Much has been said since America’s most recent headline-grabbing mass shooting in Oregon. Both sides have yelled their standard responses and counter-responses to this kind of tragedy, from stirring ethos to sarcastic insults to outright lies. Predictably, nothing has actually changed—and with both sides talking past each other instead of with each other, how could it?
As a fence-sitter in this debate—and therefore someone with at least a chance of seeing both sides objectively—I think that the way both sides talk about the issue impedes our chances of understanding each other and finding common ground—the former being a necessary prerequisite to the other. Below are a few observations and suggestions for changing America’s discourse on this subject, which if followed will, I hope, bring us closer to finding a compromise solution.
Different Types of Gun Violence
The first problem is that both sides—though perhaps the left is a little more at fault here—tend to lump all deaths and other violence brought about with guns into one category: gun violence. This category is so broad that it’s essentially useless for policy discussion. In my mind, it includes six very different types of violence, which, while they overlap a little, generally have completely different root causes and therefore require completely different types of policies to counteract. Let’s look at each subcategory individually:
The majority of Americans who die from a bullet shot that bullet themselves (see point 9 here). Guns are a very effective—if not the most effective—method of committing suicide. It only takes a few seconds, and once that trigger is pulled, there’s no chance for you to rethink your decision and call for help (or for someone else to find you and do the same), as there is in the cases of, say, cutting or drug overdose. In fact, cutting and poisoning result in death less than ten percent of the time. Guns? Over 96%. The New England Journal of Medicine found that simply having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide—at the low end, doubling it, and at the high end, making it ten times more likely.
Many different factors can contribute to an individual’s desire to commit suicide, but with the exception of certain mental illnesses, they’re usually not the same factors that result in other types of gun violence. In general, suicide attempts are reactions to specific moments of crisis, and as the crisis fades, the desire to commit suicide fades as well—unlike the other types of gun violence listed below. Suicides deserve to be a separate and distinct conversation within our country’s gun control debate.
These are those sad, tragic stories where kids find Dad’s gun, play with it, and it suddenly goes off and kills someone. They can happen to anyone, including vice presidents. Each accident has different circumstances and thus different remedies, but they all lack malicious intent on the part of the shooter.
While it’s broadly true that if nobody had guns there would be no gun accidents, accidents themselves aren’t enough to ban something. That same logic would ban pills to avoid accidental overdoses and cars to eliminate traffic fatalities. Regrettably, many fatal gun accidents could be prevented by the application of common-sense safety measures (championed by gun enthusiasts, no less!). If you do own a gun, follow them. Keep your weapon unloaded, locked, and stored separately from its ammo. Never point it at anything you do not intend to shoot. Always keep its safety on until you are ready to shoot, and when you are done shooting, put the safety back on. Keep your gun clean and well-maintained. Practice with it so that you know how it works and what materials it’s likely to shoot through, potentially harming someone on the other side. Hunters should be visible to other hunters, etc.
Now we’ll get into homicides. The next four categories are all versions of people intentionally killing other people. There are important distinctions to be made, of course, or they wouldn’t be separate categories.
Murder is pretty straightforward: one person kills another for money, power, love, revenge, or any other motivation seen on a crime drama. It’s been happening since Cain and Abel, and murderers have used every type of weapon it’s possible to kill someone with. Murders are also understandable (if horrific). A murderer might be a sick, twisted person, but we understand why he’s killing the girl who broke up with him even as we reject his action. Drive-by shootings by gang members may be horrific, but the idea of one gang trying to assert power over another is perfectly understandable. Thus, only the most shocking and gruesome murders get national media attention.
- Mass Shootings, Spree Shootings, and Terrorism
The problem with this category is that we don’t have consistently used definitions for it, particularly in the news media. Several sources, including the FBI, note a few distinctions: a mass murderer kills four or more people in a single event; a spree killer kills multiple people in various locations, usually going from one scene directly to the next; and a serial killer kills multiple people in separate events. “Mass shooting,” the term used to refer to the Oregon shooting and many others, is used by the news media, not law enforcement, and as such has no official definition. Nevertheless, we know what is meant: a premeditated event where one or more individuals open fire at a public location with the intent to cause severe casualties.
- Police Action
Broadly speaking, this includes any action of government-sanctioned “good guys”—police, military, etc.—using firearms to defend the public and themselves against criminals, terrorists, and other “bad guys.” There’s a bit of a grey area when we get into police shootings of unarmed or otherwise nonthreatening individuals—black lives do matter—but for the most part, government officers do exist to protect and serve. They shoot to prevent other people from dying. (Instances where an officer crosses the line should be considered murders in our national discussion about gun control.) So including police-caused deaths in statistics about gun violence is disingenuous. Unfortunately, they are inconsistently excluded.
