Thomas McCauley famously said there is "no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." But the gun control debate here in the former colonies just might give him pause.
It happens every time there is a terrible massacre such as the Newtown school, Aurora theater or Gabby Giffords tragedies: "Ban assault rifles!" "Nobody needs a 20-round magazine!!" "Don't just stand there, issue an executive order for tougher gun laws!!!"
There may well be a case for strengthening our gun laws in some or even many respects, but nobody should nurture any illusions that doing so will prevent a recurrence of such horrendous acts.
Reason TV's Nick Gillespie and Amanda Winkler offer five basic facts that everybody with any opinion for or against guns and gun control should know before deciding what changes are needed in our laws, if any:
» Violent crimes, including those involving guns, have declined by half in the past two decades. This decline has occurred even as gun ownership rates have exploded in virtually every state.
» There is no discernible trend in the frequency of mass shootings like those that most shocked us in recent years. In fact, the year with the highest number of such shootings was 1929.
» Schools are getting safer, with the number of violent crimes plummeting from 53 per 1,000 students in 1992 to 14 in 2010.
» The prevalence of guns in America increased to 88.8 for every 100 people in 2007, from 84 in 2001. With an estimated 300 million privately owned firearms, America has nearly one for every man, woman and child.
» Remember the much-heralded "assault rifle ban" during the 1990s? It had no discernible effect on gun crime. Its restoration would likely accomplish nothing, except to enable professional politicians to pretend they are "doing something."
The most significant of the several data points Gillespie cites is the one about how there are nine privately owned firearms for every 10 Americans. Guns have been deeply ingrained in our consciousness since Colonial days, and their widespread ownership was an important factor in the success of the American Revolution.
As a consequence, most of us grew up with guns being a familiar part of our lives. My first firearm -- a semi-automatic .22 rifle -- was a Christmas gift when I was 11 years old.
One of my most treasured possessions remains an 1876 model .45-70 single-shot cavalry rifle given to me by my grandfather. I wouldn't fire it now without first having a gunsmith give it a thorough going-over, but I love it just the same.
Last year, I bought my first-ever handgun, a new Remington 1911 R1, a modern seven-shot version of the classic American military semi-automatic pistol.
Being a Maryland resident, I had to wait a week or so for the authorities to do a criminal background check on me, a process to which I have no objection.
Since then, I've only been to the shooting range with it twice (the second time with my son over the holidays), but it took no more than about five rounds to understand why the 1911 is so popular.
I also hope to buy a shotgun in the near future, thanks to another holiday encounter at a clay pigeon shooting range. I won't be surprised if my wife proves to be a better shot than I am.
Data wonks know that "outliers" don't represent an underlying data set well. For the same reason, the creation of new restrictions on law-abiding gun owners won't stop the criminally insane from shedding the blood of innocents.
But new restrictions could disarm a gun owner who happens to be in the right place at the right time to prevent carnage. That would be a tragedy, too.
Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.