On Thursday of this past week, Reid Wilson of theNational Journal wrote an article decrying the lack of a national conversation on guns. My own most recent column discussed the same issue. Articles like those are necessary to highlight a major shortcoming of our society: Americans are not sufficiently moved by tragedies like that in Newtown, Connecticut, to press for real change. The vitriol directed at Wilson’s column—written a day before Friday’s shooting of elementary school children—focused on a mythical grand plan by liberals to destroy the Constitution, starting with the second amendment. When Jason Whitlock wrote an excellent and impassioned article in the wake of an NFL player’s murder-suicide two weeks ago, gun lovers responded with a collective, “Shut up, sports journalist.”
The conversation usually ends there. Other useful commenters, like The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman, rebut the claims of gun advocates with well-reasoned argument. It is easy to see, unfortunately, how little actual dialogue exists. Instead, opponents talk past each other, assuming the other side lives in a fantasy world. We make no progress and the status quo persists, which is just fine with gun advocates.
To bring about badly needed reform, we need to go deeper. We need to discuss ways to harness the energy that peaks around a tragedy like this one but dissipates far too rapidly. Some observers say that only an increase in public shootings will spur serious reform. I prefer to be less cynical. The public needs to realize that this country is less safe with so many guns. How do we get to that point?
Right now, the goal for gun control advocates must be to reframe the debate. Proponents of handguns tell a powerful story: victims of robbery and burglary—especially the elderly and those who live alone—often repel serious harm with guns. Who knows what damage has been averted by self-defense in the form of guns, they ask? This is a strong case. But its strength lies in the fear that crime might one day happen to us. This fear sadly outweighs the tragic, growing numbers of innocent victims of gun violence. The message that Americans need to accept is this: guns are as much a part of our culture as cars, hot dogs, and Hollywood. They are not a sign of power, but rather of weakness. And they have no place in 21stCentury civilian life.
There is no reason anyone should be able to purchase a war weapon. They are not a hobby item; if someone really needs to shoot a gun, he or she should go to a firing range and borrow one. There is also no reason that the shooter in Aurora, Colorado, this summer should have been able to carry 100-round magazines. Does self-defense require 100 shots? Shortly after that massacre, I engaged a veteran on this topic, who pointed out that our troops in World War II carried magazines of 10 rounds at most. Yet civilians can purchase 100-round clips to feed their automatic weapons.
This illuminates another issue: the difference between legal and illegal guns. The National Gun Victims Action Council reports that “the vast majority of the approximately 12,000 annual gun murders and 66,000 non-fatal shootings are committed by people who have no legal right to a gun.” Mayors Against Illegal Guns, spearheaded by Michael Bloomberg of New York and Tom Menino of Boston, is dedicated to eliminating the illegal gun trade. That group pursues a wide range of sensible reforms, including open gun offender registries; community partnerships; regional data sharing; and more transparent reporting of mental health data.
Yet it is frighteningly easy to acquire guns legally, and the recent shootings across America (as well as noted ones in Germany and Norway) were the acts of non-criminals. Robert Wright, in The Atlantic, adroitly finds that banning assault weapons, the most politically palatable reform, misses the real goal. Most Americans are not aware of the loopholes (such as the infamous “gun show loophole”) that gun addicts manipulate. If an individual is consumed with getting his or her hands on a weapon to the point of actively circumventing the limited requirements that do exist, he or she should probably not own guns in the first place. However, the ease of purchasing guns will prove far more difficult to reform.
I was working in the U.S. Senate when the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin occurred this summer. The vast majority of constituent feedback expressed worry that progressive officials would steal their guns. Some called gun control advocates communists and traitors. One even made the argument to me that if everyone in that Aurora movie theater had been armed, fewer people would have died. Yet, it was heartening to know that some individuals recognize the need for gun control.
We don’t just need to continue the open debate over the American obsession with guns. We need to come to terms with the fact that this obsession makes us less safe and makes America a worse place to live.
Note: this article appeared in The Wagner Review on December 18, 2012.