For Americans, the crux of gun control laws has been how to disarm dangerous individuals without disarming the public at large. Ever-present in this quest is the question of how the perception of danger should impact guaranteed freedoms protected within the Bill of Rights.
Not only is such a balancing act difficult as-is, but there are also two additional factors that make it even more challenging: America’s federal government is constitutionally bound by the Second Amendment, and politicians notoriously take advantage of tragedies to pass irrational laws when emotions are at their highest. As President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, once famously remarked:
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
This line of thought is not new to American politics. From the emancipation of enslaved Americans and the organized crime wave of the 1930s to the assassinations of prominent leaders in the 1960s and the attempted assassination of President Reagan in the 1980s, fear has proved a powerful catalyst for appeals about gun control.
Below is an overview of the history behind major gun control laws in the federal government, capturing how we’ve gone from the Founding Fathers’ America of the New World to the United States of the 21st century.
Second Amendment in America’s Bill of Rights: Ratified December 15, 1791
Congress added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States specifically “to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers.” The Second Amendment is the foundational cornerstone of every American’s right to bear arms, stating:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The right to bear arms was second only to the first – the most vital freedoms of religion, speech, the press, the right to assemble and the right to petition government for redress of grievances. Meanwhile, conflicting views have left government and personal interest groups struggling to reconcile technological advances, isolated but significant violent anomalies and the constitutional mandate protecting the natural right to self defense and this most basic aspect of the Bill of Rights.
First and Second Militia Acts of 1792: Passed May 2 and 8, 1792
The U.S. Congress passed the Militia Acts of 1792 less than a year after the Second Amendment’s ratification. The first act’s purpose was “to provide for the National Defence, by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States.” This measure established the need and command structure for a state-based militia. The second act defined conscription parameters for those militias, limiting armed service to “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen” 18 to 45.
Colonial Gun Regulations
Even today, the majority of firearms laws are state-based and vary considerably. While California, Connecticut and New Jersey have the most restrictive laws, Arizona, Vermont and Kentucky have some of the least stringent. For more than a century, the young United States relied primarily on “state” laws:
The earliest came from Virginia, the result of fear of attack by Native Americans. The 1619 law imposed a three-shilling fine on able-bodied men who failed to come armed to church on the Sabbath.
By 1640, slave codes in Virginia prohibited all “free Mulattos and Negroes” from bearing arms. In 1712, South Carolina enacted a similar law.
During this time in Virginia, gun laws for Native Americans were similar to those for white men – as they were not barred from possessing guns (unless they were gathering food on land held by white men). There were, however, prohibitions against providing “Indians” with weapons and ammunition. Native Americans could own weapons, but there were strict regulations on how they could obtain them.
A political writer’s annual Thanksgiving column can be easy to write, or incredibly difficult to put together. It can also be inspiring or banal. The two are probably connected. It’s always a difficult one for me; its quality is a matter of your opinion. But hey, Turkey Day is just around the corner and it’s time to talk about being thankful. Please bear with me.
Yes, like you, I’m grateful for family, friends, neighbors, the absence of bankruptcy or prison time, yada, yada, yada. All in all it’s been a good year for me, and I hope it’s been a good one for you as well.
On the political end … well, I’m grateful for pretty much everything in my life EXCEPT politics.
I can remember a time when political writers used “fatigue” to describe “this too shall pass” events such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
These days, “fatigue” seems to be the one American political constant.
Political campaigns used to start the day after the previous election for candidates and campaign staff, but the rest of us got a break.
Now, every election becomes THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIMES the day after the previous one.
Some of us are tired of waking up every morning wondering what Donald Trump did now.
Some of us are tired of the whole two-and-a-half-year impeachment trail going back to “Russiagate.”
Some of us are tired of year-plus-long presidential clown motorcades full of presidential wannabes, like the 2016 Republican primary field or this cycle’s Democratic pack.
Some of us are worn out from all that and more. And political writers aren’t immune.
Speaking to a crowd of Democratic donors on November 21, former president Barack Obama said “everyone needs to chill out about the candidates, but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind whoever emerges from this process.”
My Thanksgiving advice is to “chill out” entirely over the holiday weekend and set the “ginning up” aside for later.
Yes, we’re really allowed to do that.
We can turn off our televisions, or at least watch something other than “news.”
We can set aside political emails mail for a few days. They’ll wait.
We can talk about sports or movies over our holiday dinners instead of arguing about politics.
