Another day, another mass gun murder in the United States. Of course, we've been here before, many times. Each time, we arrive where we started, but, contrary to T. S. Eliot's poem, we continually fail to know the place for the first time. Rather, our positions get further entrenched, our arguments more vitriolic, nothing changes, and we simply await the next mass shooting.
In the case of the Colorado Springs shooting at Planned Parenthood, we know that the perpetrator was a right wing Christian anti-abortion activist (despite the shameful attempts of some politicians to pretend otherwise), while in the case of the San Bernardino shooting, it is increasingly apparent that the perpetrators were jihadists. In other cases, the shooters have been right wing racists (as in South Carolina), or deranged psychotics (as in Arizona, and Connecticut, and Boulder, etc., etc., etc.). The motives are not always clear, and for the ones who are legitimately crazy, the question of motivation may not really be all that relevant. But in the case of these last two shootings, it was clear that both sets of perpetrators were motivated by religious zealotry and violent fanaticism. In both cases, it's clear that they were acts of religio-political terrorism (although, it's interesting to note, that the FBI has quickly labeled the San Bernardino shooters -- Muslims, with Middle Eastern last names -- as terrorists, while they have yet to do so in the case of the white, Christian Colorado Springs shooter).
And, if we want to widen the lens a bit, we can include the regular acts of violence that take place around the United States that don't qualify as "mass shootings" but still demonstrate the exceptional rate of gun homicide in the United States -- Chicago, Baltimore, every major urban area, and the many less publicized examples that take place in predominantly white, rural areas. We can add to that the many, many examples of people who inadvertently mishandle legally owned firearms and accidentally kill people every day, up to and including toddlers who manage to get their hands on mom's gun and shoot her in the store. It is -- there is no better word for it -- madness.
Given the prevalence of this kind of violence in the United States, why is it that we keep winding up back here at the same place? Another act of gun violence, another mass shooting, and yet nothing is done. The easy answer is that the National Rifle Association as so corrupted American politics on this issue that we have become completely incapable of addressing it. But the issue is more complicated than that. The NRA is able to corrupt politics to the degree that it does because it has so many willing dupes in American gun culture who are totally and completely incapable of recognizing a) that guns are a genuine cause of massive harm in the United States, b) that there are policies that can be implemented to address that and c) those policies need not in any meaningful way impair their much-vaunted "right to bear arms."
Part of this, as an article at Vox points out, has to do with the ideological mindset of conservatives in the United States who see every act of gun violence, not as a reason to limit gun possession, but as a reason to expand it. This is the showdown at the OK Corral approach to gun regulation. They believe, apparently sincerely, that if only more people had, and openly carried their guns, shooters would be less likely to engage in gun violence. This is, the article notes deeply rooted in a particular psychological state that is impervious, or at least resistant, to counter-argument:
To our gun owner, another mass shooting is not an argument for getting rid of guns. It's a confirmation of his every instinct, another sign of moral and societal decay, another reason to arm himself and defend what he's got left.
You can tell him about Canada and Australia until you're blue in the face — the lower rate of gun deaths, the hunting exemptions, the seemingly intact freedoms. You can cite high popular support for restrictions on gun and ammunition sales. You can tell him that not every incremental tightening of standards is a slippery slope, that no one wants to confiscate his guns.
But you're just another self-righteous liberal on another self-righteous crusade, too blind or stupid to see how governments always use people like you to disarm their citizenry. You've taken enough — of his taxes, his freedoms, his culture. He won't give you any more.
So, incidents of gun violence become part and parcel of the argument that gun regulation itself doesn't work. This meme emerged quickly in the wake of San Bernardino, as at least one of my more pro-gun Facebook friends posted something suggesting that, since this happened in California, which has strict state-wide gun laws, this demonstrates that strict gun laws don't work. So the only alternative is to loosen gun restrictions so that everyone can carry all the guns they want, openly and in public if they so desire.
