Yesterday, a man in Virginia murdered two people on live television. The news media exploded into a predictable shouting match about gun control, mental health, toxic masculinity, and the "politicization of tragedies." There was also a new twist this time around, a debate about whether it was appropriate to share or broadcast the horrifying video of the killings. And then the killer uploaded his own video of the shooting.
At this point, a voice asserted itself in my conscience. It has become the voice of my own doubts about America's gun culture. It was Irish-accented and belonged to a friend of my father's. "But what about the guns?" he asked, looking at me gravely. "You must know."
Almost any American who travels abroad and talks about politics hears something like that. Often in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone. In the rest of the world, it's all they have to say: "What about the guns?"
I'm a conservative. I have friends who have guns. I'm convinced by some of the arguments for an armed citizenry. I told that Irish voice that his own country was freed from British rule by guns. That the number of privately owned Irish guns was of paramount concern to British ministers in the 1910s and 1920s, and that this was good evidence that an armed citizenry is a defense against tyranny.
I pointed out that because so much of America is rural, citizens need means to defend themselves and their property when the armed authorities are far away from them. I noted that America would face insurmountable obstacles in trying to confiscate guns, as so many American believe they are a necessary defensive measure against violence. I also observed that the same belief was held just a few hours up the road from him, in Northern Ireland, and that's why Great Britain has considerably relaxed gun laws there compared to the rest of the country.
With the easy confidence of an American-Irish nationalist, I told him that the reason the Falls Road neighborhood wasn't burned down again was three letters long: IRA. They had guns.
That was enough to not only impress my interlocutor, but to also silence him on the subject. But my conscience has been talking at me ever since. And on days like yesterday, it is screaming: What about the guns? I have no answers, but I have some doubts about our gun culture that American conservatives should consider:
An armed citizenry is not the same thing as an armed consumer public
In America we have background checks to prevent certain criminals from owning guns. It's a system that presumes good citizenship on the part of everyone who has not been convicted of a crime. But not having a criminal record is a very different thing from being a responsible citizen. The only test most people have to pass to gain access to weapons of exceptional lethal power is this: Do you have enough cash or credit?
That's not enough. Classical republican theory restricts arms ownership to those it deems responsible enough to uphold public order. Our system of guns as a consumer good, and our democratic presumption of good citizenship, puts guns into unsteady and untrained hands.
Making sure a person is qualified to own a gun is something responsible societies do. Many families, gun clubs, and organizations like the NRA do the work of training responsible, conscientious gun owners. It's plausible that some kind of mandatory socialization in gun clubs for potential gun owners would be a good first step at preventing gun violence. It's more plausible than simply wishing for more 'good guys with guns' at every possible location for a tragedy. As things stand, this constructive, social gun culture does not encompass the totality of gun owners; gun shops certainly don't inquire about your sociability and training.
I know what conservatives are thinking: "So you think the government has the power to disqualify citizens from gun ownership?" The government will prove terrible at this task, and it defeats the purpose of an armed citizenry. And to be sure, I don't want a government that can put a gun owner in prison for having the wrong politics. And of course, this power of restricting guns — like restricting the franchise to "responsible, invested citizens" — echoes a historical tie between gun control and racist efforts to confine blacks to a lower status. And yet, we still ought to consider stronger guarantees of responsible gun ownership. Perhaps tests that aim at qualifying the character of a gun owner, rather than searching only for a criminal disqualification.
Increased firepower among citizens is leading to an arms race with the state
There are plenty of horror stories about cops getting geeked-up in discarded military gear to deliver a warrant or make a drug arrest. They kick in a door, throw a flash-bang into a crib, or shoot to death an innocent unlucky enough to be holding a television remote that looks like a weapon. The militarization of the police has many causes, including our drug policies and federally subsidized military-grade equipment. But it is also the case that cops in America expect to go into gunfights, and naturally they want the bigger gun. Countries without as wide access to guns don't have such heavily armed or fearful police.
Americans may be more violent precisely because we have guns
We're often told that Americans are just more violent than other people, and that's why we have so many guns. And I agree, to a point. But the truth might be the other way around, and conservatives should make generous allowances for the pre-rational or the anti-rational in our politics. Our tools and our physical surroundings shape our self-conception and our intentions. A beautiful church sanctuary reminds us of the transcendent and sends a hush over us. A well-appointed room may cause us to stand straighter. And training with a hand gun, an object designed to kill other human beings, causes us to imagine situations in which we might kill another human being.
Doing this constantly makes us more likely to "see" a situation in which we could take lethal action. It may cause us to perceive more danger in the world than actually exists. Mentally unsound people are obviously much more likely to lose themselves in this kind of self-induced paranoia, but a stable person should be aware of that pull on their subconscious intentions as well.
It is this intuition about human nature that makes me recoil instinctively from certain guns, often marketed as "tactical," which are designed to look sinister and appeal to young men who spent a lot of time in their adolescence playing Counter-Strike.
Firearm-related deaths are one of the only truly "exceptional" things about America, and that's embarrassing
There are lots of places on Earth where you can make a prosperous living. There are lots of modern commercial nations. In history there have been empires that bungled through the Middle East like we do. And there are lots of countries that are torn by disorder and violence that are caused by an absence of state authority. America is really the only nation that is orderly with an almost unchallengeable state, and yet has a gun-death rate similar to much poorer Latin American nations experiencing low-grade civil wars and disorder.
Yes, many of our firearm-related deaths are suicides. But our firearm-related homicide rate is noticeably higher than every comparable industrialized nation. And furthermore, there seems to be a strong correlation between reduced access to firearms and a reduced rate of suicide.
None of these lines of thought has carried me all the way over to Mike Bloomberg's side. Gun crime, like all crime, has been receding for most of my life. I recognize that most of the proposals made by gun-control groups in the aftermath of a tragedy would have done little to prevent the tragedy in the first place. I admire most of the gun-owners I know, many of whom have politics that are on the left or are outright radical. I have thought of purchasing weapons and training with them myself and I would regret the loss of my ability to do so. The concept of an "armed citizenry" makes sense to me, from my reading of history. And I think responsible citizens have a right to defend themselves against each other, even with guns. The results of preventing them from obtaining firearms lawfully can also be deadly and unjust.
But overall, the results in this part of the American experiment are not encouraging. If the Virginia killer did not have easy access to guns, if his scheme for murdering his former colleagues had to be accomplished with knives, hammers, or a home-made explosive device, the truth is that those murders would have been much less likely to occur. Conservatives who generally support the idea of an armed citizenry should let that thought sink in.