Last Friday’s shooting shook this country to its core, arguably more than any single event since 9/11. The senselessness, the innocence of the victims, and the proximity to Christmas really jarred us into a new political reality – one where gun control efforts no longer feel like a political taboo. People I know who generally reject gun control based upon a vague notion of 2nd Amendment rights have begun to question the logical underpinnings of those arguments. And we’re starting to get smarter about recognizing that certain types of gun crimes and gun deaths do correlate with gun ownership rates.
The issue of gun control has always been a difficult one for me to navigate. I have been, and continue to be, rather skeptical that gun control efforts in this country can do much of anything on their own to fix this. Our fascination – or perhaps obsession – with guns is unparalleled in the world. I often hear arguments such as “if Australia and the UK can ban guns, so can we” and that translates to me as “if Saudi Arabia can ban alcohol, so can we”. No other country has the level of consumer demand for powerful and extreme firearms that we do.
Our problem is now a deeply rooted cultural one. It’s not that I don’t think it can ever change, I just don’t think there’s a set of realistic laws that can bring about that change by itself. It has to be a cultural shift over time. It will happen if the next generation of Americans grows up with a healthy measure of disgust over our obsessive gun culture and firearm extremism.
The best parallel I can point to is with cigarettes. Within a generation, we’ve greatly stigmatized being a smoker, while also passing a number of laws that didn’t outlaw smoking, but made it more inconvenient. It’s likely the laws did less than the information campaign to educate people about its unhealthiness, but both happened in parallel. And cigarette smoking was greatly reduced over my lifetime.
My background following the drug war also colors my perspective on this subject. I’m skeptical – even fearful – of overarching efforts to disarm all Americans. I still feel that it’s a fundamental right to feel secure in one’s one home and that we should have a right to privately own firearms for our own protection or for sport. But another thing we can learn from the history of drug regulation and prohibition is that smart regulations that steer demand towards safer products can sometimes work as well. Would an outright ban on assault weapons reduce the amount of damage that a mass shooter can do, or would those restrictions easily be circumvented by a black market that comes with with own significant security drawbacks?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I’ve heard smart arguments on both sides and there’s really no historical parallel that fits the mess we’re in. But one thing is clear, and it became much clearer after watching the insane spectacle of NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s remarks Friday morning. The NRA and other “pro-gun” lobbying groups have played an outsized and inexcusable role in getting us where we are today.
To understand what I’m talking about, this New York Times article about Newtown’s recent internal conflicts over gun rights is a good starting point:
But in the last couple of years, residents began noticing loud, repeated gunfire, and even explosions, coming from new places. Near a trailer park. By a boat launch. Next to well-appointed houses. At 2:20 p.m. on one Wednesday last spring, multiple shots were reported in a wooded area on Cold Spring Road near South Main Street, right across the road from an elementary school.
Yet recent efforts by the police chief and other town leaders to gain some control over the shooting and the weaponry turned into a tumultuous civic fight, with traditional hunters and discreet gun owners opposed by assault weapon enthusiasts, and a modest tolerance for bearing arms competing with the staunch views of a gun industry trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has made Newtown its home.
It’s important to remember that the NRA doesn’t exist today to serve the basic interests of gun owners. It exists to protect the profits of gun manufacturers and others in the marketplace for firearms. Everything that LaPierre said yesterday makes perfect sense when you understand this. Every solution is always about more guns being purchased, even if it means via taxpayer money for absurd and unrealistic things, like putting armed guards in every American school.
And even when LaPierre doesn’t have actual events to springboard from, he makes them up. Throughout Obama’s presidency, he’s been loudly warning people that Obama is planning to take their guns away. This nonsense has had exactly the intended effect, higher gun sales. And even worse, this kind of paranoid rhetoric tends to focus that message on the already somewhat unstable. We no longer had a marketplace for guns that was mostly about hunting and recreation or for responsible folks who merely want to protect their home. We have more and more people building up arsenals of ridiculously powerful weapons they don’t need. We’ve ended up with folks like Nancy Lanza, a woman who – for reasons that make no sense to anyone – was preparing for some kind of apocalyptic scenario and stockpiling the weapons that would instead kill her and a classroom of small children.
After the Gabby Giffords shooting, a lot of folks on the right were quick to dismiss the connection to right wing politics, and they were right, but they were also missing the bigger point. Certainly Jared Loughner wasn’t a typical right-wing tea partier by any stretch. But he was mentally unstable. And even though Loughner wasn’t a true believer of right-wing politics, he was clearly influenced by an atmosphere were the rhetoric of gun violence was unusually commonplace. I think this is becoming the common thread, that more and more unstable and paranoid folks in this country don’t just have access to firearms, they’re constantly being bombarded with messages about how they need those firearms to protect themselves from some vague internal enemy. That, I’m convinced, is far worse than any lack of sensible gun laws.
The irony here, of course, is that the cultivation of this paranoia might actually lead to the scenario that many of them have been warning about. Obama has had no interest in gun control so far. It’s only now that we’re seeing mass shootings by unstable people at an unprecedented frequency that he’s being forced to take action. My worry is that those who expect new gun laws to be an automatic panacea are going to be mighty disappointed at their ineffectiveness. Our gun problem is a uniquely American one. It’s one that we should be far more ashamed of. And it’s one that I worry we may be dealing with for a lot longer.