The Illogic of a Passionate President

obama-spockPresident Obama has finally taken action on gun violence. Billed as one of the most cerebral presidents in history – jokingly compared to Spock on more than one occasion – he has apparently gotten in touch with his human half. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and numerous other news outlets ran photos of an emotional president fed up with gun violence and ready to take action. The problem is not that we should doubt the sincerity of his emotions, but that we should question the logic of his actions. Here are five reasons why the president’s actions on gun violence frustrates his critics on both the left and right.

1. The President says he has nothing to gain politically from taking action but is taking the stand out of principle. The flip side of this statement is that when he did have something to lose politically by taking a stand, he did nothing. The Democrats controlled Congress during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. They could have passed any law they wanted. They didn’t. And they didn’t because it would have been politically costly. The President waited until now precisely because it costs him nothing. He’s also trying to take the issue off the table to protect Hillary, who can’t take a strong stance without hurting her support in the South during the general election, but needs coverage from a more liberal senator from Vermont during the primary.

2. Supporters of the president’s actions continually cite polls in favor of more gun control as justification for executive action. The president maintains that in light of these polls, and since Congress won’t act, he will. The problem is that our government doesn’t work that way, and it’s a dangerous precedent to set. The Republican majority Congress is the duly-elected representative body of the American people. If the people dislike like inaction from Congress, they can vote in another Congress.

Bypassing an elected legislature in the “name of the people” is dangerous. If the president takes it upon himself to divine the will of the people from polls and bypass the representative branch of government then the charges of monarchy, in the technical sense of the word, ring true. Think of the danger if the next president, citing those same public opinion polls, decides to unilaterally make policy regarding Muslims in America, gay marriage, or abortion. People feel strongly about these issues, and that’s why deliberation and discourse are important. The Founder’s feared that demagoguery and abuse of executive power would result in one man substituting his will for the will of an elected legislature. That’s probably in one of our founding documents somewhere….

3. Screening people for mental health issues is a good idea, but fraught with problems. We know that the vast majority of mass shooters suffer from some sort of mental illness, so it makes sense to keep guns out of the hands of these disturbed individuals. The problem is that many of these folks are good at masking their illness. Those who are designated as mentally ill often show no violent tendencies. And those who are ill and violent can still find ways to get guns, such as stealing them from a family member, having someone else purchase them, or purchasing them on the black market. Yes, all three of those approaches are illegal, but we aren’t talking about rational people here.

One proposal is to allow the use of Social Security data to help identify people who should be prohibited from purchasing guns. Though the process isn’t clear, a person’s medical records could be used as part of a background check that looks for evidence of payment for mental health treatment. Since voting rights advocates always worry about a “chilling effect” on election turnout anytime a person is asked to register to vote, should we be concerned about a chilling effect on mental health treatment? If I know I might lose my right to purchase a handgun, do I seek treatment for depression, or anger, or anxiety? Does treatment put my current possession of a handgun at risk? And if I fail to seek treatment, does that have unintended consequences for society as well?

Considering mental health is a good step towards curbing gun violence because it speaks to the real problem (disturbed individuals rather than guns) but it needs to be a policy developed by experts with inputs from the public. We have a Congress for such purposes, and the American people can vote one in to take action if they feel strongly on the subject.

4. Efforts to regulate the sale and transfer of guns is largely symbolic. Criminals aren’t going to get dealer licenses or submit to background checks. In many cases, the perpetrators of mass shootings weren’t the people who actually purchased the weapons they used. Imposing more regulations impacts the honest, law abiding individuals who buy and sell guns for fun and profit. Contrary to internet lore, you cannot buy or sell a gun in the internet without undergoing a background check, or working through a federally licensed dealer. I’ve been through that process twice (like everything else, guns are often cheaper online).

The idea of regulating individual sales is silly. The president’s dictum that anyone selling more than two guns or who sells guns in the original packaging might be considered a dealer (and prosecuted for not having a license) is nothing more than a threat. Anybody who sells anything on Ebay knows that selling in the original packing, whether new or used, helps to sell the item faster and generates a higher price.  The same is true for guns.  And like people who sell laptops or smartphones on Ebay, gun sellers are often looking to try out and trade up guns as part of their hobby, and buying and selling is part of the fun.

