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In the War on Guns, Let's Not Repeat History | The Nation

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In the War on Guns, Let's Not Repeat History

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(Reuters Photo/John Gress)

About the Author

Inimai M. Chettiar
Inimai M. Chettiar is the Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The...

Two weeks after President Obama announced his plan to reduce gun violence—and a month and a half after the horrible tragedy that inspired it—the latest headline about Obama and guns centers on his own relationship with them. In a recent interview with The New Republic, the president expressed “profound respect” for hunting and even offered that he goes “skeet shooting all the time”—a revelation that was widely reported and said to raise “questions” and “eyebrows” by the likes of CNN. But more important than the president’s personal views on hunters or how often he shoots at clay disks is the question of what effects his policies will have if implemented.

Many Americans are heartened by President Obama’s commitment to gun control and are understandably eager to see him do something sane and rational about guns. But Obama, Vice President Biden, and other champions of the War on Guns have valuable lessons to learn from another battle: the War on Drugs. Criminal lawmaking is especially susceptible to good intentions with dangerous and unintended consequences. When we seek to solve social problems we have a responsibility to make sure our chosen solution actually works.

The career of Vice President Biden, who was charged to lead the president’s gun control initiative—is a useful example of the pitfalls of liberal good intentions. In the midst of the national panic over the crack wave of the 1980s, he co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which, notoriously, created punishments for crack cocaine 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. (As the Heritage Foundation notes, Biden pushed for this ratio despite a saner view from, of all places, the Reagan administration.) The disproportionate racial impact is well known, and it would take decades before the Obama administration, with the Fair Sentencing Act, addressed the disparity.

Over time, heated fear has given way to cold facts and the country has had to face a hard truth. We have spent $1 trillion dollars to incarcerate more of our people than any other country, yet we are no closer to solving our drug problem. These laws did not reduce drug abuse or drug trafficking, and they engrained racial inequality into the justice system. The crack “epidemic” is long gone, but the war on drugs wages on in the lives of millions of incarcerated young African-American men.

The United States fell on its face in its war on drugs because it let an animalistic reaction to fear take over policymaking. It abandoned facts and science. Though Newtown has traumatized us all, we should think through the consequences of proposals before acting. Gun laws passed today to stop tomorrow’s suburban school shooter may well end up incarcerating more generations of young inner-city black men.

From Biden to Barbara Boxer, Democrats are yet again leading the way toward more mass incarceration by falling back on tried-and-failed policies. Some have resurrected the War on Drugs’ cries for “mandatory minimums.” Yet research shows longer prison sentences increase unjust racial disparities while doing little to reduce crime or violence.

They have also revived calls for increased policing. While more “school resources officers” looks good on paper, it really means more armed police in schools. Cities with cops in schools have seen more arrests of teenagers for scuffles over whose Jordans are cooler—without stemming gun violence. Obama’s plan to give $4 billion in federal funds to law enforcement without providing guidelines will not guarantee reduced gun violence or crime. Instead, it increases the likelihood that police go after low-level crimes to increase arrest numbers instead of chasing gun shooters.

Let’s not forget that the NYPD offered its highly controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy as a way to take illegal guns off the streets. But the policy has found few guns. Instead, it has found marijuana and hassled young men of color. Let us not make the repeat the same mistakes. Any funding earmarked for law enforcement should always include metrics assessing whether the money has been spent appropriately.

There is no doubt that the nation needs an answer to gun violence and now is the moment to act. But instead of using Band-Aids to heal bullet wounds, we should seek effective solutions. Obama’s proposals to expand health insurance to include mental care and to provide more school counselors are a start. Even better are the proposal’s provisions to gather data. It may come as a surprise that gathering data is not something everyone agrees on. For years, the National Rifle Associate has lobbied Congress to stop funding for research on the causes of gun violence. Such a common-sense solution to a national crisis should not be politicized. The good of the country is served by laws based on science and data—not emotions or politics. Or perhaps the country should consider a more rational interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Whatever our answer to gun violence, let it be an effective one and not one that will allow the ghosts of mistakes past to haunt us. Generations of young black men do not need to suffer through the purgatory of another war on crime.

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