The Corner

Gun Rights, Gun Control, and Irreconcilable Cultural Differences

Over at the Daily Beast, Megan McArdle has a long, bleakly realistic piece explaining why there’s little we can do — as a public-policy matter — to stop a determined spree killer. Buried within the article is this illuminating statement:

But now is not a good time to have a cost-benefit discussion, and there may never be a good time.  The two sides are too far apart: gun control is mostly advocated by people who do not own guns, or want to own guns, and for them it is therefore a zero cost policy.  Maybe a negative cost policy, because–apart from the violence–they have a fairly intense cultural antipathy for people who spend a lot of time playing with guns.

This is exactly right (and the cultural antipathy tends to run both ways — with many gun-owners puzzled that a person would choose to entirely delegate their family’s protection to the state). The bottom line is clear: For the gun controller, restrictions on gun ownership are a zero-cost policy while for the gun owner, gun control provides zero benefit. In other words, how does restricting my gun rights make my family safer — when criminals have proven hundreds of thousands of times over that gun regulations are irrelevant to them? But it goes even further. For many of us, the entire notion of a disarmed society is unpalatable and represents a change in national character from a culture of self-reliant citizens to one of state-reliant subjects.

This cultural divide is one of the reasons why the Left keeps arguing — despite millions of words exchanged on the subject — that we haven’t had a true “dialogue” about gun control. In reality, we talk past each other because we inhabit parallel cultural and moral universes. In a way, I’m reminded of the environmental and car-safety arguments back in the days when global warming was the Most Important Issue Ever. Prius owners claimed the air would be cleaner and roads would be safer if everyone just drove a Prius (or similar car), while the SUV or pickup truck drivers simply couldn’t see why they should sacrifice their (quite real) safety and transportation needs to achieve a net benefit to the environment or to others so small that it couldn’t be measured with an electron microscope. Even if an all-Prius world were possible, the SUV owner wouldn’t want to live in that world.  

As a matter of policy, we are presently at an impasse. The Left simply can’t persuade gun owners they’re safer with more restrictions, nor can the Left paint a picture of a gun-free world that the gun-owner wants to inhabit. As much as the Right argues that arming teachers and administrators would protect kids, enough teachers and administrators are appalled by the idea that it’s simply not going to happen outside the most culturally conservative regions.  

In other words, the gun-control argument is more about cultural values than it is about charts, graphs, and numbers. And those values are shaped less by public policy (or CNN or MSNBC talk show hosts) than by peers, parents, and personal experience. Welcome back to the culture wars.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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