It used to be that the eeriest mass shooting in American history was the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, the slaughter of children just before Christmas, carols rendered as flippant taunts. But last week’s massacre in Las Vegas has proven even more unsettling, and not only because of the crime’s heinous nature. More than a week after Stephen Paddock opened fire into a crowd of concertgoers, we still have no idea why he did it, no history of mental illness or subscription to fetid ideology, just the details of a quotidian if somewhat private life. Into this void have naturally flowed conspiracy theories, setups and second shooters, made more mainstream than usual by the stubborn unavailability of answers.
On the policy front, too, there’s been little consolation. What new laws might have prevented the violence in Vegas? Paddock purchased his weapons legally; he never raised red flags through prior violence or brushes with the law. The usual panaceas—more background checks, clampdowns on “assault weapons,” denying those on the no-fly list access to guns—wouldn’t have stopped Paddock, something that’s been admitted by no less an anti-gun eminence than Senator Dianne Feinstein. Even the flavor of the month, a ban on bump stocks, isn’t likely to make a difference, given that a similar effect can be achieved with a simple belt loop and most firearm crimes are committed with handguns rather than semi-automatic rifles.
What to do if you’re an anti-gun reformer? Two unusually clarifying pieces published in the aftermath of the Vegas carnage have wrangled with that question. David Frum is on deck, but first over to Bret Stephens, the allegedly conservative columnist for the New York Times, who last week took a break from clamoring for the usage of ordnance abroad to advocate against Americans using guns at home. Stephens acknowledges most modest gun control proposals wouldn’t work—instead, he says, we should repeal the Second Amendment and its protections on gun ownership. “Expansive interpretations of the right to bear arms will be the law of the land,” he asserts, “until the ‘right’ itself ceases to be.” He finishes with a contrarian flourish, speculating that even James Madison would today welsh on gun rights.
Stephens’ column is hardly edifying. It doesn’t address how the daunting procedural hurdle of repealing a constitutional amendment would be cleared or how public support for such a move would be marshaled. It also fails to explicate what legislators are supposed to do once the Second Amendment is gone, glossing over that question with a mushy mean: “Gun ownership should never be outlawed…but it doesn’t need a blanket Constitutional protection, either.” Exacting stuff! Still, at least Stephens acknowledges this is all more complex than the left’s usual formulation: commonsense gun laws, popular with the public, congested in Congress thanks to the omnipotent NRA. As he notes, the NRA isn’t really that powerful, and those commonsense reforms wouldn’t accomplish much of anything.
The Second Amendment is a problem for gun controllers, a stout legal bulwark against the change most of them desire. But there’s a sturdier obstacle blocking their path, one identified more forthrightly by David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and current senior editor at The Atlantic. Frum places himself in agreement with Stephens: “I’ve come around more and more to the gun advocate point of view that there is something artificial and even dishonest about the technocratic approach to gun control.” The reason we have mass shootings, he says, is the availability and mobility of firearms, which his countrymen broadly support. And that popular support is the fly in the gun controllers’ ointment. “Until Americans change their minds about guns,” he concludes, “Americans will die by guns in numbers resembling the casualty figures in Somalia and Honduras more than Britain or Germany.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be the same An End to Evil-coauthoring Frum without some generalities launched out the Kalorama window. This time, it was a subsequent claim on Twitter that the idea of the “responsible gun owner” is a “myth.” (The Southeast D.C. dweller who buys a gun after his house is burgled, irresponsible? Cylons are not this tin-eared.) Nonetheless, Frum’s earlier point is a good and frank and needed one. If modest measures won’t work, then logic dictates gun controllers must back more sweeping reforms, and those will never be enacted by our representative government unless Americans’ bedrock gun culture is somehow cracked apart. Specifically, a ban on handguns, the policy that (setting aside the absurdities of its implementation) would on paper do the most to tamp down violent crime, is opposed by three quarters of the public, according to Gallup. Thirty-nine percent, meanwhile, say they keep guns in their homes. Fifty-nine percent say they’re satisfied with current gun laws, are dissatisfied but support keeping them the way they are, or want to loosen them.
Certainly conservatism, which seeks to limit concentrations of power and takes a clear-eyed view of human nature, doesn’t necessarily point towards ever-more privately owned arms, especially if that means one can stockpile arsenals of highly lethal rifles as did Stephen Paddock. Should unreliable man be able to end dozens of lives in a matter of minutes? That’s a question worth pondering. What’s beyond dispute is that shaking America out of its gun hobby would be a radical project indeed, requiring punitive new laws to be enacted, the mass confiscation of weapons, the upturning of tradition—none of which can be accomplished short of a police state without first changing tens of millions of minds. Now, at last, some prominent anti-gun figures are waking up to the magnitude of what they seek; it’s a bucket of cold water to the face, surely.
Stephens and Frum aren’t technocrats calibrating the machine of progress; they’re Wayne Wheeler and Carrie Nation, throwing open our saloon doors and smashing our tumblers. Theirs is a moral crusade against what they perceive to be a national vice. America is sick and only they are enlightened enough to make it better. Perhaps that’s a bit flippant—some of our nation’s best (and worst) work has been done by those who set out to mend grand societal ills—but we should at least stop pretending that the kids-cup prescriptions of a Senator Chris Murphy can ever accomplish his jumbo-size ends. This is a nation with one firearm for every citizen, a thriving outdoorsman culture, a history of violent lawlessness, a frontier, a Second Amendment. Jamming those spokes is going to require a far larger stick than anything that fits through the ludicrously exaggerated “gun show loophole.”
The reason many of us take the (authentically) Madisonian view—in addition to our leeriness over a total government monopoly on arms—is that we reject such a crusade as impractical. We see it as premised on a fundamentally false conception of America, one that glosses over her indelible traditions of individualism and defiance. We worry it will result in more polarization and violence rather than less. We observe, too, that the public has lately grown weary of elite designs on their values, their pronouns, their national anthem—enough to elect Donald Trump in the hopes of making it all stop. Presumably an additional betterment campaign against their guns would be met with the same aggravation and pushback. It’s your move, gentlemen, but is this really where you want to go right now?
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.