A Response to the New York Times Front Page Op-Ed “End The Gun Epidemic in America”

Yesterday, for the first time in 95 years, the New York Times published an op-ed on the front page, position A1, above the fold. The subject of that op-ed: “End the Gun Epidemic in America.” The piece is filled with tired arguments and moralistic fervor, and it even includes the most vacuous of all public policy arguments: We gotta do something.

The title itself is odd. By focusing on guns themselves as an “epidemic” rather than on the ever-decreasing rate of gun violence, the Times seems to confirm that its editorial staff has a problem with gun ownership per se, regardless of its effects on public safety. The placement of the piece on the front page also suggests that the Times prefers moralizing to simple fact-checking. 

But it is even worse than that. At a time when the Times could have placed a meaningful and trailblazing op-ed on the front page, perhaps calling for an end to the drug war and the thousands of gun deaths associated with it, they instead chose to advocate for an impossible public policy goal that will have little to no effect on the problem at hand.

The piece was clearly animated by the recent spate of disturbing mass shootings. First of all, because it apparently needs to be said again and again, focusing on mass shootings when discussing firearms policy is deeply problematic. Not only do victims of mass shootings constitute one percent or fewer of gun deaths (depending on how “mass shooting” is defined), but the perpetrators of mass shootings are the hardest to affect with public policy changes.

This is an incredibly important point to remember for those who are interested in mature and serious public policy solutions rather than vociferous caterwauling. Mass shooters are not marginal perpetrators of gun violence. They are committed to their cause, and will work hard to overcome obstacles in their path.

Both sides of the gun control debate often ignore questions on the margins to focus on non-marginal actors. For the gun rights crowd, they often postulate the “over-motivated criminal,” that is, the person who will stop at nothing to get the weapons he wants and, therefore, will not be affected by background checks, waiting periods, etc. Conversely, the gun control crowd often focuses on the “under-motivated criminal,” a lackadaisical maniac who would have committed a crime but was thwarted by forms and other paper barriers.  

Yet, just as there is someone who would decide not to buy a Subway sandwich if the price was raised 20 cents, there are marginal criminals and would-be criminals who can be affected by some restrictions on guns. The important question is: does the person who is stopped by these restrictions forego violence altogether or do they choose other methods, either via bludgeoning or stabbing weapons or by substituting another weapon such as a hunting rifle? The second question is: do restrictions on guns keep weapons out of the hands of marginal law-abiding citizens who could have used those guns to save a life or stop a crime?

Mass shooters are the quintessence of an over-motivated criminal, and in a country with over 300 million guns, there are very few (if any) realistic gun control laws that could stop mass shooters. Policy proposals that focus on identifying would-be mass shooters and protecting would-be victims of mass shooters have a much better chance of succeeding than any proposal that focuses on guns. If there were a magic button that eliminated what the Times call “weapons of war,” there would likely still be the same number of mass shootings. Many if not most “hunting rifles” have identical functionality to so-called “assault weapons,” not to mention the eternal presence of illegal markets.

Yet, the Times insists that “certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.” Yes, they argue for confiscation. In other words, in order to enact a policy that would have little to no effect on gun violence, the Times advocates a confiscation scheme that would violate civil liberties and likely result in violence.

But don’t take my word for it. Last year, in what evidently was a fleeting moment of lucidity, the Times published an op-ed by Lois Beckett from ProPublica, “The Assault Weapon Myth,” that thoroughly demolished their own argument:

It turns out that big, scary military rifles don’t kill the vast majority of the 11,000 Americans murdered with guns each year. Little handguns do.

In 2012, only 322 people were murdered with any kind of rifle, F.B.I. data shows.

The continuing focus on assault weapons stems from the media’s obsessive focus on mass shootings, which disproportionately involve weapons like the AR-15, a civilian version of the military M16 rifle. This, in turn, obscures some grim truths about who is really dying from gunshots.

Annually, 5,000 to 6,000 black men are murdered with guns. Black men amount to only 6 percent of the population. Yet of the 30 Americans on average shot to death each day, half are black males.

I hesitate to co-opt the phrase “black lives matter,” but it is telling that–among those tucked away safely in their homes in middle-class neighborhoods–the poster child for gun violence is an “assault weapon”-wielding mass shooter. Most gun violence is perpetrated with handguns and largely involves our inner cities and black males. These guns are often connected to and trafficked in the illegal drug trade. Perhaps the explanation for this disconnect is simple: well-to-do liberals can more easily imagine themselves on a college campus than in a run-down and dangerous inner city neighborhood.

There are things that can be done about gun violence, but few of them involve focusing on guns. Ending the drug war would do more than any other discrete policy proposal, and focusing on alleviating poverty, fixing schools, and providing assistance to troubled youths would also go a long way. As Beckett writes, “More than 20 years of research funded by the Justice Department has found that programs to target high-risk people or places, rather than targeting certain kinds of guns, can reduce gun violence.”

Finally, as it must be constantly reiterated, we’ve done a pretty good job drastically reducing gun violence. For whatever reason (this is constantly debated), crime has dropped precipitously over the past 20 years, but over half of Americans are unaware of this fact. Gun homicides are down 49 percent since 1993, and in that same time we added approximately 100 million guns to the country’s gun stock. At the very least, those facts disrupt the simple “more guns, more crime” narrative.

Hopefully, the next time the Times decides to publish a front page editorial, they put a little more thought into it.