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What Does It Mean to Say That a Gun Law Is Tough?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Perhaps the best that can be said about the New York gun law is that it is a modern updating of the old principle of apotropaic magic.

The state of New York has just passed what has been called the toughest gun control law in the nation, the first such law to go on the books since the Newtown massacre shocked and horrified the nation. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has championed the new law, has virtually dared both other states and the federal government to do something equally tough about gun violence. Tough here is the operative word, as you will notice if you read the various accounts of the new law — and tough definitely describes the attitude that most of America’s liberals wish to adopt in dealing with the mass shooting tragedies that have plagued our nation.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that at least one of Cuomo’s Republican opponents in the New York Assembly has attacked the new law as an example of political opportunism. After the passage of the bill, Senator Greg Ball commented that “We haven't saved any lives tonight, except one: the political life of a governor who wants to be president.” But even if we accept Ball’s uncharitable analysis of Cuomo’s personal motives, the charge of political opportunism simply means that the governor of New York has given the majority of New Yorkers the tough gun law that they wanted.

Yet what exactly does it mean to say that a gun law is tough? Is a tough law more effective in reducing gun violence? Presumably; but those who are currently talking about New York’s tough new gun law don’t yet know whether the new law will have this much-desired effect. It may or may not. Yet uncertainty as to the actual effect of New York’s new law doesn’t appear to detract from its much-ballyhooed toughness. But what exactly makes it so tough? 

If all that is necessary in order to make a gun law tough is that it should kindle the wrath of the National Rifle Association and cause thousands of anxious citizens to run to their local gun shops in order to buy several more guns and a lot more ammunition, then Cuomo’s new law certainly fits the bill. Indeed, in an America in which, increasingly, the entire point of any political cause is to annoy and embitter your political enemies, the new gun law might well be taken as a model to be imitated.

The mass shooter, unlike the ordinary criminal, never for a moment doubts that he will be caught and punished appropriately.

Consider the provision of the law that will make it a criminal misdemeanor in the state of New York for anyone to have in his own home a magazine carriage that contains eight or more bullets. No problem if your magazine contains only seven bullets — that is still permissible within the law. But a little reflection demonstrates that this law can serve only two possible purposes. First, it could force the would-be mass shooter to carry one or two more spare magazines along with him as he sets out on his murder spree. This might pose some small inconvenience, true, but it is a regrettable fact that whatever mental problems mass shooters suffer from, these don’t appear to have any negative effect on their ability to plan ahead. So this provision will have virtually no impact on the crazed shooter — assuming of course that he is a good boy and only buys his magazine cartridges in the state of New York — while it is guaranteed to infuriate those law-abiding citizens of New York who currently own the larger magazines, but who must now, under compulsion of law, either destroy their own property or else sell it out of state — and preferably to a state as far away from New York as possible.

Here again, if a tough gun law is one that riles up perfectly respectable gun owners, New York’s certainly rises to that standard.

Yet not all the provisions of the new law seemed designed merely to provide liberals with the comfort that always comes from vexing your political foes. In particular, there is one provision that would seem to have been added purely to demonstrate the absurdity of getting tough when you have the misfortune of dealing with madmen armed with automatic weapons.

Here I am referring to the so-called Webster provision, named after the small town in New York where two firemen were killed by a man who deliberately started a fire for the purpose of luring firefighters to a place where he could shoot them at will. Presumably the state of New York did not previously lack laws making it a crime to murder first responders merely for doing their difficult job, and I would suspect that prior to the Webster incident even the most liberal New Yorkers did not deal with such transgressions lightly. Yet we are assured that the new law will impose even tougher penalties on those who use guns to shoot at first responders, though most of us would have a hard time conceiving of a punishment to fit this crime that would not fall afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on punishments of the “cruel and unusual” type, such as drawing and quartering or tossing to underfed crocodiles.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with the Webster provision. It aspires to be an example of closing the barn door after the cows have gotten loose, but it fails to achieve even that much. That is to say, it is reasonable to pass a law that would have been an effective deterrent if only it had been in place prior to the shooting episode in Webster. Obviously the passage of such a law would not bring back the dead firefighters, but it would still have the consoling value of being an effective deterrent if the same situation were to happen again. But if the Webster provision had been passed a year ago, there is absolutely no reason to think that it would have deterred the demented gunman/arsonist who, after killing two firefighters and injuring two more, finally turned his gun on himself. The Webster provision isn’t a case of closing the barn door after the cows are gone. It is a case of trying to use a mere barn door to contain a herd of stampeding elephants.

It is hard to be at the mercy of the next madman and harder still to recognize that there is virtually nothing we can do about it.

The mass shooter is like the stampeding elephant. The normal restraints and sanctions don’t work, just as normal barn doors don’t. Indeed, can any deterrent threat have the slightest effect on the mass shooter, who, by definition, is committed to randomly murdering people in a public space from which he has virtually no realistic chance of escaping unnoticed? The mass shooter, unlike the ordinary criminal, never for a moment doubts that he will be caught and punished appropriately. On the contrary, he expects to be caught, which is why so many gunmen end their shooting sprees by putting the final bullet through their own heads, as happened in both Newtown and Webster. This means that the normal methods of deterrence that decent people have traditionally relied upon in order to prevent crime are of no avail in dealing with the mass shooter, any more than the threat of a death sentence can stop a suicide bomber.

When it comes to dealing with suicidal terrorists, whether they are wearing bombs or carrying assault rifles, civilized men and women are at a total loss — a fact made familiar to us ever since September 11. It is hard to be at the mercy of the next madman and harder still to recognize that there is virtually nothing we can do about it. And if this is hard for human beings in general, it is especially hard for Americans, who have always been known as a people who believe in tackling their problems, finding solutions to challenges, and dealing with their crises. A people who eliminated a dreaded disease like polio in a single generation, as Americans did, will have little patience when they are told that there is nothing they can do to prevent another Webster or Newtown tragedy. And that is why so many Americans are clamoring today to get tough on guns, not because getting tough will solve the problem, but because it will make them think that at least they are doing something about it.

Perhaps the best that can be said about the New York gun law is that it is a modern updating of the old principle of apotropaic magic. Our less enlightened ancestors wore bells in order to chase away devils, or amulets to help them escape the evil eye — the Greek words from which we derive the term apotropaic mean to turn away, and all apotropaic magic is designed to provide us with the illusion that we can take positive measures to avert the inevitable.

Nowadays the practice of apotropaic magic has dwindled down to the occasional knock on wood, except during those times of stress and confusion — like those we are living through now — when politicians decide to get together and pass tough laws. The difference between these two forms of apotropaic magic is that we can be certain that one of them, namely, the knocking on wood, will not do us or anyone else any harm. It is a pity that the same thing can’t be said of tough laws.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories,” “Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, and the End of History,” and “Obama and Second Chances.” Timothy P. Carney says “Newtown Stirred Emotions but Offered Few Lessons.” Christina Hoff Sommers contributes “Our Sociopaths, Ourselves.” Jonah Goldberg discusses “Biden's Faulty Lifeguard Logic.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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