Original ideas and measured arguments are hard to come by in the wake of mass shootings, like the one that occurred yesterday at a community college in Oregon. Emotions are running high, and liberal pundits are screaming at conservative pundits with an unusual level of venom about how they have blood on their hands for opposing new gun control laws. Conservatives, on the defensive, counter that the left is “politicizing tragedy,” or else recycle arguments that mass shootings can only be prevented by an even more well-armed populace.
One exception last night came from Michael Dougherty, a columnist for The Week, who noted incisively that “the horror at gun violence and the horror at war on crime criminal justice policy are in deep tension.” Dougherty is right: Many liberals who believe adamantly in strict gun control laws believe just as adamantly that the legacy of tough-on-crime conservatism is responsible for the horrors of mass incarceration, and all the racial baggage it carries with it.
Many gun control advocates seem to be under the impression that governments can pass new felony legislation that will take guns off the streets without requiring more aggressive policing, without putting more people in prison, and without the racial disparities in enforcement that characterize the rest of our criminal justice system. This is a fantasy: Gun control and tough-on-crime politics are two sides of the same coin. If governments are serious about cracking down on illegal guns in a meaningful way, they will need to use all of the same tools that they used to crack down on crime from the 1970s onward—tough criminal penalties (i.e., long prison sentences for offenders) and aggressive policing, especially in poor and minority neighborhoods that tend to have the highest rates of crime. Indeed, as Reason‘s A. Barton Hinkle pointed out, New York’s notorious stop-and-frisk policies, which left-wing mayor Bill DeBlasio led the charge against, was arguably one of the most effective gun control policies in the country.
Moreover, all the evidence suggests that stricter gun laws would fall disproportionately on the same people who have always bear the brunt of tough criminal justice policies. The Washington Post‘s Radley Balko noted last year that “47.3 percent of those convicted for federal gun crimes were black — a racial disparity larger than any other class of federal crimes, including drug crimes.” According to the Bureau of Labor of Justice statistics, state, local, and federal governments arrested black people for gun crimes at a five times higher rate than they arrested whites. More than three out of four gun arrests were in urban areas. So people who empathize with the message of the Black Lives Matter movement—that young, black men in America’s cities are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system and that mass incarceration has devastated too many communities—should think further about what the draconian gun policies they pine for would actually entail.
Most socially liberal gun control champions don’t see themselves as pushing policies that would abet racial profiling or worsen the problem of mass incarceration. They see themselves as going after their political enemies—socially conservative white men in red states. And it may in fact be possible to craft narrow gun policies—like requiring more background checks at gun shows—that would mostly affect people in this demographic. But few intelligent observers are under any illusions that this type of symbolic half-measure on gun control would meaningfully cut into America’s gun violence statistics. Meaningfully reducing gun violence in a nation with 300 million guns would probably require the type of confiscatory gun regulations enacted in Australia and some European countries. And the mechanics of enacting such policies could well contradict the vision for police and prison reform that has been gaining momentum on the left and right alike over the past year.