Politics & Policy

Gun Control and Magical Thinking

A customer holds an AR-15 rifle at a gun store in Provo, Utah, in 2016. (George Grey/Reuters)
Liberals’ perspective on the issue is just as warped as they imagine conservatives’ to be.

In the wake of Sunday’s horrific Texas church shooting, America’s chattering classes promptly responded with silent, respectful, and somber reflection, holding off on divisive and caustic political debates for the day.

Unfortunately for all of us, that was over on Earth 2.

Back here on the real Earth, politicians, pundits, and journalists immediately spiraled into Internet shouting matches, rehashing what could be the single most depressing national debate of our time. On one side, we see shocked Americans sending out “thoughts and prayers” for the victims of a mass shooting. On the other, we have ardent gun-control advocates — Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren among the most prominent — ripping the “thoughts and prayers” crowd for its supposed hypocrisy, inaction, and empty, naive gestures.

“Superstition helps explain how people think about gun laws,” declared an October headline at The Economist, adding that “a large number of Republican voters indulge in magical thinking.” Supporters of gun rights, the article continues, “understand the world on the basis of feelings and gut instinct, not doctrine or empirical facts, even when confronted with them.”

Well then. Lest we be accused of “magical thinking” when it comes to the Texas tragedy, let’s look at the empirical facts. Here’s a big one: In the case of the deaths of 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, the government — the same sprawling, bureaucratic behemoth that die-hard gun control advocates insist we trust with every element of our personal safety — screwed up big time.

In 2012, while he was in the Air Force, Devin Kelley assaulted his wife, kicking, beating, choking, and reportedly pointing a gun at her. In the same incident, he fractured the skull of his baby stepson, using what the Air Force described as “a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.” He was court-martialed and imprisoned for a year. (Seems like a ludicrously short prison sentence for such a crime, but that’s a whole other story).

Based on existing federal gun laws, Kelley’s record made him officially ineligible to buy firearms. But the Air Force failed to submit his records into the federal background-check database, allowing him to purchase the guns used in this weekend’s rampage.

Folks, that’s an unacceptable “oops.” It also isn’t an isolated incident of negligence. This week, questions have arisen about the military’s reporting system when it comes to domestic-violence cases. Meanwhile, in an interview after the shooting, Texas senator Ted Cruz noted that in 2010 alone, “48,000 felons and fugitives lied and illegally tried to purchase guns. [The government] prosecuted only 44 of them.”

Why, it almost seems as if the government is often embarrassingly incompetent, wildly untrustworthy, and unable to handle even its simplest jobs!

This seems like a problem, does it not? Why, it almost seems as if the government is often embarrassingly incompetent, wildly untrustworthy, and unable to handle even its simplest jobs! But never mind that: When it comes to some of our most heated gun-policy debates, the gun-control lobby does a bang-up job of engaging in a brand of magical thinking all its own. In this view, the government can always protect us. NRA members are always evil. AR-15s are, as Matthew Walther put it at The Week, the nonsensical toys of “an adolescent cult” with “childish and callous” owners.

Tell that to Stephen Willeford, the hero former NRA instructor and AR-15 owner who shot the Texas killer, chased him down in a truck, and ultimately stopped the killing spree. Or tell that to me, the owner of an AR-style rifle, which, along with being the best-selling rifle in America, also happens to be a favorite among women as a lightweight option for self-defense. “The NRA is full of it when it says that the AR-15 can be used for hunting,” Walther writes, saying a twelve-gauge will do the job just fine. Next time he’s in Texas, I cordially invite him to face down a wild hog or two or four — such encounters can happen in the country! — with a cumbersome twelve-gauge. Personally, I’d take the AR-15.

Here’s the unfortunate thing about our national gun debate: Amid all the shouting, there are some actual common-sense reforms that could fly on both sides of the aisle. After the recent tragedy in Las Vegas, members of both parties came out in support of a ban on bump stocks. The Texas shooting, meanwhile, has exposed dangerous flaws in our national background-check system that should immediately be addressed.

But to find such common ground would require a surfeit of good faith, which would in turn require gun-control advocates to let go of their hostility for law-abiding gun owners. As this week has shown, the government bureaucracy often fails. It should be held accountable; it is not always our friend. To think otherwise, in fact, might be the ultimate in magical thinking.


Government Action Is Not the Answer to Mass Shootings

The Passionate Non-Sequiturs of the Gun Debate

In the Face of Evil, Prayer Is the Most Rational and Effective Response

Heather Wilhelm is a columnist for National Review. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, RealClearPolitics, the Washington Examiner, Commentary magazine, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, and the Kansas City Star


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