Gun Control: If It Feels Good, Do It

a70bFeinstein with guns Gun Control: If It Feels Good, Do It

As I
noted in my column
this morning, the latest
Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey found that 44 percent of
Americans think people should be “prohibited from owning assault
weapons.” Other
recent surveys have found substantially higher levels of
support for banning “assault weapons,” and one reason may be the
wording of the questions. A Gallup poll conducted around the same
time as the Reason-Rupe survey, for instance, asked whether people,
if they could, would vote to “reinstate and strengthen the ban on
assault weapons that was in place from 1994 to
2004.” Sixty percent said yes. A recent ABC News
poll asked, “Would you support or oppose a law requiring a
nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons?” Fifty-eight percent
said they would support such a law. Unlike the two latter polls,
the Reason-Rupe survey highlighted the impact of an “assault
weapon” ban on individual freedom, which may help explain why
respondents were less inclined to support it.Strictly speaking, neither the expired federal law nor the

bill Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed bans
possession of “assault weapons.” Like the 1994 law, Feinstein’s
bill includes a grandfather clause for current owners, who also are
allowed to transfer those guns (subject to an unenforceable
background check requirement). But Feinstein’s bill effectively
prohibits possession of new “assault weapons” by
making it illegal to “import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or
possess” any that are not lawfully owned when the law takes effect.
The grandfather clause is telling because it implicitly
acknowledges the uproar that would be provoked by an attempt to
confiscate millions of guns, concedes the unfairness of taking away
people’s property after arbitrarily declaring it contraband, and
belies the claim that the guns Feinstein wants to ban have no
legitimate purpose. Feinstein
says the exemption for current owners “protects the rights of
law-abiding citizens who use guns for hunting, household
defense or legitimate recreational purposes.”When the ostensible author of both the old “assault weapon” ban
and the new version is so hazy on exactly what guns are intolerable
and why, it is not surprising that the general public is confused
as well, as shown by the definitions
of assault weapon offered by repondents in the Reason-Rupe
survey. Some pollsters also do not seem to understand what an
“assault weapon” is. A recent CNN poll asked people
if they supported “a ban on the manufacture,
sale and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the
AK-47.” AK-47s are selective-fire military weapons (a.k.a. “assault
rifles”) that can fire automatically, and such guns are already
tightly restricted under federal law. Similarly, a recent Fox News survey asked
respondents if they favored “banning assault rifles and
semi-automatic weapons.” Assault rifles such as the AK-47 are
already illegal for civilian use. Semiautomatic weapons include
every gun that fires one round, ejects the the shell casing, and
chambers a new round when you pull the trigger—essentially, all
firearms except for revolvers and single-shot weapons. So Fox
News was asking people whether they favored legislation banning
guns that are already banned and banning a very broad
category of guns that are commonly used for self-defense, hunting,
and sporting purposes. Fifty-four percent said yes, but it is
impossible to say what that means.This persistent confusion, 25 years after
California enacted the first “assault weapon” ban, is a product of
deliberately deceptive strategy encouraging people to conflate
military-style guns with actual machine guns. That strategy has
been so successful that the debate over “assault weapons” is almost
literally meaningless, with people supporting a policy they do not
understand. The truth is, after all, hard to believe: Why would
activists and politicians expend so much effort on legislation that
merely expresses their aesthetic objections to guns that look like
“weapons of war” but do not function like them? Perhaps they are,
as defenders of gun rights fear, trying to prepare the way for more
ambitious restrictions in the future after Feinstein’s dictates
fail to reduce gun violence, as they inevitably will. But looking
for rational explanations may give gun controllers like Feinstein
too much credit. Like drug control, gun control is best understood
as a symbolic
exercise.Survey data suggest that at least some gun control supporters
implicitly understand this. In the Reason-Rupe
survey, only 27 percent of respondents thought the federal
“assault weapon” ban would have helped prevent the Sandy Hook
massacre (a
demonstrably false belief), but 44 percent said the ban should
be reinstated. In a recent CBS News poll,
majorities favored stricter gun laws (54 percent), a ban on
semiautomatic weapons with detachable magazines (53 percent), a ban
on “high-capacity magazines” (63 percent), background checks for
all gun buyers (92 percent), and “a national database that would
track all gun sales” (78 percent). But only 23 percent said such
policies would help “a lot,” while almost half said they would help
“not much” or “not at all.”Walter Kirn’s recent New Republic essay
on guns, which J.D. Tuccille ably dissected earlier
today, further illustrates the felt need to do something
about gun violence, even if you know it is unlikely to work. Kirn
concedes that so-called assault weapons “are functionally similar
to ordinary semi-automatic rifles, differing chiefly in
their sinister cosmetics, not in their underlying ballistics.”
But he argues that “the gun-owning community” nevertheless should
support a ban based on such irrelevant distinctions to “demonstrate
precisely the sort of reasonable public-mindedness of which some
believe it to be incapable.” Surrendering to the ill-informed
prejudices of gun banners does not seem reasonable to me. The
approach that Kirn recommends—support irrational laws if they have
wide support to show you are not a crazy extremist—would validate
any policy that makes people feel better, regardless of its actual

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Gun Control: If It Feels Good, Do It

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