About danbaum

The gun thing is an affection for firearms. Lots of people -- even some of us who have the gun thing -- find it a little odd. Why, of all the cool mechanical devices upon which we might have fixated -- musical instruments, old clocks, cameras, and so on -- did we pick guns? Since 2009, I’ve been traveling around the US interviewing gun guys, who turn out to be a lot more complicated and subtle and thoughtful than they are usually portrayed. Most of the time, I’ve been wearing the gun pictured to the right. My book, Gun Guys: A Road Trip, will be out in spring 2013.

Common Sense Gun Law #4: Limit Ammunition Sales

The news that James Holmes bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet, with no questions asked and no reporting to the police, was disturbing to many people. Some have suggested there be a limit on how much ammunition a person can buy. Others suggested that large ammunition orders be reported to the authorities.

The first suggestion is problematic for the same reason gun registration and one-gun-a-month laws are political non-starters and should be worrying to civil libertarians: Limiting ammunition sales would require somebody to keep track of how much ammunition an individual is buying. That means a database — the government keeping track of who has what. Nothing is more abhorrent to gun guys, so expect a titanic fight over it, and those who care about civil liberties and excessive police power should be uncomfortable with it as well. 

The idea of reporting large ammunition sales to the police, though, is worthy of discussion. Already, gun stores are required to report to the ATF sales of two or more handguns to the same person in the same transaction or within five days. Same rules apply to multiple sales of any semi-automatic rifle that has a detachable magazine and is of more than .22 rimfire, sold in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  This one is aimed directly at the AR-15 and the AK-47, which when bought in those states sometimes end up in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels. Gun guys don’t like those laws, but they live with them. ATF doesn’t publish the numbers of such reports, and given that the ATF hasn’t had an increase in personnel since its founding in 1972, it is unlikely that many multiple gun buyers are visited by agents. But the thinking is that anybody buying guns that fast might be worth talking to. If there’s nothing nefarious afoot — he’s buying guns for a shooting team, say, or simply taking advantage of a good sale — no harm is done by talking to him. 

Perhaps someone buying 6,000 rounds of ammunition is also somebody that it’s worth law enforcement knowing about. It’s true that competitive shooters can go through thousands of rounds during a weekend match, and thousands more for practice in between. But they’d be easy to identify, and once known to the ATF, wouldn’t need to be interviewed every time. I wouldn’t support a ban on large ammunition sales, but I’m intrigued by the idea of requiring a report similar to those required for multiple handgun sales. I’m sure gun guys wouldn’t like such a law, but could they live with it? Is this something they could accept, in order to make their non-gun-enthusiast neighbors a little more comfortable with widespread gun ownership, and in order to lift from themselves the odium of NRA-style intransigence? Or is this the camel’s nose under the tent, and if gun guys give in on this one will they end up being sorry? I confess to being unsure. What do you think?

Common Sense Gun Law #3: One-gun-a-month

Something about people buying lots of guns quickly gives certain people the willies.  Anyone buying two guns at once, or one gun only a week after buying another gun, smells to some people like a mass murder in the offing. So they push for laws limiting people to buying only one gun a month. California, Maryland, and New Jersey all have such laws, and gun-control advocates push from time to time to get them enacted on the federal level.

Gun guys hate such laws, but why? Who really needs to buy more than one gun at a time? What reasonable hunter or target shooter can’t wait 30 days to buy a second gun? 

The problem with one-gun-a-month laws is twofold, one practical, one rhetorical. Practically, the only way to enforce such a law is for the state to keep an electronic record of people’s gun purchases — otherwise how would it know that you bought a gun last Tuesday — and on that, gun guys aren’t going to give ground. (Registration presents the same problem, as I disucss here.) The only way Congress was able to pass the law requiring computerized background checks was to ensure that the record of the check was destroyed immediately. The idea of the state keeping a list of who owns what gun gives gun guys the fantods, and it is not an unreasonable concern. Reasonable people can disagree about this, but as a Jew who lost half my family in the Holocaust, I’m uncomfortable with the state having a master list of all the privately owned guns, and I find the eagerness of my fellow liberals to give the police that much power a little odd; we used to oppose excessive police power. Whether you agree or not that the police should know where all the guns are, understand that this is the root of the gun guys’ practical opposition to one-gun-a-month laws.

