The most fervent and polarized sides in the renewed debate on gun control share one piece of solid common ground: they both invest rather magical qualities in the cold, lifeless hardware of guns themselves.
For liberals, the very term “gun violence” has been reified into some sort of natural force, completely detached from any identifiable root causes other than guns themselves—as if .45 semi-automatics, Bushmaster black rifles, and high-capacity magazines exert some hypnotic gravitational pull that beckons latent maniacs to pick them up and spray innocent crowds with military-like barrages.
On the other side, hardcore NRA supporters and certain other Second Amendment support groups define guns and weaponry as not just the symbolic but also the highest material expression of liberty, freedom, and moral rectitude. Anybody who can buy and possess a gun, especially if he or she conceals it—or even open carries—in public, automatically passes into the ranks of being a “good guy.” No matter what this new hero’s background, inclinations, or emotional make-up might be.
Now it seems this sterile debate is destined to become a wedge issue once more. So it was in the early ’90s, thanks to an aggressive push by the NRA. This time around, however, Democrats are flogging the issue and taking the initiative.
It’s a rather radical departure for liberals. Many a Democratic operative was convinced that the Gingrich Congress, with high-caliber NRA funding, swept in as a snapback to the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban championed by California’s Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein and backed by the Clinton White House. And when Al Gore could not carry his own state of Tennessee in 2000—which would have put him over the top regardless of Florida’s Hurricane Chad—those same party insiders were further convinced that gun control was the culprit.
With Democrats and liberals persuaded that the issue had become politically radioactive, they dropped gun control like a red-hot rifle barrel. Indeed, during the 2008 presidential primary cycle, the Democratic National Committee issued a statement slapping Republican candidate Mitt Romney for having supported gun control while governor of Massachusetts. “Either Mitt Romney’s brand new NRA lifetime membership card wasn’t activated in time to get him into the convention or Romney was afraid he wouldn’t be able to smooth talk his way out of his record on gun issues,” wrote DNC spokesman Damien LaVera.
During his first term in office, the only action that Barack Obama took on the issue was to liberalize the possession of guns in national parks and wildlife refuges. Yet liberals have now done another about-face. At the beginning of this year, on the heels of a high-profile shooting on an Oregon college campus that took nine lives, a teary-eyed president went on national TV to announce some small-scale tweaks in ATF regulations saying, “as I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough.”
Denunciations of a rampant “gun violence epidemic” and “mass shootings” have become leading liberal campaign tropes. For Hillary Clinton, her opponent Bernie Sanders’s D-minus rating from the NRA is not good enough.
Mega-billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has poured millions into gun-control organizations, many of them brandishing filed-down, soft-sounding names like “Everytown Against Gun Violence” and “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.” The words “gun control” have been replaced with what seem to be focus-group-tested euphemisms like “sensible gun reform,” “common sense gun safety reform,” and now the ubiquitous “opposition to gun violence.”
The web fills up daily with liberal memes about a “Florida man” or some other poor soul shooting himself accidentally or getting shot by his toddler, creating the impression that in this nation of 320 million people such incidents are now as prevalent as the common cold—or at least more common than people showing up in the ER to have sex-related gadgets removed from this or that orifice.
In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings late last year, MSNBC’s talking head Rachel Maddow, along with other liberal outlets like Vox, stoked the fires of the renewed and rebranded gun-control movement by quoting a spurious Washington Post claim that in 2015 America was bloodied by a staggering 355 mass shootings.
No matter that Mark Follman, keeper of a database on shootings in America for the decidedly left-of-center and adamantly anti-NRA Mother Jones, debunked this hysteria in the New York Times, saying there had been, in fact, only four mass killings in 2015—consistent, more or less, with the tallies of the previous 30 years. “[A]s those numbers gain traction in the news media,” Follmer wrote, referring to the preposterous figure of nearly one mass shooting per day, “they distort our understanding.”
Follman’s quest to remain clear-headed on the matter—instead of joining in the growing demagogy that suggests going to the movies in America today resembles something like being in the infantry defending Fallujah—leaves him in a fairly rarified minority, at least on the liberal left.
