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Gun Control Is a Waste of Precious Time

Obama should have saved political capital for the economy

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News

I’m for the strictest gun control—the kind in Great Britain that bans hand guns and automatic and semi-automatic weapons. That kind of gun control would seriously limit armed violence in the United States. But I’m not so sure about the gun control politicking of President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress. They spent weeks, if not months, crusading for legislation that is not going to get through the Republican House and may not, even if the compromise proposed today were miraculously passed by the House and Senate, make a great deal of difference. 

I am not against crusading, and if gun violence were the most serious problem facing the country right now, I would be enthusiastic about the Democrats’ efforts to get the strongest bill practically possible. But things are not hunky-dory here. Unemployment is rising—five years after the Great Recession struck—and the budget sequester will, if anything, make things worse. Theoretically, of course, the Democrats could campaign vigorously for gun control and for a fiscal stimulus, but anyone who has been around Washington for longer than four years knows that administrations can’t get into more than one political fight at a time. My point is that if the administration is going to get into a fight, it should have been over the budget and not gun control.

First of all—and I have made this argument before—turning around the country’s economy is more important to the country’s economic and political future. That goes for gun control’s prospects, too. If the Democrats want to pass tough gun control measures—or address even more far-reaching issues like climate change—they need to win back the House, and they can’t do that with a faltering economy. But I’d also suggest that on the substance of the matter, turning around the economy is as important to ending gun violence as passing the kind of compromise gun control legislation that the Senate might pass, which would leave one important kind of “straw purchases” of guns—and a key source for guns used in crimes—out of its purview.

If you look at the statistics for homicide, the usual offender is not some crazy, alienated kid from Newtown or Aurora. According to sociologist Jennifer Schwartz’s survey, the typical offender is male, has not completed high school, lives in a city and has a previous arrest record. Black males age 18 to 24 have the highest homicide rate of any demographic group. “Taken together,” Schwartz concludes, “the most typical criminal homicide offender is a young black male living in an urban environment.”  Schwartz also recounts one of the most common homicide situations is “male-on-male violence” associated with “honor contests and street violence.”

What these statistics suggest is that the prevalence of homicide in the United States has at least something to do with the perpetuation of an African American underclass in cities like Detroit and Baltimore, where many children grow up in poverty with little hope of gainful employment and who seek self-affirmation, as well as income, in crime and violence. The existence of this underclass, described by William Julius Wilson, is rooted in American social and economic history. It’s not a product of being black, but of being black in America. Here’s a figure that gets at the problem: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in February among whites 16-to-19 years old was 22.1 percent, and among similarly aged blacks was 43.1 percent.  

If you compare the incidence of homicides in the United States with those in other countries, the social and economic underpinnings of American homicide become painfully evident. Those countries that have higher homicide rates than the United States like Colombia, South Africa, or Jamaica are also plagued by glaring inequality and poverty; those societies with much lower rates like Japan and Sweden have relatively homogeneous populations, less inequality, and generous welfare provisions. What distinguishes the United States is the existence of poverty and inequality—and of an underclass—within a highly developed nation.

It would be ridiculous to say that reducing inequality in the United States, and providing much greater opportunity in cities would eliminate homicide as a problem. But it would be equally ridiculous to say that an improvement in the country’s economic fortunes, and the reduction in the wild disparities in income, would have no effect on diminishing the homicide rate. Why, for instance, did the homicide rate in the United States start to decline in the mid-1990s? Some of it had to do with declining access to crack cocaine; but it also had to do with the economic expansion that took place. Gun control is part of the solution to homicide; but so, too, is economic improvement.  

Some proponents of meaningful gun control and of a fiscal stimulus might say that both are politically impossible right now. I would say, then, that a crusade for stimulating the economy—and fighting off cuts to Medicare and Social Security that the Republicans propose—would have been much more politically useful. The administration’s attempts to wring gun control legislation out of Congress may help a Democratic nominee in 2016, but are unlikely to swing votes in the 2014 midterms. The two most vulnerable Democratic senate candidates, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, come from states where gun control is anathema.  

But I would also say that the prospects of meaningful gun control are far worse than those of a fiscal stimulus. America has too much of the Wild West in its past—and in much of the South, Southwest, Rockies, and plains states, guns are much too closely associated with liberty and self-defense. Yes, you could get better background checks at gun shows, but laws like those in Britain, which would ban non-sports weaponry, are simply out of the question. On the other hand, many voters who worry about the government taking away their guns are also worried about cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The Obama administration and the Democratic leadership have been too busy devising gun control compromises to bring these issues to the public’s attention. Worse still, Obama seems intent on compromising with Republican attempts to cut Medicare and Social Security.

In a column for the Daily Beast, former Obama speech writer Jon Favreau blames the lack of concern about sequestration on the “political press.” According to Favreau, it “lost interest in covering the substance of policy debates late last century.” But the press has covered the intricacies of the debate over gun control legislation. It hasn’t covered the debate over sequestration, or sent reporters to gauge the effects of these budget cuts, because the administration and Democratic leadership in Congress hasn’t paid attention to sequestration and hasn’t made a fuss about the cuts. The administration has devoted more energy to denouncing austerity in Europe than in the United States. The president’s budget, due today, will be a clever attempt to limit the actual damage of the cuts, but it does so by acceding to the politics of austerity that the Republicans have promoted.  

I am not saying that the Obama administration should have ignored the massacres in Newtown or Aurora. These events called for speeches and for proposals aimed at curbing gun violence. But political leaders know a way of dramatizing their support for an issue without allowing it to obscure and overshadow their most important priorities. Ronald Reagan was a master at that. Obama would have done well to follow his example. Instead, he permitted the passions of the moment to override what must be his overriding purpose in his second term: to return the country to a hopeful prosperity.