After the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, President Obama appeared before the press to deliver a speech that has almost become routine. However, this time he spoke much more candidly about his anger and frustration, furthering the honesty and forthrightness that he has been building in his second term.
It seems like every few weeks we get news about another mass shooting. One news cycle for a mass tragedy ends just as another one begins. In the aftermath, the conversation is always the same: The Democrats say we need gun control and the Republicans accuse the Dems of politicizing the tragedy, while emphasizing mental health. A lot is said and nothing happens. So far, we have not even been capable of having a conversation about gun control, much less implementing it.
Leaving aside the inappropriateness of associating mental illness exclusively with acts of violence, and the idea that we should try more than one approach at reducing mass shootings, this cycle misses the point. The vast majority of gun deaths are not due to mass shootings. Mostly, they are handgun deaths, whether homicide, suicide, or accidental. Of course, mass shootings are great tragedies, dramatic examples of the failure of our system to keep us safe, but emphasizing these examples results in a dialogue that is dishonest and unproductive.
We need to have an honest conversation, but we can’t. In 1996, the CDC was banned from doing research into gun violence, so we don’t even know the source of the crisis. The NRA has set up the conversation such that those who advocate for even modest gun control are treated as though they wish to ban guns entirely.
However, I need to comment on an attitude I have noticed in the gun control activist community. We give the NRA leverage when we say things like some voters “cling to their guns and religion…as a way to explain their frustration,” as President Obama said in 2008. There is a cultural elitism that is pervasive in some parts of the movement, a tendency to assume all gun activists are crazy hicks, terrified of any government attempts to prevent them from using violence
I come from a place where guns are commonplace. I have shot guns. My father used to hunt, and I could tell fall had begun when all of the students took off from school to travel to the woods and hunt deer on the first day of open season. Some families lived on farms and needed guns to keep themselves and their families safe. Many, hopefully most, knew to keep guns in a gun locker, and didn’t tell their kids the code. Everyone took hunter’s safety class.
Sure, some of it went beyond sportsmanship. Some people liked guns for their own sake. And this is where it gets tricky. If we are to take seriously our ideal of pluralism, we have to accept that some people will enjoy things we don’t understand, maybe things we don’t respect. But of course, we cannot allow people’s pleasures if they endanger others, which guns can do. There must be a balance.
The answer is not to deregulate the entire gun market; that hasn’t worked so far. But the answer also isn’t to try to rid the country of guns. Beyond preventing people from pursuing their own pleasures, it’s also astounding impractical. Unlike other countries that have implemented incredibly strict gun control, we are awash in guns. Guns from WWI remain perfectly functional, and more guns are sold every day. If we don’t want to search everyone’s houses, simply getting rid of guns isn’t feasible.
So, what’s the solution? Honestly, as far as a specific policy is concert, I don’t know. There are a lot of moving parts to gun reform. Different parts of the country need different things, but the laws in New Jersey affect the guns in New York City. What I do know is that we need to learn to talk honestly and respectfully about this issue. Liberals need to realize that conservatives have good reasons to fear a government set on taking away their ability to defend themselves. They need to learn to accept that other people have a different way of being in the world. Conservatives need to be honest about the facts of gun violence. They need to clear the way for honest analysis of the crisis.
Both sides need to realize that the loudest voices on the opposition are not necessarily the predominant ones. If we can start from the baseline that we all want fewer shootings while retaining the greatest freedom, maybe we can figure out a balance. But I’m damn sure that if we can’t have a conversation, nothing is going to change.