gun laws. The last time it succeeded, in the 1990s, it was part of a cohesive web of tough-on-crime policies – the assault weapons ban was part of a comprehensive crime bill that included the hiring more police and arranging to build more prisons and lengthen prison sentences.

Over the past 25 years, the left’s view of the merits of being “tough on crime” has changed dramatically. But as the response to last week’s massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas shows, progressives remain deeply concerned about the dangers of widespread gun ownership.

It’s a reasonable judgment in the face of the tens of thousands of lives lost. But to reduce the number of gun deaths, progressives are going to have to move beyond a strategy of tweeting louder, fuming more and blaming the financial clout of the now nearly defunct NRA. They will have to accept that reducing gun violence will require more policing and incarceration, not less.

Who wants the end also wants the means, wrote Kant. But contemporary progressives have avoided the means – arresting people who break even minor rules, using their violation of the rules as a pretext for a search, then punishing them if they carry a weapon illegally – even while insisting on an increasingly broader than their desired ends.

To be clear, quality-of-life policing would not have prevented the Uvalde massacre. But neither would have a background check. Stricter high-capacity magazine rules might have mitigated it, but again, they might not have — such rules are in place in New York State and haven’t stopped the mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket earlier this month.

The fact is that preventing these types of murders, in which a person with no criminal record obtains a gun and then kills indiscriminately, requires placing very heavy burdens on ordinary gun owners. The overwhelming majority of law-abiding gun buyers, including buyers of terrifying semi-automatic weapons, do no harm.

To remove all these weapons from the market is to ask innocent people to make a considerable sacrifice. And that raises the question of how to enforce such a sweeping ban. A mandatory buyback program would likely generate a lot of compliance – among people who aren’t criminals. Getting guns out of the hands of criminals would require intrusive policing and prosecutions on a scale hard to imagine.

It is precisely the “Only outlaws will have guns” scenario that worries even non-fanatic gun owners. They recognize that in principle, an America without guns would be safer than the current America full of guns. But they’re looking at cities like Philadelphia, where gun violence set a record in 2021, and with good reason don’t want to bring that pattern to the suburbs and small towns where they live.

The problem is that the small handguns that account for the vast majority of murders in the United States are easy to conceal. The police cannot tell by sight who is wearing them – they have to stop people and search them. This type of intensive policing can reduce crime without violating constitutional rights, as academic studies of Operation Impact have shown – in which the New York City Police Department would flood high-crime areas with weapons. officers. New York’s low-crime era continued for years after the end of “stop and frisk,” which was discriminatory and fed ill will.

It’s because the officers kept arresting people – people who commit crimes – and then searching them. After the deaths of Michael Brown and George Floyd, progressive thinking turned to the idea that aggressive law enforcement against “low-level” or “non-violent” crimes such as shoplifting , the turnstile jump or smoking was a mistake. But while it’s of course true that fare evasion is a petty crime, these low-level offenses can be a means of enforcing gun laws.

And as liberals sporadically realize, when a lot of people are carrying guns, it’s very dangerous. In a city awash with guns, gang conflict results in hemorrhages rather than bruises. A bullet is much more likely than a knife to hit an innocent bystander. And a young man living in a dangerous neighborhood is faced with a simple cost-benefit calculation: is the risk of being arrested for carrying an illegal weapon greater than the risk of being unarmed?

Strict enforcement of laws against illegal possession of firearms alters this risk-reward calculus. First, it increases the risk of carriage. Second, by reducing the incidence of illegal transport, it reduces the reward.

Years of consistent application of this principle have helped nudge many American cities toward a much more secure balance. Now that balance has been disrupted by the double shock of Covid and reduced enforcement. Returning to a better balance will be costly in terms of money and human suffering. But it will also have real benefits in terms of reducing gun violence.

To rant about Congress’s inaction in the face of rampant killers can be satisfying and even necessary. But that is unlikely to persuade them to change the law. Continuing to insist on new rules while hesitating to enforce existing ones, meanwhile, is burning credibility with conservative voters, who see a left eager to penalize their hobby and reluctant to punish criminals.

Significant progress against gun violence is politically and logistically feasible with more quality-of-life policing and vigorous prosecution of illegal gun possession – and the increased levels of incarceration that both would require. If progressives want to make guns harder to get but don’t want to prosecute those who have guns illegally, then…it’s almost like they’re inviting a future in which only outlaws will have guns.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The gun debate must break old patterns: Ramesh Ponnuru

• Uvalde families should sue gunsmiths: Timothy L. O’Brien

• Why America doesn’t know how to stop school shootings: Julianna Goldman

• How to begin to solve the problem of American gun culture: Carmichael and Wilkinson

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

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.

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