Friday, December 14, 2012

When Old Ideas Are Worth Pursuing. Again.

The politics of gun control are very thorny. Democrats have increased their hold on suburban districts compared to the 1990s. Bill Clinton blamed his party's support for gun control laws for a substantial portion of the 1994 house losses, and for the defeat of Al Gore in 2000. That said, on policy grounds he defends his decision to support gun control and said he failed at messaging. Since then, the national debate on what to do about gun violence largely has not existed. Indeed, Democrats like Brian Schweiter, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, and Howard Dean have touted their high marks from the NRA. The competitive House districts have become less suburban and more exurban/rural in their character, meaning that support for gun control is less of a political winner.

What's more, as a practical matter, attempts to ban individual types of guns won't be particularly effective, given the quantity of guns already in private hands. Even if the NRA weren't a joint venture of the Republican Party and the gun manufacturing industry, a ban on the sale of guns would do very little, and banning possession is effectively impossible.

Still, we can come up with a list of measures that ought to reduce gun violence without placing substantial burdens on gun owners.
  • Party like it's 1993 and Enact Pat Moynihan's bullet tax, which will help stem the tide of gun violence somewhat. Unlike guns, bullets can't be reused, and there are fewer bullets than there are guns.

    I'm not big on dedicating revenue streams to particular issues. But I think in this case we should make it clear to deter and mitigate gun violence--mental health services, felon & mental patient database synchronization, and as a sop to gun owners, ensure those who do use a gun know how to do so responsibly. So, hell, make gun safety courses free, give anyone who buys a gun a free gun safe if they don't have one, etc.
  • Close the background check loophole on private gun sales, popularly known as the "gun show loophole".
  • Synchronize state databases on felons and the mentally ill nationwide. Likewise, ban felons from purchasing a gun nationwide.
  • Crack down on straw purchasing (basically, buying a gun that you then give to someone who wouldn't otherwise be able to buy it legally), which is a major source of gun acquisition in many cities. The most straightforward way to do this is limit buyers to one handgun per month. Such laws aren't exactly popular, though I'm not sure what other means exist to limit straw buying.
I'm not sure what else exists that ought to be politically feasible, but this ought to be a good start. Limiting clip size would help mitigate the impact of mass shootings, though mass shootings are a relatively small slice of gun violence in America.

Update: Not on this list is "take judicial appointments seriously". But it should be.  Republicans have made court packing a political priority since the Reagan Administration. It's been much less important for Democrats, who haven't prioritized using the judicial system to advance their political agenda. That needs to change, not only to help shift the landscape on gun issues, but also to give Democratic constituencies a boost on other policy issues like labor law, consumer protection, racial inequality, and the like. This is another reason to enact Jeff Merkley's filibuster reform, as republican intrasigence is a big reason why Obama has appointed so few judges.
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