Antony Davies & James Harrigan: Balancing gun rights, preventing harm | TribLIVE.com
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Antony Davies & James Harrigan: Balancing gun rights, preventing harm

Antony Davies and James Harrigan
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Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang broke down in tears last week while discussing gun violence at a town hall in Iowa. Elizabeth Warren announced that she intends to reduce gun violence in this country by 80%. Her plan includes background checks (these are already required), revoking gun licenses for gun dealers who break the law (this is already the law), and investigating the NRA (not sure what that’s supposed to do). As the U.S. gun homicide rate has fallen by 50% since 1993, and the non-fatal gun crime rate has fallen by more than 80%, Warren’s actual plan may simply be to jump in front of a parade that’s already well underway.

Closer to home, Gov. Tom Wolf wants to mandate universal background checks on all gun purchases. Firearms dealers are already required to perform background checks. In Pennsylvania, private sales of handguns must go through a firearms dealer, and so are also subject to background checks. “Universal” sounds like a sweeping change, but what Wolf really means is that the state should require background checks for private sales of long arms, as that’s the only type of gun sale for which background checks aren’t already required.

Yang, Wolf and Warren are using gun violence as a means of signaling to voters that their hearts are in the right place. But none of this, from shedding tears to investigating the NRA, is more than window dressing. Even one gun death should be cause for concern, and those who are more interested in meaningful change than in photo-ops should do two things.

The first is to communicate clearly. Almost every discussion of gun control screeches to a halt when someone says “assault weapon” or confuses “semi-automatic” with “machine gun.” Pro-control people believe that pro-gun people deliberately obfuscate the conversation by splitting hairs over esoteric definitions. Calling a “magazine” a “clip” doesn’t change the fact that the device once held a bullet (“round”) that killed someone. We should be focusing on the killing, not the nomenclature. Conversely, pro-gun people believe that pro-control people deliberately use vague terminology so they can expand their proposed ban to all guns everywhere.

But, words are the building blocks of laws. If laws are to achieve what we intend them to achieve, it’s necessary that we get the words right. And here, politicians and the media bear much of the blame. To inflame passions, they blithely repeat terms like “assault weapon,” knowing that the term has no clear meaning. If pro-control people hope to get any support from pro-gun people on reasonable gun laws, the first step lies in getting the terminology right so we know what we’re talking about. It’s not that hard. Ten minutes with Google should suffice.

The second is to assume good will. There are whack-jobs on the left who want to ban all guns, and there are whack-jobs on the right who want everyone to open carry. Though they get the lion’s share of the press, they are thankfully few in number. The large majority of both pro-control and pro-gun voters are reasonable people. Each side needs to approach the other not as adversaries but as partners in hashing out how we can balance people’s rights to defend themselves with the need to prevent people from harming others.

Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast Words and Numbers.

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