Of course, in the gang-ridden areas of Chicago, where I live, there are plenty of guns, and everyone knows who has them. Far from reducing gun violence there, it simply leads to the kind of in-group versus out-group violence that characterizes gang culture. Gun violence in this context begets more gun violence, and it's not clear what the way out of the cycle of violence might be except to break it entirely (an argument that Spike Lee is attempting to make in a novel Aristophanean way in his latest film Chi-Raq). The solution here is clearly not more guns. We've got plenty of guns. That's the problem.
At the same time, it's necessary to state as clearly as possible the response to these conservative objections to increased gun violence, not because it will change their minds (as the Vox article notes, there is already ample argument to change the mind of anyone who cares to pay attention, if their minds are genuinely open, but they aren't). It's important to state the response so that we are without excuse. So that it's clear that we know the difference between argument and obfuscation, and that we can tell the difference between the corrupted pseudo-argument of the pro-gun lobby and its willing dupes and the actual construction of sound public policy. And in that regard, there are a few things that bear repeating.
First, the goal of gun regulation is not and has never been to take guns away from people who want to use them peacefully for purposes of hunting, or even self-defense. Now, for my part, I think it's abjectly stupid to own a gun. I mean, it's really, really stupid, given that your gun is 17-times more likely to kill someone in your own household than it is to ever protect you from an intruder.* If it were legal to own a tiger, and if it were affordable to own a tiger, and if I had many friends who told me repeatedly that it was my right to own a tiger, and that in fact a tiger could protect me from my enemies, and that owning a tiger was incredibly fun and if only I owned one I would see how awesome and necessary tiger ownership was, I would still not wish to own a tiger, because it's quite clear to me that a tiger is vastly more likely to eat one of my children than it will ever be to protect them. Owning a tiger is stupid, even if you had a right to own one. That's how I feel about guns. Nevertheless, no one wants to pass laws that take guns from the hands of people who know how to use them responsibly (just like no one wants to take Siegfried and Roy's tigers, even after Roy got mauled by one of them).
The goal has never been confiscation, but regulation (and, after all, even a Second Amendment purist can't evade the fact that the phrase "well-regulated" is right there in the text of the Second Amendment). The goal is to keep guns away from those who shouldn't have them. However, the trend that I've noticed since the gun-control debate really re-emerged in earnest in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre is the personalization of the anti-gun control argument. At least, among the people I've been in conversation with, or who have placed anti-gun control memes on their Facebook pages, there is an intense sense that gun owners tout court are being blamed for gun violence. So what I read is a great deal of defensiveness. "I've never harmed anyone with my gun, so why do you want to take it from me?" Leaving aside the fact that no one wants to take their guns, the fact is that there is nothing personal about this. It's not about viewing gun-owners as a group as being morally suspect, it's about ensuring that a potentially dangerous item is secured from those who would abuse it.
Another analogy, similar to the tiger one above. Let's say I was a nuclear physicist. A good, moral, peaceful nuclear physicist, who worked with radioactive isotopes. Assume that I wanted to do an experiment that required access to plutonium. As it turns out, plutonium is incredibly difficult to acquire. And I can't help but think that's a good thing. It's not a moral accusation of me as a nuclear physicist that I have to go through massive background and security checks in order to acquire plutonium. On the contrary, it's a recognition that, no matter how moral I am, the possibility of harm from misuse of plutonium is so great that even very moral people have to be very thoroughly screened in order to have access to it. It would be irresponsible if the Nuclear Regulatory Agency simply gave out plutonium to everyone who asked for it. Because it only takes one lunatic with a bit of plutonium to do enormous damage.
Even if I am a good, moral, and peaceful nuclear physicist, in fact especially if I am a good, moral, peaceful nuclear physicist, I should welcome that kind of scrutiny, not only because I don't want anything bad to happen through the misuse of plutonium, but because I recognize that if something bad did happen that as a nuclear physicist, I could be accused of culpability. In fact, if I were a nuclear physicist who lobbied strongly against the regulation of plutonium, I very arguably would be culpable if someone slipped through the very tattered regulatory safety net I had helped create. I think that this is certainly true by extension of the gun lobby, and the NRA in particular, and I think it is arguably also true of the many gun owners who give them moral support through their money and their resistance to regulation.
