While the Parkland massacre has once again brought the debate over gun control to the forefront of public consciousness, that debate remains mired in deeply partisan divisions. In our legislatures, and within our communities and families, online and in person, the gun control issue is more likely to generate extreme passion than respectful discussion.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I was recently reminded of our collective capacity for civil conversation across great divides when one of my closest friends, in the midst of a group email exchange on the subject of gun control that included mutual friends and members of his family, mentioned that he owns an AR-15, the military-style, rapid-fire rifle used to such tragically murderous effect in the Parkland shooting, and in the Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernadino, Santa Monica, and Orlando mass-shootings. This disclosure came by way of explaining to the rest of us, as gun owners are sometimes wont to do, the distinctions between fully automatic and semi-automatic weapons, the fact that the prefix “AR” does not stand for “assault rifle,” and the nuances of different magazine capacities.
While I’d known for many years that my friend owned rifles and handguns, until that moment I hadn’t known that he had in his possession an AR-15, which for me has become emblematic of the sort of firearm that no private citizen can have any sane justification for owning.
Yet this was one of my closest friends, whom I met in the late Sixties in our freshman year of college, with whom I’d co-written our senior thesis on religious symbolism in literature and politics, who influenced my decision to go, like him, to law school, at whose wedding I was honored to speak, and who asked me to be godfather of his first-born child.
He was and remains one of the most personally admirable of all my acquaintances, worldly, well-read, intellectually curious, spiritually alive, as energetic and effective in leading various service organizations as he has been in his successful career. The email group he was addressing included his sons, several of whom have served with distinction in the military, all of whom are the kind of men one feels privileged to know. I would quite literally trust him with my life, and with the lives of my own family members.
Yet here we were, on opposite sides of one of the most important and potentially divisive issues of the day. His point in telling me that he owns an AR-15 was in part, I think, to deprive the label, and the thing itself, of the horrific connotations that recent media coverage has heaped upon it, to make me (who, among our email group, is perhaps farthest to the left) think more objectively about what I would really mean to accomplish with stricter gun control. If someone like him owns an AR-15, could it really be the inevitable instrument of destruction that I think it to be?
Why on earth does he own one? He would say for sport, for practicing his aim on desert ranges, to indulge, he’d admit, an expression of muscular masculinity that also includes motorcycles and big trucks. But also, he said, against the possibility that something that deadly might one day, in some unforeseeable, inarticulable circumstance, be needed to defend those he loves. He sees the world, as many do, as locked in an entropic spiral into barely contained anarchy, to which armed defense is a merely rational response. It’s interesting, because I have no less pessimistic a view of the world than he; it’s just that the threats I most fear — nuclear war, for instance — can’t be prevented with a semi-automatic rifle.
He’s all for imposing higher hurdles to gun ownership: background checks and mandatory training of the kind he’s faithfully undergone, obligatory registration, limiting ownership and possession to age 21 and above, prohibiting bump stocks, and the alignment of mental health and gun ownership regimes. But the chance that he might have no sure means to defend his home and family, however wildly remote, is enough that no act of someone else’s evil will ever convince him to give up his guns.
I, on the other hand, have never owned a gun in my life other than a BB gun in high school, which I quickly discarded when I confirmed, first hand, that it could in fact kill a bird. I regard the likelihood of what my friend calls a “successful home defense” with a gun as far less than the likelihood that someone could get seriously hurt or killed by a gun kept in my household, and that calculus is enough for me.
In our email exchange, I’d argued for outright repeal of the Second Amendment (as has conservative pundit Bret Stephens) on the ground that this would merely allow the states free rein to deal with gun control as they see fit, just as they do about less inherently dangerous activities, like driving a car or opening a hair salon, without the risk of Constitutional challenge from gun absolutists. The patchwork of state gun laws that would likely result might be far from ideal, but would be preferable to the demagoguery and obstructionism that the existence of the Second Amendment permits gun advocates to practice.
My friend thinks the American fetish for firearms goes deeper than the Constitution, that our cultural fascination with guns is rooted in the primordial human instinct for self-reliance and, therefore, self-defense. He believes that, for some, gun ownership is a statement of anti-elitist regional pride and for others a disavowal of what they see as the feminization of our society.
In our email exchange, I argued 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, of course, but a significant number. I said that it shouldn’t be that hard for us all to agree that there is no legitimate reason for a civilian to own an AR-15, or to purchase, as the Mandalay shooter did, 33 firearms in a single year, and the fact that we are unable to do so gives license — culturally and literally– to the worst among us.
My friend and I may never agree about appropriate contours of gun control, but our email colloquy reminded me that, as citizens and voters, we need to recognize and accept that guns mean different things to different people. He reminded me that, as I said here recently, 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 both symbolic and promotive of individual liberty. In any civil discussion about gun control, those feelings and beliefs have to be respected.
But we need to shed our societal tolerance for the revolutionary fantasies of grown men who can’t let go of playing cowboy, who put on AR-15s and other trappings of competence and bravery as a substitute for the real thing. These people need to find a different way to express their manhood.
My friend isn’t one of those, and we shouldn’t deny that when we advocate stricter gun control, and in particular banning assault weapons, we’re asking a significant percentage of our well-intentioned fellow citizens, including my trusted friend with the AR-15, to make a sacrifice for a greater good.
But we must ask them to.