I think it is safe to say that the next big political fight is about guns. President Obama has outlined parts of his plan, and has put some of it into action through executive order, while Congressional Republicans have pretty much vowed to block any piece of legislation that would restrict access to guns. As usual, we are at an impasse. As I see it, though, the problem with this issue is not one of partisan gridlock, or of Republicans unwilling to work with Democrats or of the President trying to use executive power to circumvent congress. Rather, the problem lies with insufficient deference to data.
On both sides, the debate over guns is framed as a matter of ideology. Most on the right oppose gun regulations on the grounds that they infringe upon constitutionally-protected individual liberties, while most on the left support such regulations to reduce violent crime. Guns are seen through the lens of morality, a piece in the eternal problem of balancing individual liberty against communal well-being. Guns are treated much in the same way as abortion, with the rights of the individual on one side and certain moral assertions on the other. This way of framing the question is ludicrous.
A better analogy for this debate would be climate change. For both issues, the underlying question is fundamentally the same: How much regulation is justified in order to protect the community at the expense of certain individual or commercial rights? In order to answer this, it must be known what the causes of the problem are, and how these causes can be solved. When it comes to the problem of climate change, there is a consensus among scientists as to what the problems are, and numerous proposed solutions to these problems. When it comes to guns, though, there is no such consensus.
Guns are claimed, perhaps correctly, as a cause of the problem of crime, and gun control is suggested as a solution. No one disputes that crime is a problem, but the connection to guns is less than straightforward. America has a higher homicide rate than many comparable industrialized nations, yet this has been true even when other nations had far looser gun regulations. Moreover, our homicide rate is falling, and has been consistently, without any notable increase in gun regulation. The assault weapons ban produced no significant drop in homicides, nor did its expiration result in any increase. And while our homicide rate is higher than England, whose gun laws are seen as a model of gun control, England has higher rates of all other violent crimes except rape (statistics available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the British Home Office).
This should by no means be seen as an argument against gun regulation per se; I merely mean to show that the connection between crime and guns is not, by any means, clear. I have no opinion on gun control because I’m not convinced that it is the answer. I’m not a Second Amendment ideologue, but I recognize that the serious crime problems America has warrant serious solutions. I have not yet been convinced that gun control is a serious solution.
Here, the problem is a lack of research. For years, the NRA has campaigned to prevent any research on guns to be conducted, and they have been monumentally successful. The CDC was banned from collecting information about guns and crime and from funding research on guns, a ban that was just overturned by the President through executive order. Hopefully, this will result in a torrent of new data and research that will allow the problem to be tackled reasonably.
Without hard data, there is no real way to tackle the problem of violence in this country. Were guns as cut-and-dry as climate change, there would probably still be partisan gridlock, but there would not be such disagreement among scientists. Scientists agree that carbon dioxide contributes to climate change, and there is research into a number of solutions; now the problem is working against special-interest lobbies and finding which solutions are best. The lack of data and funding up until this point has crippled research to the point that no clear conclusion can be drawn. There is no consensus than guns either do or do not lead to higher rates of violent crime, or to crimes being more violent. There is just not enough data to form a real conclusion.
What we need right now is to find out how to solve our problems of crime and violence, and the only way to do that is to understand and research the root causes. Guns may be a significant part of it, but they may well not be. Any gun control legislation passed right now will be flying blind, tackling something that we’re not even sure is a problem. It will be ideological, not reasonable. Regardless of their stance, anyone taking a strong position on either side of this issue is basing their decision not on fact, but on faith and ideology.