Everyone is wrong in America's gun debate
How America's gun debate devolved into primal therapeutic screaming and moral posturing
It is now inescapable that every tragedy will be compounded by subsequent posturing. The bodies in Las Vegas are barely cold, and already they are being used as props in our national debate about guns.
We know exactly how this debate goes. The American gun control debate has long been stuck on an endless loop. If I locked you in a room and told you there was just a mass shooting and asked you to act out what would happen on TV, on Twitter, and in Congress, you would probably get it exactly right.
I have a somewhat different perspective on this. I live in France, where gun control is pretty rigorous, and seems to work, so I have no emotional stake in America's unique gun culture and policies. But when I listen to America's gun debates, I'm left with this overall impression: You're all crazy.
Let's start with my fellow conservatives. The philosophical tradition of conservatism is inextricably linked to the Christian doctrine of original sin, or a secular version of the same idea — namely the proposition that all human beings are deeply broken at a fundamental level. Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely about human beings, we will also, in general and over time, tend to be more dominated by the lower beasts of our nature rather than the better angels. Hence the need to limit and deconcentrate political power as much as possible, since power corrupts. Hence the skepticism of any sort of central planning or engineering — which will tend to fail because of the corruption, or incompetence, or most likely both, of whoever ends up being the central planner. Hence the respect for tradition, public morals, and strong social ties as necessary — however imperfect — influences to countervail our own worst instincts.
When it comes to guns, however, American conservatives seem utterly oblivious of this insight. When progressives point out that lots of people do lots of very stupid and dangerous things with their guns, there is always a conservative chorus that loudly asserts that somehow this information doesn't count, since if you use a gun responsibly you won't hurt yourself or anyone else with it. (Here's a representative example.) While this is tautologically true, it misses the central conservative insight, which is that people aren't responsible. Why not legalize all drugs and all gambling, since, if those things are used responsibly, nobody will ever hurt themselves? Come to think of it, if we could all be trusted to exercise moral responsibility at all times, the best economic regime would be communism, since we wouldn't need the carrot of profit or the stick of market competition to produce whatever goods and services society needs.
Now, I'm not saying that a consistent conservatism should cause conservatives to support stringent European-style gun control legislation. But it should certainly cause them to be more mindful of potential tradeoffs with the idea of a sovereign individual right to own literal killing machines.
None of this is to exonerate liberals, who also come off looking very badly in America's gun debate.
Take the liberal obsession with the NRA. The NRA is obviously very influential in American politics. But it's also the case that in mainstream American politics it's very difficult for any particular group to hold much power if its positions aren't also popular with a large swath of the American public. No amount of money or activism can make a cause that's unpopular with Americans popular, as everyone from environmentalist billionaires to anti-entitlement Republicans keep finding out. Gun control legislation is hard to pass in the United States not because of the shadowy dark magical powers of the NRA. Aggressive gun control legislation is hard to pass because America is very much divided on this question. According to Gallup, 55 percent of Americans want the rules around buying guns to become more strict, while 44 percent want them kept as they are or made less strict. That progressives might find this appalling doesn't make it any less true.
Then there is the credibility issue. Progressives routinely misrepresent various facts about guns in America. As but one example, former President Obama once claimed that it was easier to buy a gun than to buy fresh vegetables, even though buying a gun at retail requires a background check and time-consuming paperwork.
Imagine you are a swing voter in Ohio. You're not a card-carrying member of the NRA, but your family and social circle includes a few normal, sober people who are responsible gun owners. And just about every time a Democratic politician opens his or her mouth about gun control, they demonize guns and misrepresent key facts about the ease with which Americans can purchase them. Are you going to trust them?
Credibility also relates to honesty. Let's be honest: The ideal progressive prescription for gun policy is to confiscate all guns. Now, they know this is totally impossible. But in a perfect world, liberals wouldn't just want fewer guns, or more gun restrictions. They'd want no guns at all.
Of course, Democratic politicians can't say this in public. So we get obfuscations that are all too easy to see through. Obama spent his entire career as a national politician swearing up and down cross-your-heart that he was a supporter of gun rights; then, after Sandy Hook, he pointed to Australia as a guide for U.S. policy. Hillary Clinton also said similar things on the campaign trail. Australia, we are informed, instituted a national gun buyback program that significantly reduced gun violence. We are less often informed that it was a mandatory gun buyback program — in other words, a confiscation program.
Never mind the constitutionality or desirability of such a program. Is there any better way to validate the NRA talking point that while Democratic politicians might say they respect the rights of responsible gun owners and only want sensible reforms for safety purposes, they really want to just take everyone's guns away because they're just big city liberals who don't understand the "real" American way of life?
The final element of credibility is feasibility. The Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan coined the phrase "the Green Lantern theory of the presidency" to describe how some partisans believe the president can achieve any political goal as long as they try hard enough. The progressive view of gun control politics seems to rest on a Green Lantern theory of America: They clearly desire a Japan-style situation where all guns are illegal and nobody has them, and they seem to believe that the only thing that lies between here and there is shouting loudly enough about it. However, there is also the little issue of the Constitution of the United States, which protects an individual right to bear arms (and no, not just for muskets). And no matter how much you would like there to not be guns in the United States, there are guns in the United States — hundreds of millions of them. Even if we passed the Ban All Guns Constitutional Amendment of 2017 tomorrow, implementing it would have to involve SWAT-style raids on millions upon millions of American homes, police state-like surveillance, and "stop-and-frisk"-like policies on every American corner. And it would never end, because there would be a thriving and large black market. Everything progressives dislike about policing — the adversarial approach to citizens, the militarization, and yes, the disproportionate impact on minorities — and everything they hate about the drug war would be amplified beyond recognition.
None of this makes any sense. Reading most progressive punditry on gun control, I find myself in the paradoxical position of wanting to be persuaded and being unable to. This makes sense if the movement for gun control mostly consists of primal therapeutic screaming and moral posturing. But as good as those things feel, I believe the issue deserves better.