Is There a Tipping Point for Gun Control?

In the wake of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Parkland High, the usual tired tropes of political and media response have quickly emerged, and by now we all should be utterly sick and tired of them. Was there ever a topic more urgent yet more rigidly locked into outworn modes of thinking? Is there a tipping point where public sentiment will change dramatically enough to force action?  The obstacles are several:

The media focuses on motive and personality rather than means.  In an era when the only qualification of the current occupant of the presidency is his celebrity, it’s no surprise that we tend to focus on personal identity and motive when we seek explanations for the inexplicable. In the grip of outrage, we have a childlike wish for a story, for a neat linear narrative we can follow like our favorite TV drama.

The boy was mentally ill.  Well yes, of course.  His actions are the very definition of mental illness.  This in itself tells us little, and affords us no useful course of action.

The only legitimate argument for media scrutiny of a mass-murderer and his motives is that, in understanding him, we will be able to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future; authorities will be better able to profile and interdict future perpetrators, and we will be enabled to detect them in our communities.

But there is little evidence of this. The frequency of mass murder in the U.S. has increased rather than diminished in this age of unending news cycles and perpetually talking heads –psychiatrists, security experts, former police chiefs — who all too willingly offer their views to the maw of media commerce with complete confidence and utter irrelevance. There are no explanations for some brands of inhumanity, and no purpose in constructing fables to explain it. What does it matter, finally, if yet another deluded white boy became a killer because he’d been expelled or because of some pathological gene inherited from his recently-deceased mother? The dead remain dead, and future mass murderers, legally collecting AR-15s as we speak, remain undetectable or, even if detected, beyond the reach of legal restraint.

It’s the means, not the motive, that really matters. So the subject of gun control inevitably arises, and what happens next is painfully predictable.

The right deflects discussion of gun control by invoking grief and mental illness.  The President appears briefly to make sanctimonious pronouncements about his empathy with the bereaved and how he’ll make school safety a new priority. The FBI comes under convenient fire for failing to follow up on a tip that fingered the deranged Parkland shooter months ago, though it’s not clear what they might have done about it in a land where the freedom to say stupid, repellant things, the privacy of medical records, and individual ownership of assault weapons are all protected rights. (Let’s recall that the Orlando shooter had been personally interviewed by the FBI, and released for want of legitimate cause to detain him.) Republican Congressmen express indignation that such a “tragedy” (akin, it would seem, to a hurricane or an earthquake) should be “politicized” by those who hold the merely logical view that the frequency and lethality of civilian assaults using military-style weapons might be reduced by making those weapons less available to civilians.

Let’s at least get our vocabulary straight. These mass shootings are crimes, not tragedies. The latter word, and the label of mental illness, not only depersonalizes the perpetrator, equating him to a blind force of nature, but more significantly absolves us from responsibility to respond to it with anything but helpless empathy, the candle placed on the sidewalk, the heartfelt eulogy, the fearful imagining of how each of us would feel if that child or wife or brother, cut down all unawares, thinking themselves safe and not in a place where weapons of war could be loosed on them, had been our own. The results are profoundly tragic to the individuals affected, but the act was a crime, as is the long, ongoing history of indifference to and tortured rationalizations for its causes.

There’s no inconsistency between our profound empathy with those whose lives have been destroyed by military weaponry and our desire that there be fewer of them.

The right dismisses gun control as politically impossible.  Holman Jenkins, writing in the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages after the Mandalay massacre, declared flatly that “Gun-control proposals always float up in the aftermath of mass shootings, singularly detached from any plan that could be carried out, much less command majority support from the U.S. electorate. A law banning gun sales is not in the cards. A law seriously curtailing private gun ownership, as exists in the U.K., is not in the cards.”

Daniel Henninger chimed in from the same op-ed platform, calling gun control “the oldest, most sterile, wheel-spinning issue in American politics,” and informing us that “the chance that the American people will ever disarm remains zero.”

If ever there were a counsel of despair, it’s these clarion calls to give up on any legislative response to our national epidemic of mass shootings for the reason that such proposals are unlikely to “command majority support from the U.S. electorate.” This is, of course, precisely the argument that was made to forestall desegregation, and environmental protection, and women’s right to vote, and gay rights and, for that matter, mass polio inoculation and America’s entry into World War II. We would be living in a far grimmer world if this kind of call for inaction had been heeded in the past, and it omits from the discussion the key task of actual leaders, who are in grievously short supply these days: to inspire and instruct the U.S. electorate to change its views to ones which, while unpopular in the moment, are demonstrably in its best long-term interests.

Ironically, Donald Trump might be the best vessel for the cause of stricter gun control, in the way that Nixon was the only American president who could have recognized China – because the meager policy history and opportunistic politics of our President insulate him from accusations of ideological betrayal.

The right dismisses gun control as ineffective. Here’s where conservatives put on their big-boy pants and give the rest of us a lesson in hard-nosed pragmatism. Gun control can’t prevent killings with guns. The Clinton-era ban on assault rifles had no discernible effect on what is vaguely called “gun violence” to make the point. Statistics are at the ready: assault rifles were used in only 27% of mass shootings from 1999 to 2013. Specific cases like the Virginia Tech shootings didn’t involve rifles at all. Most homicides are committed with something other than rifles. Other countries’ successful experience with stricter gun control is inapposite because of their cultural and historical differences. And so on.[1]

These are classic examples of the rhetorical technique of the straw man: set up an impossible goal (eliminating gun deaths), knock it down with data that prove such a goal impossible, and consider your work done. But this totally misses the point of most gun control advocates, and specifically of those who want to go after the legal ownership of rapid-fire assault weapons, which is that even a marginal reduction in the frequency or lethality of mass shootings means an incalculable number of lives saved and maimings prevented. Not all, but a significant number. And shouldn’t that be enough to get us beyond this tired point?

