On Gun Violence: Not Nostrums, but Reality

A group of teenagers got off a city bus in Oakland, California, early on February 22, and then proceeded to shoot out the back window, sending glass flying toward the passengers. Hearing the window explode, the driver instinctively hit the brakes, sending some passengers to the floor. Then realizing the bus was under attack, the driver hit the gas trying to get the bus out of harm’s way, but further hurting the passengers on the floor who were pulled to the front of the bus by the force of the deceleration.

There was no altercation between the teenagers and anyone on the bus. They got off the bus and shot five times toward the bus.

For those of you unfamiliar with Oakland, it is vying with Chicago for the title of murder capital of America. The second weekend in January of this year began with four separate gun-spawned homicides. Oakland’s much praised attempt at a cultural resurgence known as First Friday, where the streets bustle at night with arts, crafts, and music, was marred in February — for the first time in seven years — by gun violence. The message to the community is that when you’re out in Oakland, you’re not safe.

Oakland, like Chicago, has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws. Honor student Hadiya Pendleton, whose murder in Chicago made national news when Michelle Obama attended her funeral, was the victim of an alleged getaway driver who was on probation for another gun-related crime. Her 18-year-old alleged shooter had been implicated in numerous murders.

You have to be 21 to buy a handgun in Chicago, or anywhere in California. And, of course, in neither place can you carry a concealed weapon.

In California, there is no registration exception for private sales or gun show sales. All sales have to be registered through a licensed gun dealer. There is an examination, hefty fees for both the registration and the examination, and a waiting period while the potential gun owner’s background is checked by the federal government.

So, if you think tougher gun laws are the answer to a bunch of teens shooting out a city bus for no apparent reason — as if there could be one — you really are just some kind of stupid.

If you live in suburbia and think that you can make your streets safer by putting up more stop signs, you quickly learn what every city manager and traffic engineer already knows: if you put up too many stop signs, motorists simply ignore them. If you make gun ownership and ammunition ownership too difficult, people who currently obey gun laws will just ignore them. What are you going to do — clog an already unworkable criminal justice system with suburbanites who won’t register their guns and will be storing too many rounds of ammunition in their family rooms? In California and many other states, we are releasing convicted felons because our prisons are severely overcrowded.

The wonderful thing about supporting more and more stringent gun control is that you only have to think about the intentions of your policies, not about the logical outcomes. And most people I talk to about gun control have never even so much as fired a weapon. They simply have a vision of strict regulation preventing shootings. So, for those of you who think that prohibition stopped alcohol consumption and had no unintended consequences, here’s some basic information about gun culture.

People who buy guns in gun stores and jump through all the legal hoops currently in place for purchasing guns are not getting into cars to do drive-by shootings. There is a largely middle-class, sophisticated gun culture in this country where people obey the law, and a gun culture on the social periphery that doesn’t. The gun control mentality aims at the second culture by targeting the first. Not a single drive-by will be prevented by any of the newly proposed gun regulations, because the ones currently in place, no matter how strict, already have been repeatedly shown not to work.

Criminals don’t buy guns in gun stores. They buy them in a thriving black market. They own real automatic weapons that are already illegal, not just semi-automatics with fierce cosmetic flourishes that Diane Feinstein can use as props to scare and intimidate the naïve. Generally, people who have purchased guns in gun stores and complied with all the difficult paperwork have no idea how to buy guns on the black market.

But if you make legally acquiring a gun onerous, then you will expand the demand for access to that black market just as prohibition created a demand for access to the speakeasy. People who legally buy and register guns now will simply move into the same commercial arena as the criminals. The unintended consequences of onerous gun legislation will be more illegal guns, not fewer, and a gateway to automatic weapons largely unknown to middle-class gun culture.

We speak of the gun violence in Oakland, Chicago, and other such places. But we all know that gun violence does not permeate all of Oakland or all of Chicago. Drive-by shootings do not occur in the Oakland hills. And the only time a resident of the North Side of Chicago sees a drive-by is when he turns on the evening news. Most gun violence occurs in neighborhoods that are gang-infested. Gun violence is largely, not exclusively, ethnic and racial in this country. It is disproportionately black and brown.

To reduce gun violence, we must have a conversation about the social and economic conditions that give rise to gang culture in the inner city. We need to have an open discussion about the culture of the ghetto that induces young men to throw away their lives and someone else’s before they all have begun to live.

This will be a difficult and wrenching conversation. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan learned when he raised the issue of the culture of poverty, this conversation inevitably will lead to stinging and mindless accusations of racism. But, if we are truly concerned about stemming gun violence, this is the conversation we must have.

In the meantime, the nostrums of gun control will have unintended consequences that will only perpetuate a black market in guns, criminalize otherwise law-abiding citizens, and open a gateway to the acquisition of real assault rifles.  Of course, for liberals bent on feel-good solutions to complex problems, these are the “solutions” that will be forced upon us. Meanwhile, the next Hadiya Pendleton will only be an uncompromised drive-by away from the trigger pulled by another teenager on a gun that is already illegal.