Alcohol vs guns

Tyler Cowen:

I would gladly see a cultural shift toward the view that gun ownership is dangerous and undesirable, much as the cultural attitudes toward smoking have shifted since the 1960s.

I am, however, consistent.  I also think we should have a cultural shift toward the view that alcohol — and yes I mean all alcohol — is at least as dangerous and undesirable.  I favor a kind of voluntary prohibition on alcohol.  It is obvious to me that alcohol is one of the great social evils and when I read the writings of the prohibitionists, while I don’t agree with their legal remedies, their arguments make sense to me.  It remains one of the great undervalued social movements.  For mostly cultural reasons, it is now a largely forgotten remnant of progressivism and it probably will stay that way, given that “the educated left” mostly joined with America’s shift to being “a wine nation” in the 1970s.

Guns, like alcohol, have many legitimate uses, and they are enjoyed by many people in a responsible manner.  In both cases, there is an elite which has absolutely no problems handling the institution in question, but still there is the question of whether the nation really can have such bifurcated social norms, namely one set of standards for the elite and another set for everybody else.

In part our guns problem is an alcohol problem.  According to Mark Kleiman, half the people in prison were drinking when they did whatever they did.  (Admittedly the direction of causality is murky but theory points in some rather obvious directions.)  Our car crash problem – which kills many thousands of Americans each year — is also in significant part an alcohol problem.  There are connections between alcohol and wife-beating and numerous other social ills, including health issues of course.

It worries me when people focus on “guns” and do not accord an equivalent or indeed greater status to “alcohol” as a social problem.  Many of those people drink lots of alcohol, and would not hesitate to do so in front of their children, although they might regard owning an AK-47, or showing a pistol to the kids, as repugnant.  I believe they are a mix of hypocritical and unaware, even though many of these same individuals have very high IQs and are well schooled in the social sciences.  Perhaps they do not want to see the parallels.

That's Cowen at his best, and the whole thing is well worth a read.

My younger sister was driving to pick me up at the airport in Chicago years ago and a drunk driver swerved into her Prius and spun her out on the highway in the middle of traffic. Luckily no other car was approaching fast enough to hit her after her car spun out, but the thought of what might have happened is so terrible as to be unthinkable for our entire family. The drunk driver flipped his car over but also survived.

On the one hand, I'm glad new car share services like Uber and Lyft exist now as they probably decrease the likelihood that people drive drunk when it's inconvenient to hail a cab (I've lived in many major cities in the US, and hailing cab was only something I ever counted on in Manhattan).

On the other hand, maybe that is offset to some degree by increased drinking overall. The cultural glorification (or at least forgiveness) of drinking to excess is troubling. We tend to attach some heroic narrative to feats of overconsumption of alcohol, recounting the attendant ridiculous behavior as humorous narratives, when perhaps we should be amplifying the perpetrator's sense of shame to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.

Politicizing gun control

I felt the sadness that all Americans felt on hearing the news of the shooting this morning. It is a deeper sorrow because anyone old enough to comprehend the news was once a child and feels how terribly unjust it is for people still so young, still trying to grapple with the world and become a citizen of the world to be murdered just as their journey is beginning. For children to be shot down in school, a place where they should be learning to live alongside other people in the world in a protected environment is particularly tragic.

The debate about politicizing the issue is an important one, because political maneuvering is precisely how systematic change has been accomplished on this issue. It's why I was heartened to see many people who are advocates of gun control pushing back hard on those demonizing them for politicizing the issue. As Jill Lepore reported in her overview of the evolution of gun control in America, and as Jeffrey Toobin covers in two chapters on the Second Amendment in The Oath, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King in the 1960's spurred the passing of strict gun control laws. Tragedy plus politicking led to law.

But in the 1970's, the NRA began shifting the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment from one about guaranteeing the people's right to form a militia for defense against the government to one about an individual's civil liberties, specifically the right of one person to own a gun. In the past decade, that shift has been completed with astonishing success, culminating in the Supreme Court's ruling in the District of Columbia versus Heller. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Scalia wrote:

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

The 2nd Amendment advocates have been much better organized and politically effective at both a national level and a state level for many years now. So for gun control proponents to try to politicize an issue is exactly the right tactic; playing the political game will be far more effective on an issue like this than, say, expressing indignation on Twitter, as cathartic as that might be.

[This is not to say the collective opinion on Twitter can't make a huge difference on some issues, like pressuring corporate brands to change their behavior to take one example. However, on this particular issue of gun control in America, it has shown minimal political and legal impact. Sadly, we have had multiple instances to serve as evidence in recent history.]

The most important way to win on gun control is to make it a make-or-break voting issue for your political representative. 2nd Amendment defenders have always done this, and that has made it politically expedient for politicians to be on their side in elections. Perhaps you couldn't start with an outright ban, where the majority of Americans (though not a majority of people I follow on social media) still support their own right to bear arms, but you could start to attack at the margins, as with assault weapons. It's no guarantee of victory, but it has also never meant a loss. As with every powerful special interest, the gun lobby works longer and harder than its opposition, who shout loudly on days like today, then forget about the issue after a short period of time. This issue will not shift overnight, it will take time, and beating the gun lobby at their own game means matching their endurance and will. That's something that hasn't happened in decades.

If the gun control proponents were able to pass some federal or state laws, the legality would still likely end up landing at the feet of today's Supreme Court, where Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas seem entrenched in their support of the modern interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. With Justice Kennedy being the swing vote that shows few signs of leaving their side, the odds would seem stacked against such laws standing up, especially in light of District of Columbia versus Heller. But it would be a start, and, since the Supreme Court has tended to lag public opinion on issues, a necessary one.

The other thought that strikes me in all this debate is that the Right has won, as they often do, in framing the terminology of this debate. "Gun control" as a term is framed as a negative, as a federal impingement on something. If the debate were about "disarming potential homicidal maniacs" it would feel more difficult to be in the opposition. How we name these issues has an underrated impact on how we perceive them. We need to name our indignation and sorrow more accurately. We are not trying to control guns, we are trying to protect our children.