It’s natural for us to have an instant demand for a solution when tragedy strikes. Even in the face of natural disaster, we look for someone to blame when things go wrong. And when there’s a shooting, which is a horrific and difficult to understand event, we naturally want to find a way to explain how someone did so much damage in so short a time. The rhetoric lends itself towards the weapon used, and our country swings into an emotionally charged debate over a topic that’s not well understood.
#1: Why are guns even in the Constitution?
The framers of the Constitution knew full well that the security and safety of a family often depended on a quick and ready firearm. Historically, only sworn citizens in England were permitted weaponry at home. Peasants were expected to go more or less unarmed unless the local lord mustered and equipped them from his armory, mostly to prevent armed insurrection among the peasantry. This is a mode of thinking that has persisted in England to this day, the notion that the government is better suited for protecting people than people themselves.
When it came time to start discussing the rights of a citizen, it’s not for nothing that the right to bear arms was firmly established following the right to freedom of speech. When the Constitution was drafted, the British occupation and their confiscation of firearms was fresh in everyone’s mind. How can a person be expected to defend their country if their country won’t even permit them to defend themselves or their family?
Firearms have immense utility as hunting tools, and they’re terrific for sport. But the Founders recognized that they could never guarantee equality to all citizens if they also forced citizens to rely on the government for self-defense. In the earliest days of our nation, there were no patrol cops or officers or mounted sheriffs to come riding at the first sound of trouble. People were forced to rely on themselves and their immediate neighbors for assistance and protection. This hasn’t changed since then; as the saying goes, ‘When seconds count, the cops are only minutes away’.
#2: Wasn’t the 2nd Amendment written about muskets?
Some have argued that ‘the 2nd Amendment doesn’t apply to modern machine guns’ but the rifles used by the Americans in the Revolutionary War were far superior to the weapons of the day. They presented an ‘asymmetric advantage’, outweighing numerical superiority and armament alike. The British used smoothbore muskets to exchange inaccurate volleys on the battlefield. These volleys were considered a mere precursor to the bayonet charge; at times, generals offered each other the first volley as an act of chivalry. Hence the long, thin lines of maneuvering troops and the trained fire discipline. Most British regulars were just glorified pikemen.
Of a sudden, decades of British techniques and procedures were utterly unable to cope with a Minuteman armed with a Pennsylvania long rifle. Capable of accurate, effective fire at ranges well over a hundred yards, Minutemen were a serious threat to the regular British army, harassing them in a manner that was considered ungentlemanly by the mores of the time.
Elsewhere in the world, unique and interesting firearms were being built all the time, including the ultramodern Ferguson rifle (capable of firing three times faster than even the swift-loading Brown Bess). Though the rifles were expensive to produce, they were a thoroughly asymmetric advantage over even the legendary Pennsylvania rifle. So it’s extremely unlikely the far-sighted framers of the Constitution drafted the document with the deliberate oversight of pretending firearm technology would never evolve or change.
#3: Aren’t assault rifles only for killing people?
Most guns are for killing. People practice with them, and sport with them at target ranges, but they’re really just practicing a martial art that revolves around firearms. You might take up karate for health or for fun, but at the end of the day you’re still studying techniques used to kill and injure people. The idea of hurting someone deliberately should and is anethema to the civilized mind, but a prudent person must recognize that we don’t live in such enlightened times that we can pretend violence doesn’t exist in the hearts of men.
There’s a mystique around ‘assault rifles’ that leads people to think they’re somehow better able to kill, or turn an incompetent boob into a Verhoeven-esque murder machine. The reality is that winning gunfights is about maximizing your percentages to get the advantage on an opponent who is also shooting at you. A modern rifle has some advantages in a gunfight– but it’s not a marked increase in effectiveness. Using completely imaginary numbers, we can say a rifle is 10% more efficient than a handgun; but when you’re fighting against someone who can’t fight back, it’s not a remotely useful metric to employ. It’s like saying you dunked the ball ten percent harder.
And what is an assault rifle? In firearms parlance it’s… nothing, really. The term wasn’t coined until the ’94 Assault Weapons ban, and it uses a hodgepodge of terms such as ‘pistol grip’, ‘bayonet mount’, ‘threaded barrel’, ‘collapsible stock’, ‘detachable magazine’, and so on. A weapon identified as an ‘assault weapon’ has two or more of these features. That’s it. If you look at the common list of identifying features, they look suspiciously like items selected specifically to differentiate an AR-15 from any other firearm. But they’re also features that are common to everything from hunting rifles to handguns. This is the danger of knee-jerk legislation.