The rhetorical objection is this: If you want to limit me to buying one gun a month, you must be saying that you don’t trust me. You, who may never have fired a gun and knows nothing about them, are presuming to tell me, who has lived safely beside guns my whole life, that you know better than I about what constitutes gun safey. Worse, you’re communicating to me your sense that I am somehow to blame for gun violence — me, personally. (Because after all, it is me, personally, you are trying to restrict.) When gun-control advocates push for laws like one-gun-a-month after a mass shooting, the implication is that law-abiding gun owners are the problem, and gun guys deeply, deeply resent that. 

South Carolina passed the first one-gun-a-month law in 1975 but has since repealed it. Under pressure from New York City, which claims that many of the murders on its streets are committed with guns bought in Virginia, the legislature in Richmond passed a one-gun-a-month law in 1993, but repealed it in 2012. 

One-gun-a-month laws are a classic example of a gun-control idea that contributes nothing to public safety but needlessly enflames and insults gun owners. 

Common Sense Gun Law #2: Close the gun-show loophole

To buy a gun in a gun store, you have to pass a computerized background check. The clerk punches in your data, and then you wait for a response. Sometimes it comes in 15 minutes. Sometimes it takes hours. By law, if the response takes more than three days, the clerk has to sell you the gun. If it then transpires that you didn’t pass the background check, it’s up to agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (the ATF) to visit you and retrieve the gun. We can imagine how pleasant a task that is.

In truth, most background checks come back very quickly. I’ve never had one take more than an hour. It’s a minor inconvenience, and frankly, only the most extreme gun-rights activists object to computerized background checks. Almost all the rest live with it, and even support it.

When a licensed gun dealer sets up a table at a gun show to sell guns, he has to conduct the computerized background check just like he does in his store. The “gun show loophole” applies to everybody else. Anybody — not just licensed dealers — can set up tables at gun shows and sell guns, and sales by ordinary citizens don’t have to be background-checked. To proponents of gun control, this seems crazy. A convicted felon or raving lunatic could, in theory, walk into a gun show and buy all the firepower he wants, with no questions asked, and commit mayhem.

“In theory” is the operative phrase. In 2011, professors from the Universities of Maryland, Michigan, and London studied crime data from the vicinities of 3,400 gun shows—including those in loophole states—and found that the shows, loophole or no, had no effect on local homicide or suicide rates. Still, to those most worried about gun violence, letting people buy guns with no background check seems nuts. What’s the harm in requiring all gun-show purchases to be run through a background check?

None, really. But in truth, a much bigger loophole exists, that neither side wants to talk about. It’s perfectly legal, under federal law, for people to sell guns to one another privately, with no licenses or background checks. I’ve bought and sold any number of guns that way. You show up at my house with cash, I give you the gun, and off you go, with no questions asked or forms filled out. I am not supposed to sell you the gun if I have “reason to believe” that you might be a prohibited person. But who am I to judge those prison tats on your neck, the claw marks on your face, or your incoherent babbling? Some states ban private gun sales, but not many, and nothing in federal law prevents them. Many, many more guns are sold this way than at gun shows. By some estimates, 40 percent of all legal gun sales are private, with no background check and no paperwork.

Gun-control advocates occasionally mumble about banning private gun sales, but they know it’s a political loser and practically impossible. Gun-rights people don’t talk about what  a red-herring the “gun show loophole” is, because they don’t want too much scrutiny to private gun sales. So both sides pretend that “closing the gun show loophole” is meaningful. 

It wouldn’t really hurt to close the gun-show loophole, and frankly, I think gun guys should be looking for opportunities to give a little ground now and then, so that they don’t present a completely intransigent, and frankly frightening, face to the community of non-gun people. Waiting in line to get your gun-show purchase cleared is a minor nuisance, and we already do that if we’re buying in a gun store or buying at a gun show from a licensed dealer. This wouldn’t represent a new infringement of civil rights. 

But nobody should pretend that closing the gun-show loophole is going to contribute much to public safety. And gun-control proponents should go out of their way, when they advocate for doing so, to make it clear that this isn’t the next step toward banning all private gun sales. That would be a disaster, because most gun guys simply wouldn’t obey the law; they’d continue swapping guns with their friends. And there is a real cost to passing laws that people don’t obey. (See: laws, marijuana) It engenders contempt for the law, which is the last thing the country needs. 

