The Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting presents a serious problem for those who claim that the government offers the answer for gun violence. After all, the government failed at every turn, and it was up to a private citizen to stop one of the worst mass shootings in American history. The shooter was disqualified on multiple grounds from legally owning a gun, yet he obtained his weapons anyway. The police were apparently nowhere near the church (they can’t be everywhere in rural America) and couldn’t intervene for many long, agonizing minutes. It took a brave citizen with an AR-15 to match the shooter’s firepower and bring his rampage to an end.
So, what’s a gun-controlling politician to say here?
Yesterday the Internet lit up with claims that former vice president (and possible 2020 Democratic front-runner) Joe Biden told a young questioner that the Texas hero who stopped the Sutherland Springs shooting never should have owned the gun he used to engage the killer. I think the better description of his remarks was that he gave an utterly incoherent response about gun control, a response that tells us a great deal about the inadequacy of Democratic talking points about mass shootings. You can watch the clip for yourself below:
First, a young woman asks Biden, “With the tragedy that just happened in Texas, how do you justify the Democratic view on gun control, when the shooter was stopped by a man who was legally licensed to carry a gun?” Biden’s first words in response are generating headlines. He immediately said, “Well first of all, the kind of gun being carried, he shouldn’t be carrying,” and then he went on to boast about his role in authoring the now-lapsed “assault-weapons ban.”
Watching it charitably, I believe the “he” Biden is referring to is the shooter, not the man who stopped him (after all, it’s barely been reported that the Texas hero used an AR-15), but it’s obvious that if we reinstituted an “assault-weapons ban,” law-abiding citizens wouldn’t have access to the weapons while criminals would have no qualms disregarding the bans or imitating the San Bernardino killers by modifying legal weapons to violate the law. Moreover, even if the shooter complied with a so-called assault-weapons ban, he’d still have access to pistols that can inflict equivalent carnage — just as they did at places like Virginia Tech or a Luby’s Cafateria in Killeen, Texas.
But that’s not all Biden said. His next words were puzzling:
It’s just rational to say certain people shouldn’t have guns. The fact that some people with guns are legally able to acquire a gun and they turn out to be crazy after the fact, that’s life. There’s nothing you can do about that, but we can save a lot of lives, and we’ve stopped tens of thousands of people from getting guns who shouldn’t have guns.
Well, yes. Certain people shouldn’t have guns. That’s why we have laws banning people exactly like the Texas shooter from owning his gun. And yes, we have stopped “tens of thousands of people” from purchasing weapons. But it has also become clear that the government is less competent than we thought at enforcing existing law. Is the right response to a shooting like the Sutherland Springs massacre to implement new laws that wouldn’t have stopped the shooter? Or should the government more effectively enforce the laws that banned his gun ownership entirely while also protecting the civil liberties of the man who saved so many lives?
While Biden can be famously incoherent, it’s telling that one of the Democratic party’s most charismatic standard-bearers doesn’t have a better answer on gun control. For all the Twitter heat and rage after each shooting, it’s clear that we’re reaching a point of political futility. It’s all culture war now.
Would so-called common-sense gun control make a difference? As Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post outlined in painstaking detail, none of them would have stopped any recent mass shooting. In fact, all of the proposals would serve mainly to inconvenience law-abiding citizens, and none would imposing any material obstacle to determined criminals. It’s nibble-around-the-edges stuff that’s meaningless in addressing actual gun crime in the United States.
A government that’s not competent at implementing a simple background-check system is utterly incapable of physically pulling more than 300 million guns out of private hands.
And what about the occasional calls to repeal the Second Amendment and follow repeal with actual gun confiscation? In addition to fracturing the nation and initiating massive civil conflict, it would be effective mainly at leaving guns solely in the hands of criminals. A government that’s not competent at implementing a simple background-check system is utterly incapable of physically pulling more than 300 million guns out of private hands. It would be impossible.
And that leaves us with the last and potentially most important effort — culture change. Many on the left obviously want to stigmatize gun ownership, to make gun ownership as culturally gross as, say, opposition to gay marriage. If a critical mass of people didn’t want guns and thought that gun ownership was fringe nonsense, then gun control and even outright confiscation would be easy. It would represent the American consensus.
The problem, however, is that the Left keeps losing the cultural argument. When they were advocating for greater tolerance on sexual matters, they were arguing for more permissive moral norms. Lots of people like more permissive norms, especially when it comes to sex.
The effort to stigmatize gun ownership is fundamentally different. Rather than seeking to expand liberty, the Left is asking Americans to relinquish their freedoms. Yet the further one is removed from upscale urban neighborhoods that are saturated with police, the less appealing the argument becomes. There is a reason that people who purchase weapons or obtain concealed-carry permits become evangelists for gun rights. Once you obtain the means to defend yourself, you don’t want to ever be more vulnerable again. Gun ownership is empowering.
The policy argument will rage on. As it does, look for Biden-like incoherence to be the rule rather than the exception. Democrat politicians have to say something to stay on the right side of the culture war, but that something will almost always fall apart under close scrutiny. But no matter, when it comes to gun-control arguments, it’s the sentiment that really counts.