By Alex Keena
In the wake of dozens of mass shootings in the past month, gun violence has once again dominated the national conversation.
Democrats have repeated their calls for increased restrictions on access to firearms, such as banning assault weapons, while many Republicans are opposing such measures, arguing instead that mass shootings stem from mental health issues.
Although there are some signs that lawmakers in Congress are negotiating a bipartisan solution to the problem, in the past similar gestures have been fruitless. As the two parties have become entrenched in their predictable positions, the cycle of violence continues.
It’s easy to blame Republicans for their absolutist position on gun rights. But Democrats’ unwavering focus on severe gun restrictions is misguided and unlikely to succeed politically.
Simply put, prohibitions often do not work the way they are intended.
Since the 1970s Congress has spent billions of dollars attempting to ban illegal drugs as a solution to the social problems of drug abuse, while ignoring the reasons why people abuse drugs in the first place. Nearly 50 years later, it is clear that this approach has failed and has arguably created more harm than good.
Similarly, in recent years Republicans lawmakers in several states have enacted “fetal heartbeat” bills and have subjected providers to criminal or civil penalties, in order to restrict abortion access. Yet these measures don’t address the reasons why women seek abortions, and are consequently unlikely to prevent abortion and instead jeopardize women’s health.
When it comes to policies like drug wars and abortion bans, Democrats appear to recognize the folly of prohibitions. Yet when it comes to gun violence, Democrats are committed to the same faulty logic.
For decades, Democrats have emphasized gun prohibitions the most effective solution to gun violence and have given less attention to the reasons why Americans want guns in the first place. This position reinforces gun rights’ advocates’ claim that Democrats “want to take your guns away” and turns off Republicans and some moderate Democrats.
Because the United States is already most heavily armed country in the world, severe restrictions on the sale of firearms would almost certainly lead to a black market for banned guns—along with more crime and more violence—especially if there is a large population of Americans who want them.
And even if Democrats were able to enact such measures, these laws may not survive judicial scrutiny, given that the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to individual gun ownership in 2008 and has since shifted even further to the right.
Instead, lawmakers should focus on reducing the demand for guns by enacting policies that make incentivize responsible gun ownership and make gun ownership less appealing.
For example, the General Assembly could require that gun owners to carry liability insurance for their firearms, as the city of San Jose, California has done. This would promote responsible practices by gun owners, such as the safe storage of guns when not in use, and it would penalize risky or careless behavior, like stockpiling firearms or carrying them in public.
Congress could also regulate the marketing of firearms to children and young men, and it could pressure Hollywood to stop glamorizing guns in television and film, which would go a long way in making guns less appealing to vulnerable populations.
A demand-side approach to guns is hardly a new idea. And given that many such policies are embraced by gun rights groups, it would be a less politically polarizing approach to gun control.
Of course, these types of policies alone won’t prevent the mass shootings that occurred in Buffalo and Uvalde. Lawmakers should also enact reasonable restrictions on the sale of firearms, such as universal background checks and “reg flag” laws, which are popular with the public. But reducing the demand for guns can help prevent the thousands of other gun deaths that occur each year.
Importantly, these types of policies do not impose an “undue burden” on an individual’s right to obtain firearms. After all, the civil liberties protected by the Constitution are not absolute; each of our freedoms come with a degree of responsibility. Just as the freedom of speech does not entail the right to provoke a riot or to defame another, neither does the freedom to own a gun shield an individual from the consequences of owning a firearm.
A demand-side approach to guns will help make these consequences more apparent to those seeking guns.
Alex Keena, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches political representation.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.