Finally, a small percentage of gun deaths happen because someone is using a gun to defend themselves or others against another person who intends them harm. Sometimes a gun can deter a criminal activity where it might otherwise have occurred. Unfortunately, we don’t have good statistics about this positive use of firearms in our society—a point I’ll come back to later—and so this area of the pro-gun argument relies mostly on anecdotal evidence.
These types of violence are distinct from one another, and each requires a different policy to ameliorate it. We do ourselves no favors by talking about them as though they were all the same thing. They’re not, and we need to address each problem individually.
The biggest hindrance to having a rational conversation about firearm regulations in America is how culturally antithetical the passionate pro- and anti-gun camps are when compared to one another. Worse still, they both tend to dismiss the other side as “stupid” or “crazy” without ever taking the time to consider the possibility that the other side is actually behaving rationally from a very different viewpoint.
On the one side, I have uncles, cousins, and friends who are firmly in the pro-gun camp. Knowing them makes me wonder the anti-gun side has ever personally met any of the people they insult and rail against. The strongly pro-gun people I know fit most of the characteristics of average gun owners, but what statistics don’t tell you is how those facts affect world view. If you live in a rural area, you’re probably a lot farther away from police intervention than someone living in a city—it might take 30 minutes to receive help after calling 9-1-1, not just five. Self-reliance thus becomes a rural virtue because it’s an absolute necessity. Hunting and target shooting with guns are some of the few passtimes available. Most importantly, these people, by and large, have a culture of respect for their firearms that they teach to their children at a very young age. Kids are taught by their parents to know and follow both gun laws and common-sense safety guidelines. Safety around guns is an engrained part of the culture.
All these facts are completely reversed in an urban environment. In a city, armed officials who can protect you are just a phone call away. To thrive in city life, you are forced to rely on other people for virtually everything—food, transportation, water, sewer, work—you name it, someone else is helping to make it happen in a city. Instead of rural self-reliance, the urban values are interdependence, specialization, and empathy. (And no, I’m not kidding about that last one. Despite their reputation for rudeness, I have never met a more polite people than New Yorkers. It’s a very different type of politeness than rural or Southern hospitality, but that’s a whole different blog post. And needless to say, I’m talking in generalities here. There are exceptions to everything.) In the city, hunting is about the only recreational activity that isn’t a subway ride away. Guns aren’t necessary to an urban lifestyle—particularly in safer areas—and so they’re much less common, per capita, than in the country.
Where guns do show up in the city is with gangs. Yes, the police have guns and so do legitimate law-abiding citizens who carry for protection. And there are plenty of urban firearm murders that are not gang-related. But armed gangs are a big problem in many cities, in part because all the good aspects of gun culture are missing in those youths’ lives. In gangs, guns are not used for hunting or recreation; they’re used for intimidating and killing people—for committing crimes. If parents are involved in these kids’ lives, they’re certainly not teaching them gun safety at a range. The respect for the weapon and the care for others’ lives instilled in rural kids is absent in the inner-city projects.
Suburban environments split the difference between the rural and urban extremes, and gun ownership patterns are right in between rural and urban ones.
And thus we’re left with a polarized nation. In America, one very vocal group sees gun ownership as essential to its way of life—and it literally is. The other very vocal group sees gun ownership as analogous to murderous intent because that is the majority of gun use they see in their everyday lives. And most of the rest of the country is caught between them.
And here’s the kicker: they’re both right. They’re just living in diametrically opposite environments.
I suspect this is the case in many of our left/right policy divides, from business regulations to land management to social programs—what works well in the country does not necessarily work well in the city, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, through equal representation in the Senate and gerrymandered districts in the House, our government is set up to give much more representation to rural areas than to urban ones, which results in a congress that is significantly more conservative than the American public. That’s good news for the Tea Party, but bad news for the ideal of fair representation. It also leads to policies that are, regrettably, out-of-step with the majority of Americans’ wishes, which leads me to my next topic:
We Need More Data
If we’re ever going to make a wise compromise on firearms regulation, it stands to reason that we need the best, most complete data possible to predict exactly what effects proposed policies might have. We need more than aphorisms like “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” Of course people kill people. The question is how to keep a tool designed specifically to kill people out of the hands of those most likely to do it in unacceptable ways. Will better background checks or specific bans work to accomplish such a goal? That question is not just a fair one, it’s the one that will save lives. The answer may be yes or no. Unfortunately, right now Congress has prevented America from finding out.
