After broaching the subject at Saturday’s memorial for victims of the Navy Yard shootings, President Barack Obama continued to hammer home his point about the need for tougher gun-laws for the rest of the day. “We can’t rest until all of our children can go to school or walk down the street free from the fear that they will be struck down by a stray bullet,” the President said at dinner for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
“As long as there are those who fight to make it as easy as possible for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun, then we’ve got to work as hard as possible for the sake of our children.” Obama later added. “We’ve got to be ones who are willing to do more work to make it harder.”
But even for those who support strong gun control measures, a haunting question emerges: Even if the political hurdles could be overcome, what level of gun control is practical? In a country already saturated with firearms, where such weapons are becoming more available as years march on rather than less, how much can new laws actually prevent mass killings such as those at the Navy Yard and Newtown?
While no one can fail to take these large-scale murders seriously, and it is clearly incumbent upon our leaders to do something, those seeking to deal with the problem rather than merely gain political advantage need to confront some hard realities. Two major facts complicate this already difficult national debate: the number of existing guns in America, and the relentless advancement of technology.
Guns are Everywhere
The Sydney School of Public Health estimates that there are 270-310 million guns circulating among civilians in the United States. There are likely more guns than people. This gives the U.S. the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.
With this many guns already out there, many have questioned the ability of even the strictest possible gun control laws to make an actual difference.
In Australia, they were able to implement an outright ban on handguns and assault rifles, with a massive government program of buying these weapons back from owners and destroying them. Unlike smaller efforts in the U.S., this buyback was compulsory. It took about 630,000 guns out of a circulation, with a second buyback in 2003 collecting an additional 50,000 handguns. The initial buyback required an intense, year-long effort by the Australian government, at a cost of about $500 million U.S., which was paid for with a tax hike.
However, in America, even such a large haul would only get 20-25% of guns out of private hands. At an equivalent cost, such a program in the U.S. would cost more than $2 billion. And the Australian buyback took place in a country where 85% of citizens supported for gun control, a much higher number than in the U.S., making public cooperation here much less likely.
If the U.S. somehow passed laws to follow such a model (an unlikely event given the current level of partisan gridlock), it would the most massive disarmament of any group of people in world history. Though many believe the Australian program to have been a success, it also serves to illustrate the herculean obstacles such an effort would face in the United States.
Technology Marches On
The prohibition of alcohol in the United States during the early 20th century was a massive failure. In addition to smuggling liquor in from other countries, people simply began making it themselves. The fact that “moonshiners” could create this controlled substance themselves with only a still and some common ingredients made an effective ban impossible. In fact, rather than changing American society for the better, the prohibition actually led to a nationwide increase in organized crime. In 14 years, prohibition was repealed.
As technology improves, a similar scenario for efforts to curtail firearm-use becomes increasingly likely. Although gun making is not currently easy for a private citizen, 3D printing and other innovations are changing all that. The video of Texas law student Cody Wilson demonstrating his 3D printed firearm made the rounds not too long ago, but his is not the only operation. The really startling fact about making these guns is that there seems to be no way to put the genie back into the bottle, for the same reason the record industry cannot regain its control over how we listen to music.
When Wilson and others improve their designs, they post the new files to file-sharing sites. The same way anyone with a few minutes and an Internet connection can track down an MP3 of any song they want without paying the artist or distributor, anyone can download their files. Once such a design exists, destroying all copies is practically impossible, so long as even a single user has it stored on their hard drive. Right now, the barrier is the expense and availability of 3D printers, but as they get smaller and less expensive, that barrier erodes.
If it gets easier and easier for anyone who wants a gun to make one on their own, how effective can any gun control legislation truly be?
Intractable, but is it Impossible?
Neither of these problems necessarily means effective gun control is impossible. For example, some have called for limits on bullets and magazines, which may be more feasible. And certainly, just because something’s difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. But gun control to succeed, it is clear that there are some fundamental obstacles that need to be navigated. Even if the politics surrounding guns and gun owners can somehow be overcome (which is far from a safe bet), these practical issues remain. And for the moment, these two problems do not have any clear solutions.
Written By: Jeremy Forbing