 

 

Common Sense Gun Law #1: Registration

You don’t have to be a gun-control activist to be upset by a shooting like the one in Aurora, and at such times, people start talking about “common sense” gun laws. By “common sense,” they mean to say, “what reasonable person could disagree?” Since this blog is for people who don’t like guns as much as it is for those who do, I will write over the next few days a run-down of the gun-guy perspective on several “common sense” gun laws. If it seems that gun owners are intransigent of what appear to be unobjectionable regulations, here’s why:

Registration: This seems benign enough, right? The police should know who has what gun, so that if one is found at a crime scene, they can trace it to the owner. As a practical matter, it doesn’t make much sense. People planning to get away with murder aren’t going to use guns registered to themselves, and in cases where a previously law-abiding person — law-abiding enough to register his guns — goes nuts and shoots his wife, there’s not going to be much mystery about who the shooter was. So there isn’t much law-enforcement benefit to registration (Canada recently scrapped its long-gun registry because it cost so much and did so little.) 

The bigger problem with registration, though, from the gun-guy perspective, is that it invests police with a creepy amount of power. We don’t go in for “lists” in this country, and a list of gun owners is, to gun guys, a precursor to rounding up guns — or gun owners. That  people who call themselves “liberal” find this paranoid seems strange. Liberals used to have a healthy mistrust of authoritarian government, and a government that has a ready-made list of gun owners should give civil libertarians the willies. Registration preceded confiscation elsewhere, and you’d really have to believe that “it can’t happen here” to get comfortable with police lists of gun owners. I wouldn’t have thought Guantanamo could happen here, or warrantless killings of US citizens on the say-so of the president, or the Fourth Amendment violations we accept in the name of the drug war. It can happen here, and it does.

American gun guys take comfort pride in not living in a country where only the police and military have guns. I’ve lived in such countries, and it honestly does feel different.  Gun guys like to say that an armed citizenry is the bulwark against tyranny, and non-gun guys laugh at that. A bunch of guys taking rifles from their closet, they say, would be no match for the tanks, jets, and helicopters the Army would deploy. The gun-guy response to that is: Vietnam. North Vietnam and the Vietcong defeated the modern American military with little more than rifles. 

I suspect that nobody — even the most ardent Tea Partier — really expects Americans to have to take up arms against their government. The issue is subtler. That Americans can own firearms so freely bespeaks a relationship between the people and their government that is unique, and that gun guys cherish. A tremendous amount of respect and trust in ordinary people is implied by allowing them to own guns. Gun guys are proud of being active flesh-and-blood participants in such a radical experiment in governance. Some might argue, particularly after Aurora, that that trust is misplaced. Gun guys would say that shootings like Aurora are a tragedy, but it’s worth enduring such to live in a country that enjoys that unique relationship between the people and their government. A hundred and forty thousand American casualties between 1943 and 1945 were a tragedy, too, but not as bad letting Europe fall to the Nazis. Freedom, gun guys would say, isn’t free.

Reasonable people can disagree, but I find gun guys refreshingly willing to think on a grand, philosophical level about what American gun ownership means, whereas the other side is too often mucking around in the shallow weeds of wanting to “do something” after a tragedy. Guns are more than sporting goods, and they’re more than murder weapons. They mean something powerful. The idea of the government keeping a list of everybody touched by that power makes gun guys recoil mightily. 

 

Why does the New York Times keep building up the NRA?

Among the persistent myths surrounding firearms is the one about politicians cowering before the National Rifle Association. The New York Times used precisely those words in its editorial today. The idea, repeatedly endlessly by the advocates of gun control, is that politicians who might otherwise do the “right thing” quake in terror at the thought of angering the NRA.

I suppose it is more comforting for gun-control advocates to imagine a nefarious organization improperly bullying legislators than to acknowledge the more painful reality: Gun laws are growing looser not because of the NRA, but because that’s the way most Americans want them. Members of Congress don’t have to be bullied into supporting looser gun laws; they and their constituents are already on board. Look at this chart by Gallup, which shows support for tougher gun laws at a historic low.

For all its bluster, the NRA is actually a middling player by Washington standards. It’s membership of four million is about equal to that of the National Wildlife Federation. It gives far less money in campaign contributions than, say, the Pipefitters’ Union. I don’t recall politicians cowering before either wildlife enthusiasts or the pipefitters.

