Gun-control proposals: The difference between doing something and doing everything

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So, at that hearing on Tuesday, we heard familiar things. We heard politicians saying things that they were expected to say and that they’d said before. It’s a ritual so deeply familiar that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) could disparage it as “ridiculous theater” — implying that his side’s response was valid and his opponent’s cynical.

The more insightful commentary, though, came from Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). He used a not-uncommon analogy to rationalize his political side’s expected response.

“We have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people. We ought to try to combat that, too,” Kennedy said. “But I think what many folks on my side of the aisle are saying is that the answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers. The answer is to concentrate on the problem.”

It’s actually worth considering what happened with drunken driving in the United States. About 40 years ago, the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving was formed to focus on the issue. The group rallied to draw attention to the problem of drunken driving, helping raise awareness about the problem, reshaping public understanding of it and pushing for legislative changes that made drunken driving less common and more legally fraught.

In 1985, 18,000 people died as a result of alcohol-impaired crashes, 41 percent of traffic fatalities. In 2019, 10,000 people died of drunken driving, 28 percent of fatalities. Over that period, the total number of traffic fatalities each year dropped by 7,700 — and the number of drunken-driving fatalities dropped by nearly 8,000. In other words, without the drop in drunken-driving fatalities, the number of traffic deaths would be the same now as it was in 1985.

The problem was focused on. Changes made. Legal boundaries were established raising penalties and repercussions for drunken driving. Drunk drivers could lose their licenses or their cars. Under some laws, possession of intoxicants could result in losing one’s license. All of this sits on top of the existing barriers to drunken driving: passing a licensing test, registering and maintaining one’s vehicle and so on. Kennedy’s example is good, not because it shows how problems aren’t being addressed, but because it showed how problems can be addressed.

For decades, the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups and politicians have framed the gun debate in absolute terms: Any effort to restrict gun ownership was a slippery cliff for the complete seizure or banning of all weapons and must by fought against, like the French did at the Somme. If Republicans didn’t ensure that nothing changed, then everything would inexorably change. It wasn’t that the Democrats were coming for your gun, they were coming for your guns — all of them, no matter what.

What the drunken-driving example shows, though, is the difference between doing something and doing everything. We haven’t eliminated drunken-driving deaths, but we did something to decrease them. We could have done nothing, arguing that imposing any limit on how and when people use their cars was the first step down a path to mandating that people only be allowed to drive to forced-labor camps. But we didn’t.

Gun ownership exists in a very different political space, of course. It sits under the protective umbrella of the Constitution, though that coverage is itself part of the debate. It is enmeshed deeply in cultural politics in a way that drunken driving isn’t. It has powerful (or until recently, powerful) groups rising to its defense. It’s defensible in a way that driving drunk isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no space in which something can be implemented in response to mass shootings, something that is neither nothing nor everything.

It is absolutely true that the number of people who die in mass shooting incidents is small compared to other causes of death, including other violent causes of death. But it is also true that such events evoke a particular terror, particularly for parents worried about the children in schools. It is also true that tiny risks are in other contexts used to drive wildly outsized legislative responses: deaths caused by international terrorists, incidents of voter fraud. These things, too, are vanishingly rare but even so are cited as prompts for necessary overhauls of huge systems.

Politics is largely about choosing how and when the weight of government should be brought to bear on public problems. The mass-shooting problem lacks immediately obvious solutions, which gives politicians like Kennedy cover to sort of hand-wave about it. But, then, the efforts to curtail drunken-driving fatalities also emerged only after some trial and error.

There are few issues besides gun ownership on which the possible political responses are presented as similarly absolute. It’s as though we are meant to believe, for example, that the current restrictions on owning firearms — no Gatling guns, no A-10 Warthogs — have reached the perfect limit of the bounds of the Constitution. Never mind that Congress previously passed a law banning the sorts of semiautomatic rifles that have become a common feature of mass shootings or that state bans have been upheld by the Supreme Court. Allowing something to change, we’re told, means allowing everything to change.

Therefore, the default position is to do nothing.

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