Make America Grieve Again: Changing the Conversation on Guns

For the first time in recent memory a mass shooting can’t seem to leave the news cycle: the victims have become activists, putting a face on the event and ensuring nobody can brush it off. Every headline seems to proclaim This one is different, every think piece describing this as a turning point for the gun debate in America, but despite the talk it becomes clear that the conversation itself has remained the same gridlocked screaming match as always.

After any mass shooting, the gun debate jumps to the top of an angry and scared public’s attention, and in so doing turns stupid; all nuance to the issue is lost, all numbers ideologically filtered, all viewpoints crammed into two sides and turned into caricatures of themselves. On the right the idea of “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” becomes the standard answer to even the most sensible policy options, while on the left a couple bad ideas are repeated like the Lord’s Prayer while the NRA turns into the KKK.

Democrats will take your guns and Republicans are murderers

These seem to become standard lines in the wake of a mass shooting, taking the most extreme possible view of the other side and attempting to use it in what really can’t be called a debate, convincing no one while putting your opponent on the defensive. There is no point in telling Marco Rubio to “think of the children” because of course he already is, and in doing so has come to a different conclusion than you. The end result is always the same: no significant difference is made, no minds are changed, and everybody goes home until the next massacre, angrier than before.

Of course, insults aren’t the focus of any discussion on guns, they’re just a byproduct of larger arguments over what to do, and herein lies the central problem. While the right usually remains on the defensive in the debate, barring the dystopian calls to arm teachers or otherwise solve guns with more guns, the left tends to reiterate policy positions that are as familiar as they are bad. After the Las Vegas shooting, calls to ban bump stocks, whose simple function can be replicated with a belt loop, were touted as a major beneficial policy, while most recently the prospect of barring the purchase of assault weapons to adults under the age of 21 is being framed as big step forward; both are feel-good policy measures that would do little good while expending an enormous amount of resources to extract them as concessions from gun rights advocates. The most often repeated proposal is that of banning the AR-15, the weapon that people buy to play soldier with real bullets, often used in mass shootings. Once again, this is a measure that would have little real effect on mass shootings or on gun crime in general: the most deadly school shooting in US history, Virginia Tech, was carried out with two semiautomatic pistols. It doesn’t matter how big the gun or the bullet is when one shoots you, guns are very good at killing regardless: slightly less deadly is still deadly. The idea of simply banning the AR-15 or assault weapons in general, a term that generally just means a scary-looking rifle, serves only to expend political capital while once again putting the other side on the defensive, all for the unlikely possibility of passing a policy that achieves very little.


Calling constantly and exclusively for unattainable policies ensures that nothing at all gets done

If banning assault weapons isn’t the answer, the question remains what to do. The most effective measure to combat gun violence would of course be taking guns out of the equation entirely, removing all firearms barring strictly scrutinized cases. Equally obvious, not even considering Constitutional barriers, is the fact that this isn’t feasible: for many Americans guns are as much a part of the culture as freedom of speech, and with 400 million guns in the country, even if they are held by a minority of the population, the only way to remove them would be a long term cultural change or secession. Secession is obviously unappealing, though some nuts in Texas and California may disagree, while the younger generation seems not only just as divided on guns as the larger population, but gun rights proponents among them actually seem to be more entrenched in their position. Add to that the fact that the only landmark Supreme Court decision on the 2nd Amendment was the 2008 Heller decision, formalizing a Constitutional right to bear arms for the first time just 10 years ago, and a profound anti-gun cultural shift seems more than unlikely. Less radical measures could include banning all semiautomatic weapons, infeasible for similar reasons as listed above, or limiting magazine capacity, more interesting but still only moderately effective.


There are 33 000 gun deaths in America every year; of those, 21 000 are suicides, 11 000 are homicides and the rest are accidents

In theory any number of gun control measures would have a profound effect in gun crime reduction, but calling constantly and exclusively for unattainable policies ensures that nothing at all gets done while encouraging opposition to any and all proposals to become even more entrenched. As for what is feasible, the answer isn’t pretty. There are 33 000 gun deaths in America every year; of those, 21 000 are suicides, 11 000 are homicides and the rest are accidents or undetermined, and while the common thread remains a gun, they have little else in common: a program aimed at preventing suicides will have little effect on gun homicides among young black men, security guards at schools can do little to curb gang violence. Addressing the underlying societal issues leading to gun deaths in America offers little of the immediate relief that gun control advocates promise, but it aligns with other liberal priorities where progress has been or can be made: greater access to mental healthcare, programs building trust between poor communities and the police, improving education and criminal justice reform to reduce recidivism. Other useful measures that are within reach include universal background checks and gun restraining orders, allowing police to temporarily confiscate the weapons of someone who shows signs of being a danger to themselves or others. Finally, and most importantly, it is fundamental to empower federal researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to treat gun violence as a public health issue, allowing them to conduct research to direct further policy decisions.


consider for once trying a new approach

None of these methods are easy, none sound good on the campaign trail and all will receive the same political opposition as any progressive measure, but if they can be implemented they will be infinitely more beneficial than the 60 years of theoretical gun control policies that haven’t happened so far. When the next mass shooting happens, as your cynical self prepares to argue guns again, consider for once trying a new approach.


Featured Photo by Lorie Shaull

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