Just over two months ago, we all heard the same soul-gouging news from Newtown, Connecticut. In a nation that has seen more than its share of firearm-related atrocities, a crime had been committed that was so dark, so unrelentingly awful, that none of us could look away — and few of us could shake off a sense of societal responsibility. It is likely unnecessary, but to review: On December 14, 2012, a profoundly damaged young man walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School with an assault rifle and fired more than 100 high-powered, frangible bullets into twenty children and eight adults. Two of the grown-ups lived. None of the kids survived. Most of the victims were either five or six years old.
The unique grotesquery of this mass-murder pierced, at least momentarily, the veil of denial that allows Americans to exist in their violent culture with sanguine nonchalance. There’s even talk of trying to change some laws in the United States in an effort to prevent such horrors in the future — something that didn’t happen after the mass murders in Oak Ridge, Virginia Tech, Aurora, or my hometown of Binghamton, NY.
I’m not terribly optimistic. This same battle has been going on for most of my life and little has changed, except at the margins, to make it more difficult for individuals to access increasingly powerful firearms with higher and higher ammunition capacities. In my mind, there are primarily three reasons for this.
First, rather obviously, the pro-gun lobby is far better organized than is the gun-regulation lobby. The National Rifle Association, a group with over 4 million members and a powerful war chest, is smart, sharp and effective at targeting legislators who stray from their agenda. Moreover, they have been through this drama before. They understand that — whether we want to admit it or not — Newtown will lose its talismanic power in a few months. Soon, we’ll be distracted by some other shining or horrible lights, and then, from the NRA’s perspective, business will progress as usual. Until then, they will put their energies into stalling legislation and distracting the conversation. Call NRA President Wayne LaPierre crazy for blaming the horrors of gun violence on movies and video games if you want, but every news cycle that casts him as a fool, or diverts investigative energy into the video game industry or Tarantino’s latest shoot-em-up, is one more day closer to the end of the storm for gun-rights activists.
The effectiveness of the gun lobby in recent decades has driven most progressive politicians away from the issue completely. For his first four years in office, President Obama did everything he could to avoid getting sucked into the rabbit hole. It’s pretty clear that he saw taking on the NRA was going to hurt him with a demographic slice of the American populace — white guys from small cities and towns across the country — who were already suspicious of him. And he likely would have been satisfied to leave bad enough alone, were it not for the particularly disheartening events in Connecticut. He may still.
The second reason is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
For roughly 220 years, the Supreme Court avoided addressing the ambiguity embedded in the wording of that document: Do we presume that all people have a natural right to keep and bear arms, or must they be part of a “well-regulated militia”?
The Court was reluctant to address gun rights until Chief Justice Roberts thought it time to settle the issue once and for all — which his conservative majority did in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010).
In both decisions, the court read the Second Amendment very broadly. In essence, the cases decided that the “well-regulated militia” clause was superfluous — people have a right to own guns. Full stop. Many disagree with the Court’s perspective and believe the decisions were poorly rendered — but that matters little. Drafting new gun-control legislation will be tremendously challenging given Heller and McDonald. Progressives need to accept that — but they don’t need to give up the fight. Rather, they need to change their strategy and take a page from the Art of War. They must understand the epistemology of their philosophical opponents and use that worldview to their advantage.
In short, understanding the mindset of a gun owner is crucial to the task of crafting new laws in the future.
Progressives often have a hard time understanding how law-abiding gun owners think. And if they want to succeed in reducing access to the killing power out there, they could stand to reframe their understanding and their line of attack. This will take forbearance and patience, but if they want to make impactful change, they are going to need to use subtlety as much as frontal assault.
And maybe here, my personal history can help.
I grew up with guns. I spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours both shooting and talking about guns with friends. My folks didn’t keep them in the house when I was a kid, but my best friend’s family did, and I spent as much time there as I did at home. John’s family actually had a “gun closet.” It was right off the kitchen, before you got to the basement stairwell. It was entirely normal to swing by John’s house and see several handguns on the table between the coffee cups.
