In the wake of two horrendous gun massacres in less than a week — one in and around Atlanta, the other in Boulder, Colorado — both sides of the gun debate agree on one, and probably only one, thing: We are doomed to a tedious and unproductive debate over what to do that will soon peter out until the next massacre revives the same sad excuse for a debate.
The reason nothing ever happens on gun violence ultimately boils down to two interrelated things: The Republican Party has become wedded to Second Amendment absolutism, and that produces a veto of any federal gun-safety measures thanks to the Senate filibuster and the de facto 60-vote supermajority required to pass any and all legislation.
But aside from the mechanics of raw power that doom the reactions to gun massacres to tears of impotent sorrow and rage, some well-rehearsed rationalizations for doing nothing are reflexively, continually trotted out to defuse the spontaneous public impulse to just stop the madness. Their narcotic effect on debate is a testament to their real, if wafer-thin, plausibility.
1. “New laws wouldn’t have prevented this.”
This rationalization comes in two forms — first in the impossible-to-rebut argument that when there’s a will to mass murder, there will be a way to commit it, which means that any particular gun regulation will produce a Whac-A-Mole displacement whereby the putative killer can always find an alternative weapon or a means of acquiring one.
A bit more compelling are the precise arguments that this gun regulation would not have prevented that atrocity. Right after the Boulder killings, Ted Cruz offered it up. “Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” he said.
What makes such arguments disingenuous is that Congress remains stuck on narrow legislative ideas, like closing the gun-show “loophole” to background checks, because the gun lobby opposes doing anything more comprehensive. By definition, these kinds of incremental steps to reduce the incidence of and the toll from gun violence will have a similarly incremental effect. But those who oppose broader measures have no standing to complain about the inadequacy of minimal improvements to the law.
2. “Guns don’t kill, people kill.”
The oldest and hoariest of arguments is that what causes gun massacres isn’t the weapon but the criminal who wields it — as though all blame must be assigned to one or the other. The whole purpose of gun regulation, of course, is the effort, which will never be perfectly executed, of separating evil humans from death-dealing machines.
No, gun-safety measures will not abolish original sin or prevent bad people from having very bad intentions toward their fellow citizens. But keeping lethal weapons out of the hands of lethal individuals as much as possible will reduce the number of times the wages of sin are someone else’s death. Presumably, all the other countries with vastly fewer incidents of gun violence still have evildoers; they just don’t kill as often.
3. “The real problem isn’t guns. The real problem is ______.”
A variation on the “Guns don’t kill” howler was illustrated by then-President Donald Trump after a 2019 multiple-gun-massacre week in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger,” Trump said, “not the gun.” Put aside for a moment the fact that the mentally ill are far, far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of any and all acts of violence. Mental illness — and, for that matter, “hatred” — is a deep, vast problem that cannot be “solved” overnight or ever. Postponing gun regulation until the human frailties that make weapon use illegitimately deadly essentially means postponing it forever, which is clearly the idea.
Anyone who cites other genuine problems (whether mental illness, ethnic/racial hostility, poverty, or family turmoil) as reasons to ignore the problem posed by poorly regulated weapons is, strictly speaking, trying to change the subject.
4. “It takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun.”
For many years, the National Rifle Association has argued that gun control gives criminals and other bad actors an effective monopoly on weapons (“If you criminalize guns, only criminals will have guns”). Now, the truth is nobody with any power in this country is arguing for general bans on private gun ownership, so the underlying argument is really that private citizens should wage and win an arms race with evildoers. The logical end of this way of thinking is mandatory gun ownership by law-abiding citizens to make the United States an armed camp where the kinds of people who commit gun massacres are literally outgunned. It’s particularly sad when police officers like Eric Talley in Boulder die in the crossfire.
The possibility that the cure may be worse than the disease accompanies all such schemes. The U.S. is the global leader in gun ownership and towards the top of countries in gun homicides. It is improbable that there is no connection between the two.
5. “This is a slippery slope to gun confiscation.”
Like all “slippery slope” arguments, the claim that limited gun regulation will inevitably lead to the extinction of private gun ownership is both illogical and ahistorical. The fact is we have less gun regulation than we had in 2004 when the military assault weapons so prevalent now were at least partially banned. That ban hardly led to other weapons bans; the pendulum in fact swung in the opposite direction.
There is nothing irreversible about gun-safety measures, which should be judged on their own terms and not on the belief that their proponents secretly want to do something else. Even if the United States were on the brink of enacting that great gun-lobby bugaboo of national gun registration (or gun-owner licensing), it would not lead to gun confiscation without a vast expansion of government power and an extremely unlikely passivity among federal judges.
6. “Guns protect our freedom.”
This last rationalization, which essentially holds that the Second Amendment should be absolute and interpreted as unlimited, requires some thinking through. The idea (as I put it some time ago) is that “no restrictions on firearms possession are ever constitutional. And that particularly applies to military weaponry because the whole idea of the Second Amendment is the right to undertake a violent revolution against the United States government when ‘patriots’ deem it necessary or convenient.”
Gun absolutists are usually coy about what that means and allude vaguely to an armed citizenry as a deterrent to tyranny or just cite the American revolutionary precedent. Some have gone so far as to suggest that when politics fails to achieve some right-wing goal, “Second Amendment solutions” may prove essential. But make no mistake: The argument is to deliberately break the monopoly on deadly force that the military and law-enforcement agencies typically have in civilized societies, in case “patriots” need to start shooting soldiers and cops to defend their supposed liberties. It is precisely the mindset of the insurrectionary mobs of January 6, who believed they were exercising — to quote congressman and would-be senator Mo Brooks — their “1776 moment.”
The scariest thing about Second Amendment absolutists is that they often believe the sign for stockpiling the shooting irons in preparation for a possible armed rebellion is any threat to gun rights as they understand them. And so you have the circular reasoning that absolute gun rights are necessary to protect absolute gun rights. As with other rationalizations for refusing to deal with gun violence, there’s really no effort to reason with the other side of the argument at all.
Correction: The U.S. does not lead the world in gun homicides.