The NRA is a hideous organization in many ways — it’s dishonest, it’s extremist, it’s needlessly partisan, and most of all, it ill-serves firearms enthusiasts by making them seem scary and intransigent to those who don’t like guns. But it is not an all-powerful goliath, and the New York Times only strengthens it by portraying it as one.

 

Why not ban large-capacity magazines?

Several readers have written to ask, Why not ban large-capacity magazines like the shooter used in Aurora, and Jared Loughner used in his attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords? Gunmen can kill so many people so quickly because they don’t have to reload. 

The debate is actually slightly improved from last time, because several people acknowledged that a small subset of competitive shooters need high-capacity magazines. One suggested that perhaps such magazines could be allowed if they’re kept locked up at a gun club, to use in matches and practice. I like that kind of thinking. It takes the conversation beyond the who-but-a-homicidal-madman-would-want-such-a-thing, which is both ignorant and insultingly inflammatory. And it uncouples the notion of need from the idea of a ban. Banning things because nobody “needs” it is trouble. As I pointed out in an earlier post, nobody needs an 8,000 square foot house, and one could argue that the resources and energy it consumes seriously impacts the rest of us. We don’t want to start banning things on the basis of what people do and don’t “need.” If we’re thinking about banning something, it should be because it is demonstrably harmful.

Large-capacity magazines certainly seem to fit the bill. But when you drill down slightly, banning them really wouldn’t make anybody safer. First of all, the process of passing such a ban would be long, and during it, gun guys would be stockpiling them like crazy. When they were banned as part of the assault-rifle ban in 1994, even companies that hadn’t made them before dove into the business, because gun guys were in such a lather to stock up. (The ban then was only on the manufacture, import, and sale, not the possession, and it would probably be again. Possession laws are very hard to enforce, and politically far more explosive.) 

The gun-and-magazine buying frenzy is already on, and a serious conversation about banning them has barely begun. So let’s be clear that the process of banning large-capacity magazines will only put more of them on the street, not fewer.

Second, the issue is really a red herring. With a little practice a shooter can swap out a magazine in less than three seconds. Watch this video.  Especially when everybody is running away from him, a killer like the one in Aurora would not be impeded at all by being limited to ten-round magazines. 

Also, the 100-round magazine the Aurora shooter used may actually have saved lives. Like most really big ones, it jammed, rendering his rifle useless.

So we’re not really going to get any improvement in public safety from banning high-capacity magazines. All we’ll do is create more rancor and division, which is the last thing the country needs now. 

“But this is how you start,” people have written to me. “Little by little, the old magazines would wear out, and ultimately, we’d all be safer.” Maybe a little bit. But I ask, what are you willing to trade away to be a little bit safer — maybe — one day long int the future? The 2012 election? Not me.

 

 

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Might an armed citizen have stopped the massacre?

My brother wrote to ask me why, if so many Americans are legally carrying guns now, none was there to stop any of the recent high-profile mass shootings — Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, or the Aurora movie massacre.

Simple: Guns were forbidden in those places. Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and Carmike Theaters all have policies against firearms on the premises.  Legal gun-carriers obey the law. Seung Hui-Cho, Nidal Hasan, and James Holmes had reason to be confident, as they planned their rampages, that nobody would be able to shoot back. To gun guys, “No Guns Allowed” signs are invitations to mass murder. They advertise where a deranged killer can find a large population of unarmed people. 

The day after the Aurora shootings, a New York Times editorial said the idea of armed citizens shooting back at mass killers “may be the single most dangerous idea in the debate over gun ownership.” The Times is wrong.

I am licensed to carry a gun. If Carmike hadn’t had a no-guns policy, and I’d been in the theater armed, I would have shot at Holmes. Would I have hit him? Maybe. Even if not,  my muzzle flash, and my bullet whizzing past him, would have upset his rhythm. He might have run away. He certainly would have paused. I’d have kept firing until one of us was hit. 

To people like the Times editors, the idea of two guns going off in a theater is especially horrible. But how could things have been worse than they were? A gunfight in a crowded theater is a dreadful thing to contemplate, but surely it’s better than one armed crazy holding dominion over everybody. 

We’re not going to put metal detectors or armed guards in every movie theater, school, and shopping mall. We can’t afford it, first of all, and we wouldn’t want to live that way. The police are doing an increasingly good job of keeping us safer in the aggregate — witness the plummeting rates of crime and violence — but in the specific, that hideous moment when somebody goes crazy with a gun, the police almost certainly won’t be present. In such a situation, I’d be very glad for the presence of a law-abiding, licensed, armed citizen. 

