McArdle: Solutions in hands of NRA, media, not government

Legal solutions to gun violence are limited. But gun owners and media can affect meaningful change.

By Megan McArdle

The Washington Post

Early last week, I wrote that conservatives need to find a way to address gun violence and mass shootings that isn’t blathering about “mental health” or “violent video games” before the public decides that the Second Amendment isn’t worth the cost of keeping it around. On Friday, I explained why I think so many mass shootings are happening now: because the avalanche of publicity from each incident inspires more shooters.

I concluded that there are two obvious options for preventing mass shootings: either take the guns out of private hands, or forbid the sensational reporting of the havoc they wreak.

Obviously, both proposals violate the Constitution. Less obviously, even if the Constitution didn’t contain the First and Second amendments, the proposals would be a bad idea.

Politically, taking guns away would be enormously difficult, requiring enough public support to push through a constitutional amendment, or at least to alter the makeup of the Supreme Court. Yet the political hurdles are actually lower than the practical ones.

Buyback programs, which have been tried in Australia and multiple U.S. cities, didn’t take even a third of the available guns out of circulation. Getting at the rest of that stock would require drastic measures. House-to-house searches would be most effective, but presumably we’re not going to torch the Fourth Amendment along with the Second. Instead, the already quite high penalties for getting caught with an illegal gun would have to be ratcheted up. Finding those weapons would require a lot of pretextual searches.

In other words, seriously reducing America’s gun problem would require exactly the sort of policing and prosecutorial tactics currently lumped under the rubric of “mass incarceration,” only much, much more so. As always, the burden would disproportionately fall on the disadvantaged in urban areas with large police forces. Though this obviously isn’t the intent, calls to prevent mass shootings through tighter gun control are in practical effect calls to lock up more low-income and minority young men.

As for government restrictions on news coverage, the political and practical hurdles would be at least as daunting. Who decides what constitutes a violation? Do you trust anyone with that kind of power?

But while government censorship is dangerous, curbing one’s own speech is often just good judgment. News organizations should perform an experiment: Make it a tenet of journalistic ethics not to print the names or manifestos of mass shooters, or details of their lives, or even details of their attacks. Mass shooters seek notoriety; deny it to them.

Ending the wall-to-wall coverage would mean, yes, losing readers and viewers. The public would lose some information. Gun-control advocates would lose a campaigning tool. But the public policy aspects of mass shootings can be covered with aggregate statistics. The visceral details may make for a better story, a better PR campaign. But as long as there’s reason to think that they also make for more murders, we have a moral obligation to avoid them.

Unfortunately, the opposition of gun-rights organizations to any new restrictions, no matter how minor the inconvenience to gun owners, has left them in a poor position to press for changes like this. No one believes that the NRA is as interested in public safety as it is in ensuring that its members have the easiest possible access to the maximal amount of firepower. Any solutions the organizations propose will be discounted accordingly.

For the past few decades, that single-minded focus has enabled the NRA to win on issue after issue, against the broader, but diffuse, support for new restrictions. But over the long run, it makes the NRA vulnerable. If mass shootings keep up at the current tempo, the broader public is going to get just as interested in gun control as the NRA is in gun rights, and at that point, gun owners risk losing everything.

So gun enthusiasts would be wise to stop worrying about their own arsenals and about minor inconveniences, such as bans on high-capacity magazines and start looking for public policy solutions to the mass shooting problem. My proposal is one place to start, but gun rights groups should be doing serious research into more, and hopefully even better ones. Just as new organizations need to remember their role as stewards of the public trust, the NRA needs to recover its role as a public-safety organization, one that takes the problem of mass shootings more seriously than the potential problems of gun owners who might need to take an extra few seconds to reload.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.

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