The renewed push for more gun control—or against “gun violence” if you prefer—should be fully understandable. The blood-soaked media spectacles of the Gabby Giffords shooting, the massacres in Aurora and Charleston, and the thought of 20 small children and six adults gunned down in Newtown very well should produce an emotional shock and urge “to do something.” For Democrats, however, these incidents urged them to cynically reload the gun-control issue and offer a number of mostly useless proposals that will do nothing to reduce gun murders.
Most of the underpinnings of “gun violence” reforms are based on skewed assumptions, mixed with a sometimes shocking dose of ignorance on the part of policymakers, re-enforced by a media class that cannot often tell one end of a gun from the other. The rhetoric of the movement also continues to stigmatize just about anybody who owns a gun as a knuckle-dragging supporter of fringe militias. Worse, at least from my perspective, the current gun-control strategy also plays directly into the hands of an NRA that is, in fact, more a lobbying group for the gun industry than for gun owners.
Liberals also now recur to the scourge of “gun violence” as a convenient way to betray their own historic commitment to greater social justice. No longer do they need to tackle such daunting issues as urban decay, low wages, and poor education because they prefer to reverse cause and effect: if we could only get rid of guns… It’s become a catchall mantra for the disorder of too many urban centers and the marginalization of their inhabitants, who are the ones doing most of the dying—and most of the killing.
Some personal disclosure is in order. My rap against the majority of gun-control activists does not stem from an absolutist Second Amendment position. I think there are some rational and bold legislative steps that should be enacted to reduce all social violence, including that from a barrel of a gun. Like most rational people, yes, I oppose innocent people dying from gunshots. Politically, I might be defined as a libertarian leftist—definitely a leftist. I am also a gun owner and a member in good standing of the (small) Liberal Gun Club. I own 10 guns, including a legal AK-47, incorrectly vilified as an “assault rifle.” And I reload my own ammo.
I would love to see an honest debate on guns in American life. But I refuse to support what has essentially become one more distracting, off-point skirmish in the culture wars. There is very little seriousness and a whole lot of cultural red meat in the reborn Democratic push against “gun violence.” It is fashioned much more to buck up partisan electoral support in swing suburban districts and among minority voters than to reduce the abuse of guns. To “oppose gun violence” or to argue for “common sense gun safety,” even without knowing anything about the issue, merely imbues rank-and-file liberals with a warm, fuzzy sense of moral superiority.
Likewise, a fiction has been born that all gun owners are an identifiable and unique species dominated by chubby white men enthralled by Rush Limbaugh, militias, and a desire to shoot it out with jackbooted Feds. Gun owners in reality defy pigeonholing as “gun nuts” or “gunners,” and whenever I go target shooting at my local Los Angeles range I find a crowd who by age, race, and apparent social background are wildly more diverse than the University of Southern California journalism school faculty from which I recently retired.
On a very personal basis, I will confess, I am now tired of and deeply annoyed by affluent liberals—living in 6,000-square-foot houses with heated swimming pools, who use a 400-horsepower SUV to drive their kids two blocks to school, with a family carbon footprint that of a small battleship—asking me sharply, “So why do you need so many guns?” or “Why on earth do you need such a powerful rifle?”
Getting to a rational position on guns and gun control, however, now requires conjoining a number of hard facts and shooting down a bevy of shibboleths kept alive and energized by liberal ignorance. It requires anything but an emotion-driven lashing out at strawmen.
There are some 300 million guns in the United States and they are not going anywhere anytime soon.
Thanks to pernicious legislation sponsored by the NRA, firearms research in the United States is full of roadblocks. So nobody really knows how many guns there are in America. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report estimated that in 2009 there were 310 million firearms: “114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns.” Other more recent estimates put the figure between 245 million or 360 million.
The precise figure means little. One way or another there is “easy access” to guns. And as firearms tend to survive and function for many, many decades, there can be absolutely no discussion of gun control without accepting this simple, cold reality.
I am not interested in any discussion of what the Second Amendment really means, nor am I much interested in any moral discourse either way on guns. I am not, simply, because the horse left the barn a very long time ago and those guns are here to stay. No buyback program, no further restriction laws, no weapons bans are going to make any visible difference. Any control measure that does not start from this reality is about as realistic as signing a petition against earthquakes.
