Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Guns, Immigrants, Path Dependency

It's been a while since I've mentioned economist Ed Lotterman's column in the Pioneer Press. Yes, he's still at it, and last Sunday he wrote something that affirmed one of my suspicions about meaningful change on guns in this country.

I want there to be just about no guns in private hands. That's my vision of the society I want to live in. But I have no idea how we can get there, given our current situation: no thoughts at all on how we could start, given there are over 300 million guns, most of them stockpiled by fewer than 3 percent of the population. Even if we could somehow get rid of the Second Amendment and stop future sales of guns and ammo, how would you deal with all the stuff that's out there?

Ed told me that I'm basically right to despair of a solution, and it's because of a phenomenon called path dependency, which "argues that while there may be many ways to solve some challenge, once you choose one alternative, you constrain future choices."

The example he gives is railroad track design. There's no reason that tracks are 56.5" wide, but once tracks were laid at that gauge, building to that standard became the best (easiest) choice. Our privately run health care system (so-called) is another example of path dependency. Privately owned broadcasters (vs. a government-dominated system like the BBC) are another.

He lists the many "choices" our country made along the way in terms of gun availability, which led us to our current predicament. And while he agrees we are, indeed, in an appalling predicament, he doesn't see a way out of it:

First of all, guns are a "consumer durable." They don't really wear out. You can require tire pressure sensors or rear-facing TV camera on all new cars and after a decade or so, most vehicles in use will have these features — because old cars wear out. Ban the manufacture and sale of gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds or of any firearm using them or with provisions for a bayonet, folding stock, or semiautomatic fire, and decades later there still will be tens of millions of such arms, all fully functional, held by the public.

Yes, you could emulate Australia and pass a law prohibiting ownership of such devices. But after decades of increasingly extreme rhetoric about U.S. government agents coming to take your guns, voluntary compliance would be very poor. Do you then start going door to door in Alabama or Idaho or even Pipestone County, Minn., searching the premises for taboo items? There are constitutional questions with that. And guns and ammunition are easy things to hide.

Radical right warnings that civil war would break out if there was any nation-wide attempt to confiscate certain firearms are overblown. However, the chances that there would be armed resistance and attempts at insurrection are very realistic.

Yes, ban the sale of ammunition or its components and eventually there will be nothing to fire from the banned guns. But the ban would have to apply to virtually all cartridges, because it is possible to salvage powder, primers and bullets from popular hunting calibers and reload the military wannabe ones. Moreover, the most rabid owners already have stocks of thousands of rounds. And 100-year-old cartridges generally fire just fine.
(I still think a major ammunition restriction would have the most effect over the least amount of time, if it could ever be done politically. It would cut down on access the most quickly, because workarounds like the ones Ed lists would be a lot harder to do than just buying more whenever you want.)

The good news, if there is any about path dependency, is that it applies to many other things, not just guns — such as immigration. There are 12 million undocumented people in this country, and the Right can't just wish them away, any more than I can wish away the guns. They also can't eject them without extremely disruptive, rule-of-law-undermining efforts (like the ones Trump implies he'll do), from racial profiling, a la Joe Arpaio, to "Operation Wetback"-type raids and the denial of due process:
...we have in place laws and we have signed treaties providing that illegal immigrants [sic] detained have at least minimal rights to a hearing or other status review before we expel them. That system is already overwhelmed. There is little voter support for appropriating vastly more money to fund its expansion. A recent federal immigration raid picking up 500 people made headlines. We would need 20,000 such raids to catch 10 million people...
He ends with this admonition:
Both gun violence and illegal immigration have taken on enormous symbolism involving great emotional weight for both ends of the political spectrum. This is a detriment to good decision-making.
We can agree on that, for sure.

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