The President’s New Gun Violence Agenda

by John McClaughry

Sparked by the Sandy Hook school shooting, the national and state debate on “measures to prevent gun violence” is now on center stage. President Obama released his proposals on January 16. Vermont state senator Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), the Democratic majority leader, introduced his bill (S.32) a few days before.

Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of both proposals – banning possession and transfer of certain semiautomatic firearms and high capacity magazines – sharply divides the political world into two hostile camps.

The gun control faction has long wanted to put government in charge of all privately owned firearms. They are also eager to win a victory over their opposition, embodied in the National Rifle Association.

The firearms rights faction is alarmed with their opponents’ push toward their ultimate goal of banning the possession of all privately owned firearms, or at a minimum requiring all private owners to obtain licenses, register their firearms, certify their mental health and good intentions, and supply all required information to a government registry.

At this point in the conflict legislators need to take a deep breath and focus on the question: what realistically promises to diminish the likelihood of deadly violence, and at what cost in terms of diminution of rights, invasion of privacy, “false positive” enforcement, new spending by a government awash in debt, creation of bureaucracies, diversion of resources, and further undermining federalism.

President Obama rightly reaffirmed that “the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms.” He then offered four parallel policy thrusts.

He wants to reinstate the 1994-2004 ban on “assault weapons” and high capacity magazines (over ten rounds). To put this in perspective, there are approximately three hundred million privately owned firearms in the country. Untold millions of them are functionally identical to the “assault weapons” Obama wants to ban – they just aren‘t “ugly” enough (folding stock, pistol grip, bayonet lug, etc.) to be labeled “assault weapons”. All of these, including all existing “assault weapons”, will remain legal. So will millions of existing high capacity magazines.

The National Research Council’s extensive 2006 study found that the ten-year national ban on possession of the same semiautomatic “assault weapons” had no visible effect on gun violence. So why is this a good idea? Is it only to placate the gun control lobby?

The President wants to incorporate all “potentially dangerous individuals” into the national background check system. That’s a good idea to the extent “potentially dangerous individuals” can be unequivocally identified – for instance, by felony convictions and psychiatric commitments. But beyond that? If a social worker or teacher reports someone to the BATF as “acting strangely”, should that person’s name be summarily put on a national blacklist?

The President proposes Federal spending on numerous new grant programs for mental health, school safety, school discipline and school resource officers. One would think that such spending would need to be far more than theoretically effective to be launched after four years of trillion-dollar-plus federal deficits.

The President is keen on making sure that young people “get the mental health treatment they need”. But startlingly absent from his comprehensive program was any recognition that administering increasingly powerful psychiatric medications to combat “mental illness” may well be a significant factor in gun violence – for instance the Columbine shooters. There is a dark side to “combating mental illness.”

All of these programs have to operate through somebody – social workers, police, doctors, BATF agents, and many others. Anyone proposing the programs advocated by the President needs to look closely at possibility that government officials, pursuing their own self-interest, might make our problems worse.

Improving the national background check system for acquiring weapons is worth doing. Will the Obama ban on new “assault weapons” and high capacity magazines, and all his new Federal spending programs, diminish gun violence? Almost certainly not. They respond to the political need to “do something” to prevent another madman from perpetrating another school massacre.

The real solutions, far more complex and imprecise, must focus on reducing the numbers of, or at least deterring and thwarting, “potentially dangerous individuals” likely to commit violent acts – and do it without unduly invading their rights.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (


3 thoughts on “The President’s New Gun Violence Agenda

  1. What would the president by saying if the Newtown shooting had happened with handguns? Revolvers? A .45? Would re-instituting the “assault weapons ban”, which was just a categorization of guns based on aesthetics, nothing more, stop a similar crime? Would a weapons ban of any kind stop the insane from grabbing gallons of gasoline and setting schools on fire?

    No. Clearly not. Worse, the president took the opportunity to write executive orders stating that the gun laws that are on the books should be enforced. Well. Glad we had to have a presidential intervention to make sure we’re enforcing gun laws, although with Holder’s record, I can see why he might want to emphasize the point.

    Instead of actually checking out what happened in Fast and Furious, when gun laws were thrown out the window and hundreds, hundreds died as a result, we’re going to slap a few wrinkles on existing laws, spend more millions on research, and maybe split the difference in the electorate so Barry’s Party ™ doesn’t lose any votes in the mid-terms.

    Mission accomplished. Again.

  2. Good, analysis and commentary, John.

    People do really bad things to their fellow men for many reasons. The faulty logic employed by those who would ‘control guns’ suggests that the gun is the problem when it is not.

    Evil or deranged people are the problem and that’s too hard to solve, so the ‘the gun’ is an easy target.

    Americans should not roll over to this faulty logic. It’s likely the emotional content of the gun control debate and the Constitutional basis for gun ownership will win out over the flawed political rhetoric.

  3. We MUST do something.
    This is something.
    Therefore we must do this!

    Based on this we should ban baseball bats carried in the ghetto streets??

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