I once asked John’s dad, my friend Doc, how many guns he had in the house. He thought for a minute and said, “Including Civil War repros?”
I said, “Yeah. So long as they shoot.”
He thought again for a few minutes and said, “Probably about seventy.”
If that statement makes you recoil, or even just shake your head in wonder, then you don’t understand gun guys. John and Doc’s family were a couple deviations off the mean when it came to gun ownership, but they weren’t crazy survivalists, either.
Every weekend, for years, John and Doc and I (often with my brother Ed and John’s brother Jim) would drive up to Doc’s farm and shoot. We’d shoot black-powder rifles. We’d shoot handguns. We’d bring shotguns if we wanted to shoot trap. Once, one of us signed out a fully-automatic machinegun from a unit with which he was serving and we spent the afternoon unloading on pumpkins, beer cans, fence posts and anything else we could think of. And it was a blast. It still would be. I love shooting. And, progressive-hippie-socialist that I am, I’m not above muttering “Get some! Get some!” as I throw a couple pounds of lead downrange.
Then, after the day’s shooting, we’d retire to the cabin to drink coffee and talk. More often than not, Doc or one of the other old-timers would tell me that I’d better get my carry-permit soon — before the government took away my rights, which was flatly accepted as the peremptory step in any plan to enslave the nation.
It is crucial to understand that we weren’t militia guys. We were normal gun guys. These beliefs, as out of touch with reality as they are, are central to understanding gun culture.
I once heard an artfully persuasive definition of culture: It is the air that we breathe, be it clean or polluted. And if you spend time inside of gun culture, the fragrance of the air can be inviting, welcoming, tempting. On a chilly evening, after you’ve just spent a few hours blasting away with powerful weapons, it is comforting to look around and imagine that you and your friends are part of the grand sweep of history.
No matter how silly it may seem, it is powerful magic to imagine yourself as being of a generations-long line of freedom fighters. And if you’ve ever wondered about the bizarre obstinacy of gun owners to even give an inch, this sense of (delusional) self-importance is the heart of it. Yes, people own guns to defend their homes. Yes, people own guns to protect their families. Yes, people own guns because shooting is a blast. But if you really drill down into the psyche of a typical NRA member, a typical hunter or sportsman, there is this core belief that guns are central to the righteousness of America, and without them, tyranny will follow.
Of course, this argument is complete and utter balderdash. But so long as it sits at the epicenter of the gun owner’s worldview, we won’t be able to make headway towards reasonable legislation that could mitigate tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Put yourself in NRA chief Wayne LaPierre’s head for a minute. He LIVES this stuff. He truly believes (as do millions upon millions of his countrymen) that it is a sacred duty to resist any effort to change gun laws, no matter how marginal, because there is a cliff of despotism at the end of a short-and-slippery legislative slope.
If you really believe this stuff, then utter obstinacy becomes not only a virtue, but a necessity.
This is what the National Rifle Association is referencing when they cite the “high price of liberty.” And if this argument were even loosely tethered to reality, then maybe we could understand the grim determination, the steely-eyed forbearance against any legislation — short of arming the entire populace — that might prevent more madness like we saw in Connecticut. But before we proceed, let’s consider the extent of the American killing fields.
To do this, we must take a distanced view. Pull back the perspective lens enough so that you see more than Sandy Hook, Aurora, Binghamton, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Oak Ridge and the other headline-grabbing stories of mayhem. Pull it back so you see all the deaths by firearms in the United States each year. Though the numbers dance around a bit, approximately 30,000 people are killed by firearms in the United States annually. That’s over 80 every day. Approximately 40 percent of those deaths are homicides. About 57 percent are suicides, and about 3 percent are accidents. Obviously, that’s about 300,000 every decade. Now consider that the average life expectancy of someone in the United States is nearly 80 years and do the math.
