Weekly Briefing

Doing it for our children and grandchildren

Just because it will take time is not a reason to avoid tackling the nation’s gun problem

There is a distressing cycle in the national gun violence discussion that’s taking place in the aftermath of the catastrophe at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It typically goes like this:

First, rational people, who have found themselves sleepless and physically sickened at the notion of innocent six-year olds being shot in the head by a psychopath with a high-capacity assault rifle, call for government action to, at a minimum, restrict access to military-style weapons in order to help prevent future tragedies.

In response, gun manufacturers and sellers, the leaders of the NRA and other selective Second Amendment readers scream that the Constitution prevents any such action.

Next, the angry and fearful majority responds that such an absolutist reading of the Constitution is absurd and that surely a democratic society can and must do something.

Finally, the NRA apologists weigh in. While not explicitly endorsing the gun industry or the NRA, these “realists” soberly and sanctimoniously inform us that we shouldn’t “rush to judgment” and argue that while everyone abhors the tragic circumstances in Connecticut, there’s really very little government can do to prevent such events, save for making guns even more plentiful and readily available.

Here’s one of North Carolina’s chief NRA apologists, the head of the John Locke Foundation, discussing the tragedy in a recent TV appearance:

“There are already so many clips, magazines, so many rounds, already in private hands that enacting a ban today would have no significant effect….There isn’t any obvious laws that would keep this particular incident from happening, by the way. Absolutely nothing that I’ve heard proposed would have prevented this young man from killing the children that he killed. So we have to think very calmly about this and the pros and cons of what we’re doing and understand that it is not enough to take action for symbolic purposes – make us feel better, capitalize on the political winds of the day. We need to make policies that have a reasonable prospect of actually making things better. We also need to keep in mind that while one person killed by a gun is one too many, and it’s a tragic event, gun violence is low, it’s been falling for decades, it is not rising, this is not – that’s not the problem we’ve got.”

Got that? If not, here’s the plain English translation:

“We all hate it when kids get murdered, but hey, what are you gonna’ do? The cow’s out of the barn when it comes to guns in the United States and there really haven’t been that many mass murders in recent years anyway.”

A familiar fundamentalism

In many ways, this remarkable statement is very familiar. It echoes the cynical and defeatist pronouncements we’ve heard from the right wing for decades when it comes to economic policy and the role of public structures in improving the quality of life generally – namely, that such solutions are a threat to “freedom” and that Americans should instead abide by the demands and directives of “natural laws.”

You know this rap: It’s the one in which things like publicly-funded child care, education and health care constitute “socialism” and efforts to restrain the destruction of the natural environment constitute an attempt by “statists” to micromanage the lives of every citizen for their own selfish pleasure.

And so it goes with guns. While not always publicly parroting the rationale advanced by Second Amendment extremists, the NRA apologist argument is effectively the same: America can’t have effective gun control (even of military-style assault weapons) because it is simply beyond the capacity of government to provide it without destroying our “freedom.”

As a practical matter, of course, what this anti-public solutions approach really results in is a system in which Americans abide by the demands and directives of the individuals and corporations with the most wealth or, in the case of the current debate, those with the biggest and most powerful guns.

Not a lost cause                                                                            

The truth of the matter, however, is that the apologist argument is nonsense. America most certainly can enact laws that will reduce the gun-inflicted carnage in our society and, in so doing, enhance societal freedom by promoting one of the most important and under-appreciated freedoms – the freedom from fear.

Will it be difficult? Sure. It’s true that there is a preposterous quantity of weapons and bullets in the United States. By some estimates, the U.S. is home to half the guns on the planet—this despite hosting only five percent of the world’ population. Add to this reality the frightening spread of high-powered weapons with the capacity to discharge vast quantities of bullets in short order and the task can seem overwhelming.

There is almost certainly no “quick fix” for this situation. Even if we enacted an effective ban on the purchase and ownership of military-style assault weapons and ammunition tomorrow we would do little to prevent another Sandy Hook next week. The apologists are right about this.

But, here’s another truth about our situation: We can make a big difference over time.

Think about it. Think about the gradual, positive changes public policy has effected in our society – especially in the field of public health.

Forty years ago, American automobiles and power plants were spewing out vastly greater amounts of toxic pollutants. Twenty-five years ago, HIV was an out-of-control plague. Ten years ago, North Carolinians were assaulted by poisonous tobacco smoke virtually every time they entered a public restaurant. Five years ago, childhood obesity was an unchecked and largely unaddressed problem.

In each of these areas and dozens of others, steady and concerted efforts to change laws and, ultimately, change attitudes have made (or are beginning to make) enormous differences.

Have all of the public solutions been perfect or instantaneous? Of course not. We have a long way to go in each of these fields. But who would seriously propose going back to where we were? The plain truth is that millions of Americans are leading healthier, happier, freer lives because of the gradual progress in these areas.

Going forward on guns

And so it must be in the world of dangerous weapons. Stopping thousands of Wal-Mart stores from selling AR-15 assault rifles as they do now will not prevent another Sandy Hook tragedy next week or next month. But it might very well contribute to such a result in 2023 or 2033.

More importantly, by enacting new policies now, we begin to send a powerful collective message that can, over time, change societal attitudes and behaviors.

The truth of the matter is that ultimately, America’s gun fetish is a byproduct not just of absurdly lax laws; it is also a byproduct of a kind of mass mental illness—a society-wide psychosis in which millions have become so fearful that they’ve lost their moral bearings and an appreciation for what’s really important in life..

Solving this problem will be extremely difficult and will take many years, but we must try—if not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren. And there’s no better time to start than right now.