One was present at the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson Safeway in January 2011. Joe Zamudio was inside the store when he heard the shots. He ran outside without drawing his gun, saw that the crowd already had the shooter restrained, and kept his gun in his pocket. Slate was among the media who sneered at the notion that an armed citizen might have done some good. Zamudio “nearly shot an innocent man,” it reported. But in fact, Zamudio didn’t shoot an innocent man. He kept his head, and did precisely what he was supposed to do. How that argues against the utility of armed citizens at a massacre escapes me. 

Those who get background-checked, trained, and licensed are not the people we have to worry about. Almost seven million Americans have gotten licensed to carry since Florida started the concealed-carry revolution in 1997. The Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group, published in 2010 a list of 402 people killed by carry-permit holders to support its argument that concealed-carry is a bad idea. But when you run VPC’s own numbers, it turns out that licensed gun carriers commit murder at about one-fourth the rate of the general population. Instead of inveighing against concealed carry, perhaps VPC should be pushing to make it mandatory.

It seems to give some people the willies to envision citizens empowered and vigorous enough to fight back. Ordinary people pulling guns to fell a killer sounds like cowboy justice and mayhem in the streets. But we already have mayhem in the streets. Despite the big drop in crime, mass shootings still happen with grim regularity. What exactly are the Times and Slate suggesting? That if we find ourselves in that situation we go meekly to our deaths? 

I rarely carry my gun anymore because it is uncomfortable and the chances of my actually needing it feel, to me, too low. But if others want to go through the process of getting checked out, trained, and licensed? More power to them.  

Why Are Americans More Violent?

In an earlier post, and in my essay on the website of Harper’s magazine, I asserted that we have more gun violence in America than in other industrialized countries not because we have more guns, but because we have more Americans. Americans, I argue, are simply more violent than other people.

Several people wrote to ask me why that might be true. I’ll leave it to historians and sociologists to wrestle with that, but look at the ways in which American history and culture differ from those of other western countries. We had slavery here until less than 150 years ago. We had a civil war. There’s our frontier experience. But also, of we have more violence than other industrialized countries, perhaps it’s because we’re the only one without national health care. Think that doesn’t make for a stressed population? I spend half — half! — my taxable income on insurance premiums and doctor bills. True enough, my taxable income is low. But $15,000 a year for insurance and co-payments is a heavy bite on any family. It isn’t only health care, either. We scorn public transportation in favor of making every individual fight it out behind the wheel in traffic. We underfund public education. Overall, we are decidedly less cared for by our government than citizens of say, Canada or western Europe, whom we often deride as “socialist” but who also don’t seem to need to slaughter one another as often. We pride ourselves on being rugged individualists, who are by definition less comforted by or concerned with the collective. Perhaps we need to accept that we can’t order American culture a la carte, that the things we like about ourselves come joined with the things we don’t. A libertarian activist at the Goldwater Institute put it to me this way: “We’re a big, messy, polyglot nation with an extraordinary amount of freedom, and a certain number of bad things are bound to happen.”

Not all Americans may be equal, either, when it comes to violence. Writing in American Psychologist in April 1993, Richard E. Nisbett of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan argued inViolence and U.S. Culture that guns aren’t the best predictor of violence; white Southerners are. “There is a marked difference in White homicide rates between regions of the United States, such that homicide is more common in the South and in regions of the country initially settled by Southerners.” And it’s not that the South was poorer than other regions, either. “Although differences in poverty are associated with higher homicide rates, regional differences in homicide are by no means completely explained by poverty, because Southernness remains a predictor of homicide even when poverty differences between regions are taken into account.” Why were Southerners more violent? They “are more likely to endorse violence as an appropriate response to insults, as a means of self-protection, and as a socialization tool in training children,” Nisbett wrote. 

 

The Aurora Movie Shooting

When you write about guns, as I do, and a shooting like the one in the Aurora movie theater happens an hour from your house, people call. I’ve already done an interview today with a Spanish newspaper and with Canadian radio. Americans and their guns; what a bunch of lunatics. 

