At their third primary debate, nearly all of the Democratic presidential contenders offered full-throated support for gun control. In the very recent past, gun control measures bowed to prudence by respecting the rights and expectations of law-abiding gun owners—even the Clinton “assault weapons ban” grandfathered weapons and magazines manufactured and purchased before the ban took effect.
Now, however, the rhetoric has shifted and become even more radical and uncompromising.
For example, supposed moderate Joe Biden said, “Over 90 percent of the American people think we have to get assault weapons off the street—period. And we have to get buybacks and get them out of their basements.” Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said we should “start” with a gun buyback aimed at assault weapons. Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) took things further: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47!”
He’s so proud of himself that he put his quote on a t-shirt.
The Rhetoric of “Gun Violence” Obscures the Reality of Violent Crime
At first glance, these appear to be tough statements by Democrats who want to tackle the problem of mass shootings. Everyone is frustrated by these costly and random crimes. But these high profile shootings are not increasing, and their rarity is obscured by disproportionate media coverage.
In reality, rifles of all kinds are used in comparatively few homicides, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report: 403 of 15,000 killings in 2017, the most recent year of reported statistics. This is a mercifully rare crime, considering that there are at least 8 million so-called assault weapons in circulation. By contrast, handguns were involved in 7,032 homicides and knives in 1,591.
The Democrats’ emphasis on gun control shifts the focus away from other dimensions of violent crime. The vast majority of so-called gun violence is just another type of violence, including the continuous train of atrocities committed primarily by young black men and other minorities in our demoralized inner cities.
To point out the obvious—that murder is bad whether committed with a gun or not, whether the killer is white or black, and whether it happens to a lot of people at once or one at a time—is to be shouted down as a “racist” and a “fascist.”
The rhetoric of gun control to combat “gun violence” obscures the moral dimension of these crimes by focusing on the tool and averting attention from who is committing crimes and how often. These are not the actions of the average gun owners that Democrats are intent on punishing.
Gun control—whether an assault weapon ban, prohibition on concealed carry, or restrictions on gun shows—is the simulation of a tough-on-crime measure.
Even on its own terms, the Democrats’ position is unserious. If you think “gun violence” is the problem and that banning the hardware itself is the way to solve it, a more serious and consistent position would be to ban handguns. In a time of greater candor, the Brady Campaign used to be called Handgun Control Inc. In those days, before the demonization of assault weapons, we used to hear a lot about “Saturday Night Specials” and “Junk Guns.”
A handgun ban, of course, would be even more unpopular and more aggressively opposed than an assault rifle ban, but the shift to assault weapons seems to be rooted in politics rather than policy—the reasoning being that handguns, though used in a lot of violence, can also be used for responsible self-defense and are more widely owned. By contrast, in the eyes of the media, the Democrats, and even many uniformed Republicans, there is no justification for owning so-called assault weapons.
While guns can be used in evil acts, they have a good side under-reported by the media, as guns of all kinds are frequently used in self defense. Guns also play a role in our constitutional balance of powers by empowering the people against a run-amok government.
Most guns are owned and used responsibly, because most gun owners are law-abiding, and law-abiding people generally stay law-abiding. The unbalanced focus on the criminal misuse of guns and the demonization of gun owners is only increasing resistance to any plausible measures that might actually reduce violent crime. Instead, the Democrats are inviting noncompliance and violent resistance with their talk of confiscation.
When a consequence is predictable, one must accept some responsibility for those consequences. As I wrote last year, “the right to bear arms also comes at a price, and that cost has arguably become more pronounced as our society has become more fractured and disorderly. The honest argument in favor of the Second Amendment is that it’s worth it.”
Gun confiscation would lead to no small amount of violent resistance from gun-owners—certainly much more than the 300-400 homicides that occur now from such weaponry. Setting in motion such consequences is both profoundly irresponsible and completely unnecessary in a country enjoying a much lower homicide rate than 20 or 30 years ago—a country where well less than a fraction of a percent of gun owners ever commit a violent crime.
The Democrats’ Softness on Crime Is Making a Comeback
The push for gun control ignores the recent rise and fall of violent crime in America—a wave that began in the late 1960s and only began to decline in the 1990s. The chief cause of that crime wave was not guns—which have been widespread in America since the founding—but rather the particular propensity to violence among those who have criminal records coupled with their mass release from prisons and other forms of institutionalization.
In spite of their tough talk on guns, the Democratic candidates also exhibited their perennial softness on crime literally moments after discussing the “crisis” of gun violence.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who was California’s attorney general before seeking national office, said she would have a “bold and comprehensive plan that is about ending mass incarceration . . .[and] making sure that, in America’s criminal justice system, we de-incarcerate women and children, that we end solitary confinement and that we work on keeping families intact.”
