Washington, DC (Canal) – In the wake of the tragic mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, many commentators and politicians are calling for stricter gun control.
Hillary Clinton promises to take administrative action if Congress refuses to expand federal background checks to all gun sales. Likewise, Bernie Sanders is sure to upset some of his constituents when he rolls out his new gun policy in response to this tragedy.
But restricting liberties in the wake of a crisis will only cause more harm. Laws passed in reaction to a crisis often provide the impetus for substantial expansions of state power. There is occasionally some retrenchment afterwards, but the state always remains larger and more powerful than it was before.
After 9/11, the US government launched dramatic assaults on privacy, habeas corpus, and other basic civil liberties. Likewise, the Great Depression enabled erosions of economic liberty that we still live with today, including crony-capitalist boondoggles like the Export-Import Bank and farm subsidies.
We shouldn’t allow tragic mass shootings to provide excuses for expanding government power and restricting individual liberties.
Defending gun rights is often seen as a conservative project, but it shouldn’t be. Many progressives recognize that the criminal justice system unjustly and unfairly harms the poorest and most marginalized in our society. That same criminal justice system is responsible for enforcing gun control, and the results are tragically predictable.
Gun-control advocates want to solve the problems of gun violence, but they forget that the state uses violence to enforce the laws that they advocate.
Dean Spade, an associate professor of law at Seattle University and the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, notes: “When we have a conversation about gun violence that ignores the realities of state violence, it often produces proposals that further marginalize and criminalize people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, and youth.”
Racism is not merely a byproduct of gun control when racist individuals do the enforcing; racism is inherent to gun control in a systemic way.
The United States enacted its first gun-control policies to disarm indigenous people and recently freed slaves. Later laws sought to prevent the Black Panthers from openly carrying firearms.
Recent gun-control initiatives may lack racist intent, but they nevertheless inflict racially disparate consequences. New York implemented its stop-and-frisk policy, which enabled the New York Police Department to harass and profile people of color, in the name of getting weapons off the streets.
There are similar disparities on a national level. Anthony Gregory of the Independent Institute notes that in 2011, “49.6 percent of those sentenced to federal incarceration with a primary offense of firearms violations were black, 20.6 percent were Hispanic, and only 27.5 percent were white.”
Many gun-control laws feature mandatory-minimum sentences. This prevents judges from considering specific circumstances while sentencing, and thus requires disproportionate and unjust prison terms.
Mandatory minimums allow prosecutors to stack charges. Defendants then face decades of imprisonment if convicted, and can be intimidated into accepting plea bargains, rather than exercising their right to trial by jury.
The right to bear arms often comes up as a defense against government power and as a means for the people to cast off oppressive rule. Gun-control laws tend to disarm those who are already most oppressed. Worse, they give the state further pretexts to harass, surveil, and jail marginalized people.
Everyone who cares about liberty, justice, or equality, should be skeptical of calls for harsher gun control.
Nathan Goodman is a Young Voices Advocate and the Lysander Spooner Research Scholar in abolitionist studies at the Center for a Stateless Society. Meg Arnold is a Young Voices Advocate and a writer based in Washington, DC.