The only concrete achievement of the gun-control movement has been to generate an ever-increasing amount of gun sales. And many advocates are not honest in declaring their underlying motivation.
Gun-control activists need not take my word for it that their strategy has been a rank failure. In 2015, the FBI processed a record number of firearms background checks: more than 23 million requests were handled by the National Instant Background Check System. Again, there is no certainty, but it is estimated that only 1 percent or maybe 2 percent of those checks come back negative, meaning that at least 20 million new guns were put into circulation just last year.
This trend has been building historically. If the goal of gun-control advocates has been to reduce what’s called easy access to guns, they have totally failed—if not been running the wrong way down the field.
Yes, the NRA’s constant drumbeating about “gun grabbers” and real or imagined fears about terrorist attacks help fuel the binge buying. Yet while the NRA clearly exaggerates the threat of gun confiscation, control advocates lay the groundwork by focusing their efforts far too much on the gear—the guns—instead of the people who use them.
Further, count me among those who suspect the real motives of many of those who try to soft-sell control with the new euphemisms of “gun safety reform” and “sensible gun reform.” There is no way to substantiate my guess scientifically, but having spent my adult life in a primarily “progressive” and “liberal” milieu it is rather obvious to me that many, if not most, urban middle-class liberals who do not own guns actually hate guns. That is their understandable right. But just underneath their mumbo-jumbo rhetoric about “gun safety” lurks a desire to somehow magically do away with, ban, or confiscate guns and repeal the Second Amendment.
Look no further than Hillary Clinton’s campaign slam on Bernie Sanders for having voted for the 2005 law that granted gun manufacturers heavy layers of protection against legal liability claims. Said Clinton recently: “So far as I know, the gun industry and gun sellers are the only business in America that is totally free of liability for their behavior. Nobody else is given that immunity. And that just illustrates the extremism that has taken over this debate.”
As NPR Fact Check pointed out, that’s not 100 percent true. Clinton’s statement “doesn’t appear to be completely accurate,” Adam Winkler, professor of law at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, told NPR. “The 2005 law does not prevent gun makers from being held liable for defects in their design. Like car makers, gun makers can be sued for selling a defective product. The problem is that gun violence victims often want to hold gun makers liable for the criminal misuse of a properly functioning product.”
If Clinton’s stated desire to overturn that law were fulfilled, it would obviously mean that gun makers could be sued for engaging in truth-in-advertising, i.e., for selling ostensibly lethal weapons that actually are lethal. In what sort of logic is that not advocating the shutdown of the industry? (Sanders, by the way, under pressure from Clinton’s attacks and much of his own progressive base, reversed his position before the Iowa caucuses and is now supporting a bill that would weaken that immunity.)
Gun homicides are on a historic decline and are not a growing epidemic.
The round-the-clock coverage given to the handful of outright gun massacres by tabloid outlets like CNN creates the sensation that firearms homicides are a rapidly multiplying American epidemic. The reality is quite different, if not the opposite.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, gun deaths have been in general decline for more than 20 years, down some 31 percent since 1993. Between 1993 and 2000 the tally was down a full 50 percent, even as gun sales increased. Since 2000 the gun murder rate has more or less stabilized, showing only marginal variation up or down year to year.
About 11,000 Americans every year are shot to death when someone else pulls the trigger. Twice that number commit suicide by gun. Let’s repeat that fact: two-thirds of American gun violence is deliberately self-inflicted, and while certainly lamentable represents no public safety threat—unless you are among those committing suicide.
Gun suicides since 2010, in fact, have ticked slightly upward. Would any gun control measure slow down the suicide rate? I have no idea, nor does anybody else. I would have to assume not, just as prohibiting alcohol did nothing to diminish alcoholism. (But it sure did fuel armed gang warfare by bootleggers.)
The Pew study also found, to nobody’s surprise, that in spite of the falloff in gun deaths, a full 56 percent of Americans thought that gun-related killings had actually increased over the last 20 years.
