So there’s been another mass shooting. This one is particularly awful, because it took place at an elementary school. And so, once again, my fellow liberals will call for a “national discussion” about gun control, and they will chide pro-gun activists for their silence at this moment. Oh, look — Salon has three separate articles. As though the gun control debate isn’t happening all around us, all the time. I’m reminded of missionaries who want to go to other countries to “spread the good word,” as though, somehow, the problem was just that Jesus hadn’t been talked about enough yet.
A cynical point of view, I suppose, would be that liberals like to wail and gnash teeth about how we need to have a “conversation,” which is an easy way to signify one’s distaste for guns (and, often unstated, distaste for the people who like them) without having to actually propose policies that would be effective at eliminating mass shootings. Because, let’s not kid ourselves — none of the traditional liberal hobby-horses would do much to stop this kind of mass-spree.
Banning “assault weapons”? That kind of legislation has generally been farcical — a lot of sound and noise with no practical effect. First, legislators have been unable even to come up with a consistent definition of “assault weapon,” which means assault weapon bans have often been based on arbitrary lists of makes and models, or based on superficial characteristics. This enables gun manufacturers to simply issue a new model with a different name or with the offending cosmetic elements removed. It also means that such laws are subject to being voided for vagueness by the courts. And justly so — an “assault weapon” is just a rifle. That’s all it is. A semi-automatic that looks like an M-16 doesn’t shoot any faster or more accurately or with more force than a semi-automatic hunting rifle with a more traditional-looking wood stock. (Indeed, in many cases the ammunition that “assault weapons” fire is far less deadly that the ammunition fired by hunting rifles.) Moreover, such bans generally leave an ENORMOUS loophole for pre-existing stock. And guns can easily last forty or fifty years if well-maintained.
Want to ban the sales of large-capacity mags? Me too. But I’m not convinced it will do much. You can strap two mags together with some tape and swap them in about a second. You can carry mags on your belt or in a vest and swap in a new one almost as fast. We used to practice it in the Army; it’s not a hard skill to acquire. Sure — it might make a difference on the margins; some brave soul might risk a direct tackle while the shooter is swapping mags… sometimes. Maybe. I doubt it. You’re not fucking Jet Li, and neither am I.
Want to keep guns out of the hands of felons, or the mentally ill, or minors? We already have federal laws banning sales to all those groups, and more. Of course, these laws sometimes raise other issues of concern to liberals — why, exactly, can’t illegal aliens who’ve lived here all their lives and are American in all but name own guns like the rest of us? But leaving aside the way that prejudice and white panic often worm their way into categorical bans on certain “types” of people… they’re notoriously ineffective. As long as there are straw purchasers — i.e., proxies with a clean record who can go to the gun store and buy whatever they want — such laws are essentially meaningless. Remember Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold? They were underage, but they bought some of their guns from adults and had an 18-year-old girl buy others for them.
Gun control in America is by-and-large a grim comedy of useless gestures and cultural antagonism. And when it comes to preventing mass shootings, almost all proposed solutions are simply useless — indeed, very nearly insulting to the dead. Liberals like to mouth this stuff, of course, because, like everyone else, we feel helpless in the face of such horror and evil. But we’re not really proposing serious solutions.
There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 270 million guns in America — about 90 guns for every 100 people. That is the issue, and any policy that doesn’t address that fact is a band-aid at best and a cynical political ploy at worst.
This huge number of weapons is the reason why local gun bans are utterly ineffective at stemming gun violence. Can’t buy a gun in DC? Who cares? You can drive to Virginia. It’s also the reason that bans on certain types of weapons are usually doomed to failure — the guns already exist. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
And, of course, that number signifies the single greatest reason we can’t enact effective gun control: we like guns. Even if you are an urban liberal, I guarantee you know someone who likes guns, and you probably know someone who owns guns. Depending on local ordinances, you may even know someone who carries concealed. (Did you know know that Vermont, probably the most liberal state in the Union, has no gun control laws?) And that’s on the blue, blue coasts. Don’t forget there’s a whole middle (and southeastern) part to this country, too.
To have really effective gun control in this country — and especially to reduce or eliminate the occurence of mass shootings — you’d have to start over again from scratch. Eliminate all the guns, and start over again with a strict policy. What do you think the political likelihood of that is? If you said “zero,” you know your country.
There probably are things we can do to nibble at the use of guns in ordinary crime, at least at the margins. One way would be to close the so-called “gun show loophole” — more properly, a loophole that enables private parties to engage in certain transactions without a background check or records-keeping. Would that make it more difficult for old Dad to pass on his antique rifle to Sonny without going to a licensed federal firearms dealer? Yeah, it might. Cry me a river. (And you could create a narrow exception for intra-family inheritance, although in my opinion whenever you get into exceptions, you start de-fanging this kind of legislation.) It would make straw purchasing a little harder and force people who want to profit from gun sales to make records of the transactions, which might — again, on the margins — make it a little harder for career criminals to buy guns.
(A little. The evidence is pretty good, though, that they’d still find a way to get the guns, either through straw purchasers or by, you know, stealing them.)
It might also be a good idea to have a gun registry, and to make it a crime (after a certain grace period) to have an unregistered gun. This might help law enforcement track weapons and see how and through what channels they get into the hands of the bad guys. Might help. Might also turn into another excuse to harass, arrest, and imprison poor black, Hispanic, and Native men. After all, this is the kind of law that is almost always enforced more strictly in Inglewood and Harlem than in Martha’s Vineyard and Bel-Air.
But as long as there are 270 million guns in the U.S., there are going to be school shootings and movie theater shootings and gurdwara shootings. There are going to be gangland shootings, and there are going to be domestic violence shootings. And there is literally nothing we can do about that fact. You want to have your gun control discussion? Okay, but recognition of all the above, that’s the starting point. Anything else is bullshit.
To be fair, I want to point out that the NRA solution — everybody should be armed! an armed society is a polite society! — is also nonsensical. Many people don’t want to carry weapons — especially in schools and churches and other places that have a certain quality of sacredness, a certain remove from the world. And most people are unable to go Rambo in the heat of the moment. I had lunch yesterday with three young women who said, flatly, that they wouldn’t be able to kill another human being, even if the person were breaking into their home. I said I would do it, without hesitation. But is that true? Morally, I’m untroubled by the proposition. But could I actually pull the trigger? I don’t know. I’ve never been tested.
And as has been pointed out before in this space, it’s even less likely that you’ll be able to react if you’re sitting in the dark about to enjoy a Batman movie, or you’re caught in the middle of teaching third-graders fractions. Not 1 person in 1000, I think, could react in that moment — in the grip of fear and surprise — and take down the shooter. Especially since shooters now often wear bullet-proof vests. You really think a schoolteacher’s gonna make a head-shot at 30 yards? Not unless they’re a lot better trained than, say, veteran NYPD cops.
The conservative reaction — MOAR GUNS — is just the flip side of the liberal reaction. Gun nuts think they can make themselves safe by being armed. Liberals think they can make themselves safe by tinkering with handgrips and stocks. But it’s all wrong. You can’t make yourself safe. Not in this country. Not with all these guns lying around.
So, by all means, let’s call for “a national discussion about gun control.” Let’s beat our chests. Let’s rage against the Republicans — they’ve done plenty of real evil, so we may as well pin them with this, too. We’ll call it “PTSD therapy for liberals.” But then — unless we’re really proposing that the government go door-to-door and confiscate every gun in America, and we start over from zero guns — let’s hang our heads sheepishly for a moment and admit that we’re really being quite silly.