At Monday night’s presidential debate, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who is the National Rifle Association’s candidate, talked a lot about the fact that people are using guns to kill other people in America. Trump emphasized in particular the violence in the streets of Chicago which is, as he points out, President Obama’s hometown.
Neither candidate had a meaningful, workable and constitutional solution to the problem of gun violence, but that they wanted to bluster as if they did.
Clinton declared that “we’ve got to get guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. The gun epidemic is the leading cause of death of young African-American men, more than the next nine causes put together. So…we have to tackle the plague of gun violence.”
She also declared later that “Too many young African-American and Latino men ended up in jail for nonviolent offenses,” but she seemed unaware that merely possessing a gun when one is legally prohibited from doing so is, in and of itself, a nonviolent offense, though it’s an offense she wants to crack down on.
Using the new language that avoids mentioning “gun control” in favor of “commonsense gun safety measures,” Clinton said that she wants to, through unspecified means, get “military-style” weapons off the streets (though they are used in a vanishingly small percentage of gun crimes). And she said we “need comprehensive background checks, and we need to keep guns out of the hands of those who will do harm.”
We already have federal laws requiring background checks of buyers of guns sold by licensed firearms dealers, so what Clinton is asking for is something like “universal background checks” in which every private firearm sale also would require a background check of the purchaser. Usually in such proposals, a licensed dealer would serve as a middleman of sorts.
Given the wide range of Americans who by law should be prevented from buying a gun via such background checks, such laws would, if stringently enforced, almost certainly cause more “young African-American and Latino men” to end up in jail “for nonviolent offenses” than it would keep guns from “those who will do harm.”
Trump tried to say the same thing about the president’s power over gun violence but in language that sounded somehow tougher, calling on the old right-wing shibboleth of “law and order.”
He openly called for a return to the discredited, legally and empirically, policy of just stopping people randomly on the streets to see if they have a gun on them and trying to take it away.
“We have to be strong, we have to be vigilant,” Trump said, expressing his opinion as if it is policy without bothering to note that city police practices are not in the hands of business or the president of the federal government.
It’s a bitter delight to see the NRA’s man loudly proclaiming that being suspected of carrying a weapon in public is something that should leave you liable to being harassed by a cop and having to prove you are not a “bad [person] who shouldn’t have them.” That Trump’s first, easy and certain response to this perceived crisis of violence is an instant abandonment of core constitutional liberties like the 4th amendment should be disquieting, but it’s not that we didn’t already know.
Nor should it be a surprise that the two candidates are hand-in-hand in selling the lie that the president has or ought to have the power to prevent gun violence in city streets. We should remember the context that, despite a disquieting rise in certain cities in the past year or so we saw as of 2015 the sixth lowest homicide rate of the last half-century.
Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine, where this column was posted, and author of Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired (Broadside Books).
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