5. The left would like to live in a world with no guns. I’d like to live in a world with no violence. Recent statistics indicate that about 1% of all deaths in the US are gun related. Sadly, about two out of three of those is a suicide, and most of the remaining are crime related. Focusing on suicide prevention, depression and anger management, and understanding the root causes of criminal action seem more important than ever. The reality is that your chances of being killed in a car wreck or drowning are ten times higher than being killed in a gun related incident. And while the old canard that gun owners are more likely to die from a gun in the house is true, its also a fact that people who skydive are more likely to die in a skydiving accident than those who don’t. It’s a meaningless statistic.

And all those statistics about how the US leads in gun deaths should also be taken in context.  The United States isn’t Australia, England, or Japan. We have borders; we’re not an island nation.  And we have a different, more individualistic culture that often seems to translate into greater aggression – road rage, lawsuits, violent assaults, and disrespectful  behavior in general.  If the Center for Disease Control is going to study gun violence, why don’t they figure out where our sense of decency, honor, and virtue have gone as well, and how to get it back.

The president admits that no single action will be able to stop gun violence, but argues that his efforts are worthwhile if it prevents “one act of evil, one act of violence.” That sort of thinking is wishful, simplistic, and based on emotion rather than logic.

Spock would know better.

7 responses to “The Illogic of a Passionate President”

  1. Greetings….I am a proud graduate of HBU and a proud Democrat and twice proudly voted for President Obama…along with the majority of American citizens. Please tell me if your views in any way reflect the official position of HBU and if so, I will sadly withdraw my long time support for the University. I have a Political Science major from HBU and at one time it was politically correct to take varied political views at the University. (I considered myself a Republican when at HBU, but was willing to consider the various positions of professors and fellow students.)

    Sincerely, Steve Braun, Student Senate President, 1980; President’s Award sole male receipent, 1980; Meritorious Alumus Award 1993, Alumni Board Chair 2009, Founding Chair HBU Basketball Tip Off Club 2013.

    • Steve – Thanks for reading and replying. All of the blog posts reflect nothing more than the opinions of the authors. And as I tell my students, I don’t care whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, I just want you to care about what’s going on in your country! Please drop by next time you are on campus. It would be great to visit with you.


  2. “People with serious mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators,” Gold says. “Evidence demonstrates that mental illness is only weakly associated with violent behavior. People with serious mental illness are responsible for only 3-5 percent of all violence and recent research suggests that they are responsible for only about 1 percent of gun violence.”

    “A number of studies also suggest that stereotypes of “violent madmen” invert on-the-ground realities. Nestor theorizes that serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia actually reduce the risk of violence over time, as the illnesses are in many cases marked by social isolation and withdrawal.43 Brekke et al. illustrate that the risk is exponentially greater that individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness will be assaulted by others, rather than the other way around. Their extensive surveys of police incident reports demonstrate that, far from posing threats to others, people diagnosed with schizophrenia have victimization rates 65% to 130% higher than those of the general public.44 Similarly, a meta-analysis by Choe et al. of published studies comparing perpetuation of violence with violent victimization by and against persons with mental illness concludes that “victimization is a greater public health concern than perpetration.”33(p153) Media reports sound similar themes: a 2013 investigation by the Portland Press Herald found that “at least half” of persons shot and killed by police in Maine suffered from diagnosable mental illness.45–48”

    Please do not continue to perpetuate the myth that mental illnesses cause violence. This is harmful both to those who suffer from mental illness and to the goal of reducing violence (gun related or otherwise) in our country.

  3. The President’s parting appeal in a weak argument–“worthwhile if it prevents one act of evil”–may actually be its weakest. Obamacare has no doubt cost lives. Abortion has cost millions of lives. And the harboring of non-citizen criminals in sanctuary cities has cost lives, including the recent murder of a young woman on the streets of San Francisco. But the president demonstrates no interest in acting unilaterally to save these lives. None of these issues further his ideology, or his agenda. But gun control does.

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