When NRA zealots wish to explain why their taste in toys (and/or, self-conception as temporarily embarrassed action heroes) should take precedence over public safety, they will often argue that the freedom to own an AK-47 is the foundation on which all other civil liberties rest: An unarmed citizenry has no rights that the federal government is bound to respect.
Meanwhile, when Donald Trump wished to explain Monday why America’s epidemic of firearm deaths did not require sweeping gun reforms, he argued that solving our national nightmare would merely require censoring video games, condemning suspicious mentally ill people to “involuntary confinement,” and restricting the rights of death-row inmates to appeal their convictions, so as to expedite their extermination by the state.
The president’s remarks Monday earned him some praise from the mainstream media’s most prodigious amnesiacs. Days after a gunman had slaughtered 21 people in an El Paso Walmart to beat back the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” Trump did unequivocally (if monotonously) condemn white supremacy, and remind his fellow Americans that “each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life” — sentiments that might have been uplifting, had they been followed with the phrase “and that is why I am announcing my resignation from the presidency.” Regardless, however encouraging one might have found the president’s newfound capacity to condemn white nationalist terrorism, his concrete proposals for combating gun violence offered no cause for comfort.
Trump’s one feeble gesture toward gun regulation involved expanding the reach of “red flag” laws that empower law enforcement to confiscate the firearms of those whom they find to be dangerous or mentally ill. To buttress this “precrime” approach to gun control, the president endorsed an expansion of social media surveillance “to detect mass shooters before they strike.”
The White House understood that, by itself, such weak tea would not satisfy the public’s thirst for leadership on the issue of gun violence; unlike some other Republicans, Trump was not content to serve the public a cocktail of thoughts, prayers, and fatalism. “In the two decades since Columbine, our nation has watched with rising horror and dread as one mass shooting has followed another over and over again, decade after decade,” Trump said Monday. “We cannot allow ourselves to feel powerless. We can and will stop this evil contagion.”
Gun violence has always presented a challenge to the GOP’s proto-authoritarian champions of “law-and-order”: How can one reconcile a militant intolerance for crime with an anarcho-capitalist’s attitude toward the regulation of deadly weapons?
Trump’s answer to that puzzle Monday was a common one: To accommodate the inalienable right to bear assault rifles, Uncle Sam would have to ruthlessly sacrifice lesser civil liberties at the altar of public safety.
The president demanded unspecified measures to eliminate “gruesome and grizzly video games.” He called for reforming “our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment but, when necessary, involuntary confinement.” And he directed the Justice Department to “propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty, and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.”
In other words, Trump proposed restricting freedom of expression, locking up anyone who strikes law enforcement as egregiously mentally ill for pre-crimes, and curtailing the due process rights Americans can assert before their government executes them.
As remedies for America’s gun violence problem, these proposals are laughable. If gruesome video games were a leading cause of gun violence in general — or mass shootings in particular — Japan would presumably be littered with blood and bullet casings. Instead, while America’s annual gun deaths are measured by the tens of thousands, Japan’s can typically be counted on two hands. Meanwhile, the overwhelming consensus among crimonologists holds that the death penalty does not work as a criminal deterrent. And Trump’s implicit suggestion that mass shootings would be less common — if only their perpetrators knew that spraying bullets in a public place might actually cost them their lives — is so absurd, one despairs at satire’s prospects for surviving this presidency.
There are sound arguments for restricting the mentally ill’s access to firearms (owning a gun dramatically increases a suicidal person’s likelihood of successfully ending her own life), but there is none for believing that stigmatizing and surveilling the mentally ill will keep other Americans safe from the threat of gun homicide. As the Washington Post observed Monday:
In a 2018 report of active shooters, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that 25 percent of active shooters had been diagnosed with a mental illness. And of those diagnosed, only three shooters had been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. In a 2015 study that examined 235 people who committed or tried to commit mass killings, only 22 percent could be considered mentally ill.
But the biggest problem with Trump’s proposals isn’t their inefficacy — a charge that can be fairly leveled at many liberal gun reforms. Rather, the problem is that Trump’s ideas subordinate civil liberties to the cause of security theater. In so doing, they demonstrate that the Second Amendment (as interpreted by the American right) does not safeguard our other freedoms, so much as it undermines them.
Perhaps, a nation completely devoid of mental illness, social isolation, the internet, video games, disaffected young men, and white supremacy could have both mass individual gun ownership and low levels of gun violence. But we do not live in such a nation. So long as America is home to more firearms than people, we are going to suffer a lot of gun violence. And so long as we suffer such violence, the government will periodically feel compelled to mount a policy response.
When efforts to seriously curtail the availability of guns are off the table, the will for reform gets channelled in more perverse directions. We fill our schools with police officers, and force our children to prepare themselves for the omnipresent threat of getting slaughtered by their classmates. These “school resource officers” and “active-shooter drills” don’t seem to make anyone any safer. After the atrocity at Columbine High School in 1999, America tested the hypothesis that a massive increase in school policing would lead to lower rates of violence on campus — in 1997, 10 percent of public schools employed at least one police officer; by 2014, 30 percent did. The results of this experiment have been worse than disappointing. The best available research suggests that putting police officers in schools does not significantly deter crime, but does increase the number of students who end up incarcerated for minor youthful indiscretions (and/or, who get electrocuted with stun guns in their classrooms for the same). Nevertheless, last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida triggered a new wave of calls for filling America’s schools with armed agents of the state.
Trump’s remarks suggest that the will to “do something” about gun violence — that doesn’t involve taking away people’s guns — may lead to even more authoritarian and counter-productive measures than those we’ve already witnessed.
Let Mike Pence decide what we can put into our Playstations, and police departments dictate who’s sane enough to walk the streets. Place a metal detector at the door of every classroom, and an annual reenactment of Sandy Hook on every elementary school’s calendar. Stop and frisk every nonwhite teenager, have principals report every morose adolescent to the authorities. Inject convicts with deadly chemicals before they’ve had chance to appeal. Send thoughts and prayers when none of it stops more bodies from falling. Just leave us our stockpiles of Kalashnikovs and we will call ourselves free.