With the 2024 field of presidential candidates beginning to take shape, Americans can expect political debates to hit a new level of intensity—especially over crime. The issue emerged as a weak spot for Democrats in the 2022 midterms, raising the question of how the party planned to handle it moving forward. Yet despite some scattered pushback, Democrats have not compellingly repudiated the police and criminal-justice reforms that likely contributed to the Republican edge on the crime question. Expect Democrats to pivot to a bread-and-butter theme: gun control, which allows them to shift the blame for crime to conservative gun control opponents.
This approach may have political benefits, but it is not a useful way of looking at crime. Red states’ murder problems are frequently concentrated in their blue cities. At the county level, Democratic-controlled areas suffer higher homicide rates and have seen bigger increases in homicide since 2020. More fundamentally, a mere correlation between partisan leanings and homicides tells us nothing about policy. It’s possible that one party represents constituencies with higher rates of violence, rather than supporting policies that actually cause or enable violence.
But as a policy matter, each side of the debate errs. Convinced that guns are the fundamental root of American violence and that gun control is the way to solve it, progressives too often ignore—or deride as “racist”—proven strategies rooted in good policing and incapacitation of the worst offenders. Conservatives, meantime, know the power of law enforcement to improve cities. But they risk taking an approach to the gun issue that voters may blanch at.
The Left’s focus on guns is understandable. The U.S. is far more violent than similarly well-developed countries (if not such an outlier globally); it has relatively lax gun laws; and most murders here are committed with guns. Nonetheless, there can be much debate over the precise role of legal gun access in our total level of violence, and especially about the potential for a gun-control-first approach to it.
Legal access to guns is part of the violence equation, but it is not the all-encompassing explanation for America’s murder problem. The U.S. is an outlier on non-gun homicide, too: even with all the guns lying around and all the death inflicted with them, Americans manage to kill each other without guns more often than people in most similarly rich countries kill each other in total.
Moreover, rates of violence vary widely across American subpopulations in ways that reflect culture and history far more than they reflect current levels of legal gun ownership. Homicide rates are particularly high among African-Americans and in the South, while non-Hispanic whites in some states, from New York to Wisconsin to Nebraska to Utah, face roughly Canadian-level homicide risk or lower. (That’s not as low as the risk in Western Europe or Japan, but it’s less than a third of the overall U.S. homicide rate—and this in a country with its own gun culture and even a problem with illegal gun smuggling from the U.S.)
Gun-control advocates have decried the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in NYSRPA v. Bruen, which held that the Constitution requires states to issue concealed-carry permits to law-abiding adults as a matter of right. States may still require training and the like, but they may not force applicants to demonstrate a special “need” to carry a gun. Even before the decision came down, left-leaning writers were denouncing it as a contributor to any future crime spikes. But decades of experimentation with giving law-abiding citizens a “right to carry” concealed weapons has had effects on crime that are, at best, subtle and extremely difficult to measure. As those laws loosened through the 1990s and 2000s, crime fell nationwide.
At any rate, marginal gun-control laws (such as background checks on private sales or bans on certain tactical features) are hard to enact, and a drastic reduction in Americans’ access to guns is politically, constitutionally, and practically off the table. America contains more guns than people, and nowhere near enough political support exists for the broad restrictions that would require a constitutional amendment. The guns aren’t going anywhere. As a recent New Republic headline dejectedly put it, “The War on Guns Is Lost.”
Perhaps those who don’t see gun ownership as an important constitutional guarantee of armed self-defense (we do) should think about it in similar terms as alcohol, which the Centers for Disease Control blames for 140,000 deaths per year, close to triple the number of firearm deaths, including suicides—as an ineradicable part of our culture, whatever its downsides, with regulators able to curb the worst aspects but not much beyond that.
We won’t tell gun-control advocates to stop fighting, and they wouldn’t listen if we did. But gun control cannot be the prime focus of our immediate efforts to stop the bloodshed in our cities.
It’s possible to reduce violence in a country with strong gun rights. We know this because the U.S. gun murder rate was at a near-50-year low as recently as 2014—and because the nation saw it fall dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s as the number of guns in circulation rose. The precise mix of causes of the “great crime decline” are hotly debated, of course. But some clearly effective strategies included improved policing and the incarceration of the most dangerous offenders.
Why these approaches work is no great mystery. While gun ownership is widely distributed—increasingly so, with rises among women and racial minorities in recent years—gun violence is intensely concentrated, not just in particular regions and cities (as noted above), but among specific social networks, at specific “hot spots” within neighborhoods, and among individuals with previous criminal records.
Turning away from well-targeted policing and incapacitation while pointing fingers at conservatives’ gun laws is counterproductive. It’s also disingenuous, neglecting the role that enforcement plays in giving effect to any new restrictions added to the statute books should the Democrats suddenly get their way on gun policy. After all, what good are additional (presumably criminal) gun laws when police are actively discouraged from proactively seeking out violators? When “progressive” prosecutors offer large shares of violators diversion or plea deals, resulting in sentences of probation? When decarceration advocates work to make meaningful terms of imprisonment increasingly rare?
Red America’s own approach to these problems, however, isn’t beyond reproach. In our polarized moment, Republicans can be tempted to treat gun policy as a chance to make statements in the culture wars rather than a chance to encourage the safe, healthy exercise of a cherished right. Recent years have seen about half of the U.S. dive with gusto into “permitless carry” regimes, in which no permit or training is legally required to carry a concealed handgun in public. In some states, this privilege extends to 18-year-olds.
The hard evidence on these policies is murky (mirroring the above-noted evidence on “right to carry” laws in general). We’ll be relieved if that is still true ten years from now. But we are concerned both about the wisdom of letting untrained teenagers carry guns and about the difficulties it can pose to law enforcement when gun carriage by such teenagers is presumptively legal and not justification for a stop when an officer notices it.
How about the effects of Bruen, the recent decision from the conservative-dominated Supreme Court? The decision required states to offer law-abiding citizens some way of legally carrying a gun. But it also laid out a new “history and tradition” test under which, in order to defend gun laws in general, governments must embark on a scavenger hunt for “analogous” laws from the ratification periods of the Second and perhaps Fourteenth Amendments. The implicit assumption is that the gun laws Americans did enact in these periods, which were often merely attempts to disarm disfavored groups, reveal the full scope of what the Constitution allows them to enact.
While the history and tradition of how a right was treated at the time of its codification can help to clarify ambiguities about what the plain meaning of the text would have been at the time it was written, letting the fate of laws turn entirely on whether they have analogues dating back to the late eighteenth century (or mid-nineteenth, depending on whom you ask) seems at odds with the originalist approach.
We doubt the Court will invalidate popular measures such as bans on gun possession by felons, no matter how much these policies differ from gun laws long ago. But the history-and-tradition test will need some fleshing out to make that clear, and meantime some of these laws may suffer defeats in the lower courts. Ultimately, we agree with legal scholars Randy Barnett and Nelson Lund that a different test—perhaps along the lines of an “undue burden” standard—would be a better fit.
Violence is an immensely pressing policy concern in the United States. America’s rates of killings and shootings have never been anything to brag about, and they’ve risen in recent years. It’s time to have a productive discussion about reasonable policy solutions—one that dispenses with partisan finger-pointing.