Stephen Gottlieb: Sloppy Thinking About Gun Control

Nov 14, 2017

After the car ran people down in lower Manhattan, I read an article about making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the author’s suggestions but I want to make a point about arguments for and against. One could say that people with bad intentions will just find other ways to kill lots of people. True or false? Actually it’s completely misleading. How many people with bad intentions will find other ways and how many won’t? How many people will do as much damage to as many people and how many won’t? The statement that some will doesn’t tell you. And the claim that all will is pure nonsense.

In the early 70s, I was a manager of the New York City legal services program, then known as Community Action for Legal Services or CALS. We had twenty-two offices around the city. All of them were in the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. And in those pre-computer days, many of them had IBM Selectric typewriters which were expensive but made our staff much more efficient. Thieves craved them. In our East New York office there had been a series of burglaries. After each we hardened the office against further break-ins. But those thieves were determined. Unable to get through the doors, they blew a hole through the wall and took the typewriters.

Obviously some thieves will use explosives. Should we have concluded that we might as well remove the locks on the doors of our twenty-one other offices? Plainly no. Nor would I recommend that you remove the locks from the doors of your homes. Or that you take all the shades and drapes down became peeping toms will find a way around them. Thinking about problems without examining how many, and what proportion of people will do how much damage is just sloppy thinking.

Gun rights advocates tell us that bad people will get guns. That statement is neither right nor wrong. If they mean some bad people will get guns no matter what we do, that is clearly true. But if they mean that whatever measures we take will not reduce the number of people likely to commit murder who can get powerful weapons, that is clearly false. And they can’t tell us anything realistic about the proportions because they convinced Congress to block research into the effect of possible regulation of weapons. So they make sloppy statements hoping you’ll be taken in.

The Founders of our country were not so sloppy and they did lots to regulate guns – the most significant of which was to prohibit people from keeping ammunition in their homes. Ammunition exploded and caused fires so it had to be kept in public armories. Regulation mattered and they knew it.

So when people try to tell you what regulation will or won’t do, don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes with sloppy nonsense. Some regulations work better than others. That’s a valuable subject of research and study, not an occasion for sloppy all-or-nothing claims.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School. A widely recognized constitutional scholar, he has served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics.

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