On the left is an M1 Garand, standard issue for US military troops… in World War II. On the right is a California- Compliant straight-stocked rifle. Neither of these would be affected by a so-called ‘assault weapons ban’. Both would be just as deadly in a shootout against unarmed targets.
#4: We should ban the high-capacity magazines at least, then!
That’s more a statement, but it’s okay, we’ll roll with it.
What will that accomplish? The Virginia Tech shooter walked in with a 9mm, a .22, and nineteen magazines, most of which were obtained legally in his state and were low-capacity ten-rounders. He proceeded methodically in his rampage and had all the time in the world to perform any reloads he need to accomplish. In the early 1900s in New York, a man going through a bitter divorce shot his lawyer and ten other people armed with only a break-action shotgun and a box of loose ammo.
If you are going to force gun owners to use low-capacity magazines, then you absolutely are handing over an advantage to the active shooter. If you tell someone ‘you can only carry a ten round magazine’, then the public shooter with a bag full of reloads is going to have a significant advantage over them. It has a telling impact for people in a home-defense scenario, where hopping out of bed in the night to confront a threat doesn’t leave much room for grabbing spare ammo for reloads. Without getting into the technical nitty-gritty of it, there’s good reason most cops carry at least 40 rounds and a spare firearm on them. Even extraordinarily skilled competition shooters often carry a spare magazine on them daily, and these are people who consider police marksmanship qualifications good for warming up on the practice range.
And for anyone who thinks ‘Well, if he’s reloading, we can disarm him!’, think again. Fast pistoleros can reload and fire a handgun in under a second. Too many Hollywood movies show someone ‘heroically’ dashing out from cover and blindsiding the shooter. In reality, very, very few people have the discipline to overcome the base-level instinct to run and hide from explosive noises, and fewer still have the training or ability to neutralize an armed assailant empty-handed. However, while someone’s reloading, that’s a prime opportunity for a practiced marksman to return fire.
High-capacity bans have a proven track record of being used to decay your effective right to bear arms. It’s happening in New Jersey and New York as we speak. Even inoffensive .22 trainer rifles, the sort used for four generations to teach gun safety, are now illegal because of their ‘extended’ 10 round magazines. And these are guns only suited for shooting rabbits, mind you. This is the danger of unchecked, emotionally charged litigation.
#5: So why are we allowing these weapons of war on the streets?
For one, they’re not instruments of war. Instruments of war are missiles, tanks, heavy machine guns, and RPGs. They’re designed to destroy buildings, deny movement, and allow attacks against an area instead of a single target. An M4 is a personal firearm, meant to help a soldier fight off one adversary at a time. Very little modern military doctrine flexes around using individual troop firepower.
The reason we issue rifles to troops is because troops need flexibility to fight anywhere from three feet to three hundred yards away. In truth, the M4– the automatic version of the AR-15– is not a terribly good gun. It’s prone to jamming, it’s finicky about being cleaned, the ammunition is very underpowered, and lugging eight plus pounds of steel around in your arms all day is tiring. There are better long-distance rifles, and there are better close-quarters weapons, but the M4 is issued because it’s okay at doing both. Modern rifles only have a major advantage at ranges of thirty or more feet. Inside of that, they’re not substantially more useful than any other firearm.
#6: Can we just make it harder to obtain these firearms?
Yes and no, and this is where you start to see the politics of the issue sandbagging any effective results. We have background checks not because they necessarily work 100% of the time, but because in a good and moral society, we shouldn’t outfit violent offenders with firearms. Modern technology makes a background check an almost instantaneous affair. So while we can’t keep all criminals from getting a gun anytime they want, we can at least hinder or hamper the process by forcing them to undertake riskier criminal activity to obtain them. It’s not a perfect solution, but I hope by this point in the article you recognize there’s no such thing as a ‘single, perfect solution’. What we do need is funding and support for the National Instant Check System, because number reporting is very low in some states that have declined to participate in it. Without retail guns available, criminals obtain their guns from three sources– stolen, obtained from friend/family, or the infamous ‘gun shows’.