It’s at the infinitesimal human margin where the success of gun control should be measured, that one child who would be walking today if the young madman had only a handgun, not in the broad swath of faceless statistics. To do nothing because stricter limits on gun ownership won’t prevent even the majority of gun deaths is to allow the perfect to drive out the good.

The right dismisses gun control as unconstitutional. Somewhat harder to counter are the legalistic arguments for doing nothing that are reflexively deployed by the right. It’s a Constitutional right to carry a gun, they say, a right that the Supreme Court affirmed in no uncertain terms in the recent Heller decision, and any meaningful action on gun control must fail in the face of that fact. The better solution, they say, would be to marshal “big data” and other surveillance techniques to identify killers before they use their guns to kill (a recommendation that somehow always fails to give the First and Fourth Amendments the deference so slavishly granted to the Second).

The fact is that legislation can be carefully drafted to withstand Heller. Or Heller, which seems plainly wrong in its manipulation of historical fact, can be overruled. Or the Second Amendment can itself be amended or, as conservative columnist Bret Stephens has bravely called for, repealed. And let’s not hear yet again about the “Framers’ intent.” Who can doubt that if you dragged the Framers, every last bewigged one of them, out of the past and introduced them to an NRA lobbyist, much less made them read today’s headlines, they’d be utterly aghast at what we’ve allowed to happen in the name of their little Constitutional footnote about arms and militias. What the Framers clearly did intend was that the document they were drafting be a living, evolving contract among the people of a free society, not the ossified object of brain-dead idolatry that it has become.

The left portrays gun owners as deplorable. To again quote Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal: “The NRA and pro-gun sentiment doesn’t defeat [gun control advocates]. What defeats them is that their compulsive moral condescension impedes their ability to see the country clearly.”

We need to recognize and accept that guns mean different things to different people. I’ll readily admit they mean next to nothing to me, but to some a gun is not just a weapon but an emblem of proud family or military tradition, imbued with as much positive meaning as an old baseball glove or a crucifix. To others it’s a plaything, but a legitimately important plaything. And to a large number of our fellow citizens, ownership of guns is at least symbolic, and to some promotive, of individual freedom in a country founded on that principle. In any civil discussion about gun control, those feelings and beliefs have to be respected.

Yes, there’s the taint of self-delusion in the often obliquely-expressed notion that it would be a bad thing if only the military and law enforcement had rapid-fire assault weapons, that we need such weapons because we might need to rise up in revolution against our government, as though we all lived in an old Rambo movie. This is a fantasy of superannuated man-children who can’t let go of playing cowboy, and they need to be called out on it.

But we shouldn’t deny that when we talk about stricter gun control, we’re asking a significant percentage of our fellow citizens to make a real sacrifice for a greater good. Yet isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be about?  Isn’t that exactly how we define real heroism, real patriotism, real love of country?

Every time this happens, you want to think: maybe this time.  Maybe this will be the tipping point, the moment when the rural hunter and the open carry advocate and the urban liberal who never touched a gun all have the very same thought: enough is enough. We need to do the obvious to prevent another dozen children and their teachers, another crowd of innocent concert-goers or movie fans, from being gunned down by another sick boy with an assault weapon.

But then you think of Sandy Hook, and if that wasn’t enough to bring the majority of Americans and their representatives to their senses on this topic, where could that tipping point possibly be? And the TV crews withdraw back to their studios, and the NRA spews more nonsense about how the answer is more guns in more hands, and Trump mouths platitudes about mental health and school safety, and nothing changes.

But I believe it will happen, someday. Some day the tipping point will be reached, the sea change will occur. It will happen suddenly, and it will probably start with women, who tend to see less sense in guns of any kind or purpose and who bear the children being killed with them, and it will start not on the floor of some statehouse, much less in Washington, but in private. Women will turn to their families and say, enough. They will cease to tolerate men who teach their sons how to operate an AK-47 just in case their county one day wants to secede from the union, or because they like to put on the trappings of bravery and competence as a substitute for the real thing. They will prohibit their sons from bringing guns under their roof. They will no longer find it amusing that their husband or lover or brother wants to keep guns in the house with their daughters, and they will laugh in the face of anyone who tells them that it’s for their protection. They will refuse to countenance a brand of masculinity whose emblems include machines of mass death.

The body politic is a slow learner, but one day our disgust with this self-inflicted carnage and our outrage at the slaughter of our children will rise like a palpable tide, and shame those in power into action.  Probably not this time, but perhaps next time.  Or the next.


[1] All this from The Wall Street Journal, “The Gun Control Mirage” (October 5, 2017).

5 thoughts on “Is There a Tipping Point for Gun Control?

  1. Good post. I hope there is a tipping point and it comes soon (although preferably without another mass shooting). Australia did it, after all. But I’m guessing they aren’t as nuts as “we” are (and you know who “we” is). Did they have an NRA-like organization there, I wonder? Doubtful, but I don’t know.

  2. Pingback: My Friend, the AR-15 Owner | Mortal Coil

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