As to “gun safety”—the new catchword for gun control—the grand total of accidental gun deaths in the U.S. hovers at about 500 per year. Even strict gun-control advocates put the number no higher than 600.
It’s never comfortable playing the atrocity game of comparing death tolls, but it’s necessary when fashioning public-policy priorities: notably, the CDC calculates that 75,000 Americans die each year of HA-I, or Healthcare Associated Infections, a fancy term for the deaths of otherwise nonterminal patient caused by lethal bacteria in hospitals. Perhaps a campaign advocating “Health Care Safety Reform” is in order?
Mass killings are not the biggest gun problem we face. And gun death is not an equal-opportunity offender.
The single greatest inconvenient truth in the totality of the gun issue is that mass killings of the sort carried out in Roseburg, Oregon or Newtown, Connecticut are absolute outliers. These sorts of atrocities account for far less than 1 percent of American gun deaths. And a majority of these killings employed legally purchased weapons.
These are also acts carried out by clearly mentally ill subjects. Is it cruel, insensitive, or cynical to say that probably nothing could prevent such massacres? No. Even in highly authoritarian states like China, where civilian ownership of guns is strictly forbidden and the citizenry is tightly monitored, crazed individuals, given enough will, can spread bloody mayhem, in some incidents using knives to murder five or 10 times the number of victims in the worst American mass shootings.
And to obsess over high-profile campus killings, while pretty much ignoring the daily meat-grinder murder toll in urban hot spots like Chicago or Detroit, takes our eyes off the bigger problem. Writes African-American columnist Jamelle Bouie:
Put simply, our focus on Roseburg-style shootings—as much it makes sense—obscures the extent to which most victims of gun homicide are poor, black, and live in America’s most isolated communities. Moreover, the steps we could take to reduce those homicides—removing millions of handguns from circulation, preventing illegal sales, reforming police departments to solve more homicides (and deter potential shooters)—don’t have much to do with ending mass shootings. Likewise, the steps to reduce mass shootings—universal background checks, stronger mental health services, liability insurance for gun owners—won’t do much to reduce the nation’s gun homicide problem (although it could reduce our other gun problem—suicides).
Liberals, fearful of offending the arbiters of political correctness by referring to “black-on-black crime,” sidestep the glaring truth that African-Americans run twice the chance of being killed by guns compared to white Americans. In the nation’s capital, the gun-related fatality rate is a mind-boggling 13.5 times higher for blacks than for whites. One could argue this is because D.C. is a predominantly black city. Yet in the state of New Jersey, blacks are four and a half times more likely to die from gunshots than whites. Similar rates are found in Michigan and notoriously liberal Massachusetts.
Perhaps the most startling statistic about gun violence was revealed by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, who found that among whites 77 percent of gun deaths are suicides, while among blacks 82 percent are homicides. A white person is four times as likely to commit suicide with a gun as to be murdered with a gun; for each African-American who uses a gun to commit suicide, five are killed by other people with guns. And the vast majority of the killers of blacks are not “gun nuts” or NRA boosters, they are other young black men.
A white man killing himself in Peoria and black teenagers shooting each other on the streets of Chicago are two very different types of gun violence, which require very different remedies not contemplated in one-size-fits-all “gun safety” reforms.
Liberal reluctance to talk about “black-on-black” crime stems from a fear of being identified with racist demagogues who use the term to suggest that blacks suffer from special “cultural dysfunction.” The violence that plagues many urban black communities, however, has nothing to do with either culture or genetics. Writing as a USC graduate student in 2012, journalist Matt Pressberg put it this way:
Poverty and failing institutions appear to be much better predictors of homicide than gun ownership. Murder rates are higher in neighborhoods of America that are poorer and less educated, regardless of gun culture, and it would seem to back up this theory if the same trend were repeated elsewhere. It would also help to shoot down some of the ‘America is a uniquely violent place’ garbage.
That trend has indeed been repeated elsewhere and bears out Pressberg’s point. Currently, the deadliest cities in the world are Caracas, Venezuela; San Pedro Sula, Honduras; and San Salvador, El Salvador. They all have three things in common: poverty, collapsed social institutions, and tight regulation on civilian gun ownership.
