Divisiveness Is the Only Constant in America’s Gun-Control Debate

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Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Over at The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has written a rather unhinged meditation on the prospects for gun control — on the “moral work” of pushing new gun laws, and presumably the moral complacency of those who fail to see a way to make them happen. Gopnik’s essay is prompted by the suit a number of the Newtown families recently filed against the manufacturer (and distributor and retailer) of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the weapon used to kill 26 people (20 of them first-graders) that horrible day. But the efforts of 9 of those families — 17 did not join the lawsuit — are heroic not because they are pressing an issue everyone agrees on, but because they are doing it while there is nothing like any kind of intellectual, emotional, moral, or political consensus on guns in this country. Or even in Newtown.

When Gopnik writes that “the underlying politics of gun control has always been the same: the majority of Americans agree that there should be limits and controls on the manufacture and sale and ownership of weapons intended only to kill en masse, while a small minority feels, with a fanatic passion, that there shouldn’t,” and that “on the problem of gun control, no matter how far we seem from a sane solution, the public deliberations are finished,” he is so far from the known contours of the actual debate he might be accused of regarding the bike path in Riverside Park as the Western frontier. The position he articulates is so merely hopeful that I can only imagine his usual lucidity is obscured by the empathetic grief and outrage he must feel on behalf of good people whose beloved ones continue to be gunned down for no reason in cold blood (as happened Wednesday, in completely different circumstances, in Paris). But wishing something to be true does not, alas, make it so. And the truth is far worse than what Gopnik proposes: Honest deliberations on gun control in America have not even begun.

Americans are perhaps more divided on the issue of guns than they’ve ever been. In 2014, just 47 percent — less than half — of Americans said that gun laws should be “more strict,” according to Gallup, down from 58 percent after the Newtown shootings and 78 percent in 1990, the year James Pough killed ten people, most of them at a General Motors office, with a semi-automatic rifle. Forty-two percent of Americans have a gun in their home, a percentage that has fluctuated by about 10 percentage points over the past generation but is not so far from the proportion that owned guns in 1960: 49 percent. Yes, according to a year-old Rasmussen poll, 59 percent of Americans favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons, like the one Adam Lanza used in Sandy Hook. At the same time, 70 percent of people say they’d feel safer living in a neighborhood where owning a gun was allowed. “The majority is there,” writes Gopnik, but nearly every shred of evidence points the other way: Despite what would seem to be its obvious benefits, a majority on gun control has thus far been impossible to muster, even in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting.

A cultural observer might reasonably argue, as Gopnik did, that public deliberations on same-sex marriage are winding down, now that Republican presidential hopefuls, the selfsame people who could once be counted on to toe the socially conservative line, are basically ceding the issue to majority sentiment. (In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush, once a harsh critic of same-sex marriage, encouraged “respect for the good people on all sides of the issue” as gays and lesbians stood in line this week to marry.) But on gun control, the same thing is simply not happening, presumably because no majority sentiment is emerging. Public opinion continues to be so raw, so divided, so contentious that gun control remains impossible to talk about, even among people who love or like each other — and even in Newtown, where 26 people were murdered within ten minutes at the hands of a young man who was able to open an unlocked cabinet in the house he shared with his mother and get his hands on a weapon that soldiers and law-enforcement officers are able to use, as the Newtown lawsuit points out, only after extensive safety training.

