Last Friday 20 children and six adults were shot dead at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The same day a group of schoolchildren was attacked in China’s Henan province. There, the assailant wielded a knife and the result was injuries to 23 children and an adult but no deaths. This follows an established pattern. Like the US, China has experienced a spate of attacks on schoolchildren. But without easy access to guns, Chinese attackers seldom succeed in killing.
America’s inability to protect the public from gun violence is a case study in several of our democratic failures: the single-issue minority that overrides the weaker preference of the majority; the inbuilt rural bias of our politics; the entrenched power of a well-endowed lobby; and the runaway interpretation of certain politically congenial rights by a conservative Supreme Court majority. Because of the scale of these systemic obstacles, liberals like Barack Obama, who are naturally inclined to support sensible gun-control laws, have in recent years shied away from taking on the issue.
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If that is to change there are two possible paths to reform. The first is a civil rights, or moral model, along the lines of the campaign for gay marriage or the recent executive order ending deportation of illegal immigrants who were brought to the US as children. The other is a public-health model, used to curb smoking or promote seat belts, where better policy advances through regulation, litigation and incremental political change at multiple levels.
Mr Obama’s instinct so far has been for the moral model. He gives a powerful speech, like the one he delivered in Newtown on Sunday night, announces that the time for change has finally come, and calls on Congress to act. This is the classic and preferable model of reform. It is transparent, persuasion-based, employs the democratic process and doesn’t smack of the nanny state. At this point, however, we would do well to acknowledge that America’s gun problem is not amenable to that kind of change.
At best, the moral model yields a halting, one-step-forward, two-steps-back type of reform. In the wake of a horrific 1989 school massacre in Stockton, California, Congress passed a ban on assault weapons, which Bill Clinton signed in 1994. A decade later, after lobbying by the National Rifle Association, that ban was allowed to expire. Even in the wake of the Newtown shooting, it is unrealistic to expect Congress to pass any kind of comprehensive gun-control legislation.
Michael Bloomberg, New York City mayor, has been the exemplar of the alternative, paternalistic model, in which government uses any regulatory, legal, or political power at hand to protect its citizens from harm, self-inflicted or otherwise. The case study is smoking, where in 2002 Mr Bloomberg championed an initially unpopular ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. In a few short years it became a national and even global norm. Combined with punitive taxes and a programme of supportive services for people who wish to quit, New York has reduced smoking rates, which had been stagnant for years, from 22 per cent to 14 per cent over a decade. Teen smoking has gone from 19 per cent to 7 per cent in the same period. Mr Bloomberg has recently been trying a similar approach with unhealthy fast food.
With guns, a public-health approach would begin by highlighting the legal anomaly that federal agencies can regulate devices meant to keep people alive but not those designed to kill them. When it created the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972, Congress gave itself the power to regulate toy guns but not real ones. The logic was that weapons were covered by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. But ATF has authority only to enforce existing criminal laws, not to apply new health and safety standards. The most important change Mr Obama could undertake would be pressing Congress to give ATF the same power over guns that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has over cars.
The other big change has to do with liability law. After state lawsuits forced tobacco companies to contribute billions towards public health costs, trial lawyers around the country trained their sights on gunmakers. In response, the NRA in 2005 got its minions in Congress to pass a bill that shielded firearms manufacturers and dealers from negligence suits. Mr Obama should try to have this decision reversed.
Regulation and tort law are not ideal ways to make public policy. But there is little rationale for treating guns as a uniquely special and protected class of manufactures. What gun-control advocates need is simple parity.
The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of ‘The Bush Tragedy’