As the American Psychological Association summarizes, in 1996, a Republican legislator introduced language in a bill that specifically prohibited the CDC from using its funds ” to advocate or promote gun control.” This came on the heels of a study finding “that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide.” The same bill effectively erased the CDC’s funding to research firearm injuries. The prohibition was later extended to the National Institutes of Health. These laws, written by Republicans and lobbied for by the NRA, have caused government research on all forms of gun violence to screech to a halt.
This is not how America should work. If a study finds an uncomfortable conclusion, the correct response is to commission a new and better study to corroborate or disprove the results. If the new study (or series of studies—I mean, people’s lives are on the line; let’s get this right) disproved the first one, then conservatives could say, “See? We told you so!” and our policy discussion could advance to new ideas. If the new results upheld the original ones, we could advance in that direction. Right now, we’re stuck in the self-imposed morass of not knowing enough to act. This is a completely solvable problem! But it’s being blocked right now by those displaying the classic fear that a cherished talking point might be disproved by actual facts. If you believe you’re in the right, you have nothing to fear from science and nothing to gain by blocking it. If the opposite is true . . . well, then.
Obviously, this is the area where I fault the G.O.P. the most. Defending the Second Amendment is all well and good, but it needs to be done within the context of true information or else Americans will keep dying when they didn’t have to.
The Other Half of the Second Amendment
Speaking of that holy shibboleth of conservatism, what does the Second Amendment actually say? Conservative forces seem to interpret it to mean “All Americans can own whatever and however many guns they want.” But the actual text is this:
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.
(from Cornell University)
Context is everything. (I say that as a linguist.) Unlike our other freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, which “Congress shall make no law abridging,” the Second Amendment has right in it the promise of legislation: “A well regulated militia.” As The New Yorker so cogently points out:
Stevens, a Republican judge appointed by a Republican President, brilliantly analyzes the history of the amendment, making it plain that for Scalia, et al., to arrive at their view, [that individual gun ownership is a Constitutional right] they have to reference not the deliberations that produced the amendment but, rather, bring in British common law and lean on interpretations that arose long after the amendment was passed. Both “keep arms” and “bear arms,” he demonstrates, were, in the writers’ day, military terms used in military contexts. (Gary Wills has usefully illuminated this truth in the New York Review of Books.) The intent of the Second Amendment, Stevens explains, was obviously to secure “to the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia.” The one seemingly sound argument in the Scalia decision—that “the people” in the Second Amendment ought to be the same “people” referenced in the other amendments, that is, everybody—is exactly the interpretation that the preamble was meant to guard against.
My interpretation’s a little different. Basically, it’s this: if you choose to own a gun, congratulations! You’re in the militia. In case of actual invasion (heaven forbid), you will be called upon to help defend your neighborhood from invading enemy troops. In order to help you do this job well, Congress now has several regulations that the militia must follow . . .
Now, most pro-gun people I know would have a problem with that interpretation—not with defending the country from invasion; they’d be happy to do that—but from the implication that the government can regulate their firearms at all. Well, it can. Check the text of that much-loved amendment. Nothing I have said here is prohibited by the Constitutional text.
(On a side note, I think it’s fun how conservatives, who are usually strict Constitutional constructionists, are loose on this particular clause and vice-versa.)
When we have mass shootings at a rate not seen in other developed countries, it makes me think that the militia is not well enough regulated.
If we want to do something intelligent about mass shootings in our country, the first thing we need to do is stop treating all types of gun violence like they’re the same. They’re not, and they require different responses. The second thing we need to do is keep in mind that the other side’s views on this issue are actually reality in that side’s experience. People don’t just parrot what they’re taught without some kind of life experience backing up that view (usually). Third, we need to remove the G.O.P.’s self-limiting prohibition on firearms violence research so that we can get some objective answers. Arguing about how we do studies is likely to result in them getting done right; arguing about what to do when we don’t have enough information to base our actions on is self-defeating. Fourth, we need to remember that the Second Amendment is about militias, not using guns for hunting, protection, or sport (worthwhile as those activities may be). It is the only amendment in the Bill of Rights that instructs the government to regulate the right being protected (and we do regulate the others—e.g., free speech through libel laws).
Now, there are a lot of other places we could go in this discussion, and they all deserve due consideration. Topics like not giving killers media attention; regulating guns like we regulate cars; whether good guys with guns or watchful citizens reporting to the police are better at preventing mass shootings; how many mass shooters’ weapons are purchased legally; and whether gun laws and firearm death rates share a correlation or causation relationship are all valid and important topics to discuss, as is the conservative position, but I’m tired now, and I’ve added my unique views to the debate. In closing, I’d just like to leave you with two very interesting articles by Dr. David Brin: one on how cameras are better equalizers than firearms and one that offers an interesting compromise to allay conservatives’ fears.
As always, I invite comments, but I also insist on civility in them. Thanks.