Among the many ways America differs from other countries when it comes to guns is that when a mass shooting happens in the United States, it’s a gun story. How an obviously sick man could buy a gun; how terrible it is that guns are abundant; how we must ban particular dangerous types of guns. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has a gun-control petition online now, and Andrew Rosenthal of The New York Times has weighed in with an online column saying that “politicians are far too cowardly to address gun violence . . . which keeps us from taking practical measures to avoid senseless shootings.” 

 Compare that to the coverage and conversation after Anders Behring Breivik murdered sixty-nine people in Norway a year ago this Sunday. Nobody focused on the gun. I had a hard time learning from the news reports what type of gun he used. Nobody asked, “How did he get a gun?” That seemed strange, because it’s much harder to get a gun in Europe than it is here. But everybody, even the American media, seemed to understand that the heart of the Utoya massacre story was a tragically deranged man, not the rifle he fired. Instead of wringing their hands over the gun Breivik used, Norwegians saw the tragedy as the opening to a conversation about the rise of right-wing extremism in their country.

 Rosenthal is wrong, by the way, that politicians haven’t addressed gun violence. They have done so brilliantly, in a million different ways, which helps explain why the rate of violent crime is about half what it was twenty years ago. They simply haven’t used gun control to do it. Gun laws are far looser than they were twenty years ago, even while crime is plunging—a galling juxtaposition of data for those who place their faith in tougher gun laws. The drop in violence is one of our few unalloyed public-policy success stories, though perhaps not for those who bemoan an “epidemic of gun violence” that doesn’t exist anymore in order to make a political point.

 It’s true that America’s rate of violent crime remains higher than most European countries’. But to focus on guns is to dodge a painful truth. America is more violent than other countries because Americans are more violent than other people. Our abundant guns surely make assaults more deadly. But by obsessing over inanimate pieces of metal, we avoid looking at what brings us more often than others to use violence to resolve disputes. Many liberal critics understand this when it comes to drug policy. The modern, sophisticated position is that demonizing chemicals is a reductive and ineffective way to address complicated social pathologies. When it comes to gun violence, though, the conversation often stops at the tool, because it is more comfortable to blame it than to examine ourselves. 

 The temptation at times like these is to “do something,” about guns. Australia and Britain passed tougher gun laws after mass shootings, and haven’t suffered another since. I would respectfully submit that Australia and Britain are full of Australians and Britons, not Americans. Moreover, neither country was home to an estimated 180 million privately owned guns as ours is. Guns last forever. The one with which I hunt was made in 1900, for the Spanish-American War, and functions as well today as it did then. If tomorrow President Obama signed the ultimate gun-control law — a total ban on the sale, manufacture, and import of guns — we would be awash in firearms for generations to come. Tempting as it is to contemplate “doing something,” the truth is there is very little to do. In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control  — no friend of the gun lobby — evaluated 51 studies on everything from the effectiveness of gun bans to laws requiring gun locks, and found no discernible effect on public safety by any of the measures we commonly think of as “gun control.” (link: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5214a2.htm) Two years later, The American Journal of Preventive Medicine did a similar survey and came to much the same conclusion. (link: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/Abstract.aspx?id=209529

 Gun-control advocates have their own studies and statistics, of course, and off we go down the rabbit hole, fruitlessly shouting at one another, It works! No, it doesn’t! But let me add a parallel concern: What about the costs? Why should gun control be exempt from a cost-benefit analysis? Gun-control advocates brush away evidence of gun laws’ dubious value with the argument that if even one life could saved, it’s worth trying. What’s the harm?

 The harm is that 40 percent of Americans own guns, and like it or not, they identify with them, personally. Guns stand in for a whole range of values — individualism, strength, American exceptionalism — that many gun owners hold dear. Moreover, we who own guns derive tremendous pride from being able to live beside and manage these incredibly dangerous devices without hurting anybody. Tell a gun owner that he cannot be trusted to own this or that gun — particularly if you are an urban pundit who obviously has no experience with guns — and what he hears is an insult. You, who may never have held a gun, are presuming to tell me that I can’t be trusted with one? Fuck you. Add to this that the demographic bulge of the gun-buying public is middle-aged white men with less than a college degree, and now you’re insulting a population already rubbed raw by decades of stagnant wages and diminished status. 