It might seem obvious (it does to Gopnik and it does to me) that controlling access to guns, and in particular to the kind of semi-automatic rifle that Adam Lanza used, would be an easy and appropriate legal fix to protect other potential victims against other potential mass shooters. But — tragically — not everyone sees it the same way. In April of 2013, less than six months after their 6-year-old son Ben, whom they called “Benny,” was killed, David and Francine Wheeler went to Washington with a handful of other Newtown families to help President Barack Obama make his case for stronger gun laws. Every one of Obama’s proposals, including a measure recommending more-thorough background checks and one reinstating the ban on semi-automatic weapons (rescinded in 2004 under George W. Bush), was roundly defeated — despite the reality of 20 dead children, despite the fact that the week of the vote the president gave his weekly address over to Francine Wheeler who, with all the poise she could muster, pleaded with Americans not to let her child die in vain. To suggest that what happened in Washington was a tiny but fierce minority, backed by well-heeled lobbying groups, stifling the unmistakable clear preference of the American people — to see it that way patronizes so deeply Americans’ commitment to guns and gun culture that it fails to even recognize the commitment as real. Not to say that the NRA is anything but an enormously powerful force, one that draws on that commitment and stokes it.

To frame the gun debate, as Gopnik does, as sane versus insane, with gun-control advocates, such as himself, as those “who actually want to reduce the number of gun massacres” and pro-gun forces as both (his language) dishonest and unscrupulous “prefer[ring] an attachment to lethal symbols of power” is to misunderstand the issue — or to miscast it to support his fictional notion of a consensus of right-thinking people like himself. And nowhere are the murky, volatile, and heartbreaking conflicts within the gun debate laid bare more than in Newtown. I spent a good deal of time there in 2013, reporting a story about the aftereffects of the shooting, and was surprised to find so much sensitivity — and so much disagreement — around the subject of guns. There was no consensus. The town priest, ostensibly a strong moral voice in town, shied from articulating a principled allegiance to one side or the other. Even in a place where 20 children had died at the hands of a madman with a gun, the most basic questions of how to prevent a reoccurrence hit the rawest of nerves. No one wanted to say where they stood for fear of offending a neighbor who might feel another way. On the question of assault rifles, “I don’t want to demonize anyone,” said a parent whose child was in the school that day and lived. He had become an activist for stronger gun laws, but he lives in town, and his pro-gun friends were as devastated by the events of December 14, 2012 as he was.

Newtown has long been Republican-leaning, and until recently, it was more rural than suburban. It’s a place, in other words, where guns are a regular part of life — even among the relatives of the 26, many people grew up shooting guns. It was in Newtown that I learned the politically efficacious euphemisms people use when talking about the causes of gun violence: Democrats tend to talk about gun control; Republicans about mental health. In April of 2013, when Dave and Francine Wheeler were in Washington advocating for stricter gun laws, Mark Mattioli, whose own son James was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, went on television to refute the need for gun control. “Criminals aren’t going to hand [the guns] back. So why should I be hampered in protecting myself when someone can come to my home and outgun me?” When certain family members aligned themselves with very vocal gun-control groups after the shooting, other family members distanced themselves, saying angrily that the gun-control advocates didn’t speak for them.

To exacerbate things, news accounts made the same mistake over and over, reporting on “the families” as if they were one entity, instead of understanding that among the 26, there were 26 different flavors of opinion — on the question of guns and on the question of lunacy, as well as on questions of remedies, compensation, and everything else. Gopnik commits this error, too, writing that “the parents of the children massacred at Sandy Hook” were “undertaking a lawsuit,” without specifying that, in fact, just ten families (families of five children and five teachers, one of whom survived) are named as plaintiffs in the suit. That means that 17 had their reasons for not joining. This elision was — and continues to be — offensive to family members who feel, rightly, that in the daily job of bearing their grief they are entirely alone.

When people whose own children were murdered by a Bushmaster AR-15 can’t agree on whether banning assault weapons is a reasonable corrective, it’s impossible to assume that any consensus exists. Where Gopnik is right, irrefutably, is in his recommendation of the lawsuit itself as required reading. Its 40 pages make the moral argument against the Bushmaster gun far better than any journalist can. Over and over, like the tolling of a  bell, it enumerates the devastation wreaked upon each victim: “a.) Terror;  b) ante-mortem pain and suffering; c.) destruction of the ability to enjoy life’s activities; d.) destruction of earning capacity; and e.) death.”