Pressberg does a very thorough job in statistically establishing a lack of direct correlation between rates of gun ownership and gun deaths. It just doesn’t match up. While 60 percent of firearms are owned in predominantly rural regions, a greatly disproportionate number of gun murders take place in urban centers. “Half of all homicides occurred in 63 cities with 16% of the nation’s population; within those cities, homicides were largely clustered in certain neighborhoods,” according to a Journal of American Medicine study in 1999, a time when gun deaths leveled out to more or less current rates.
“Assault Rifles” are political bogeymen. And the media is accomplice to the ignorance.
By far the most popular firearm in the United States is the dreaded, mean-looking AR-15, the model for the Bushmaster and other knock-offs that are inevitably termed “assault rifles” by ignorant reporters and targeted by gun-control activists as Public Enemy Number One. Based on but not identical to the Army’s Vietnam-era M16, the Bushmaster black semi-automatic rifle was the one used by Adam Lanza in Newtown. And while nobody knows for sure, as many as four million are in circulation nationally. Some gun experts put the figure at twice as high, as AR-15-type rifles can be put together from parts fairly easily.
In a recent Chicago Sun-Times column, Jesse Jackson described these guns in the following chilling terms: “weapons designed for the purpose of mass killing in war are available for purchase at gun shows, online and at many gun stores. These weapons are powerful enough to stop trains or strafe planes that are landing or taking off. These are tools for terrorists, easily available for sale in America.”
Jackson vastly overstates the power of these rifles. He seemingly does not know that this type of rifle has been readily available for purchase for 30 years or more. He is, however, right about one thing: terrorists do prefer these types of weapon. But American killers do not. They don’t figure as even a blip in a serious discussion of domestic gun murders. FBI data reveal that rifles of any type are used in some 3 percent or fewer of homicide deaths. So-called assault rifles are almost never used. (Though they were employed by Lanza and by the San Bernardino shooters who were, in fact, jihadists.)
Nor are AR-15s “military assault rifles.” (AR stands for the manufacturer name, Armalite.) They are often juxtaposed as the evil cousin to the supposedly kinder and gentler type of “grandpa’s hunting rifle” that so many gun-control activists tell us should be the only kind of long gun we are ever able to own. What most reporters do not know is that many of those old hunting rifles are vastly more powerful than an AR. Ask the Kennedy family. (Though RFK was murdered by a .22 handgun, a relative pop gun compared to any rifle.) Reporters also don’t seem to know that many ARs are purchased precisely for hunting.
But, but, but we are warned, these ARs are “semi-automatics,” and they should be banned like all semis. They are indeed semi-automatic, meaning that every time you pull the trigger, a round is fired; compared to a fully automatic machine gun that continues firing as long as the trigger is depressed. Full automatics are military-grade weapons. And with very few exceptions and with very strict monitoring, they have been outlawed for civilian use for decades. Outlawing semis, as many gun-control advocates desire, would render illegal most of the common and even vintage rifles and handguns in circulation, as this technology dates back to the early 20th century—and arguably to the Civil War, if you consider lever-action repeating rifles.
That there is so much confusion over ARs, semi-autos, and full autos comes as no surprise. When asked on a couple of occasions to make expert presentations on understanding guns to groups of crime-beat reporters, I was at first squeamish that my elementary explanation of what those terms mean—along with other fundamentals, like what is a magazine as opposed to a clip and what are the differences between a round, a bullet, and a cartridge—would be far too basic. I was completely wrong.
The weapons of choice for killers are handguns, usually on the smaller size at that. Of the 10 most common guns used to commit murder in the United States, as compiled by Time, the Smith & Wesson .38 Special—basically a police-style six-shooter revolver—tops the list. Of the other nine weapons, the only long rifle we find is a shotgun. (Or if you prefer, grandpa’s old varmint gun.)
What distinguishes a so-called “assault rifle” is cosmetics, not firepower or lethality. “The only thing unique about assault rifles is their menacing name and look, and it is these elements that make them such an appealing—if not particularly sensible—target of gun control advocates,” wrote gun-control historian Adam Winkler earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times.
