It's a favorite observation around here, one uttered many years ago by Nobel laureate and free marketeer Milton Friedman: "One of the great mistakes is to judge polices and programs by their intentions rather than their results."
If more people in American politics understood that, we'd get further along as a nation.
Once again, a Democrat is in the White House, which he won fairly in the last contest. (When can we stop saying that? Tomorrow? Yesterday?) And once again, the gun debate is back.
For its part, our friends on the right are buying out all stocks of ammo at the outdoor stores. As if the upteenth time that conservatives are voted out of the majority in D.C. means that this time the government really is coming for their guns.
The all-American tradition of listening to conspiracies and believing that a cabal is intriguing to take away our rights is fully alive. And has been since before there was a U.S. government.
Our friends on the left aren't helping.
This past week, on the anniversary of the Parkland shooting in Florida, the new president gave the same speech that's been given on this subject many times. See if you can tell the difference between these statements and anything that Barack Obama or Bill Clinton said on the subject in their presidential terms:
"We owe it to all those we've lost and to all those left behind to grieve to make a change. The time to act is now."
"This administration will not wait for the next mass shooting to heed that call."
"We will take action to end our epidemic of gun violence and make our schools and communities safer."
Okay. But again, we'd rather judge any policies about gun violence in America on their results, not their intentions.
We can start the debate by calming it: We imagine there are very few people on the right who are military survivalists hiding flame-throwers and light anti-tank weapons in their basements, waiting for the day to fight the government. And we imagine there are very few people on the left who'd like to confiscate all American firearms. (But probably more on the left. We hear that LAWs are expensive.)
We can also safely assume that everybody in this debate shares a common goal: To have fewer, actually zero, illegal shootings and murders and gun-related accidents. And to have fewer, actually zero, school shootings. So if we can all agree to that, how about policies that can be judged by their results?
Getting rid of "assault rifles," air quotes included, is a policy that can only be judged by intentions. Because the results are minimal. A deer rifle shoots just as fast. Take away all the guns in all the gunshops that have straps and muzzle suppressors and are painted black, and the next mass shooting could be executed, literally, with a brown rifle with a wooden stock.
For those who'd change the law to target other firearms, good luck. It would take years. And should that intention actually produce results--that is, if a strict gun-control law could be passed--it would certainly take years to get through the courts, and decades or more to get the guns off the streets. All the while, gun violence will take thousands more.
What can Americans, and their government, do to get results in this matter?
Red-flag laws are easy, at least compared to other proposed laws in the gun control debate. A survey from 2018 found that 85 percent of Americans supported laws that would allow the authorities to (temporarily) take away guns from people who have been found--by a judge in good standing--to be a danger to themselves or others.
When Dianne Feinstein and Marco Rubio are on the same page on this, it is remarkable. Red-flag laws might lead to results.
Universal background checks are also supported by most Americans. If most people don't mind instant background checks at Bass Pro Shop, then they'd allow for the same exact check at a fairground gun show.
As far as making schools safer, which should be everybody's goal, we'd make them less inviting to the crazies. Harden them.
After several school shootings in the 1990s, we editorialized about putting fences around schools and locking all doors on campus. We received letters to the editor, accusing us of wanting to turn schools into prisons. Locks on doors? How could you? Nowadays, any parent walking into a school building that doesn't have locks would call immediately for the superintendent.
And we'd put more cops in schools. Official cops, with badges and handcuffs and pistols at their sides. If having a police presence at football games on Friday nights is obvious, expected and irrefutable, then why not have the same presence on Tuesday mornings during math class? We've never heard the argument that having armed police at ball games made the crowd uncomfortable.
Yet some would argue that "more guns on campus," even in the hands of police, would somehow psychologically harm students. Nonsense. It doesn't happen on university campuses, which have whole police forces.
If we have to have this debate every four or eight years, we don't mind having it. But let's try to find ways to get the results we all want. Excising the Second Amendment, confiscating guns, banning cool-looking ones, and generally flailing away at ideas that can't be implemented without a magic wand can only be judged by intentions. And that's not good enough.