“But as the slightest Sketch, if justly trac’d,
Is by ill Colouring but the more disgrac’d,
So by false Learning is good Sense defac’d.
Some are bewilder’d in the Maze of Schools,
And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.”
– Alexander Pope, A Letter on Criticism
It’s a wonder that etymologists have not yet remarked on the wide range of meanings that the word “epidemic” has adopted since it was first used by Hippocrates to describe the actual public health crises of Greece. Politicians from both sides could hardly hold themselves from politicizing last weekend’s attack on the Pulse club, even as the blood of the victims and the tears of their families had yet to dry. Within hours of the attack, cries for “sensible gun legislation” could be heard on the lips of every major Democratic politician and before long, the press was quick to obediently echo the same tired talking points. By Monday, what was once a national tragedy calling on citizens to put aside their political differences to collectively mourn the loss of fifty innocent souls had quickly become the touchstone for yet another bitter partisan divide (and yes, WaPo actually published an opinion piece on whether prayer is selfish).
When politicians speak of “common sense” gun legislation, they often refer to a ban on semi-automatic rifles, more stringent licensing requirements for gun vendors and a national database of gunowners. The advocates of these proposals believe that they can reduce gun violence by striking at the institutions that contribute most to the problem. In their mind’s eye, gun violence, just like any other policy issue, is a structural problem; if you pull the right levers of state and combine them with the right incentives then gun violence will be significantly reduced.
What is so interesting about this argument is how foreign it is to the usual ‘tax and regulate’ mentality of American liberals. For decades, liberals have chastised conservatives for their stances on abortion, abstinence education and drugs on the grounds that these positions would do little to curb the very behaviors they were intended to. “It’s better to make abortions legal and safe for women than to force women to have life-threatening abortions in back alleys. It’s going to happen anyway.” Yet, when conservatives point out that on the whole most gun control proposals would only punish responsible gun owners and make it easier for criminals to perpetrate crimes, liberal silence is deafening.
Of course, in the case of the Orlando shooter, the weapon he used was legally purchased. But banning the AR-15 in Florida would have been no more effective at preventing him from committing that horrific massacre than the ban of AK-47s and improvised bombs in France was successful in preventing the attacks in Paris. Terrorists hell bent on attacking America will always find ways around these paper tiger bans. If by some miracle, we were able to stop the sale and transport of the hundreds of thousands of illegal guns flowing from Central America and were able to disable every 3D printer in the country, terrorists would still find ways to turn rice cookers into bombs.
Rather than erecting paper tigers to make ourselves feel better, our policy efforts should be directed towards solving the root causes of the problem. Homegrown Islamic terrorism in particular, and mass shootings in general, are the product of the dissolving communal ties and growing isolation caused by modern Western society. The fact that every mass shooting in the United States was committed almost exclusively by young, disgruntled men is no coincidence. The fact that that 86% of new ISIS recruits are young, disgruntled men in their mid-twenties is not trivial. The fact that young men aged 30 and below are responsible for almost 40% of murders in the United States is not irrelevant.
When you assess liberal gun policy proposals in light of this disturbing pattern, one begins to see how those policies are less sensible and more misguided. Forty percent of people aged fifty and over and a third of women overall own a gun or rifle in their homes yet neither demographic commits mass murders at the rate that young men do. Instead of punishing families by unnecessarily restricting their access to defensive weapons of their choice, we should focus our efforts on addressing the “epidemic” of violence in general amongst young men.