America’s gun debate suffers because of unreasonable, extreme positions taken by the NRA. But gun control advocates who push for bans on one kind of rifle primarily because it looks scary also contribute to the problem. Such bans don’t reduce gun crime, but they do stimulate passionate opposition from law-abiding gun owners: Gun control advocates ridicule the NRA’s claim that the government is coming to take away people’s guns, then try to outlaw perhaps the most popular rifle in the country.
Winkler’s assertion cannot be overemphasized. The whole AR-15 boom, ironically, was sparked not by a legion of crazed killers but by the gun-control movement itself. In 1986, a half-century-old law restricting fully automatic machine guns was greatly tightened, so gun manufacturers started pushing out ARs that looked like military machine guns: the equivalent of putting a lot of chrome and a glass-pack muffler—or in this case, black finish—on a Buick.
ARs with mostly useless accessories like bayonet lugs, grenade launchers, and flash suppressors began to flood the legal gun market. Lawmakers, ignorant of gun technology, began to demagogue the issue and by 1994 a Democrat-backed Assault Weapons Ban went into effect. It accomplished next to nothing in terms of reducing violence because, simply, these guns were not used in any meaningful way in crime.
Gun manufacturers quickly responded to that “ban” by producing slightly cosmetically altered ARs, and the boom in sales was underway—and still is. The forbidden fruit of “assault rifles” has now become the main course for many gun buyers. Just like tail fins became an unstoppable craze on cars made in the late ’50s.
But surely something can and must be done about guns in the U.S. Something must be better than nothing, no?
Winkler is also correct that the NRA’s intransigence on any legislation—indeed, its ongoing campaign to weaken gun laws—is probably the single greatest obstacle to a reasonable debate on the issue.
It was not always this way. Formed shortly after the Civil War, the NRA functioned as a true bipartisan, mostly apolitical sport-shooting group, and in the 1920s and 1930s it championed legislation to regulate firearms when it helped lobby states to restrict concealed carry. It even supported, if somewhat reluctantly, the major 1968 gun-control law—enacted after the Black Panthers exercised what was then their legal right to open carry long arms.
This all changed in 1977, in what has been called the Revolt at Cincinnati, when a rather extreme and very politicized faction of the NRA took over the organization at its annual convention. From there, the rest is well-treaded history. The NRA has recruited four million members, donated barrels of money to compliant members of Congress, and has not only blocked even the most mild proposals of gun regulation but has won patently absurd legislation that blocks medical research on guns, forces the FBI not to maintain a database of guns nor even approved background checks, and severely limits the ability of the ATF to properly audit and inspect licensed gun dealers, to mention only a few measures.
The best way to combat the NRA and open up an intelligent debate, however, is to stop feeding it. The NRA leadership leverages real and imaginary fears about the threat of “gun grabbers.” It’s really the only hand they have—but it is as strong as quad aces. And that ploy gets bolstered every time gun-control or “gun safety” advocates put any focus on the type of guns or magazines or ammo they propose to tax, restrict, or outlaw.
Most gun owners, like most other people, are not crazy. That’s why we find a full 92 percent of gun owners, the same percentage of the general population, support universal background checks, even if the NRA opposes them. What gun owners do not support is the stigmatizing and perhaps outlawing of guns they own or want to buy.
And, what I cannot stress enough, they deeply resent being lumped together as “gun nuts,” “rednecks,” or just plain dangerous because they own, like, collect, or even hoard guns. They especially resent being lectured by politicians and journalists who demonstrate an often stunning ignorance on the issue.
While the NRA must bear blame for being the institution that most successfully impedes any debate on gun regulation, it’s the “gun safety reform advocates” who have transformed this into a cultural issue, to their own peril.
Ownership or opposition to ownership of guns has dangerously become an issue of polarized cultural and personal identification, making it a surefire candidate for intractability and deadlock. This creates an almost total void of honest interlocutors. As long as the “gun safety” movement remains a strictly urban-liberal movement, the NRA and the gun-manufacturer lobby it represents will take up the rest of the space.