Over the course of an average American lifespan, 2.4 million people in the United States will be killed by guns — in peacetime. For a salient point of comparison, that’s roughly twice the total number of American battlefield deaths in all the wars it has ever fought, going all the way back to the American War of Independence.
Let that sink in, because it’s one hell of a high price for freedom.
But maybe, just maybe, if the victims were martyrs (intentionally or not) to greater human liberty, then maybe, just maybe, such carnage would be worthwhile. Live free or die, right?
But it’s just so silly when you think about it.
Let’s be honest here: No one you know will ever be called upon to join a plucky resistance corps and bear the weight of state-organized violence à la Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn. It will just never, never ever, happen.
And for so many reasons.
First, the experience of much of the rest of the world argues otherwise. The British, the French, the Canadians, the Australians, the Germans, the Japanese, and on and on and on all have laws far more restrictive of gun ownership — and yet none of them are facing an internal, fascist coup. There is just no reason to imagine that we would be any different.
Second, no matter how crazy some of Glenn Beck’s fan base may be, there is no move towards tyranny in the United States. FEMA concentration camps do not exist. Barack Obama is not training and arming a personal militia of radical youth (and, yes, this is one of the paranoid delusions floating around in overly-steeped Tea Party brains at the moment. Google: Obama Youth Corps for a primer on the latest conspiracy theories.)
The United States is, by any reasonable measure, ruled by a permissive government and has both a developed civil society and a free press. Sure, there are some concerns about surveillance and the massive collection of electronic data, but the weapons to fight this form of creeping fascism are Freedom of Information Requests, lawsuits, and investigative journalism — not AR-15s with extended clips. The media, even though they are far too deferential to power, still can ferret out truth and hold politicians accountable. We have elections and we will continue to have elections for generations to come, and it’s just not possible to take seriously anyone who argues that OSHA regulations or an individual-healthcare mandate fit Orwell’s description of “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
Now, in the world of quantum physics, there is an argument that ANYTHING is possible. So, maybe someday you’ll need a gun to shoot the elephant-sized crustacean that appears suddenly in your backyard through a wormhole from the Andromeda Galaxy — but you’ll be expected to make the uphill argument if that’s your bedrock reasoning for owing an assault rifle.
What I’m suggesting is that progressives engage the debate on this epistemological ground. I’m suggesting that we might be able to move the ball forward by drawing out this “guardian of liberty” argument — and then publicly shaming it for being so very silly.
To make that case more powerfully, let’s imagine that the paranoid vision of a totalitarian America is correct. Let’s assume that some great panic hits the country and the President executes all members of rival political parties, imprisons their families, declares martial law and reveals his mark of the beast. What then? You’re gonna have to be one hell of a shot to take out a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator Drone with your .223 before it erases all evidence of your buddy’s cabin up in the woods.
I recently engaged this conversation with a conservative friend. He assured me that someday soon there would be a battle between the federal government and the true patriots. But when I suggested the rapidity with which those patriots would be dispatched by bunker-busters and Blackhawks, he said I was nuts to imagine that the government would ever use the Air Force on its own population.
In essence, he had worked out a very convenient battle plan: Not only was it likely that “the patriots” would need to defend liberty against the most powerful military in the history of the known universe, but the tyrannical government would ultimately make sure it was a fair fight.
Who knows? Maybe my friend is right. But if we’re going to wager on fantastic, Hollywoodesque scenarios coming to life, then my Quatloos are still on the elephant-sized crustacean appearing in the backyard out of nowhere. Because, you know . . . it’s more probable.
But just for the joy of the thought experiment, consider what a battle between your crazy uncle, his hunting buddies and the collective forces of the United States military would look like in the 21st Century. Let’s say that around happy hour one Friday evening “tyranny” happens. So a bunch of the boys take off from the bar, road-sodas in hand, to get their rifles and head up to the woods. But, surprise, surprise! Whereas whitetail deer don’t shoot back, Green Berets do! With laser scopes, 50-cals and close air support!
My guess is that it would be a rather short-lived rebellion.
