The national spotlight is on Colorado, where Governor John Hickenlooper, a moderate democrat, has endorsed the idea of tightening gun control regulations. Hickenlooper and members of the democratically-controlled state legislature have indicated plans to introduce laws that would require universal background checks and ban the sale of high capacity magazines. Colorado is rightly seen as a bellwether because, despite the current democratic state majorities, the politics here are purple in two important ways. First, Colorado swings between republican and democratic in national elections. Second, the current cultural and political zeitgeist is an arranged marriage between progressive and conservative forms of libertarianism. Different factions of left and right exist, of course, but to make headway politically in Colorado is to walk that line between “let them do their own thing,” and “don’t make us do a damn thing.” (That’s why we can smoke pot legally, carry concealed weapons just about everywhere, and hardly pay any income tax!) If we can pass even these modest forms of gun regulation, maybe the federal government will be able to pull it off too.
First, a brief word of support for these modest regulations is in order. It may be the case that as a general matter it is difficult to show that local gun control measures lead to less gun violence. But one thing is certain: fewer children would have died in Newtown if Adam Lanza had stormed the elementary school with a regular handgun instead of a semi-automatic weapon. And fewer children would have died in Newtown if, even if armed with his military-style assault rifle and his semi-automatic handgun, he had not had high capacity magazines. So even if we cannot prevent all Bad People from accessing guns in the future in any scenario consistent with the Second Amendment, we can prevent the hideously opportunistic nature of the mass slaughter that occurred in Connecticut by making it illegal for people like Mrs. Lanza, a law abiding gun owner and the person from whom Adam got the guns, to own the means for it. For many of us, the prospect of saving even some of those very young children is well worth the small price of restricting what some people think of as their liberty in this way. (And the same can be said about the Aurora Theater shooting. Without the capacity to shoot repeatedly simply by pulling the trigger, James Holmes would have killed fewer people. We might even, just for the moment, grant the “Good Person with a gun” fantasy it’s due, and acknowledge that such a person might have at least a snowball’s chance to stop the Bad Person, but only if the Bad Person had to pause for a second to reload before killing again.) These legal measures, in other words, might not accomplish much with respect to our national problem of excessive gun violence. But they are well tailored to the events that occasioned their consideration: a “Bad” (or Mad?) Man intent on inflicting as much harm as possible with the means readily available.
In addition to the prospect of legislation, there is another indicator of a shift toward sanity about guns. A national outdoor retail chain, Jax Mercantile, recently announced that it would stop selling semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. Jax will still sell plenty of guns, including hand guns, hunting rifles, etc., in addition to the full range of other outdoor gear. But Jax President Jim Quinlan said it was a matter of conscience to stop selling assault-style weapons and magazines, and that 80% of the reaction to his decision has been positive. There is likely no swaying the minority of gun owners who have convinced themselves that the core of liberty is the ability to own any and all manner of firearms in order some day to compete with a potentially tyrannical government in an imaginary (and let’s face it, unwinnable) arm’s race. But it is reassuring to think that many proponents of gun ownership, including those who make their living off of selling guns, understand that a “right,” whatever it may mean, does not have to entail unlimited and slavish devotion to the ever-evolving technology of mass killing.