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As Long as We Remember...

January 25, 2007

Single Shot Isn't the Answer

Tony Soltero

There's a common line of thought in our society in which some believe the best way to deal with a problem is to declare it illegal, and then the problem will go away. The extreme example of this logic came nearly a century ago, with Prohibition.

Alcohol's a problem? Make it a crime! Problem solved! Except it didn't quite work out that way, to say the least; and to its credit our government eventually came to realize this and did away with the ill-conceived Constitutional amendment that established the practice.

To this day the Eighteenth Amendment remains an embarrassing blot of trivial, reactionary mundanity on one of the world's greatest philosophical documents. It's a Garfield cartoon scrawled on a Rembrandt.

This kind of thinking remains with us today, though, in other areas; the most obvious being the War on Drugs, which continues to be a sacred cow and resists new approaches despite 40-plus years of failure. And just as significantly, it pollutes discussion on how our society should deal with firearms. The same logic that was found ineffective, if not counterproductive, in dealing with alcohol is still being applied by some in trying to deal with drugs or guns.

Relevant to this is Senate Bill 43, the General Assembly's latest attempt at banning "assault weapons." The bill is typical of the kind, featuring a long list of specific weapons to be restricted by the State of Maryland; and it's got a fair amount of support in our legislature.

These kinds of anti-gun legislative initiatives are no doubt well-intentioned, an attempt to respond to spiraling crime rates. But that doesn't make them effective, and it doesn't make them right. This kind of bill is simply a feel-good shortcut that will deprive thousands of law-abiding Marylanders of their Constitutional right to bear arms, and do about as much to keep guns out of criminals' hands as anti-drug laws do to keep narcotics out of addicts' hands.

A bill like this is nothing but a punt. The General Assembly makes it appear that it's doing something about crime; but all it's going to accomplish is to drive the gun trade underground - with the concomitant enforcement and implementation nightmares. That's the situation we've got today with narcotics. Is that what we want?

Meanwhile, productive approaches to combating street crime - poverty reduction, community empowerment, elimination of the drug black market through decriminalization - get shunted to the wayside. This bill is nothing but instant-gratification politics.

Now, I've never understood the gun culture myself. Given the choice of doing without a gun or doing without a refrigerator, I'd give up the gun. I don't regard guns as being some sort of validation of manhood or anything like that.

But I don't get to make those decisions for others, and most importantly, an armed population is far better equipped to resist tyrannical advances by its government than an unarmed one. And that's every bit as relevant today as it was when the Constitution was drafted.

Maryland's diversity is also an issue here. Garrett, Frederick, and Baltimore counties are all very different places, and a blanket statewide anti-gun law could never hope to serve the divergent needs of those and other jurisdictions.

That doesn't mean we can't have reasonable gun laws. I'm all for extremely stiff sentences for criminals who use firearms. We need to regulate minors' access to guns as well, just like we do with tobacco, alcohol, and automobiles. And the state would be well advised to invest a few resources on gun safety education.

But banning a particular set of firearms is an unproductive path down a slippery slope that's best not taken.

Brute-force approaches to problems don't usually work; they almost always create secondary problems that often overwhelm the original problem in scope. Senate Bill 43 is an unfortunate example of this kind of brute-force bill, and our General Assembly would be well advised to drop the matter and examine longer-term solutions to the crime problem, up to and including drug decriminalization.

That's a lot more work than a quickie anti-gun bill, but it's a far better bet for reducing crime.

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