Thursday, January 17, 2013

Political Theater of the Absurd

It was fitting that President Obama's photo op announcement of his planned executive orders and his call for legislation limiting so-called assault weapons took place on the anniversary of the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment. Both efforts reflected a desire to do something, anything to eradicate behavior that was deemed too dangerous for American society. And both efforts are doomed to failure.

While there are reasonable parts of what Obama's executive orders strive to do on mentally disturbed people, most of them will accomplish little.

There is little evidence that passage of an assault weapons ban, even if they could define exactly what an assault weapon is, would do anything to prevent what happened at Newtown. While closing the so-called "gun-show loophole" which is really an effort to regulate the gun sales that are made individual-to-individual sounds very worthwhile, it would mean, as the WSJ points out, making public a whole lot of information about individuals in a way that might make civil libertarians queasy.
Mr. Obama also endorsed universal background checks, including for the 40% of gun sales between private parties. Here too there is a practical problem. Often this exemption is called the "gun show loophole" but most of this activity takes place in homes, over the phone, or via online classified ads. Would the feds impose new data collection and regulations on all gun buyers and sellers? Supposedly Washington can't be trusted to surveil Americans suspected of terrorism, but now it will do so for all gun buyers?
When it comes to his calls for Congress to enact gun control, the real story, as Charles Krauthammer said last night, is that it is the Democrats who will stop such legislation passing. Democrats in red states are just as reluctant to vote for gun control as Republicans. And there are quite a few Democratic senators from red states running for reelection in 2014. If all the Democrats supported such laws, there are enough Republicans from blue states who would join them to pass a ban just as there were 29 Republicans who voted with the Democrats to pass both the fiscal-cliff deal and the Sandy relief bill. If Harry Reid could pass the ban through the Senate with all the Democrats and some of the Republicans, it would get through the House. But he probably can't.

So what did we really get yesterday? We got the president sounding nice and reasonable with his properly ethnically diverse backdrop of concerned children to lend supposed moral weight to his words. But did we really get anything that could have stopped Adam Lanza from massacring children at Newtown? Of course not. But that isn't the real goal. The real goal is to sound as if he was doing something considered and important. That's all that matters.

And just as Prohibition didn't end drinking in the United States, Obama's theater yesterday won't end gun violence. Sadly, no one really knows how to do so within the parameters of our constitutional liberties. And that includes more than just our Second Amendment rights, but also the right of Hollywood producers to show as much bloody violence as they want or for video game manufacturers to keep producing violent games and for mentally disturbed patients who don't make outright threats to have their medical records kept private. We don't know that any violation of those rights would do anything to prevent such massacres or end the more numerous daily criminal violence such as Chicago has seen multiply on its streets. There is evidence on both sides of the argument about movie and video game violence. The last assault weapons ban didn't have a noticeable effect. And his proposal to limit gun magazines that hold more than ten bullets is also not likely to have any real impact given how easy and quick it is possible to change out magazines or to produce bigger magazines on one's own.

We are frustrated because we feel that we should be doing something to end the possibility of children being killed in their classrooms, but tragically, no one knows what that magic solution would be.

And so we're left with theatrical displays such as we saw yesterday that are geared more toward appeasing those who feel that the government should do something, anything in the wake of Newtown whether such actions would have any true efficacy at all. And, of course, to leave the President and his allies with demagogic arguments that they can reel out every election year.