Gun shows account for about 3.5% of firearms used in a crime. Gun shows look more like antique swap meets than anything else. It’s mostly weekend shooters and hobbyists exchanging rare and antique firearms with one another. The registered gun dealers with modern semiautomatic weapons are required by law to process NICS checks while selling firearms there, and the presence of police at most of these gun shows means few registered criminals are willing to brave them to obtain a used firearm. This means the overwhelming majority of firearms are either stolen/black market, or acquired from friends and family. And when we remark ‘stolen’, that often means firearms that a person had been granted temporary access to and stolen without permission down the road, later.
Waiting periods have often been cited as a measure for stopping spur-of-the-moment gun purchases by people preparing for violence. Overwhelmingly, mass shooters have been plotting their attacks for weeks or even months. Waiting periods would do little to address that issue. And while it sounds proper to stop people with a revenge-fed fantasy, how does it affect someone who’s recently had a threat on their life? The last person in the world who should be denied a gun right now is an abuse victim dealing with their old abuser, or a family facing repeated attempts at a break-in at their home.
#7: What are you, some kind of whack-job conservative?
No, and you raise a point as to why we can’t get anywhere in this country. No one’s having dialogue anymore. If you’re opposed to gun ownership, everyone who champions 2nd Amendment rights sounds like a frothing redneck. If you’re a responsible gun owner, everyone coming after your guns sounds like a rabid, jackbooted fascist.
Except neither of those perceptions are accurate representations of ‘most’ members of either group. Those are the caricatures at the extreme fringes that somehow keep getting shoved to the front of our media and attention.
And what’s fueling this divide is the rise of people politicizing rhetoric for the sake of their careers. Republicans and Democrats alike whip their people up into a frenzy when it comes to guns, and they spend so much time lobbing insults at one another and repeating those insults to us that people are literally too angry to have a rational discussion about gun ownership. Republicans want to keep their voters angry about it so they continue to donate and support the party with their votes. They paint such a divisive picture that even the greatest candidate in the world is immediately ousted if they’re not 100% pro-gun ownership. Similarly, the Democrats portray gun owners as being uncompromising, over-proud, and often boorish and crude– encouraging people to show up and ‘support gun control’, no matter how badly misinformed a law or candidate is, or how lacking in knowledge about the topic a person is. And they sell their gun control measures as being ‘reasonable’ and ‘measured’, but support extremist groups that are avowedly for 100% gun confiscation as their end objective. When 44% of the population of America represents as ‘Independent’, it’s not fair to let partisan politics determine the course of the conversation.
#8: Wait, is this a post about politics?
No, this is a post about the dialogue we aren’t having as a nation. The largest gun rights organizations refuse to have any discussion about firearms, while the Brady Campaign and people like Senator Feinstein have made it clear their goal is total disarmament and confiscation. Feinstein famously said she’d have confiscated every AR-15 in the country in ’94, if she could have gotten the votes, legally owned or not. And yet, you don’t see many gun-control advocates ready to dismiss their personal bodyguards or armed security escorts. Gun owners have been convinced that all legislation is so abhorrent that it can’t even be discussed, and gun control advocates can’t be bothered to learn anything about the firearms they’re so interested in regulating and confiscating.
So what happens is that the people who’re trying to protect the 2nd Amendment are flailing at the least of measures proposed, because they have seen small, ‘reasoned’ metrics turn into large-scale bans and confiscation. And the gun-control advocates who are for total disarmament couch their arguments in ‘measured, common-sense laws’ that are based more in rhetoric and inflammatory emotional appeal than any real attempt to fix things.
#9: What about psychological screenings and terror-watch flags?
Psychology’s not an exact science, unfortunately. The signs that a psychologist can pick up on as being clear indicators of violent intent are often present in many other social groups– abuse victims, military veterans, firefighters, people who are regularly exposed to dangerous and high-stress situations.
Let’s say you can even predict intent with 99% accuracy, which is Minority-Report levels of accuracy. That means out of 100,000 people who are subjected to a full psychological battery, you’ll flag 1,000 people as ‘potentially dangerous’. But you’ll also mis-diagnose 1,000 people who have no violent intent, and deprive them of civil liberties without due process. This is called ‘adjudication of mental deficiency’, which is a fancy way of saying that you’re mentally unfit to own a firearm. And it goes hand in hand with losing your rights to manage your finances, to handle your own health care, and plenty of other rights and gurantees of personal liberty.
