The Corner

Politics & Policy

Cosmetic Questions

((George Frey/Reuters))

I am just a little bit annoyed at my friend Mona’s column today, in which she simultaneously admits that the criteria for being counted as a so-called assault rifle are cosmetic and argues that we should nonetheless prohibit some weapons on cosmetic grounds — without ever suggesting which cosmetic grounds should be verboten or who is to be invested with the power of making his aesthetic sensibility mandatory.

Those “black guns,” as we call them, including the AR-type rifle, are unlovely appliances. My own tastes run toward Italian shotguns and traditional hunting rifles, but you want the right tool for the task. I used to know a lady who grew up on a farm in South Africa and who would sometimes say astonishing things like, “We had a dog, but he was eaten by a lion.” But here in the United States, someone who is forced to use a firearm in self-defense — as thousands are every year — probably does not have a Cape buffalo at the door and isn’t reaching for his Blaser Stradivari. (Which, if you have one, is probably what the intruder is there to steal.) People defend themselves with black guns. I don’t know very many people who take their Glocks out to admire them for their plasticky beauty. But those who have them have them for a reason.

Mona doesn’t go into the aesthetic considerations she thinks might be considered when banning some firearms. She does go into the marketing language some firearms makers use. Much of it is ridiculous. I think of William Gibson’s observation: “The windows of Army surplus stores constituted hymns to male powerlessness.” But if that’s going to be our criterion, we have some issues, because those “hymns to male powerlessness” constitute pretty much all advertising directed at men. When Ford switched from steel to aluminum for its trucks, the suits feared a loss of corporate masculinity, hence the invocation of “military-grade aluminum,” a term that means precisely nothing. Trucks are funny that way: GMC and its “professional grade” products, etc. The language surrounding pickup trucks starts to sound slightly pornographic and homoerotic pretty quickly: “Power Stroke,” etc. XLT — is that your truck size or your shirt size? There are people out there who want to sell us “tactical” khakis and tactical laser-guided pizza cutters.

Mona overlooks the practical objection to cosmetic rules: They are easy to subvert. By definition, they are things that can be changed without changing the function of the firearm. You can get a Ruger Mini 30 that looks like a traditional wood-stocked gun or you can get one kitted out in mall-ninja “tactical” style, but it is the same rifle, shooting the same rounds at the same rate of fire.

To the extent that there is a meaningful ballistic difference between the popular .223 AR-style rifles and granddad’s hunting rifle, it is that granddad’s hunting rifle is much, much more powerful: The.45-70 round dates from the 19th century (like so many of the hunting rounds we use today, it began its career as a military cartridge) but is about twice as powerful as the typical AR round, which is why you use that and not a .223 black gun to hunt bear or bison.

(Note, though, that the AR-style rifle is almost certain the country’s most popular hunting rifle, used mainly on “varmints” and small game.)

Mona writes that the mass shooters are “overwhelmingly young men from unstable families who are disconnected from the institutions that mold character and provide meaning.”

Our culture has a masculinity problem — but not in the sense the feminists mean. We suffer not from too much masculinity, but from too little. Or too little of the wholesome kind. More and more children are growing up without fathers, and we know that fatherlessness is more damaging to growing boys than to developing girls. Feminists who want society to build better men should be staunch advocates for marriage and involved fatherhood. The very best way to tame male aggression is to surround the growing boy first with two parents, and second with a community that offers positive outlets for his energy and drive — churches, sports, music, clubs — any activity in which young males learn from adults how to behave, how to excel, and to thrive. Even if the boy goes to a shooting range with his dad, he is likely to grow into a responsible adult. It’s the relationships that are critical.

That’s very well said. What any of it has to do with the promotional copy produced by the knuckleheads down in Big Scary Gun’s marketing department is not obvious to me.


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