As with many hot-button issues, the problem with U.S. gun policy debates is that each side has a point (and therefore fallaciously concludes that the other side must be completely wrong). The first step toward resolution is acknowledging valid points on both sides. Gun rights advocates are right that a good guy with a gun at the right place can save lives, and wanting a gun to protect one’s family is not unreasonable. When a deranged shooter opens fire in a mall or movie theater, I agree with my conservative friends that an armed bystander can make the difference between a rapid end and an escalating tragedy. But gun control advocates are right that a populace saturated with weaponry is a more dangerous place overall. It’s hard to believe that the discrepancy of 11,000 gun homicides a year in the U.S., compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK, is completely unrelated to a plentiful access to guns (and handguns in particular). Put 5000 guns into one city and 50,000 guns into another city of the same size, and you will have more gun violence in the second city.
The second step toward resolution is weighing those valid points to see which side carries the most weight in terms of personal freedom and public safety. For example, of those 11,000 homicides, how many were “justifiable”? The number that can be assigned to the scenario my conservative friends rightly tout – where a good guy stops a major tragedy in a public place – is a very small number, but lump them in with self-defense and all other “justified” killings and you get about 5% of the total (FBI numbers for 2012). That still leaves about 10,450 criminal gun homicides, a number far disproportionate to those numbers from the UK or Spain. (And this doesn’t count suicides and accidents, which bring gun deaths in the U.S. to a steady 31,000 per year.)
From a public safety standpoint, this leads me to conclude that the valid argument against extensive gun ownership statistically carries more weight than the valid argument in favor of extensive gun ownership. Assuming that public safety is a compelling state interest, I think this is a starting point for discussion. At least some regulation is necessary. Then finer distinctions can be drawn. Traditional hunting rifles have a valid recreational use and let’s assume are less prone to criminal use than handguns, assault weapons, etc. In any event, there is little or no interest on any side to ban hunting rifles. Different weapons – handguns, assault weapons, etc., each may warrant different treatment. Another consideration might be jurisdiction. Is it true, as Obama said in the 2008 campaign, that there are two different gun cultures – a (primarily rural) sportsman culture and an inner city culture – and that the same approach might not work for both (i.e., different jurisdictions might reasonably want to enact different policies)? And it is reasonable to have background checks to weed out felons, mentally ill applicants, etc. Resistance to all compromise is not a solution. Witness the National Rifle Association’s hard lobbying against a bill that would bar people on terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns. As a staggering tribute to the gun lobby’s power, Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders spoke out against the bill and it failed. Thus, “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law” (GAO government report, 2010).
In any event, step one is acknowledging that just because you favor one approach (and I obviously lean to one side), it doesn’t mean that one side is 100% right and the other 100% wrong. Indeed the binary framework is itself misleading. It’s more like a scatter graph with “all guns should be banned” at one end and “access should be unrestricted to all guns in all places for all people” at the other end. Almost no one is at either extreme. It would be best if we could all resist the false binary of “us versus them” and negotiate our way through the many sensible compromise points along the gradient.