Opinion: Moral grandstanding on guns

February 4, 2013


— Politics becomes amusing when liberalism becomes theatrical with high-minded gestures. Chicago’s government, which is not normally known for elevated thinking, is feeling so morally upright and financially flush that it proposes to rise above the banal business of maximizing the value of its employees’ and retirees’ pension fund assets. Although seven funds have cumulative unfunded liabilities of $25 billion, Chicago will sacrifice the growth of those assets to the striking of a political pose so pure it is untainted by practicality.

Emulating New York and California, two deep blue states with mammoth unfunded pension liabilities, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has hectored a $5 billion pension fund into divesting its holdings in companies that manufacture firearms. Now he is urging two large banks to deny financing to such companies “that profit from gun violence.” TD Bank provides a $60 million credit line to Smith & Wesson, and Bank of America provides a $25 million line to Sturm, Ruger & Company.

Chicago’s current and retired public employees might wish the city had invested more in both companies. Barack Obama, for whom Emanuel was chief of staff, has become a potent gun salesman because of suspicions that he wants to make gun ownership more difficult. Since he was inaugurated four years ago, there have been 65 million requests for background checks of gun purchasers. Four years ago, the price of Smith & Wesson stock was $2.45. Last week, it was $8.76, up 258 percent. Four years ago, the price of Sturm Ruger stock was $6.46. Last week, it was $51.09, up 691 percent. The Wall Street Journal reports that even before “a $1.2 billion balloon payment for pensions comes due” in 2015, “Chicago’s pension funds, which are projected to run dry by the end of the decade, are scraping the bottoms of their barrels.”

Nevertheless, liberals are feeling good about themselves — the usual point of liberalism — because New York state’s public pension fund and California’s fund for teachers have, The New York Times says, “frozen or divested” gun holdings, and in February Calpers, the fund for other California public employees, may join this gesture jamboree. All this is being compared to the use of divestment to pressure South Africa to dismantle apartheid in the 1980s. Well.

Apartheid was a wicked practice. Guns are legal products in America, legally sold under federal, state and local regulations. Most of the guns sold to Americans are made by Americans. Americans have a right — a constitutional right — to own guns, and 47 percent of American households exercise that portion of the Bill of Rights by possessing at least one firearm. 

For Emanuel to say gun makers “profit from gun violence” is as sensible as saying automobile manufacturers “profit from highway carnage” — which, by the way, kills more Americans than guns do. Emanuel, who is more intelligent than he sounds (just as many think Wagner’s music is better than it sounds), must know that not one fewer gun will be made, sold or misused because Chicago is wagging its finger at banks.

Moral grandstanding, however, offers steady work and The Chronicle of Higher Education reports a new front in “the battle against climate change”: “Student groups at almost 200 colleges and universities are calling on boards of trustees to divest their colleges’ holdings in large fossil-fuel companies.” Of course, not one share of those companies’ stock will go unsold because academia is so righteous. Others will profit handsomely from such holdings and from being complicit in supplying what the world needs. Fossil fuels, the basis of modern life, supply 82 percent of U.S. energy, and it is projected that they will supply 78 percent of the global increase in energy demand between 2009 and 2035, by which time the number of cars and trucks on the planet will have doubled to 1.7 billion.

Institutions of higher education will, presumably, warn donors that their endowments will be wielded in support of the political agenda du jour, which might include divesting from any company having anything to do with corn, source of the sweetener in many of the sodas that make some people fat and New York’s mayor cranky. Or anything to do with red meat, sugar, salt, trans fats, chickens not lovingly raised. ...

Liberal ethicists may decide that the only virtuous investments are in electric cars. The Obama administration says 1 million will be sold by 2015. Maybe 70,000 have been so far. Just imagine how pension funds will prosper by betting on the next 930,000.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

George, you only used the word "liberal" four times in this editorial. Surely you can do better than that.

Paul Wilson 5 years, 3 months ago

Glad you agree with his points. Common sense is contagious.

Alyosha 5 years, 3 months ago

Kindly summarize Will's points. I can't detect any, other than using terms he never defines. What is he proposing, specifically?

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

He's whining that public pension funds are using free market pressures against gun manufacturers by no longer investing in them. Universities also may be investing in more green energy due to pressure from student groups. Oh noez! Freedom and stuff!

It's such a weird column. Would he feel the same way if public pensions decided to divest money from companies involved in embryonic stem cell research? I'd hazard a guess he would not.

George Lippencott 5 years, 3 months ago

What is is really saying is that pressure from public pension funds (college or otherwise) will probably not make any difference in the rate of gun manufacturing or the profits of the manufacturers. He is also suggesting that such politicizing of pension funds might reduce their earnings when they are already essentially bankrupt in many jurisdictions (like Chicago).

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

Are gun companies the only business making a profit these days? Is using politically popular criteria for investment an irresponsible way to handle taxpayer-funded pensions? I know that some "socially responsible" investment portfolios have lousy returns, but nobody said they were investing in those as far as I could read.

