Now that the terrifying confusion has abated and the wildly varying reports have been collated into some sort of consensus, we are able to review what happened yesterday at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard with a dispassionate and critical eye. Doing so reveals that it is once again time for the friends of liberty to be blunt and to be forceful in the face of what will inevitably come. So resolved, let us lay down this marker: Those claiming that yesterday’s abomination demonstrates the need for stricter gun control are lying, or else they are ignorant, and, either way, they should be ashamed of themselves. It does no such thing.
We now know that the perpetrator owned only a Remington 870 shotgun, and that he murdered and maimed his way into possession of the two other weapons that he used in his attack. Those weapons were two standard 9mm handguns — not, as the media tripped over itself prematurely to report, a much-maligned AR-15 “assault rifle.” On his show last night, unrelenting bore Piers Morgan spent a great deal of time spreading misinformation about the role of the AR-15 in the shooting, a theme that the New York Daily News rather embarrassingly continued on its front page this morning. Although retractions will presumably be forthcoming in the usual tiny print, it is probably too late to remove completely the impression that the headlines will have left in the imaginations of many Americans.
It is not, however, too late to set the record straight in the public square and with lawmakers, who will be predictably pressured to “do something.” Here, the truth is vital, for it demonstrates neatly the reality that, in a country with 350-million-plus privately owned firearms, the state is utterly powerless to stop evil with the law. President Obama, Senator Feinstein, Senator Schumer et al. could have pushed through Congress every single gun-control provision that they coveted earlier this year — an “assault weapons” ban, a limit on the size of magazines, and a requirement that background checks be conducted for all private sales — and yesterday would nonetheless have happened exactly as it did. Indeed, in preparing for his spree, Aaron Alexis quite literally followed Joe Biden’s advice: He went out and bought an uncontroversial shotgun from a reputable, licensed dealer and subjected himself successfully to a federal background check. So routine was this purchase, it should be noted, that it could have been made legally in England or in France.
None of the usual political language applies here. Alexis, who killed twelve people, did not buy a weapon “from a friend” or “over the Internet” or in the “parking lot of a gun show”; he did not have a “high capacity” magazine from which to “spray” bullets around; he did not buy a “military style” “assault weapon” — nor even use one; he did not deploy “armor-piercing bullets.” Instead, he bought a shotgun, which almost nobody is openly suggesting should be banned or controlled. Politicians and public figures who call for new laws in the wake of this shooting will thus need nailing to the wall with a simple and reliable question: “What exactly do you propose doing, and how specifically would it have changed what happened at the Navy Yard?” When I have asked this question of non-journalists on Twitter, I have received a common — refreshingly honest — answer: “A gun ban.”
If the mainstream gun-control movement were as forthright as the rank-and-file Left, it would accept that there is little choice now but for it to go back to its pre-1994 position and renew calls for the piecemeal prohibition of all privately owned handguns. To focus on other weapons, especially the AR-15, is downright absurd. If someone is killed with a gun in America, it is almost certain that a handgun was used. Rifles of all types — not just so-called “assault rifles” — are used in around 3 percent of killings, while shotguns are used in around 3.5 percent. So rare are deaths from either rifles or shotguns that the FBI finds hands and fists causing more deaths than both combined. Handguns, on the other hand, account for almost all deaths-by-firearm. Because handguns are clearly protected by the Second Amendment — as explicitly confirmed in the Supreme Court’s Heller decision — the Left will have little choice but to call for a repeal of the Second Amendment.
Conservatives, too, might take a little time to see if they have any answer to the question, “What can be done?” Personally, I am of the view that there is very little that we can achieve with laws. Still, there are a few small changes that could be tried. While Washington, D.C.’s strictest-in-the-nation gun restrictions needed no further indictment, Alexis nevertheless demonstrated yesterday the folly of expecting rules to restrain the wicked. It is not “playing politics” to observe that it is difficult to imagine a more “gun-free zone” than a military base in the nation’s locked-down capital, nor is it “ghoulish” to remind Americans that it was not only illegal for Alexis to carry a gun in D.C. at all, but unlawful for him to take firearms into the base, too. It is not “hijacking a tragedy” to remember aloud that the only people who are supposed to have firearms on the base work for the government. Most crucially, it is not “disrespecting the dead” to hammer home that, because you can’t stop people who want to kill, the strict arrangement in D.C., proved disastrous, as it always does in America, for Alexis’s innocent victims.
All of this is to say that, if any changes are to be made to the American gun regime, they should clearly be in the opposite direction, tapping virtuously into the liberalization that has coincided with — if not caused — the halving of gun violence that Americans have enjoyed over the past two decades. Conservatives might suggest, too, that the United States reexamine the Clinton-era policy that leaves military installations defenseless; they might demand that the nation’s capital city cease depriving its residents of their constitutional right to bear arms; and they might insist that — as pro–Second Amendment groups have been saying for years — the existing gun laws be enforced.
Alexis passed background checks to get into the Navy; he was given a security clearance that afforded him access to the base as recently as July; and he passed a federal NICS background check when he bought his shotgun from a well-regarded dealer in Virginia. None of this is remotely surprising to those of us who have been paying attention to the details of gun violence in America, as, contrary to the desperate bleating from the unlettered and the hysterical, it is an unassailable fact that most of America’s mass shooters sail breezily through the various background-check systems that we are supposed to believe represent a real obstacle to mass murder.
It would, of course, be impractical and unbecoming for a free nation to respond to this worrying reality by preemptively punishing the whole population. Instead, we should insist that as long as the background-check and other access-limiting laws are on the books, they are damn well followed. Anything else is not only to impose on liberty without result, but to invite and encourage a false sense of security.
Ultimately, Aaron Alexis should have been picked up earlier. He had two prior firearms incidents in his history: an arrest for shooting at his ceiling and an arrest for shooting out the tires of a car during a dispute. For some reason, the less serious of these two offenses was deemed sufficiently grave to justify his being dismissed from the Navy, but not to justify his being charged. More important, news reports this morning confirm that, predictably, Alexis was seriously mentally ill. He was, records show, being treated for a whole host of issues, including an inability to distinguish reality from fantasy and a tendency to hear voices in his head. Why did this not make it into the database of those unfit to own guns?
If there are good answers to these questions, conservatives should team up with progressives to change and to improve the system. That, however, should be the extent of it. If the Left wishes to continue its incessant attempt to infringe dramatically upon the basic liberties of free Americans, it is its prerogative to try. But those of us who oppose the authoritarian instinct must insist, now that the inconvenient facts are known and published, that they have the good manners to keep what happened yesterday at the Navy Yard out of it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.