In the wake of the Colorado horrors, lots of people want to know why gun control is not on the national agenda, with the usual responses about feckless liberals. While I certainly never hesitate to castigate the invertebracy of progressives, I think that there is a simpler answer:

Violent crime went down.

Crime rates are at lows not seen since the early 1960′s. Even in the era of shrinking police budgets, violent crimes are sharply down from their heights in the 70′s, 80′s, and early 90′s. It makes sense to try to solve the problems you have, not the problems that you used to have. (I should quickly add that this in no way should be taken to undermine Mark’s crime control research agenda, which I think is superb and should be immediately and lavishly funded!)

I think that this really highlights the often-mentioned difference between American progressives and conservatives. Progressives are basically pragmatists, trying to solve public policy problems. Conservatives see everything as a matter of High Principle, even when the principle itself is obscure (e.g. foaming at the mouth about “liberty” in the health care context but not caring one whit about it when it comes to surveillance, state secrets, or other civil liberties). Progressives began to support gun control because it seemed like a useful way to reduce violence. Despite the fantasies swirling around the fever swamps on the Right, there was no conspiracy. Many progressives might not understand or take to gun culture, but they — we — don’t have a problem with it as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

Note how this turns one of traditional calumnies against liberalism on its head. American progressives actually don’t have abstract utopian dreams of how to engineer society. They — we — see a problem and say: okay, how can we fix it? It is conservatives who actually revel in abstractions, whether it was the “activity/inactivity” distinction made famous in the health care cases, or the “free market” that exists nowhere but in the imagination of the Cato Institute, or the “policy of strength” that now animates right-wing foreign policy “thinkers” totally untethered from any actual facts about the world, or even strange fears of same-sex marriage undermining traditional marriage with no notion of how that would actually work.

Of course, sensible gun controls like limiting high-capacity magazines (which might have saved lives in Colorado) or closing gun show loopholes are clearly good policy. But they aren’t as salient because of the reduction in violence.

I wish that conditions warranted caving on all issues. If conservatives have an actual plan to cover the uninsured, and it could actually work, I’m sure progressives would join them. The Right would then abandon their policy. Oh, wait: that already happened.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.