I stand my by my assessment that we wouldn't hear a peep from him if it were a shift from investing in companies that did embryonic stem cell research.

Maddy Griffin 5 years, 3 months ago

80% of gun crimes are committed with guns purchased illegally,or by folks who would never pass a background check. 40% of guns are sold without background checks. Time to change that. Register, license and insure all guns and their owners. Just like cars.

Paul Wilson 5 years, 3 months ago

How do you propose to make the 80% do this?

fiddleback 5 years, 3 months ago

Repealing the Tiahrt amendments (R-Kansas) and allowing law enforcement to do their jobs with full ATF database access would be a good start...


notaubermime 5 years, 3 months ago

That simply isn't realistic. Too many guns to register and doing so for a Constitutionally protected right is just asking for legal troubles. The simpler solution is to regulate the commerce. No selling guns without a license to sell and mandatory background checks. Put out ads and/or political pressure on the states to get them to comply with submitting data on felons and mentally disturbed individuals into the national database.

Peacemaker452 5 years, 3 months ago

Too bad that silly old Constitution gives the federal government no power to regulate commerce between two individuals not involved in interstate commerce.

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago

No laws will completely prevent criminal activity, but they can discourage it.

Alyosha 5 years, 3 months ago

Agreed. See, for example, drunk driving laws, or tax evasion laws, or laws against murder.

UneasyRider 5 years, 3 months ago

If Obama / Biden are such failures, can you explain why they were once again elected to another 4 year term?

Alyosha 5 years, 3 months ago

If you can't demonstrate that what you say is true — not metaphorically, not figuratively, but actually conducting "attacks on the Second Amendment" — then your assertion that they're attacking the Second Amendment is wholly without merit.

Why not constrain your thinking and comments to actual facts, and not overly emotional hyperbole?

George Lippencott 5 years, 3 months ago

The second amendment supports private ownership[p of firearms. Since the term assault weapon is undefined the target of some of those (not all) arguing for gun control is all semi-automatic weapons. That set is between 80 and 100% of all private firearms. Could that be the fear??

Alyosha 5 years, 3 months ago

Your assertion that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" is without any real merit.

Here's an easily findable counter example to your overly general assertion, where police, doing their job well, arrested a man who was then charged with unlawful possession of a firearm: http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2012/11/trenton_police_stop_car_arrest.html

Why would Rockchalk hold, let alone post, such an easily disprovable belief?

If you mean to include "police" in your definition of "good guy," you should make that clear. (And you should also support efforts not to cut taxes that lead to public services like police being laid off, no?)

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

So why do people get shot in gun ranges or on military posts? Presumably they have a surfeit of "good guys with guns" in those locations.

Why did this (and many other attacks) get stopped without the use of guns? http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-03-18-school-nebraska_x.htm

George Lippencott 5 years, 3 months ago

And the police who arrested the would be bomber were not armed?? Fortunately our police stop a great deal of crime. However, if you pay attention to our larger cities many people are shot with illegal weapons every week. Nobody stops those crimes.

Now from time to time armed citizens stop crime. The right estimates they do so about 2.5 million times a year. I do not know the pedigree of that number but I do know armed citizens are involved frequently in precluding crime.

I do know that there is a whole number of crimes prevented just by the fear of gun ownership. Criminals are not stupid. Just as they avoid homes with dogs or alarm systems, they avoid homes where gun ownership is know to be prevalent.

Now disarming everyone would certainly reduce gun crimes. However, disarming innocent gun owners who do not commit crimes will likely not have significant impact on gun crimes. Explain how we would keep firearms from criminals (the 80% -give or take)) when we can not keep drugs or even people from crossing our borders?.

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

Ultimately there's always going to be an armed police officer involved, is there not? The prison guards are probably armed, too. Point is, an armed citizen is not needed to subdue every shooter.

Yes, there are a lot of illegal guns. Part of that problem is that we do not require background checks or registrations with every sale. Why can't we adopt common sense safety measures like that? Combine it with systematic gun buybacks, and you really could make a dent in the number of straw purchases and illegal guns floating around. Not all of them, but better than what we have now.

Arguing that the fear of gun ownership prevents crime is totally unprovable. Did you interview a subset of people who almost but did not commit a crime to find out whether or not fear of guns was the deciding factor? Why not just buy a convincing BB gun if "fear of gun" is the deterring factor?

I'm not anti gun, btw. I'm just anti-BS. Too many cowboys and would-be revolutionaries with delusional fantasies on this one. I like firecrackers, too, but I don't think they make me safer.

George Lippencott 5 years, 3 months ago

To your first paragraph - yep although I am not sure all or even most prison guards are armed. Overwhelming force can negate the need for a firearm.

I support expanded background checks but only if we truly expand them and capture the mentally ill. In the past that has been a problem because of an overzealous effort to protect the mentally ill from public awareness. Without such the process will IMHO not really serve the intended purpose.

