Politics & Policy

Talking Past Each Other on Gun Control

Signs at a gun-control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., February 17, 2018. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
For all the coverage and discussion sparked by the Parkland shooting, the two sides of the debate have retreated to their respective corners.

Parkland happened. Again, America watched in horror as children fled from a murderous school rampage. Immediately, the usual fingers were pointed at the usual suspects. The media coverage was wall-to-wall. But what followed was different from the aftermath of other school shootings. A national town hall was scheduled, a day of protest drew hundreds of thousands around the country, and calls for gun control filled the airwaves. Kids took the lead, at least in the eyes of the general public. A movement seemed poised to effect change.

More than two months down the road, one wonders if that change has really materialized. It seems more likely to me that, despite relentless media coverage of Parkland’s student activists, the respective sides have simply dug in again. What follows is a distillation of conversations I’ve had with gun-control advocates of various stripes over the past month. See if it sounds familiar.

Gun-control advocate: The time has arrived. America is ready for change. School shootings have finally become intolerable. Even Fox News devoted serious coverage to our Washington rally.

Me: The testimony of the Parkland students and families was heart-wrenching. Every parent – every human being — can only attempt to imagine their pain.

Advocate: Empathy is one thing, but Parkland was a tipping point. The message is, “No more mass shootings, whatever it takes.”

Me: I agree with the “no more.” But guns weren’t the sole cause of this shooting. The FBI and local police were grossly negligent — multiple warnings over many years were missed or ignored, and the armed officer on the scene chose not to enter the school and engage the shooter.

Advocate: Police inaction and incompetence are legitimate concerns, but far less important than controlling weapons of war.

Me: Not so fast. Did you catch what went down at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland 34 days after Parkland? There, a bad guy with a gun was confronted by a good guy with a gun. The shooter killed himself after being shot by a school resource officer. No obsessive cable-news coverage followed. No rallies were scheduled. It was a one-day story. The facts did not fit the chosen media narrative.

Advocate: A classic right-wing response. It seems there are never enough guns to please your side. But this time, even red-state America is paying attention. Public opinion is turning. The NRA is on the wrong side of history.

Me: Most gun owners have no problem with reasonable restrictions on bump stocks and other commonsense measures to keep guns out of the hands of felons, the mentally ill, and otherwise irresponsible individuals. For example, Senator Rubio has introduced a bill that would require the FBI to notify local law enforcement whenever a “prohibited” person is rejected from an attempted gun purchase. That seems sensible.

Advocate: We are not interested in “small ball” changes. The problem is guns. There are too many of them, and there’s too little regulation. It’s time to act.

Me: But so many well-intentioned gun-control measures inevitably penalize the law-abiding. Recall that criminals are forbidden from possessing firearms in the first place. Any law that requires a felon to register a firearm or submit to a background check or other legal process is unenforceable; the government cannot require prohibited persons to incriminate themselves.

Advocate: That is a good debate point but ignores the gun culture that defines us. America is no longer a rural society — the Wild West has come and gone. Most countries (and cultures) do not glorify gun ownership. Some have successfully confiscated private weapons, including assault weapons. These societies suffer far fewer gun-related accidents and deaths.

Me: What is an assault weapon?

Advocate: It’s . . . a semi-automatic dressed up with combat accoutrements.

Me: At the end of the day, a semi-automatic is a semi-automatic — and there are tens of millions of them in this country. If you want to ban all of them, just say so.

Advocate: I’m saying so.

Me: What about Justice Stevens’s recent call to repeal the Second Amendment?

Advocate: He shouldn’t have written that. We know your side will run with it as “proof” of our agenda, and the NRA will raise money from it.

Me: Still, isn’t it fair to say many progressives would at the very least support national gun registration?

Advocate: What can I say? We wish America looked more like Sweden.

Me: America is not Sweden. You cannot redo culture (try as you might). Gun ownership has always been a central tenet of our culture, symbolic of freedom from government.

Advocate: As I said, the Wild West is history. Dodge City is a suburb. The threat of homeland invasion is non-existent. Yet our urban areas are suffering from a gun epidemic!

Me: No, our urban areas are suffering from a crime epidemic!

Advocate: You just don’t get it. More guns equal more death!

Me: No, you don’t get it. More guns equal less crime.

Advocate: Whatever. 2018 will be a turning point. Democrats will run on an unabashedly anti-gun platform. The merchants of death will be demonized at every opportunity. Our base is enthused. We will win.

Me: Good luck with that. Proposals like a national gun registry are non-starters with the vast majority of Americans.

Advocate: I would feel so much better if the government knew the whereabouts of every firearm in this country.

Me: This is going to be a long year . . .

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