 The damage we’ve done by messing with law-abiding Americans’ guns incalculable. In 2010, I drove 11,000 miles around the US talking to gun guys, for a book to be published in the spring that grew out of a piece I wrote for this magazine, and met many working guys — plumbers, parks workers, nurses, natural Democrats in any other age — who wouldn’t listen to anything the donkey party has to say because of Democrats’ cultural and institutional hostility to guns and the people who like them. I’d argue that we’ve sacrificed generations of progress on things like health care, climate change, women’s and workers rights by reflexively returning, at times like the aftermath of the Aurora shooting, to an ill-informed call to “do something” about guns. And we haven’t gotten anything tangible in return.

 Aside from what it does to the progressive agenda, needlessly vilifying guns — and by extension, their owners — adds to the poisonous division and rancor that has us so politically frozen and culturally inflamed. Enough. 

 President Obama, to his credit, didn’t mention gun control in his comments today. Maybe that was just a political calculation; maybe, during an election year, he didn’t want to reopen a fight that has blown a big hole in his party’s foot. But maybe it’s a sign of progress. Maybe we’re moving toward being a little more willing to examine honestly who we are. 

 

Why not ban assault weapons?

When word that the gunman in the Aurora movie theater was armed with an assault rifle — fitted with a 100-shot magazine — the cry immediately went up: Renew the ban on assault rifles! Ban large-capacity magazines! After all, why should anybody be allowed to own such dangerous weapons?

It’s an odd question, one we don’t ask in other contexts. Why should anybody be allowed to own a 6,000-square-foot house? Or an eight-cylinder SUV? We could argue that in terms of limiting human options, both of those are more destructive than assault rifles. In general, we here in the United States tend to let people have what they want, unless we can demonstrate a clear danger to the public.

Assault rifles like the one the Aurora shooter used are indeed fearsome. They shoot quickly; they can take very large magazines; they are black and nasty looking.

But if everybody would draw a breath and pause long enough to look at the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, its annual tally of crime in the United States, you’ll see that rifles of all kinds are used in less than three percent of all homicides. Assault rifles are a subset of those. So in reality — the horror of the Aurora shooting notwithstanding — assault rifles are not a major public-safety issue.

But still, why not play it safe? Who needs such weapons? Who that doesn’t have mass murder on his mind would buy such a thing?

It turns out that the AR-15 rifle — the semi-automatic civilian version of the M-16, the rifle used at Aurora — is the most popular firearm in America. I wrote a piece about the business of the AR-15 here, but to summarize: The AR-15 is lightweight, accurate, fires inexpensive ammunition, and has little recoil so is popular with new shooters and women. It is “advertised” relentlessly in news broadcasts about the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, because every soldier and marine is carrying one. Most of all though, it is a marketing miracle. The AR-15 is entirely modular — that is, it snaps apart with no tools — so shooters can modify it endlessly, even to the extent of changing its caliber. So many parts and accessories are available for the AR-15 that gun guys call it, “Barbie for men.” It’s a gigantic moneymaker. Everybody uses them — hunters, competitive shooters, weekend plinkers. Visit a rifle range, and half the people there, or more, will be shooting them.

So when you consider banning assault rifles, consider both how little improvement in public safety you’re going to achieve, and how many furious enemies you’re going to make. 

We tried it once, of course. In 1994, the Democratic Congress passed, and president Clinton signed, an assault-rifle ban. Several things happened, none of them good. First, gun guys were watching the months-long debate, and buying up assault rifles and high-capacity magazines by the million. The ban in all likelihood put more of them on the street than would have been there otherwise. Second, the law banned guns according to characteristics — pistol grips, flash hiders, etc. — so manufacturers simply turned out versions that lacked those specific characteristics but were very bit as lethal. Third, the percentage of murders committed with rifles didn’t budge. And fourth, two years later the Democrats suffered their worst drubbing in four decades, losing both houses of Congress. In any case, the law was scheduled to sunset in a decade, and in 2004 President Bush and Congress let it die. Once again, the percentage of murders committed with rifles remained unchanged.

Renewing the assault rifle ban, the perpetual goal of the gun-control community and the editorial board of The New York Times, would be an iatrogenic act of madness. And, of course, as long as we keep shrieking at each other over inanimate pieces of metal, we’re never going to get to an honest discussion about why such things happen in the first place. Every time you’re tempted to think gun control is the answer, remember Timothy McVeigh: 168 dead, more than 800 injured, the worst mass murder in American history, and not a gun in sight. Pace Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the gun.