TL;DR: Abolish the death penalty because it has become too cumbersome and expensive to even consider using. So why bloat our gun control laws?
“We believe in nothing, Lebowski.” -Nihilists
The current legislative session underway in Annapolis has focused on two marquee, national-level, attention-grabbing topics. Here’s the rub: they barely matter. They’re nominally about crime, but passing either bill probably won’t prevent any, nor will defeat cause more. And both highlight the limits of what government can actually accomplish via ham-handed legislation.
Capital punishment and gun control are on the docket for the 2013 General Assembly, with the government response to the issues on diverging paths. On the death penalty, Governor O’Malley is leading the charge to simplify Maryland’s thicket of regulation by abolishing it entirely; on the issue of guns, he wants to plant some new government thorn bushes in the path to owning a firearm. 1
Since 1961, 6 people have been executed in Maryland, none since 2005. That’s a shade over an execution a decade. There are five prisoners on death row, with the most recent crime committed over twenty-five years ago. Twenty five. The role of the death penalty in deterrence is a shaky thing, and most often in the eye of the beholder: crime rates are so variable, and subject to so many factors, that most studies seem to end up where they want to. 2
The best death penalty, like most coercive means of modifying behavior, is the one never used. Under that philosophy, Maryland has developed one of the most restrictive death penalties in the country- and one of the most expensive. A former Maryland prosecutor is quoted as saying, “I’m not morally, religiously or legally against the death penalty,” he said. “It’s on grounds of practicality. It becomes ridiculous and ludicrous after 30 years. If they’re not going to impose the death penalty, why have it on the books?”
So, in essence, Maryland is moving to remove an obsolete and rarely used law from its books, with the stated aim of reappropriating savings to victim’s groups.
Maryland’s new proposed gun laws add some tougher restrictions to current tough law, like a fingerprinting requirement. But access to those fingerprints is likely to be problematic- for instance, I doubt they would be folded into criminal databases, as they’re not of, you know, criminals. It’s a bureaucratic requirement that will likely, quite literally, do nothing. No crime will be solved. The law also bans (state-defined) assault weapons and high capacity magazines, moves that restrict the restrictive- Maryland already bans magazines of 20 or more rounds, as well as “assault pistols”. We’re in a semantic and numbers game.
The best examination of U.S. gun control was written just before the Sandy Hook shootings. In it, Jeffrey Goldberg basically points out that with 300 million weapons already in circulation, attempts at gun control are nothing more than that. Attempts to solve the insolvable.
We cannot legislate guns out of existence. Adding layers of bureaucracy to an already restrictive process does nothing- it will play well in the spotlight of immediacy, but solve no problem while introducing a host of unintended costs and consequences.
Is more legislation, more bureaucracy, the answer?
I spoke to someone who purchased an AR-15 in Maryland. He wanted it, basically, because he heard on the news he couldn’t have it, not for any good purpose. He also wanted a thirty round magazine, basically, because that’s what the news said he couldn’t have, not for any good purpose. The magazine he couldn’t buy in Maryland. Instead, he had one shipped to a friend in Virginia and then drove down and picked it up. This is all perfectly legal, and the weapon now legally in his home will remain so no matter what happens with the legislation.
In the case of the death penalty, Maryland legislatures sought to make an inherently morally ambiguous policy (you’re killing people, after all, no matter how “bad” they are) conform to bureaucratic notions of “fairness”. The attempt, like most attempts where the solution is adding more layers to an already difficult process, solved nothing, changed nothing, while adding time, expense, and frustration in the most difficult and important of processes. Regulation will never replace measured thought. You can’t legislate common sense.
When our heart tells us something is wrong- death at the hands of the state, weapons in the hands of the unhinged- what is the responsibility of our legislators? Is government the solution? 3
There is a tendency among well-meaning politicians to believe that they have to do something. After all, you can’t be caught doing nothing. Sometimes, though, the something leaves you worse off than before. Imagine if instead of just restricting the sale of firearms, legislators simply required licensing, provided at the gun purchaser’s expense. Think about your driver’s license. The state sets the parameters for the licensing and schooling of car operators; the private sector fills the need. I wonder if my AR-15 owning friend would have followed through with his purchase if he had to sit through a course explaining how children of gun owners are far more likely to be killed, with photos. 4
In the case of the death penalty, the best thing for the state to do was simply make a decision. Instead of trying to make it impossible to carry out the death penalty by killing it with expensive bureaucracy, simply end the death penalty. Instead trying to make it impossible to purchase a firearm by reams of do-nothing requirements, simply set common sense safety parameters and put the onus on manufacturers, sellers, and owners to met them.
Neither issue has anything to do with most of the discussion that surrounds them; they are not about crime, or punishment, or mental health. They are about attempts to legislate things we probably already know, or should. And sometimes, like with the death penalty, the simplest solution is the best. The General Assembly should take a cue from itself and realize when law is over-reaching.
- Metaphor extended to limit. ↩
- This Dartmouth study starts off with two great quotes to illustrate this point: “In light of the massive amount of evidence before us, I see no alternative but to conclude that capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of its deterrent effect.” -Justice Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court, Furman v. Georgia, 1972 and “Contrary to the views of some social theorists, I am convinced that the death penalty can be an effective deterrent against specific crimes.” -Richard M. Nixon (March 10, 1973) ↩
- Sequestration is a good example of how prima facie “good” policy (Cut spending!) can be bad. In that case, by design, but the same can happen with the best of intentions. ↩
- This also requires the federal government to finally stop bowing to NRA pressure and start funding gun control studies. ↩