Consider the case of Dick Metcalf, for decades one of the most respected and followed “gun writers” in America. In 2013 he briefly surfaced as one of those honest interlocutors when he wrote a back-page editorial for Guns and Ammo titled “Let’s Talk Limits.” Arguing the rational position that all rights have limits and that regulation does not mean infringement, he applauded a new provision in Illinois that anybody receiving a concealed-carry permit must undergo 16 hours of certified training. (Some states require no training, and a few not even a permit. Those that do require training usually impose eight hours.)
A tsunami of protest ensued. The magazine was inundated with howls of heresy and threats of cancellation, and gun manufacturers unholstered a possible advertising boycott that would have defunded the magazine—which nowadays is little more than an advertising vehicle.
Within a week, Metcalf was thrown out on his rear and the magazine issued a groveling mea culpa that satisfied the gun-makers and its own subscriber base. That was all to be expected.
Also to be expected was that not a single gun-control group reached out to Metcalf to see if he might find some other like-minded gun owners and experts that could broaden a new coalition. Until the political leadership on gun regulation prominently includes gun owners respected and trusted by other owners, and until the movement sheds its partisan and liberal identification, it is destined to go nowhere.
While the hundreds of millions of guns in America are going nowhere anytime soon, it’s certainly possible that current levels of gun murders might be reduced—as they have been since the early ’90s. We should learn from that experience and see that it was not gun control that produced that reduction. The single greatest factor can probably be identified as the suppression of the crack epidemic and the violent street gangs fighting for domination—an indication that tamping down gun violence has little to do with tamping down guns.
“Ending the War on Drugs would effectively reduce gun violence more than any other possible reform or change,” says former Cook County assistant state attorney and drug-legalization advocate Jim Gierach.
If people have a valuable commodity—and prohibited drugs are the most valuable commodity on the face of the earth—in their pocket and someone tries to steal the drugs, or steal the money they made selling them, or commandeer the corner where they are able to make such transactions in huge and unlimited numbers, then they are going to want to protect those valuables, precipitating gun violence. When Al Capone’s business became legal, rampant prohibition violence ended—the bombings, the turf wars, the gang shootings. Substance prohibition changes everything for the worse, just as ending prohibition changes everything for the better.
It’s a tough truth to swallow, given our current political atmosphere, but if we already know that the most powerful generator of all social violence, including gun violence, is not “assault weapons” but rather poverty, collapsing institutions, and a lack of good jobs and education, then it seems obvious that concentrating on those issues—rather than on how many or what kinds of guns law-abiding folks own—might be more productive.
I also gratuitously suggest that empty phrases like gun violence, gun control, and gun safety be dropped in favor of what might really make some small and maybe meaningful change, i.e., gun regulation. The Second Amendment has, until very recently, easily coexisted with regulation, going back to the frontier days of Dodge City where, upon entering the town limits, a sign requested everybody check their guns with the sheriff.
There is a silent, untapped grassroots consensus on certain possible measures, I believe, that make sense in the regulation of firearms—some that go far beyond what anybody is currently proposing, as they seem politically toxic. None of them affect the type of guns permitted, and none of them are punitive.
Universal background checks make sense, as the focus is on the person not the gun. The criteria of those checks must be tightened, without infringing the right to privacy. For those checks to work properly and to ease the burden on law enforcement, guns should be treated like cars. They should be registered and trackable in a national database and require a legal transfer through a third party, even when transferred within a family. Liability insurance should be required. The FBI and ATF should be able to retain background-check records. Permission to conceal carry—currently expanding at accelerated rates—should be treated, as writer and gun owner Sam Harris proposes, like a pilot’s license, requiring skilled training and certification.
All of this is pie in the sky, however, because there is no political will. There is no political will because the insertion of cultural identity has too deeply polarized the issue. And ultimately, while the measures I favor make sense for proper law enforcement and greater personal responsibility, they do nothing to mitigate the underlying causes of violence.
I expect, then, no forward movement but just a continuation of the present cycle: exaggerated rhetoric about the plague of “gun violence,” an accelerated purchasing of guns, an ever deeper retreat into partisan trenches, and consequently an ever-widening manufactured chasm between gun owners and gun controllers.
Marc Cooper has reported on politics and culture for more than 40 years. A contributing editor to The Nation, he retired recently from the journalism faculty at the USC Annenberg School.