For all of which I am indescribably grateful. If it was up to me, politics would play a much smaller part in all our lives, even if that meant I had to find a different line of work.
Annie Karni, Maggie Haberman, and Sheila Kaplan of the New York Timesdescribe US president Donald Trump’s proposed ban on flavored e-cigarette products as “a swift and bold reaction to a growing public health crisis affecting teenagers” that Trump backed away from “under pressure from his political advisers and lobbyists to factor in the potential pushback from his supporters.”
Maybe they’re right about Trump’s motivations, but they’re wrong about pretty much everything else.
E-cigarettes are not a “public health crisis.” That supposed crisis is not “growing.” And to the extent that teenagers are negatively affected by e-cigarettes, the very “bold reactions” the three writers seem to favor are far more culpable than e-cigarettes themselves.
E-cigarettes are, according to all credible evidence, safer than burning sticks of tobacco — sorry, FDA, you don’t get to tell me I can’t say so.
A few cases of lung injury from black market “street vapes” have been reported, the cause (use of vitamin E in the “juice”) seems to have been identified, and that problem is already disappearing in the rear-view mirror.
Who buys “street vapes?” People who can’t buy the e-cigarette products they want legally, either because of content (cannabis) or age (the teenagers the Times authors imply they care about so much).
Banning flavored e-cigarette products wouldn’t stop teenagers, or anyone else, from getting flavored e-cigarette products. It would just send even more of them to the “street vape” market for those products.
If Trump reconsidered his proposed ban due to political pressure and the desire to be re-elected, so what? A good decision is a good decision.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told a group of lobbyists, who were pushing a policy change at him, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and bring pressure on me.”
That’s how politics works. Politicians appease voters and activist groups who can help or harm their careers. Sometimes that works out well for the public, sometimes it works out badly.
In this case it works out well — certainly for the public, and possibly for Trump. Much of the “I Vape and I Vote” demographic presumably falls outside his existing electoral “base,” and for at least some the issue matters enough to swing their votes.
Now Trump’s Democratic opponents need to decide which they value more: Their desire to run everyone’s lives at the expense of actual public health, or that public health and those votes.
Tearing down all barriers to migration isn’t crazy—it’s an opportunity for a global boom.
The world’s nations, especially the world’s richest nations, are missing an enormous chance to do well while doing good. The name of this massive missed opportunity—and the name of my book on the topic—is “open borders.”
Critics of immigration often hyperbolically accuse their opponents of favoring open borders—a world where all nationalities are free to live and work in any nation they like. For most, that’s an unfair label: They want more visas for high-skilled workers, family reunification, or refugees—not the end of immigration restrictions. In my case, however, this accusation is no overstatement. I think that free trade in labor is a massive missed opportunity. Open borders are not only just but the most promising shortcut to global prosperity.
To see the massive missed opportunity of which I speak, consider the migration of a low-skilled Haitian from Port-au-Prince to Miami. In Haiti, he would earn about $1,000 per year. In Miami, he could easily earn $25,000 per year. How is such upward mobility possible? Simply put: Human beings are much more productive in Florida than in Haiti—thanks to better government policies, better management, better technology, and much more. The main reason Haitians suffer in poverty is not because they are from Haiti but because they are in Haiti. If you were stuck in Haiti, you, too, would probably be destitute.
But borders aren’t just a missed opportunity for those stuck on the wrong side on them. If the walls come down, almost everyone benefits because immigrants sell the new wealth they create—and the inhabitants of their new country are their top customers. As long as Haitians remain in Haiti, they produce next to nothing—and therefore do next to nothing to enrich the rest of the world. When they move, their productivity skyrockets—and so does their contribution to their new customers. When you see a Haitian restaurant in Miami, you shouldn’t picture the relocation of a restaurant from Port-au-Prince; you should picture the creation of a restaurant that otherwise would never have existed—not even in Haiti itself.
The central function of existing immigration laws is to prevent this wealth creation from happening—to trap human talent in low-productivity countries. Out of all the destructive economic policies known to man, nothing on Earth is worse. I’m not joking. Standard estimates say open borders would ultimately double humanity’s wealth production. How is this possible? Because immigration sharply increases workers’ productivity—and the world contains many hundreds of millions of would-be immigrants. Multiply a massive gain per person by a massive number of people and you end up with what the economist Michael Clemens calls “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”
Or do we? An old saying warns, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Far lower levels of immigration already inspire vocal complaints. After presenting my basic case in Open Borders, I strive to evaluate all the common (and many not-so-common) objections to immigration. My bottom line: While open borders are undeniably unpopular, they deserve to be popular. Like every social change, immigration has downsides. Yet when we patiently quantify the downsides, the trillions of dollars of gains of open borders dwarf any credible estimate of the harms.
