Bernie and Hillary at Twenty Paces

The race for the Democratic nomination for president is starting to get nasty, or what passes for nasty in the Democratic race: Hillary Clinton’s demurral when asked whether Bernie Sanders is qualified to be president was reported as her stating that he is not, and Sanders retorted that Clinton’s votes and past positions on the War in Iraq, gay civil rights, banking reform, and shoulder pads disqualified her from being president.

That’s not enough nasty to move the nasty needle among the Republican candidates, whose discourse has most recently centered on hand/lap size, direct insults, and open blackmail, but different strokes, I guess.

Clearly, neither Bernie nor Hillary ever expected the race to be this close; Hillary neglected to take Bernie seriously for far longer than she should have, and Bernie stuck to his promise not to attack Hillary Clinton personally even longer. But now Bernie’s on a roll: he’s won seven of the last eight states, and he’s within striking distance of Hillary on pledged delegates — the April 19 New York primary is suddenly hugely consequential, as it could not only close that pledged-delegate gap, but could conceivably swing some of Hillary’s superdelegates to him: winning Wyoming this weekend, as he’s expected to, and then New York would bring him to nine in a row, and would seriously undercut the superdelegate assumption that Hillary is the stronger candidate.

So the gloves are off, on both sides: Bernie’s banging the drum hard on Hillary’s big-money special-interest fundraising, and her support for the trade deals recently exposed as totally crooked in the Panama Papers leak, and Hillary is once again pointing to the only issue where she’s truly to the left of Bernie: guns.

In the same interview with the New York Daily News where Sanders’ vague answers about the specific tactics he’d use to pursue the policies at the center of his campaign, prompting the line of questioning that led to Clinton’s refusal to say whether he’s qualified to hold the office, Sanders was asked about a lawsuit brought by the parents of the Sandy Hook victims against the manufacturers of the weapons used in the massacre, and Sanders felt the manufacturers should not be held liable.

“That he would place gun manufacturers’ rights and immunity from liability against the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook is just unimaginable to me,” Clinton said on Morning Joe.

It’s quite a leap to call not prosecuting these gunmakers putting their rights “against the parents” — it makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s a huge, blatant pander to the gun control crowd. I’m part of the gun control crowd, to an extent, but the idea of holding Browning responsible for a murder-suicide makes as much sense as holding Chrysler responsible for a hit-and-run or Louisville Slugger responsible for what happened to Glenn (spoiler alert).

Because here’s the thing: Like it or not, guns are legal. It is legal to make them, it is legal to buy them, it is legal to own them. And as long as that’s true, making manufacturers liable would both misguided and ineffective in stopping gun violence. A gun manufacturer is a nice deep pocket to go after, but they’re not breaking any laws so there’s no kind of justice being served.

Rush Limbaugh and assholes like that like to go on and on about dumb liberal fixes to problems that sound nice and make people feel good but don’t actually make things any better, and this is one of the few examples they could point to where I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. If a person is killed by a gun I am all for the killer being held liable for all he’s worth, but the manufacturer is not the killer, the killer is the killer.

Holding a manufacturer liable wouldn’t just be misguided, it wouldn’t work. The pile of money these companies make selling weapons could be seen from space; a few lawsuits aren’t going to put them out of business. If anything they’re just going to try to sell more guns to make up the losses.

But liability could be a good tool to certainly not end, but somewhat curb gun violence, and Sandy Hook provides a good example of how it could have worked.

Opponents of gun control point out that background checks would not have prevented Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, from getting his weapons, and they are correct about that. He didn’t pass a background check because he didn’t have to: his mother was a gun collector and had a whole bunch of them in her house, so when Adam decided it might be a good day to mow down a kindergarten class, he needed only to go into her guest room closet to arm himself to the teeth and do exactly that.

Sandy Hook is an extreme example, but there’s an alarmingly high rate of gun deaths that are the result of people keeping their weapons in insecure locations, like under the bed or the top shelf of the closet, where an intruder or a curious young child or a disturbed older one might find them. But let’s say it had been patiently explained to Mrs. Lanza when she purchased and registered her weapons that she would be held legally responsible and personally liable for any crime those weapons were used in, accidental or voluntary, with or without her knowledge, until or unless she legally transferred that registration to another person. Let’s say that her background check required her to prove that those guns would be kept in a safe place, and that everyone else in her household had also passed the background check. Maybe young Adam would have gotten a little extra attention during the mental health portion of his background check. Maybe Mrs. Lanza would have kept those guns in a safe, like the one my dad has, 6’x4’x4′, and that kindergarten class would have been above ground on Christmas.

It’s a lot of maybes, but any fairminded person would have to admit that this kind of approach would prevent at least a few murders committed with stolen weapons, a few accidental killings where toddlers pulled the trigger, and more than a few straw purchases.

This approach would obviously not end all gun violence. But that’s my biggest frustration with the no-reforms-ever crowd: unless something can be proven to be an airtight, foolproof silver bullet to solve the problem 100%, it’s dismissed as ineffective, which is a completely childish way to evaluate almost anything.

Almost as childish as prosecuting gun manufacturers.

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