A law professor explains why he is skeptical about new approaches to gun violence in America
In the wake of the recent mass shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood that claimed three lives, President Barack Obama called the incidents of gun violence in America “not normal.” “Enough is enough,” Obama said. According to one count, there have been 351 mass shootings in the United States in 2015. The frequency of these shootings has led many to call for new approaches to guns and violence in America. In a Nov. 5 national survey, for instance, 52 percent of respondents said they support “stricter gun laws.” (The number who said they supported “gun control” was smaller.)
In an interview, James Jacobs, director of Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University School of Law, a professor of constitutional law, and the author of Can Gun Control Work?, discusses what he sees as the challenges facing those who would like to change the country’s approach to gun violence and gun laws.
What’s the most common misunderstanding about gun control?
There are so many misunderstandings that it’s hard to know where to begin. For one, we need to remember that we’ve have had a remarkable decrease in violent crime and gun crime in the U.S. since the early 1990s, even though the number of firearms has increased by about 10 million every year. There’s no simple correspondence between the number of firearms in private hands and the amount of gun crime, and I often find it somewhat strange that there seems to be a perception that things are worse than ever when, in reality, things are really better than they’ve been for decades.
People should also be aware that most gun-related deaths are suicides, not murders. There are twice as many suicides in the U.S. by guns as there are homicides and I think most people find that very surprising. Over and over again one reads that 30,000 people have been killed with guns, but what’s not said is that 20,000 of them took their own lives.
But perhaps the most common misperception of all, and the point I want to underline time and again is that there is no simple, effective policy to reduce gun crime that is just there for the asking as long as we have the political will to do it. That solution doesn’t exist. It’s very hard to find an initiative that is implementable and enforceable that would make any kind of an impact on gun crime.
Would an assault weapon ban help prevent mass shootings?
Many people want to ban so-called assault weapons because they believe these firearms are uniquely dangerous, or the same as machine guns. They are not. Assault weapons—at least the ones available to civilians—are like all semi-automatics and fire one bullet with one pull of the trigger. What makes an assault weapon different than a regular rifle are the cosmetic “military-like” features, such as a bayonet mount or pistol grip and so forth, none of which have functional significance. Assault weapons are not more powerful, they do not shoot more bullets, and they do not shoot faster. We would not be a safer society if we could eliminate all of the assault weapons because people could substitute for them non-assault weapons that are exactly the same.