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The cynical politics of guns

The days after the mass shooting in Washington last month, and again after shots were fired outside the Capitol last week, I encountered snarled traffic and a prominently placed police car while dropping my kids off at school. A good quarter of those who normally condemn their kids to riding the school bus suddenly joined the ranks of us overprotective parents who chauffeur our children.

For a few days folks were freaked, but without reason.

A school staffer told me she worried that her glass office door would not stop bullets. Being a smart aleck, I had to point out that she showed greater courage each day driving to work. Discounting drunk driving, about 20,000 Americans annually die from auto accidents; 19.4 in school shootings. Yet the same people who won't buckle their seat belts want to turn schools into fortresses. Go figure.

It does figure that ideologues use the drama of mass shootings to promote their own values. On guns and schools, political activists divide into gun-lovers and gun-haters. The gun-lovers, and we have a few here in my new home state of Arkansas, want to arm teachers the way they do in tiny Clarksville. Of course local conditions vary. I've never been to Clarksville, Ark. Maybe arming Clarksville teachers makes sense, but generally, given the normal range of humans and their mood swings, it's hard to see how arming some large percentage of America's 3 million teachers makes anyone safer. As my smart aleck teen (the apple does not fall far from the tree) observed, "If they arm my teachers, I'm afraid I'll be their first target."

Then there are the gun-haters, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the latter positioning himself for a presidential run. In the wake of the Newtown shooting, the billionaire Mr. Bloomberg financed Reducing Gun Violence in America, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Mr. O'Malley blurbed the book, which features a forward by Mayor Bloomberg and 19 chapters by 33 researchers, some funded by Mr. Bloomberg.

Liberal commentators whine endlessly about powerful fat cats when the conservative Koch brothers finance their public policy ideas, but they praise Mayor Bloomberg for underwriting gun control efforts. All carping aside, Reducing Gun Violence in America offers reasonable social science endorsing what to me seem sensible measures such as expanding background checks for gun purchasers, regulating gun dealers and childproofing guns. Yet it in its own way, the volume is every bit as annoying as the gun-loving proposals to arm teachers.

The book's contributors suffer a serious lack of modesty. All have seemingly forgotten that back in the 1980s and 1990s liberal social scientists, perhaps including some of them, declared that conservative laws making it easier to carry guns would make Americans less safe, yet crime fell. In More Guns, Less Crime, John Lott offers statistical evidence that widespread gun ownership deters crime. Like all social science, Mr. Lott's work has its flaws. Given that, I find it interesting that none of the nearly three dozen contributors to Reducing Gun Violence in America took Mr. Lott on. Was that out of arrogance, intellectual cowardice, or fear of turning off the Bloomberg money spigot? My guess is all three.

Second, save for two pages on regulating New York gun dealers, the authors completely overlook the nation's leading success in fighting homicide. In the 1990s, at the very time when social scientists predicted more crime, New York cut its homicide rate by 80 percent and kept it down ever since, a success far more stunning and enduring than anything gun control advocates promise, much less deliver. As Patrick Wolf and I detail in our recent Public Administration Review article, the New York Police Department succeeded mainly by keeping good crime statistics and promoting and demoting police precinct commanders based on their crime fighting rather than their politics or their degrees, something other cities fail to do.

Ideologically, liberal politicians find it easier to bash gun nuts than manage cops. Politically, fighting the NRA can win you a Democratic presidential primary; cutting crime won't.

If gun politics don't make you cynical, then you aren't paying attention.

Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu), a Baltimore native, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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