There have been studies done and the fear of confrontation with an armed citizen apparently does influence the actions of criminals (at least the rational set of them).. I am insufficiently familiar with the methodology used in those studies to try to defend them however common sense tells us that avoiding being shot is a good idea.

I agree with you in your last but desire that we create an effective process rather than a feel good process. IMHO that was at least part of Mr. Will's argument.

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

I hear you, although we'd have to operationally define "mentally ill." We talking anyone who has ever had any sort of psychiatric treatment, or are we talking about people with certain specific alignments or what? Keep in mind that we still don't know enough about mass shooters to adequately screen for them.

I don't see why we can't do a background check on every sale and register every sale. We ought to be able to audit gun stores and make sure they follow the rules. But we can't even do those common sense measures. It's pretty frustrating. Whether old Georege thinks it's effective or not, speaking with the purse strings is something a city or state can do. And like gun ownership, it's perfectly legal.

George Lippencott 5 years, 3 months ago

Sure is legal - at least so far. The question remains whether it serves any purpose other than feeling good and whether it has any negative consequences on the public employees. At at least one point TIAA/CREF social choice fund was doing quite well so the verdict is out.

I think the gun show "loophole" resulted from a conflict with the individual right to conduct a transaction without the government's help - whatever that transaction might be. That notion seems to be failing in many areas (drugs, drinks, food, etc.). Closing it , if the check system has any utility, should probably be considered although enforcement will be problematic.

Peacemaker452 5 years, 3 months ago

Other than the one just recently in the news, can you give any statistically significant examples of people getting shot at a gun range in anything other than a negligent discharge? (I won’t glorify them by calling them accidents.)

BTW, stateside military bases are essentially gun free zones. Other than base security, nobody is allowed to walk around armed. A sad state of affairs, if you ask me.

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

That's moving the goalposts. After all, the contention is that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. A notion disprovable by a single example of someone who stopped a bad guy with a gun without using a gun. The church shooter in Emporia was stopped by a churchgoers armed only with a hymnal. http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1988/Man-Charged-in-Church-Shooting-Reportedly-Was-Spurned-By-Former-Member/id-0a34aa7b7b2b06a7ff7ec8cd91500a5c

If you'd care to provide statistically significant epidemiological evidence that possessing a gun makes you less likely to die of a gunshot wound, I'd love to read it. That would, after all, lend credence to the argument that more guns makes more safety.

I'm not suggesting that we take away all the guns. I'm just suggesting that the solution to gun violence is not "more guns." Guns are fun to shoot, they're fun to collect, and they can help you obtain tasty tasty food, but they don't make you safer.

Armstrong 5 years, 3 months ago

Now that's funny. Choopsy crying about moving the goal posts !

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

I think you owe the Internet a new irony meter for that comment.

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

Speaking of goalpost moving... I don't need current links. I only need one link of one instance ever to disprove the statement, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." However, there was a more current link already provided in this thread. I just like the image of a shooter being subdued by a heavy hymnal.

If you want to argue qualitatively that having a gun is better than not having a gun, or that an armed citizenry is more likely to stop a gun crime in progress, you may attempt that argument, but it is a separate argument from the one I was addressing.

Peacemaker452 5 years, 3 months ago

I was not addressing the good guy/bad guy thing. I was replying to your question about why people get shot at ranges and military bases. Sorry for the confusion.

I made no claim about the likelihood of possessing a gun changing the chances of dying of a gunshot wound. If you are shot, the status of your gun ownership will have no effect on your outcome unless it helps you limit the number of times you get shot.

You can’t really make a definitive statement about guns making you safer without admitting that there is really no evidence that they make you less safe. Even the most ardent gun grabber would have to privately admit that most uses of firearms in self-defense that do not involve a shot fired do not get reported. Up until a few years ago just “brandishing” a firearm, even if you were being assaulted, outside of your home would get you jail time in several of our most populous states. And please don’t bother quoting/linking to the tired, old Brady Bunch funded study about getting shot with your own gun. That study was debunked when it was new and polishing the turd doesn’t change that fact.

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

It would be interesting to actually have some data about brandishing guns and how effective that is in de-escalating violence. It's more plausible than the cowboy shoot 'em up fantasies some have presented, but it's highly unlikely anyone can produce such data if it is underreported.

People with guns are more likely to die by guns, although it's much more likely to be by suicide than it is by murder. The not Brady study: http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/10/929.full Not a perfect study, but the paper does a good job outlining the possible flaws.

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

Apparently George has a portfolio invested heavily in gun and carbon companies.

George Lippencott 5 years, 3 months ago

And you know this how?? Because of his opinion? If we can convict based on association we are on a very slippery slope.

chootspa 5 years, 3 months ago

Please adjust your sarcasm meter. It has malfunctioned.

Armored_One 5 years, 3 months ago

Ever thought that the issue isn't guns but the self entitled nature of the American culture?

Japan has some of the strictest gun laws in the world and some of the lowest gun violence at the same time. The vast differences between our culture and their culture shows where the problem is.

I'll admit that I am, at times, self indulgent. Not to great extents that many are, though.

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