The simplest objection to open borders is logistical: Even the largest countries cannot absorb hundreds of millions of immigrants overnight. True enough, but no reasonable person expects hundreds of millions to come overnight, either. Instead, immigration usually begins slowly and then snowballs. Puerto Ricans have been legally allowed to move to the United States since 1904, but it took almost a century before Puerto Ricans in the United States came to outnumber the population left on the island. Wasn’t the European migration crisis an unmanageable flood of humanity? Hardly. Despite media outcry, total arrivals from 2014 to 2018 came to less than 1 percent of the population of the European Union. Many European countries—most notably West Germany during the Cold War—have swiftly absorbed much larger inflows in the past.
The standard explanation for these asymmetric public reactions is that resistance to immigration is primarily cultural and political, not economic or logistical. While West Germans welcomed millions of East German migrants, a much lower dose of Middle Eastern and African migration has made the whole EU shiver. Aren’t economists who dwell on economic gains just missing the point?
Yes and no. As a matter of political psychology, cultural and political arguments against immigration are indeed persuasive and influential. That does not show, however, that these arguments are correct or decisive. Does immigration really have the negative cultural and political effects critics decry? Even if it did, are there cheaper and more humane remedies than immigration restriction? In any case, what is a prudent price tag to put on these cultural and political effects?
Let’s start with readily measurable cultural and political effects. In the United States, the most common cultural complaint is probably that—in contrast to the days of Ellis Island—today’s immigrants fail to learn English. The real story, though, is that few first-generation immigrants have ever become fluent in adulthood; it’s just too hard. German and Dutch immigrants in the 19th century maintained their stubborn accents and linguistic isolation all their lives; New York’s Yiddish newspapers were a fixture for decades. For their sons and daughters, however, acquiring fluency is child’s play—even for groups like Asians and Hispanics that are often accused of not learning English.
Native-born citizens also frequently worry that immigrants, supposedly lacking Western culture’s deep respect for law and order, will be criminally inclined. At least in the United States, however, this is the reverse of the truth. The incarceration rate of the foreign-born is about a third less than that of the native-born.
What about the greatest crime of all—terrorism? In the United States, non-citizens have indeed committed 88 percent of all terrorist murders. When you think statistically, however, this is 88 percent of a tiny sum. In an average year from 1975 to 2017, terrorists murdered fewer than a hundred people on U.S. soil per year. Less than 1 percent of all deaths are murders, and less than 1 percent of all murders are terrorism-related. Worrying about terrorism really is comparable to worrying about lightning strikes. After you take a few common-sense precautions—do not draw a sword during a thunderstorm—you should just focus on living your life.
The most cogent objection to immigration, though, is that productivity depends on politics—and politics depend on immigration. Native-born citizens of developed countries have a long track record of voting for the policies that made their industries thrive and their countries rich. Who knows how vast numbers of new immigrants would vote? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect people from dysfunctional polities to bring dysfunctional politics with them?
These are fine questions, but the answers are not alarming. At least in the United States, the main political division between the native- and foreign-born is engagement. Even immigrants legally able to vote are markedly less likely than native-born citizens to exercise this right. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, for example, 72 percent of eligible native-born citizens voted versus just 48 percent of eligible immigrants. Wherever they politically stand, then, immigrants’ opinions are relatively inert.
In any case, immigrants’ political opinions don’t actually stand out. On average, they’re a little more economically liberal and a little more socially conservative, and that’s about it. Yes, low-skilled immigrants’ economic liberalism and social conservatism are more pronounced, but their turnout is low; in 2012, only 27 percent of those eligible to vote opted to do so. So while it would not be alarmist to think that immigration will slightly tilt policy in an economically liberal, socially conservative direction, warning that “immigrants will vote to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” is paranoid.
Note, moreover, that free immigration hardly implies automatic citizenship. Welcoming would-be migrants is a clear-cut blessing for them and the world. Granting citizenship is more of a mixed bag. While I am personally happy to have new citizens, I often dwell on the strange fact that the Persian Gulf monarchies are more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of people in Kuwait—and 88 percent in the United Arab Emirates—are foreign-born. Why do the native-born tolerate this? Probably because the Gulf monarchies generously share their oil wealth with citizens—and jealously protect the value of citizenship by making naturalization almost impossible. You do not have to ignore the Gulf monarchies’ occasional mistreatment of immigrants to realize that it is much better to welcome immigrants with conditions than to refuse to admit them at all. Migrants—mostly from much poorer parts of the Islamic world—accept this deal, however unfair, exactly because they can still do far better in the Gulf than at home.
