Why Not Just Make Guns Slightly Harder for the Bad Guys to Get?

A common response to arguments that attempts to keep mass shooters from getting guns are likely to be futile goes something like this: Maybe gun control can’t generally stop mass shooters from getting guns through the black market (or through straw purchasers or through theft or what have you), but sometimes maybe it might — maybe the shooter will make a mistake and get caught by the police in trying to get the gun, or might even be stopped from committing the crime more broadly. What’s the harm in trying to do something?

Well, it depends on what exactly you’re trying to do. Sometimes there might be relatively little harm, which is why the NRA was ultimately willing to compromise on an instant background check for buying guns from gun dealers. Likewise, requiring all gun transfers to go through a firearms dealer, who can run a background check and would presumably charge a fee for it, would impose only a modest burden on law-abiding citizens. The burden isn’t nil — some people might be tripped up by false positives in the background check databases, and the fee for getting a dealer involved ($25 under California law) may be significant for poorer gun owners. And, as I mentioned, the benefit is likely to be quite modest, limited to prohibited gun buyers who aren’t highly motivated to buy a gun (as opposed to, for instance, mass shooters, who are very motivated indeed).

On the other hand, how are you going to stop 20-year-olds from getting guns from their parents? You could, I suppose, require all gun owners to keep their guns locked away even from their adult under-21-year-old children — and to lock them away so securely that the 20-year-old is unable to get it, not with bolt-cutters, saws, stealing keys, or anything else. But requiring every gun owner to own a wall-safe would be a huge financial burden on poor and middle-class gun owners. (We’re not talking here about gun locks used to keep small children from just playing around with guns, when the point of the law is to keep 20-year-olds bent on murder from getting access to the gun.) And beyond that, it would mean that a parent couldn’t legally let, say, his 19-year-old daughter living at home (or for that matter his 16-year-old daughter living at home) have access to the family gun in case she needs to defend herself.

Or, as someone suggested in the Huffington Post video program in which I participated, what about requiring a psychological screening before someone can buy a gun? It’s easy to see the expense, delay, and likely discrimination that this will entail. Making it easier for psychiatrists to call in a “don’t sell guns to him” request — or a “seize his guns” request — when they are consulted by a patient who says something that the psychiatrist finds disturbing, would avoid the extra expense. (Psychiatrists can of course already try to get someone committed to a mental institution, or briefly held for observation, but that is relatively rarely done; I’m speaking here of allowing psychiatrists to get the patient’s name placed on the can’t-legally-buy list and getting the police to seize the patient’s guns based on a much lesser showing of danger, for instance whenever they find the patient is suffering from depression.) But this would create another disincentive for people to consult psychiatrists, especially ones that they can’t prescreen up front for gun-friendliness — if you value your guns and know that the psychiatrist might get them taken away, perhaps indefinitely, you might not consult the psychiatrist until you’re really desparate.

Now even some substantial burdens might in principle be appropriate if you think there’s a very big payoff. (Query to what extent the Second Amendment should affect that analysis, and what burdens would be seen as so grave as to be unconstitutional even if they seem to offer a substantial payoff; but for now I’m just focusing on the policy analysis.) But, as I’ve blogged before, I think that by and large most of the proposals that I’ve heard are likely to have extremely modest benefits, because the people who will criminally misuse the guns will also criminally acquire the guns. And I don’t think that this suffices to justify limiting law-abiding people’s ability to defend themselves with their guns.

With this general thought, I hope to turn in the next few days to some specific gun restrictions. I blogged before about why bans on so-called “assault weapons” are a bad idea; I hope to blog more shortly about some California proposals to restrict ammunition sales, though I’m hoping I can first get my hands on the text of the bills (which don’t seem to be up on the Legislature’s site yet).

As I’ve mentioned in this post and before, I don’t think all gun restrictions are particularly bad, and I certainly don’t think they are all unconstitutional. Some might even be worth trying, if they impose very slight burdens on the law-abiding. But in general, my sense that many of the laws that supposedly impose very slight burdens actually impose much more substantial burdens (at least to the extent that they are complied with); and many of the proposals that would supposedly yield large benefits actually don’t.