Next week will mark the one year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. It wasn’t the first mass shooting in recent history and it is no longer the most recent. Even so, the sight of so many dead children prompted a sense that this time the national response might be different. Instead, we got more of the same: some hand-wringing, some tepid or perhaps buoyant efforts at passing gun control, pushback from gun advocates, and then nothing. Queue the sound and the fury signifying very little.
Why was that? One common argument at the time was that it’s inappropriate to make public policy based on high-emotion events. That’s true: the best public policy is rarely the result of knee-jerk reactions to crises. For example, random mass shootings drive most of the national attention, but the majority of gun deaths are the result of suicide and the majority of gun homicides are the result of targeted violence. Sandy Hooks is a poor analogue for thinking about those kind of events.
At the same time, gun advocates aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to discuss gun control when there isn’t a crisis. In the world of politics, you have to do what you can with the opportunities you get.
But the divisions over guns in America run too deep to be easily bridged, even by the such a tragedy. In the wake of the heartbreaking Newtown school massacre, one moment captured this disconnect as best as anything else has over recent memory. While much of the public discourse had focused on renewed efforts at gun control, perhaps even a new ban on so-called ‘assault riffles’, the NRA’s most memorable contribution was to suggest armed guards be placed in schools to deter future shooters. A lot of Americans were horrified, but a lot of Americans thought it sounded like good common sense. As Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice-president of the NRA, put it: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”
No other moment has so brilliantly captured what makes the gun debate so spectacularly instructive. The gun debate is just like all the other debates in our politics, only more so. Here’s why.
First, the gun debate pits two sides against each other that seem to have a deep-seated inability to understand one another despite all they share in common.
I’m going to leave aside the whole sub-genre of conversations around the Second Amendment that seem to fetishize the idea of an armed insurrection against the government with a couple of observations. First, in any society where that ability were truly important, you wouldn’t be able to call into a radio show and talk about how important it was. Second, the fact that some of the Founding Fathers seemed to endorse armed insurrection as an option isn’t terribly relevant; they also seemed to think, for the most part, that slavery was acceptable. Clearly, they weren’t perfect in their judgements. (It’s really remarkable that this has to be said at all.) Third, we had a big, collective episode of insurrection in this country and that didn’t go very well for anyone, except the slaves. Fourth, those people are mostly on the fringe – the insurrectionists, that is, not the slaves. I know a lot of people talk about gun rights in the context of insurrection, and it’s an interesting civic exercise to have that conversation. But I don’t think a lot of people honestly believe we are or should be on the verge of something like that (except for Sharon Angle).
The divide I’m talking about is between people who think of themselves and their loved ones mostly as potential victims of gun violence, and those who think of themselves and their loved ones mostly as responsible gun owners. For people who live in high-crime and high-gang-activity neighborhoods, it seems appallingly callous for gun-rights advocates to claim that accessibility to guns isn’t part of the problem. Meanwhile, responsible gun owners bristle at the implication that they might be part of a problem that is happening far away, and neighborhoods unlike theirs, and which is being perpetrated by people they share little in common with.
There’s a similar divide between people who view themselves as personally responsible for their safety and people who are either unwilling or unable to take over that responsibility for themselves. Many people living in rural communities know that if they are ever in danger, then they are the first responders and law enforcement might only arrive in time to document what happened. But don’t kid yourself, if someone breaks through the front door of your urban apartment, they can reach you before the police can. I’m uncomfortable telling anyone that they shouldn’t be able to take whatever steps they think proper to protect themselves. Self-defense is an inherent (and individual) right, one that society can infringe upon only to the degree that it can guarantee our safety.
Even so, you’re not going to arm your teenagers on the way to school and if you lived in a neighborhood where your children were subjected to daily violence, then you might have a more expansive understanding of what’s a reasonable tradeoff. Of course, the irony is that when it comes to gun violence, gun-control advocates aren’t ultimately interested in the constraining the behavior of legal gun owners – even if that’s where they focus most of their energy. What they really want to do is constrain the behavior of criminals. You would think both gun owners and gun-control advocates could see their common interest in undermining that last group, but instead they’re too busy dismissing each other’s concerns and vilifying the other side to see the much more important common ground they share. Just like we do on every other issue.
Second, the gun debate comes complete with its fair share of performative flair. Rather than speaking to the issues, politicians and talking heads treat the gun debate as a political tug-of-war over symbols. Look, I get it, guns play an outsized role in our national sense of self. As I’m writing this, my computer happens to be playing Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”. Americans have a love affair with self-sufficiency and equality, and we have a history replete with noble warrior stories. I grew up in Boston and every April we remember both the importance of high ideals and the need to sometimes fight for them. Likewise, there are few things as horrifying as the sight of innocents struck down at the very beginning of life like they were at Newtown, or in their prime, like they were in Aurora.
These are emotional topics, and politicians play them for all they’re worth. Rather than a level-headed conversation on the issues – one that might center on background checks, straw-purchasers, and illegal handguns – we get a hyperbolic back-and-forth on ‘assault riffles’. It isn’t a conversation meant to help anything; it’s a conversation meant to either (a) remind you how much you like your Congressperson or (b) remind you how much you don’t like your Congressperson.
Third, the gun debate depends on our favorite touchstone: constitutional interpretation. If you ever wanted proof that the Founding Fathers didn’t think we’d be sitting here deconstructing their words with a fine-toothed comb two hundred odd years later, consider the semantic mess that is the Second Amendment:
A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Isn’t that perfectly clear? Sure it is – it just isn’t clear to everyone in quite the same way. My own reading is that the Second Amendment is outdated and we need to rewrite it in such a way that (a) firmly and clearly enshrines a personal right to own handguns and (b) firmly and clearly delineates that the government can prohibit you from owning an RPG. Neither of those things is crystal clear in the current text and I’m tired of the Courts having to provide remedies because we’re too petulant to do it ourselves.
Fourth, the gun debate reminds us that federalism is hard work. Or at least it should. A favorite, and mind-numbingly stupid, tactic of people arguing against gun control is to point out that many of the same municipalities that have the toughest gun control laws are also among the most violent. My favorite comparison is probably the one drawn between Indianapolis and Chicago because, isn’t it obvious how otherwise similar these two cities are? A wonderful thing about America is the fact that people can pick up and move to another city or state. Not only that, but Americans seem unusually willing to do just that. This competition is what allows for what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called the ‘fifty laboratories of democracy’. It’s also, incidentally, why I generally don’t like block granting. Inter-state mobility is a particular American strength, and when we replace national programs with state programs, we run the risk of undermining that. More to the point, gun-control laws in Illinois don’t mean much if you can just drive to Indiana and circumvent them and then drive back without having to pass a checkpoint.
At the same time, it would be unreasonable to expect Lower Manhattan and North Slope Alaska to live under the same gun-regime because, well, Lower Manhattan doesn’t have bears. Federalism requires us to, as is so often the case, find ways to make rules that are nimble enough to allow local solutions to local problem while at the same time compatible enough over broad swaths of the country so that one state doesn’t undermine another.
And so it is with every problem that faces us. My hope would be that we would take the gun debate as an opportunity to practice how to overcome these difficulties rather than as an opportunity to further alienate ourselves from each other. Alas, that might be too optimistic. Maybe after the next horrifying massacre, we can do better.
But probably not.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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