However, there is still the matter of the argument that statewide gun regulations such as those in California are actually ineffective as a means of controlling gun violence. Again, I'm reminded of an Onion headline that encapsulates the substance of this argument quite well: "‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens." If there were truly no way to prevent this kind of thing, then we'd see it happening all the time in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and other modern industrialized countries. But we don't, at least not with the kind of regularity that it happens here. (Pointing to the recent attacks in Paris doesn't get you very far, since, horrid as they were, they were notable among other things for their rarity). So then, what is the response to people who point to ineffective gun laws?
The most direct answer is to agree: Gun laws of the kind we currently have are not effective, precisely because they only function on the state level. If the laws in California are strict, that's alright, because Nevada and Idaho aren't all that far away and the gun laws are much laxer there. Similarly, the very strict gun laws in Chicago are mocked given the degree of gun crime we experience. But anyone who is familiar with the city knows that it's the easiest thing on earth to get from Chicago to Indiana -- where the gun laws are much looser -- and back again in a couple of hours. State and local gun laws are ultimately ineffective precisely because they are not widely replicated in other states. Pro-gun advocates point to this as evidence that gun laws per se don't work. But this is simply fallacious: Poorly implemented local gun laws don't work, but a national law, which sought to both regulate guns at the point of purchase and also reduce the overall supply of guns available throughout the country, would be far more effective at controlling gun violence. The problem is one of easy availability. The solution is to make that availability much more difficult, both by increasing regulatory barriers (more and better background checks, longer waiting periods, etc.) and by decreasing the overall supply (through gun-buy back programs and requiring gun manufacturers and sellers to stop selling certain items, like extended magazines and armor piercing bullets). All by themselves these two policies (which would of course require a great deal more fleshing out than I can do here before they became law) would drastically reduce the possibility of gun violence, without severely restricting the rights of existing gun owners.
I would add another policy, which would undoubtedly be more controversial, but which shouldn't be: I would require a thorough psychological screening before anyone would be permitted to purchase a gun. To buy or possess a gun legally, you should be required to demonstrate to a competent professional that you are not a danger to yourself or others. It's been said repeatedly that the real problem of gun violence is largely a mental health problem. And while I don't think that's the entirety of the story, I am willing to concede that a non-trivial proportion of gun violence is perpetrated by people who are mentally ill. So, how to prevent it? Easily -- require all gun owners to undergo mental health screening. The goal here is not to stigmatize either gun owners or the mentally ill, but to recognize that some mentally ill people, given access to a gun, have the potential to use them violently, and the question must be how we keep the one from the other. Anyone want to take bets on how ready the NRA is to get behind this idea, despite their repeated claims that we should be concentrating on the mental health aspect of these attacks?
I could say a great deal more, but I'll leave it there for now. I will only add two things: First, I'm not claiming that this is an infallible path to the elimination of all gun crime. Certainly there will always bee the possibility that some gun crime will take place. But the goal is to reduce it to the degree that it becomes a rare and horrifying event, rather than the regular news item that it is now. Second, I have not yet addressed the other central aspect of these last two attacks, specifically the religious dimension. That conversation will have to wait for a subsequent post, which I hope to write in the next couple of days, time and jet lag permitting.
*Attempting to verify this statistic, I found studies suggesting anywhere from an 11-fold to a 43-fold increase in the likelihood of someone other than an intruder being killed by a firearm in the home. Difference in studies suggest different methodologies and data sets, but they all pain in the same direction: You are far more likely to see someone in your own home killed with your gun then you ever are to use it for protection. One of the best known studies suggests a factor as high as 43-times more likely.