The recent mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, raises familiar questions—and myths—about guns in America.
Hey, good morning. The Giants looked terrible, didn’t they? One more Russian connection turned up in the Trump Cabinet—Oh, what’s that? A gun massacre in Texas? Oh, was it a terrorist attack? How many dead? Twenty, they’re saying! Now it’s more than twenty? Twenty-six dead and twenty wounded. In a church, too, small children ripped apart. Who did it? A man with a history of domestic abuse, wearing a ballistic vest, and using an assault-type rifle. Yes, that’s real enough. That one counts as a massacre.
Some version of this numbed dialogue—or internal monologue—must have gone on in countless American kitchens this morning. We have become so inured to gun massacres that the numbers must be insanely large, the victims unimaginably helpless, before it even quite registers as an event. Charles Whitman, the sniper who killed people from the University of Texas at Austin clock tower, in 1966, and in some ways inaugurated the modern American gun massacre—whose chief note is the random slaughter of unknown people by a gunman gripped by a vague and nameless rage—was thought to have done something unimaginable at the time. He killed sixteen people that day.
Feelings of powerlessness and depression are bound to infect those—by all surveys, the majority of Americans—who would like to see something done to prevent these increasingly common occurrences of mass slaughter. It’s hard to be hopeful. If nothing was done after the killing of twenty school children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, and if nothing was done—not even the “bump stock” limitation—after the murder of fifty-eight concertgoers from a sniper’s perch in Las Vegas, a month ago, then twenty-six more dead won’t alter things. But there is never a time to give way to hopelessness: the politics are hard but far from insurmountable, and, meanwhile, as with every public crisis, the truth matters and clarifies and brings light, even when the light can’t immediately show a better path forward. If we can’t defeat the gun lobby now, we can out-argue it, and expose it. Here are some myths that are trotted out regularly by that lobby, and that will likely be trotted out again today.
1. The kinds of rules and limitations most often proposed—i.e., a ban on military-style weapons of the kind used in the two most recent high-profile gun massacres and in so many others before—wouldn’t have an effect on gun violence in America, which tends to be concentrated on handguns, and more typically involves suicides and domestic disputes. Gun massacres are not the only or even the most lethal form of gun violence.
Nor are measles the only or the worst form of infectious disease, but vaccinating against them raises the level of public health generally and makes the next advance more likely. Making one kind of gun illegal or restricted makes the broader work of restricting violence more plausible. (Which is, of course, exactly why the National Rifle Association, et al., oppose it.) Most reforms in the long history of human progress were initially deprecated as being too small or too soon or not enough—yet a small reform emboldens people to think in new ways about their condition and the possibility of remedying it. All public-health measures seem at first inadequate to the public miseries they attempt to cure. Each step forward—each public sewer built, each antibiotic discovered—clears the way for more.
2. Why, if there are too many guns in America, is there less crime than there used to be? People keep buying guns and the crime rate keeps going down. Doesn’t that prove that the more guns there are, the less crime there will be?
Well, no—the crime rate, contrary to the picture of carnage that Donald Trump likes to frighten his voters with, has been going down over the past decades in every Western country, in the suburbs of Ottawa as well as in the streets of Manhattan. (There does seem to have been a recent uptick in homicides in American cities, but it is only a blip on the much larger picture of a dramatic fall.) The only question worth asking is why, given that crime has declined so universally, does America still have such a uniquely highly level of gun violence? Crime rates descend, gun massacres increase. That’s the “Why” to ask and answer.
Along with this argument goes, most often, a disdainful rejection of common sense and science, one rooted in the idea of guns as symbolic objects. You’ve confused an M4 with selective fire with an AR-15 with a Slide Fire modification—or whatever the current detail may be. How can you talk about gun control when you don’t know the difference between a machine gun and a semiautomatic? Thirteen-year-olds in love with their guitars display similar indignation when someone confuses a Stratocaster with a Telecaster. This says something about the psychology of the gun obsessed, but nothing about the nature or the sources of mass violence.
3. Given the number of weapons of mass murder already in place in the country, any change we can make, any law we might pass—even if we could pass such laws—will be inadequate to the problem. And, anyway,, any particular proposal being debated wouldn’t have stopped this or that massacre, whose perpetrator would have escaped its rules.
This misunderstands the nature and power of civic reform. As the social scientist Franklin Zimring has shown repeatedly, we didn’t need to build, so to speak, a twelve-foot barrier separating the criminal from his crime in order to see crime decrease—we built a series of smaller obstacles, which ended by producing dramatic results. Nor does social reform work by tailoring legislation to the precise shape of the previous harm. Gun control in any form will limit gun violence. Child labor was a terrible thing, and small boys forced to become chimney sweeps was among the worst of it. But if we want to abolish child labor, we don’t put lids on chimneys. We abolish it more broadly, and know that the specific abuse will likely end, too.
4. The Second Amendment.
In a piece that I wrote after the gun massacre in Las Vegas, I suggested that we end a truce over the Second Amendment—meaning not that we should go to war with the Second Amendment, but that the willingness of people who are concerned by the larger emergencies posed by the Trump Administration to defer arguing over the Second Amendment seems ill-founded. The reason that we have no need to declare a truce “with” the Second Amendment is that the Second Amendment was clearly originally intended to do the work of regulating guns. The argument that the Second Amendment remains a formidable obstacle in the way of gun control, even if there were a political will to pass such legislation, is perhaps the most frustrating of the objections. Only a recent, radical, and bizarre rereading found in it an individual right to gun ownership. The decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, in 2008, which featured Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s invention of a previously undiscovered right to private gun ownership, was 5–4. Had Obama appointed the Supreme Court Justice whom he had been elected to appoint, the voting pattern on the Court would have tipped, and almost certainly reason would have been restored on this interpretation. Once again, I urge everyone to read the (Republican-appointed) Justice John Paul Stevens’s great and bewildered dissent on the ruling, which inserted an individual right to gun ownership into the fabric of constitutional law. In truth, no kind of gun regulation involving individuals would be unconstitutional given the long-decided meaning of the Amendment.
5. The social science on gun violence is inconclusive.
It will always be a given that it’s impossible to have real controlled experiments. The closest thing in this case would be to have two contiguous countries—both with similar “root” populations, and both subject to massive immigration from abroad. Both would have a frightening number of mentally ill people capable of mass killing. One, however, would have reasonable gun-control laws regularly reinforced, in the light of new kinds of violence—with guns broadly available for recreation and pest control, but the kinds capable of killing many people quickly prohibited or highly restricted. The country on the other side of the border would impose few gun-control measures. Then we would compare the results. One country—let’s call it Kanada—would have a per-capita rate of gun homicide seven times smaller than the other country. That experiment’s been run. The results are in. We really do know. Now we only have to do.