Why there is no viable solution to America's gun problem

The system is broken — and there's no way to fix it

A makeshift memorial for the slain WDBJ journalists.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Chris Keane)

I was working as a senior editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast on the day in 2012 when Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Like many newsrooms, ours broadcasted CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News on several wide-screen televisions all day, every day. That morning, the words and images pouring in were so horrifying that many of us didn't want to accept the truth of what we were hearing and seeing.

Some of my co-workers cried. Others became angry. I just despaired. That was something that one of my angry colleagues didn't appreciate. Pacing around the editor's hub where we both worked, he barked accusations at no one in particular, all of them having to do with the idiocy of American gun laws and the homicidal character of American gun culture.

I didn't disagree. The rest of our colleagues certainly didn't. This was a roomful of journalists in New York City, after all.

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But in my emotionally downcast state, I wondered aloud if this really got to the bottom of the problem. Wasn't there something much deeper going on? Hand an automatic weapon to a civilized human being, and no one will end up dead. Yet the United States is a place where a not-insignificant number of people, when given access to deadly weapons, make a choice to use them for murder, often multiple murders, sometimes murders of first-grade children, with no trace of a rational motive or justification at all, seemingly just for the demonic, nihilistic thrill of spreading fear, pain, suffering, and death. Wasn't this the root of the problem? Isn't that what we needed to ponder and reflect on? Even if there was no obvious public policy response?

Let's just say my angry colleague didn't appreciate my contribution to the discussion: "That's just the typical crap we always hear from people who won't commit to doing what's needed to change things for the better. Take the guns away and the killing will stop. Countries that restrict guns — surprise! — have far fewer gun deaths. A lot fewer. That's the answer. This isn't a day for sermons or philosophical chin-scratching."

This debate has replayed in my mind with every mass shooting since the Newtown massacre — there have been an awful lot of them — and that very much includes this week's televised (and tweeted) murders of a reporter and cameraman in Roanoke, Virginia.

My colleague at Newsbeast was right: My penchant for waxing philosophical won't solve America's gun problem. But the ugly truth is that neither will his gun-control proposals. Sure, if we could magically eliminate 99 percent (or 90 or 75 or 50 percent) of America's estimated 280 million to 300 million guns and then impose restrictions like the ones that abide in many other Western nations, then that would make a big, maybe an enormous, difference. I would personally love to wake up tomorrow and find myself in such an America.

But there is no chance of it happening. Zero.

Why? Because the Supreme Court has declared that the Constitution forbids it. Because a sizable chunk of the country strongly opposes it. Because America's democratic culture would never allow the mass confiscation of property by the government. When that property is a weapon that could be trained on the person attempting the confiscation, things get trickier still.

There is simply no realistic path that gets us from the country we have to the country gun-control advocates want.

Should we try to pass more laws regulating guns? Absolutely. If your city is motivated to ban high-capacity gun magazines, by all means do so. The same with local, state, or federal laws encouraging the development of childproof guns and public-health efforts to persuade people to buy them. The same with increasing waiting periods, deepening background checks for gun purchases, and closing the gun-show loophole. Go ahead and do every well-intentioned thing in Nicholas Kristof's indignant column on the Roanoke shooting.

But understand that in the end the improvements will only be marginal. Yes, some indeterminate number of lives will be saved, which is why we should keep trying. Something is always better than nothing. But there will still be hundreds of millions of guns out there in circulation, and countless ways to purchase new ones, which means there will be ample opportunities for a would-be mass murderer to secure the means of attaining his goal. That's why Kristof's analogy to lives saved by automobile regulations is bogus. The vast majority of people killed while driving die by accident. The vast majority of people killed by guns die by intent. Firearms are deadly weapons, we have an awful lot of them lying around, and unfortunately we have a disturbingly large number of people who want to use them to kill human beings.

This doesn't make me happy. It makes me ill. It means that, in this respect at least, America is broken.

If you doubt it, read (or reread) Jeffrey Goldberg's essential, demoralizing 2012 essay from The Atlantic. Goldberg makes a persuasive case that given all of the above, the best policy solution to lowering the body count is to go in the opposite direction from seeking to ban and confiscate guns. Instead, we should encourage more people to carry firearms on them in public. See someone open fire on a crowd? Don't cower in fear. Aim and fire back. The end result might be three fatalities rather than 13.

If you want to see a dramatic drop in the number of firearm deaths — especially in mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado — this probably has a greater chance of getting us there than a constitutionally dubious and politically impossible effort at widespread gun restriction or confiscation.

But it's also a stunning admission of defeat — a confession that when it comes to protecting Americans from deadly violence, the government is close to powerless to stop it.

As Max Weber argued nearly a century ago, the state can be defined as the institution that possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within any given territory. Goldberg's proposal represents a devolution of this monopoly on violence to private individuals. Doubting the state's capacity to protect us, Goldberg would have us revert back to something like a Hobbesian state of nature in which we're reduced to drawing our own weapons and employing deadly force in public to defend ourselves against lethal violence unleashed by other citizens.

The technical term for that is anarchy — a war of each against all — though it could also be described as life at the O.K. Corral. And if Goldberg is right, this may well be the best that Americans can hope for.

That's depressing. But sometimes the truth is like that.

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