The American Psychological Association firmly refused to endorse legislation like this because it puts an impossible burden on every psychologist and therapist in America. There’s no way to be absolutely sure someone will do something extraordinarily violent, and because of the litigious nature of a liability-centric legal system, no psychologist’s practice would survive the first negligence lawsuit following a patient going on a shooting spree. This article nicely lays out the hazards of trusting a system that’s even 99% effective.
Another rallying cry has been ‘Look! Gun owners vetoed a law that could have prevented a suspected terrorist from buying a gun!’ The danger of ‘watch lists’ is not that they violate the 2nd Amendment, but that they violate your 4th Amendment rights for reasonable search and seizure. We established many years ago that Americans are innocent until proven guilty, a cornerstone of our legal and ethical system. Imagine waking up one day and finding that you’ve lost access to your bank account and your children, were unable to purchase plane tickets, and had your entire personal and medical history surrendered involuntarily to authorities. The lawsuit to get your rights returned could take months or years, and you’d be outed to your neighbors as a ‘suspected’ terrorist. This is an abrogation of one of our most cherished basic rights of equal treatment and opens a dangerous legal precedent for invasive oversight by law enforcement authorities.
#10: Fine, how do we stop mass shootings then?
If you’re looking for one swift and simple solution to stopping mass random violence, you are following an appeal to emotion, not to reason or logic. There is no one, single thing we can do to stop random gun violence completely. And that’s kind of the point of this article– everything being proposed right now is a knee-jerk reaction. ‘Ban immigrants’, ‘Ban Muslims’, ‘Ban assault rifles’– these are all things that might have partially deterred the last shooter, but are very unlikely to stop the next shooter. And these solutions all hold in common the fact that they fly in the face of due process and Constitutionally validated rights.
What we can do is continue to improve the NICS system to ensure that anyone who is convicted of a violent crime is unable to purchase a firearm. We can implement health care programs to make sure people of all walks of life are able to obtain not just psychological evaluations, but actual psychiatric counseling and therapy. We can reduce the cost of prescription medication to help ensure a person in treatment is receiving the care they need regardless of their ability to pay. We need to use our collective social voice to pressure people away from bigotry and intolerant speech– the 1st Amendment guarantees that the government can’t stop White Supremacists from marching, but there’s nothing requiring us to endorse a word they say.
Moreover, we should start treating gun ownership not just as a right, but as a heavy responsibility. At all levels, we should be encouraging people to constantly seek out more training, more diligence, more expertise. It’s no coincidence that every mass shooting we’ve recorded has taken place in a gun-free zone. In our zealous push to reduce gun violence, we permitted people to create legislation that deprived people of a most fundamental liberty for self defense. Unless you’re prepared to accept a Big Brother-esque FBI snuffling through your Facebook feed and email every day, or putting police on every street corner in America, we have to shift responsibility for personal safety off the government and towards the individual.
The recurring personality facet shared between almost every mass shooter is a perception of being isolated and rejected by society. Whether the victims of bullying, domestic abuse, or religious condemnation, almost every perpetrator of a mass shooting in the last quarter-century has been plagued by feelings of abandonment and rejection. We’re fine about condemning bigotry in public, but in private we still let our uncles go on racist tirades at dinner and we let our friends make dark jokes about gays burning in hell without challenging them. I’m sure the shooter in Orlando had an earful about the ‘immorality of homosexuals’ growing up; other mass shooters picked targets that validated their feelings of self-hate by allowing them to attack someone, anyone, they felt justified in labeling as a threat to themselves or others.
We don’t need stronger laws, we need a stronger society. We need to stop quietly letting bigotry and racism and homophobia happen around us. We need to object vocally not just to hate crimes, but the casual discrimination of dinner tables and private parties. It’s easy to talk about being opposed to public bigotry, but it’s much harder to confront racist relatives and casually bigoted co-workers over the statements whispered up sleeves. Removing a very narrow classification of firearms from circulation won’t do anything to address gun violence, but it absolutely permits a slow degradation of a Constitutionally-guaranteed right.