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.