Opinion: Reason to be skeptical about latest gun plan

Published 11:04am Friday, January 18, 2013

Whenever a politician arranges to be photographed signing something with a group of children looking on, it is a good time to start feeling skeptical. Case in point, this week’s presidential announcement of a plan that will supposedly reduce gun violence by limiting the sale of some types of guns.

The president’s plan has a lot of support; one poll I saw indicated six of 10 Americans think it is a good idea. Unfortunately, just like those photos of children looking on as the president enacted parts of the plan, it will prove to be more about political theater than about results.

That is almost always the case with hastily conceived solutions, and its many weaknesses make it clear Obama’s gun control plan was hastily assembled in the wake of the latest tragic school shooting.

For example, taking aim at so-called assault weapons will accomplish nothing. If actual military assault weapons were being legally sold and then used in mass shootings, a ban might make a difference. But for the most part, the guns that the president seeks to control are little more than hunting rifles dressed up in a nasty costume. People intent on killing will still get their hands on guns which, even if they don’t look as scary, are just as lethal.

Putting 1,000 police officers in schools also sounds good — unless you do the math. The plan would pay for an average of 200 more school-based police officers per state, which isn’t even enough to protect a fraction of the schools in South Dakota, let alone a more populous state like Minnesota.

Still, even a weak plan may have some good points. Expanding and improving the system of background checks on those who want to buy a gun is a good idea. And limiting the size of guns’ magazines also is a good idea; there’s no legitimate, non-military purpose for a 30- or 50-round magazine.

But there’s far too little practical thought in the president’s plan and way too much drama designed to appeal to voters who won’t take the time to think.

The drama benefits both sides.

Rather than come forward with their own meaningful proposals, groups like the National Rifle Association have shown complete opposition to the president. While solving the violence problem requires a thoughtful, nuanced approach, proclaiming the president wants to take away everyone’s guns is the best way to get new members and increase donations.

Guess which is more popular?

The real problem with guns is not that they exist, it is that their worst features are glorified.

Considering the parallels between alcohol and guns is one way to illustrate the situation. There was a time when getting drunk and driving one’s car was not only tolerated but something that some people considered fun. The problem wasn’t alcohol, it was what people did when they’d been drinking. Decades of effort by Mothers Against Drunk Driving have turned that situation around. People drink as much as ever, but driving while intoxicated has become socially unacceptable. No one thinks it’s cool. No one brags about it.

And no one’s right to drink was taken away.

Applying that historical knowledge to guns might yield similar results. If the concern is scary-looking rifles, let’s make it less popular to own one and downright reprehensible to brag about it. Maybe the same should be true of handguns, which also have minimal utility for most people.

(Credit for this idea goes to shrewd political observer Dan Carlin; check out his Common Sense podcast at www.dancarlin.com.)

Of course, implementing disapproval-style gun control does not work as a top-down government-led project. It would require a grassroots, ground-up effort, just like the fight against drunk driving did. Still, if most Americans want to see the gun situation change, there ought to be plenty who are willing to pitch in at the grass roots.

Quickly announcing a plan in response to public outcry is something the government is really good at. Making the plan work is another matter. In fact, counting on Washington to make the president’s plan, or any plan, work is a bad idea.

That’s something both sides of the debate ought to be able to agree on.

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