Politics Group-Chat: What We Talk About When We Talk About Gun Control

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The mass shooting in Las Vegas has prompted the country to revive the never-long-dormant debate about gun violence and how we can combat it with regulation.

Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz tried to make sense of the debate around gun control.

Ed: After another gun atrocity, proponents of reasonable gun regulation are feeling defeated in advance because no past incident has moved Republicans toward any real concessions, regardless of public opinion. That may be why we’ve seen more Republican interest in DiFi’s “bump stock” proposal than among Democrats, at least initially.

Some Democrats seem to be angry at this kind of incrementalism, and/or afraid the rug will be pulled out from under them.

Jon: Seems like a valid fear.

Eric: Count me among the progressives who finds little to cheer in the prospect of banning bump stocks.

Ed: I can understand, though I don’t necessarily agree. The big picture is this: Since 2004, when Democrats first put support for the Second Amendment in their party platform, the NRA and GOP have if anything ramped up their allegations that Democrats totally oppose gun rights and want to confiscate all weapons. Being “reasonable” hasn’t offered much protection. Or fostered any progress.

Jon: Reducing the salience of the gun issue might be the best political move for Democrats?

Ed: Well, they’ve tried that, too.

Eric: What do you think killed that effort? Just the reality of gun violence in America, and the need to respond to constituents’ concerns?

Ed: I don’t know that they “killed” it, other than accidentally. I can’t recall Obama talking about guns much in 2008 — but then the “clinging to their guns and religion” remark got blown into a huge “aha” moment. In 2004, John Kerry tried to illustrate Democratic non-hostility to hunters with a stunt that backfired noisily. Clearly, gun owners have become intensely preconditioned to suspect Democrats of hostility toward, and incomprehension toward, their “values,” which has made gestures toward them seem foolish and cowardly.

Other than big incidents, I think the other thing that keeps drawing Democrats back to the gun issue is persistent public-opinion research showing big majorities in favor of some reforms — e.g., universal background checks — that somehow cannot translate into legislative wins.

Eric: Yeah. If it were possible for Democrats to back off gun control as a national issue, I think there’d be a real case for doing so. After all, the milquetoast reforms that the party cannot even pass wouldn’t make much of a dent in our problem, which is, in a macro sense, a crisis of handguns and suicides, not assault weapons and mass shootings. And then there’s the tension between passing gun-control measures that increase penalties for possessing illegal firearms, and the goal of reducing mass incarceration. Anyhow, it just seems like the ratio between the political price Democrats pay for being the party of gun control, and the policy gains they’ve mined from the stance, is *not good.* But it’s probably not possible. And milquetoast measures could save a few lives. And he who saves one life, saves the world entire, so.

Jon: Agree 100 percent. Activists have to keep plugging away, because one day the opportunity to do something meaningful will present itself. But I don’t see the chance arising any time soon. And, like you say, it’s not an issue where incremental wins are especially meaningful.

What reforms would you pass if you had a magic wand, but had to abide by the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of the Second Amendment?

Jon: Australian-style comprehensive bans. I’d basically allow hunting rifles that have very limited clips and screen them.

Ed: To be clear, all the Supreme Court has really done is to confirm that the Second Amendment is a personal constitutional right. All personal constitutional rights are subject to reasonable regulations.

Eric: Well, either way, a massive buyback program would be kosher. But also, insanely expensive, if the idea was to confiscate all non-hunting rifles. There are so very many guns in this country.

Ed: As Ice-T said a long time ago: “Try to ban the AK, I got two of ’em at home with a box of hand grenades.”

Eric: And surely, there are a lot of gun owners who would pursue Second Amendment remedies if Congress ever passed an Australian-style ban. One thing I would do — that is actually in the realm of the politically possible — is make huge investments in trauma centers in communities that suffer high levels of gun violence.

Ed: “Second Amendment remedies” reminds me of an observation I wanted to make earlier. Maybe walking away from the gun-control fight would be relatively benign if you are only looking at the Democratic Party and its interests. I think progressives need to keep up the fight for at least incremental regulation to keep the Second Amendment absolutists from completely taking over the GOP.

Every chance we get to expose the insane belief that the Second Amendment encompasses a “right to revolution” against tyrannical — i.e., liberal — government needs to be taken. In a party already prone to fanatical anti-majoritarian tendencies, this is the scariest: “Leave my property alone, or I’ll come after you with guns.”

Eric: In magic-wand world, I would also radically increase federal funding for mental-health services and suicide prevention, pursue the desegregation of American schools, implement jobs programs in high-poverty neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence, and deliver some form of reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining.

Which is to say: I feel like there are ways to mitigate our gun-violence problem without taking away the guns. Though taking away the guns would be most effective.

Ed: All I can say is this: If you really believe in the mass gun-confiscation that conservatives claim liberals want, but that won’t happen in a billion years, do you think you can keep it a secret?

Eric: Fair. I think the obstacles to redistributive programs that would ameliorate the gun problem would still exist, even if our discourse about gun violence put greater emphasis on its more routine manifestations.

Ed: I’d be blunter: If liberals have nearly lost the debate over how to stop mass shootings, they’ve totally lost the debate over gun control and crime.

Eric: I think it’s also possible that the skewed nature of our debate reflects the public’s (unenlightened) priorities. There are a lot more people who attend concerts, schools, and churches — and who feel terrified at the sight of random sociopaths turning those places into war zones — than there are people who feel a personal investment in stopping gun suicides or ending urban gang violence.

Can we stop mass shootings?

Ed: To me it’s the same question, with the same answer, as whether we can stop suicide bombers: When people don’t care when they die, they’re very hard to stop. The question is whether we can mitigate the loss of life.

Eric: Yeah. It is the case that there are plenty of ways for determined sociopaths to mass-murder civilians in an open society. But we just make it so much easier for them than other advanced democracies.

Ed: Particularly if they have the resources this maniac in Nevada had.

Jon: People always complain about the way we’re numb to these tragedies. But maybe numbness is correct. Terrorism is political. It doesn’t kill a large number of people in comparison with other ways people die. It succeeds by making those deaths especially significant. Perhaps denying that victory is one of the best things we can do? (Given the barriers to gun control.)

Ed: I’ll come full circle: Liberals might be justified in walking away from this debate, if not for the moral obligation to do what we can to mitigate the damage wrought by both mass and routine shootings, along with our patriotic obligation to limit the number of people out there stockpiling weapons to shoot cops and soldiers if they decide one fine day that their “liberties” are in peril because of black helicopters, the U.N., marginal tax rates, or federal land policies.

Eric: Anyhow, I obviously don’t think we should aspire to numbness in our reaction to the murder of our fellow citizens. I do agree that we should aspire to keeping calm, carrying on, and resisting any attempts by authoritarians to exploit the terror of mass violence. But it’s hard not to have such spectacular violence affect how safe one feels in public space sometimes, at least for me.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gun Control