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said we must be “dealing with things like the over-incarceration of black Americans.” Senator Klobuchar said that “of people that are incarcerated in local and state jails, let’s reduce those sentences for nonviolent offenders and let’s get them jobs and let them vote when they get out of prison.”
Meantime, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) noted “we have more African-Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850,” presumably a state of affairs unrelated to actual crimes for which these prisoners were sentenced.
Joe Biden summed up the generic liberal position this way: “What’s happened is that we’re in a situation now where there are so many people who are in jail and shouldn’t be in jail. The whole means by which this should change is the whole model has to change. We should be talking about rehabilitation. Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime.”
These are the Democratic talking points of yesteryear. They disappeared for a spell because voters rejected this dangerous sentimentality after they had suffered under its consequences.
Cities were abandoned. Communities were destroyed. Insecurity rose among every cohort of Americans, and frustration was compounded by violent offenders receiving short sentences only to reoffend. The liberal insult of blaming these immoral acts on “poverty” and “society” was simply too much for a more morally sensible America to bear.
The unpopularity of Democratic softness was apparent in 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ bloodless refusal to say he would seek the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his own wife. He lost.
For a long time, Republicans capitalized on widespread fears of violent crime and led the way with policy reforms, including mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing measures. These were applied not just to drug offenses but also violent offenses. The death penalty returned and gained in popularity, becoming a litmus test among many voters.
The Left with its endemic moral relativism makes today’s Democratic Party incapable of recognizing that we have a civilization and that it has enemies.
Democrats adapted. Bill Clinton won office in part through his relative toughness on crime as governor of Arkansas. This was the “New Democrat” approach, which rejected the baggage of the party’s liberal wing. He also supported the death penalty, which did much to persuade voters that he was not as weak as his predecessors.
In the 1960s and again today, the Democrats’ soft-on-crime views flourished in the low-crime and high-trust society inherited from tougher generations that preceded them. Failing to credit the harsh measures that make such peace possible, a loosening was considered possible with few ill consequences. This was tragically incorrect and soon discredited, but memories are short.
Crime has become less of an issue for both the Left and the Right, as the country once again enjoys the benefits of tough policies and long sentences that have reduced violence significantly from what it was in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s.
There is something inherently contradictory in the Democrats’ position on crime and gun control. On the one hand, they claim we are in the midst of a massive crisis with gun violence that can only be addressed by running roughshod over the Constitution and taking guns from law-abiding Americans, come what may. On the other hand, they say we have too many people in prison—particularly “people of color”—and that we need to open up the prisons and can do so without endangering society.
Obama began the mass clemency initiative, and Trump is unwisely following in his footsteps. We now know that some of these offenders are not quite reformed, as some offered early release graduated from drug-dealing to murder. Since both Republicans and Democrats seem confused about the cause of recent lower crime rates, we may again suffer from a crime wave that may reinvigorate the politics of “law and order.”
Gun Control is the Simulation of a Tough on Crime Position
Gun control—whether an assault weapon ban, prohibition on concealed carry, or restrictions on gun shows—is the simulation of a tough-on-crime measure. It is profoundly unserious because it refuses to look at the reality of crime and to make a judgment about criminals themselves. By looking to the hardware of crime, it is akin to the earlier moral confusion in which liberals unironically blamed poverty or “society” for criminal misbehavior.
Gun control lets the Left indulge in its fantasy that evil white men are the real source of crime without confronting the facts about disproportionate minority offending. Resistance to confiscation efforts will reinforce any such narrative by igniting completely avoidable violence along the lines of Waco and Ruby Ridge. Democrats never imagine doing this kind of confiscation effort in the ghetto, where genuinely dangerous “felon in possession” cases are ignored today in Chicago and went down under Obama, lest we indulge in “mass incarceration.”
The criminal law is ultimately about making judgments. At its heart, criminal punishment affirms civilization and its right to use force in the face of its enemies. But the Left and its endemic moral relativism makes today’s Democratic Party incapable of recognizing that we have a civilization and that it has enemies. Thus, the Democrats cannot admit that the supposed evil of mass incarceration has reduced the much greater evil of criminal victimization of innocents. Unlike gun control aimed at amorphous and faceless “gun violence,” real toughness on crime requires one to affirm that crime is wrong, that criminals are to blame, and that criminals should be punished.
By embracing the magical thinking behind gun control, the Democrats remind us that they would rather punish society and label its law-abiding members wrongdoers than confront the criminal class who, not coincidentally, tend to be among their supporters.
While gun control seemingly contradicts the Democrats’ softness on crime, it is in fact an expression of the same relativism that cannot make judgments, defines society itself as an evil to be overcome, and finds itself paralyzed when a member of a preferred victim group also turns out to be a perpetrator deserving of punishment.