In Open Borders, I have the space to address many more concerns about immigration in more detail. What I can’t do, I confess, is address the unmeasured and the unmeasurable. In real life, however, everyone routinely copes with ambiguous dangers—“unknown unknowns.” How do we cope?
For starters, we remember Chicken Little. When people’s warnings about measured dangers turn out to be wrong or overstated, we rightly discount their warnings about unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers. This is how I see mainstream critics of immigration. Their grasp of the basic facts, especially their neglect of the tremendous gains of moving labor from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries, is too weak to take their so-called vision seriously.
Our other response to unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers, however, is to fall back on existing moral presumptions. Until same-sex marriage was legalized in certain countries, for example, how were we supposed to know its long-term social effects? The honest answer is, “We couldn’t.” But in the absence of strong evidence that these overall social effects would be very bad, a lot of us have now decided to respect individuals’ right to marry whom they like.
This is ultimately how I see the case for open borders. Denying human beings the right to rent an apartment from a willing landlord or accept a job offer from a willing employer is a serious harm. How much would someone have to pay the average American to spend the rest of his or her life in Haiti or Syria? To morally justify such harm, we need a clear and present danger, not gloomy speculation. Yet when we patiently and calmly study immigration, the main thing we observe is: people moving from places where their talent goes to waste to places where they can realize their potential. What we see, in short, is immigrants enriching themselves by enriching the world.
Do I seriously think I am going to convert people to open borders with a short article—or even a full book? No. My immediate goal is more modest: I’d like to convince you that open borders aren’t crazy. While we take draconian regulation of migration for granted, the central goal of this regulation is to trap valuable labor in unproductive regions of the world. This sounds cruel and misguided. Shouldn’t we at least double-check our work to make sure we’re not missing a massive opportunity for ourselves and humanity?
Not all of them. Not every time. But most of them, from both “major” political parties, lie. A lot.
It’s not always easy to tell when they’re lying. It’s not always easy to prove they’re lying. Often, it’s not even easy to tell if they’re just lying to us or to themselves as well.
Some politicians want Facebook to stop politicians from lying. They phrase that desire as a request for Facebook to “fact check” content posted by politicians, especially political advertising.
Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I’m not sure it’s coincidence that the examples politicians offer tend to be drawn from content posted by their political opponents.
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is a notable exception. She asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if Facebook would let her target Republican politicians by running ads falsely accusing them of voting for her “Green New Deal” proposal (Zuckerberg said he couldn’t answer “off the top of his head”).
On the other hand, AOC’s own take seems a bit naive. “So you will take down lies or you won’t take down lies?” she asked Zuckerberg. “I think this is a pretty simple yes or no.”
Let’s use the Green New Deal as an example.
If a Facebook employee has to “fact check” an ad asserting that the proposal would “tank the American economy,” how should that employee evaluate the truth or falsehood of the claim?
What criteria should that employee use for deciding what “tank” means? Is slow economic growth “tanking?” Or would it take a recession or depression to meet the threshold?
Should that employee rely on analyses from the Heritage Foundation? Or perhaps from People for the American Way? Or the Congressional Budget Office? Or the Office of Management and Budget? Four sources, likely four wildly conflicting sets of claims and projections.
For a conflicting ad claiming the Green New Deal would “boost the American economy,” should that employee “fact check” the ad using the same sources as for the original ad, or different sources? Would 1% growth of GDP constitute a boost? If not, what number, applied to what metric, would?
What if both ads fail the “fact check?” Should the public just flip a coin and vote accordingly, since the two sides are forbidden to offer us their takes to evaluate and decide between for ourselves?
Politics consists of conflicting narratives. No two opposing narratives can both be true. In fact, both could be false (Spoiler: Both are probably at least partially false, intentionally or not; personal biases affect politicians’ beliefs, and ours, at least as much as facts do).
The question is not whether politicians’ claims should be fact checked. The question is who should do the checking.
In an even remotely free society, the only answer is “all of us.”
Yes, some of us will fail to accurately distinguish truth from falsehood. Some of us will get things wrong.
That’s better than one centralized “fact checking” operation getting them wrong for all of us.