Keeping in mind that this battle will never take place, there is one last important point to make about the millions who have faith that it will. In the mind of most gun owners, there is one event that will signal the beginning of armed resistance: the confiscation of legally owned weapons. Now, no one knows, of course, how citizens would react to such a move by the government, but it is likely there would be lots of bloodshed. As such, and for so many other reasons, it would be a very silly thing to attempt.
There are currently more than three-hundred million guns legally owned in the United States. Any effort to confiscate those weapons would be dangerous and, frankly, un-American.
But there is another proposal that can help us achieve greater safety, while still allowing gun owners to be secure in their Second Amendment rights AND their delusional belief that someday they’ll be called upon to defend their neighbors from tyranny.
Leave the guns alone and regulate the sale of bullets.
The Second Amendment says that the people have the right to keep and bear arms, but it doesn’t say anything about ammunition being inexpensive or lightly taxed.
This proposal was first made by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. He noted that most of the hundreds of millions of guns owned in the United States today would be serviceable well into the 22nd Century, so even if we completely cut off the supply of new guns on the market, little would be resolved. If cared for, guns are inherently durable. They are made of thick, rust-resistant metal and have few moving parts. At the beginning of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, many Taliban fighters were using rifles stamped V.R. on the hilt — which signified Victoria Regina or In the Reign of Queen Victoria. They were weapons from the Crimean War. They did not prove terribly effective against the U.S. Air Force, but they could still kill a human being with efficacy, provided they were loaded.
But the genius of Senator Moynihan’s insight was recognizing that, at any given time, there is only a three-year supply of ammunition in the marketplace. If we can find a way of closing that nozzle, then we can ratchet down the number of killings if only because people will have less to shoot one another (or themselves) with.
And here is a good time to recall the numbers: in your lifetime, 2.4 million Americans will lose their lives at the barrel of a gun. Many of them will be children. An increasing number of them, if recent trends continue, will be at the hands of troubled young men with violent fantasies and access to high-powered weapons. As there are compelling reasons to allow citizens access to guns, there are compelling reasons to reconsider our relationship with firearms in the 21st Century.
A proposal for the regulation of ammunition could take any number of forms. Taxes could be levied on volumes of ammunition deemed to be excessive. If you’re a hunter, here’s a permit to buy 100 rounds at a standard rate. But if you need more than that, then a) you’re a lousy shot, and b) we’re gonna charge you a tax. A similar tax scheme could be placed on bullets designed specifically to kill humans — like armor piercing rounds or fragmenting bullets built specifically to maximize tissue and organ damage.
Any way you slice it, the proposal skirts the Second Amendment issues raised in Heller and McDonald and makes society safer overall. But even more than that, it brings the argument back to reality. The proposal does not undercut a gun owner’s perceived belief that he is responsible for maintaining eternal vigilance against the dangers of a tyrannical state. It just means that if he’s serious about it — then maybe he should save his ammo.
If someone really feels that those rounds will be needed come the final battle, then they might be persuaded to save them in a cool, dry place, rather than burning them off, muttering “Get some! Get some!” while blowing the hell out of fence posts and pumpkins.
The true beauty of the regulated ammunition solution is that it outs the dissemblers — and they are legion. If you truly have your gun for home defense, how many rounds do you need? If you truly have your gun for hunting, how many times do you expect to shoot the damn deer?
The truth is, most gun owners possess them for a number of reasons that are rarely discussed. We own them because they are fun. We own them because they make us feel safe. We own them because we feel powerful when we shoot them. There is nothing wrong with any of that. But neither are they compelling arguments for having pure and unfettered access to loaded weapons in a world where damaged young men walk into elementary schools with 30-round banana clips and assault weapons.
And, as a final thought, if gun enthusiasts really want to make this an argument about freedom and liberty, it should be noted that every week we talk in circles and repeat sillinesses about “the high cost of liberty,” another 600 Americans are shot to death.
One might argue that is a form of tyranny, too.