Any new gun control would need to address norms, as well as laws

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
February 23, 2018

After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the national argument about gun control seems to have taken a new turn. The National Rifle Association and its political allies seem to be on the defensive. Pro-gun politicians such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) are proposing modest measures such as increasing the minimum age to buy firearms, in the hope of turning back the tide. However, even gun control advocates worry about how effective strong laws against, say, the sale of semiautomatic weapons would be in a country where there are millions of privately owned firearms.

While this is a valid question, there are reasons to think strong gun control laws might have consequences even where they seem ineffective. But laws are not only about enforcement and punishment. They are also about setting the ordinary norms of what people find acceptable and unacceptable in everyday life.

Even laws that look unworkable can sometimes work.

One example of how this can work is anti-smoking laws. Over the past 15 years, countries such as Ireland have introduced general legal bans on smoking in the workplace. This means, for example, smoking was prohibited in pubs in Ireland, where drinking and smoking seemed to go together. On the face of it, this ban seemed unenforceable, as it was unlikely that the police would arrest smokers, and the fine was, in any event, quite small. Irish people are also not noted for their willingness to obey legal rules that seem nonsensical and inconvenient (jaywalking, for example, is nearly universal). However, the ban worked.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post