The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.

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The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Guns and the Deep Blue

Gun control is one issue that has reached the absurd point where the people on each side are speaking only amongst themselves. Part of the problem is that each side is unwilling to recognize that the role of guns is very different in rural areas compared to urban areas.

To see the problem, let's look at the deepest blue regions in the country. Instead of looking by state (which is very misleading; much of California by area is red, while there are deep blue pockets throughout the South.) Let's take a few representative areas:

Massachusetts (62% for Kerry), Rhode Island (59% for Kerry), New York City (72% for Kerry), Los Angeles County, CA (63% for Kerry), San Francisco City&County, CA (83% for Kerry), Alameda County, CA (75% for Kerry), Contra Costa County, CA (62% for Kerry), Marin County, CA (74% for Kerry), San Mateo County, CA (70% for Kerry), Santa Clara County, CA (64% for Kerry), Santa Cruz County, CA (73% for Kerry), Monterey County, CA (60% for Kerry), Sonoma County, CA (67% for Kerry), Napa County, CA (60% for Kerry), Washington, DC (90% for Kerry), and Cook County, IL (59% for Kerry).

The first thing you'd have to note is that these areas are geographically tiny; if you shaded them blue on a map you'd have to look hard to notice that anything (outside California) was even shaded.

The second thing you'd have to notice is that these areas have an enormous population density. All told, the above geographical smidge is the home of some 38,481,933 people. That's about the same as the populations of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas combined.

What does this mean? It means that residents of the deep blue don't generally think about rabid wild animals as a serious concern--they have urban animal-control departments to deal with such problems. Their police protection is typically a civic police department that's close at hand, not a small, underfunded rural sherrif's department patrolling a huge area. While crime is certainly a serious problem in the deep blue, isolation isn't a factor in it.

By the same token, rural folks don't usually stop to think through the implications of having more people than live in the state of Virginia jammed into Los Angeles County (and roughly the population of Alabama living in the city proper). In Los Angeles, 118 people were treated at one hospital in Los Angeles in the years 1985-1992 for injuries due to falling bullets--that is, bullets fired into the air to celebrate holidays falling again and hitting people. 38 of those people died. A bullet fired completely at random in an area like Los Angeles has a really, really good chance of hitting someone by blind chance. A gun in the hands of someone who can't hit a target in Los Angeles is a terrifying thing.

Can we have a middle ground here? No-one in their right minds would advocate keeping rural residents from owning guns---they need them to protect their families and (in the case of farmers) livestock from feral animals and from criminals. By the same token, completely unregulated gun ownership in major cities is a recipe for disaster.

The path forward might come from the first thirteen words of the second amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." Militias were a sort of military equivalent to the volunteer fire departments that one frequently finds in rural areas. In a militia, most male residents of an area were required to provide themselves with a firearm, register for the local militia, and drill periodically. They weren't out of the control of the government--they were part of it. A hothead could be "drummed out" of the militia (for brandishing his weapon during a bar brawl, for example).

What would the modern equivalent of that be? Local governments could issue firearms licenses (that would be the equivalent of militia membership). Those licenses could be revoked permanently with cause (that would be the equivalent of being "drummed out"). The licenses could require a certain degree of marksmanship and gun safety knowlege (that would be the equivalent of the drills that were required.) If we want to preserve the fundamentally local quality of the old militias, we could require that the local registration files not be centralized beyond the state level (that should answer the usual worries of conservatives that the licenses would serve as a prelude to seizing weapons). That would also allow different regions to regulate weapons in a manner appropriate to local conditions (you'd want tighter controls in LA County than would be necessary in Alpine county, for example).

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