[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
This is not another impassioned plea for immediate action to enact gun control legislation. Well, at least not entirely.
With each gun massacre this year (Aurora, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; Newtown, Conn., just to name the last three well publicized ones), it would seem obvious that any discussion of how to prevent these increasingly common horrific events would have to at least consider finding ways to limit access to especially destructive weapons, especially by those most likely to use them to kill. We lose thousands of people each year to gun violence (more in six months than all the casualties of terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined). But, with each tragedy, we are quickly warned by gun supporters that we can't have that discussion. To even bring it up is to be accused of politicizing a tragedy or infringing on gun owners' freedoms.
(A side issue: With shootings coming so quickly on each other's heels now, by this theory we could never have the discussion, because before the moratorium after a shooting on discussing gun control ends, the next gun tragedy will have already taken place, leaving no accepted time for discussion.)
So we're left with an obvious problem--the prevalence of mass shootings--as well as hard data relating to the problem, but discussion of the problem is off the table.
Today it's gun control, but we're told this again and again. Climate change is an obvious problem, but we can't talk about it, so much so that the topic wasn't even raised in the three presidential debates. Why? Because one side of the political divide has perpetuated a lie that there is a lack of legitimate scientific consensus on the issue, when, in fact, there is near uniform agreement that climate change is real and man-made. Unprecedented hurricanes and tornadoes hit with horrific impact, killing people and costing billions of dollars, the polar ice is melting, sea levels are rising, but the issue can't even make it into a presidential debate.
Health care? You utter the terms "single payer" or "public option," and you are called a socialist, barraged with cherry-picked statistics about care in Canada or Europe, and told it's not up for discussion. What about the statistics that show we spend more on health care than any other country but grade poorly in quality of care (including last in a Commonwealth Fund study behind, in order, the Netherlands, the U.K., Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and Canada)? Nope, can't discuss it. John Boehner says the U.S. has the "best health care delivery system in the world," so don't bother us with your facts and evidence. If you disagree with him, you are just not a patriot.
I could go on, but the point is the same. How can we debate issues when we're not allowed to acknowledge the facts?
Back to gun control. What most people are talking about is not banning guns completely, but putting in place some reasonable restrictions that would provide a line of defense against mass killings like the one in Newtown without infringing on what most people consider reasonable uses for guns. Assault rifles, automatic weapons, weapons that don't need reloading, megaclips, etc. aren't meant for hunting or sport. They are specifically designed to do as much damage as possible to the human body. It is amazing we can't even discuss limiting these types of weapons.
And there are certain people, namely felons and those with mental illness, who should not be allowed access to guns, so we need to be careful to whom we are selling weapons. After all, we require people to take three tests (eyes, written, driving) to get a driver's license, so I'm not sure why increased scrutiny for gun licenses (or the need for them at all) is so controversial. Don't we want to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and those with criminal records? Don't we want a system that makes it as easy as possible for gun sellers to identify these classes of individuals?
The problem is that opposition to reasonable gun control is irrational. What I mean is that the arguments of opponents come from a subjective place (feelings, tradition, paranoia, etc.) with no basis in empirical reality. The arguments I'm seeing on social networking sites and in news stories since Newtown are evasive, looking to push the discussion away from facts and figures and toward appeals to emotion. The main problems with gun control seem to be:
- People will get guns anyway, no matter the law. The problem with this argument is that you can extend it to a world of things most of us agree should be illegal. Few argue we should decriminalize heroin and meth, but they are readily obtained by those who want them. Same with counterfeit bills, insider trading, and stealing cable television. They all still exist, but that doesn't mean we would want to make these things legal.
When we, as a public, choose to make something illegal (like, if we were to say that people can't buy assault weapons), we are making a statement that the item in question is dangerous and doesn't belong in our society. Doing so makes it harder (not impossible, but harder) for people to get the item, and it provides law enforcement with an opportunity to act. We don't make things illegal with the expectation that in so doing we will completely obliterate the underlying problem. We make the thing illegal to help cut down on the problem the best we can.
Yes, eliminating weapons that don't need reloading as often would not have made Newtown impossible to happen. But that is a straw argument. The real question is would a ban on certain types of guns make it harder for disturbed individuals to get their hands on these devastating weapons and engage in mass killings. And the answer is unquestionably yes.
- Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Yes, but people kill people a lot more effectively with guns. Remember, a man went crazy in China earlier this month and slashed 22 students with a knife. Nobody died. What does that attack look like if the same man has an assault rifle? A lot like Newtown. Similarly, there has been a statistic running around the Internet in the last few days showing how gun deaths in the U.S. far outpace those in countries with stricter gun laws. It's a nice quick-hit attention-getter, but the breadth of evidence that lax gun laws lead to more shooting deaths is deep and persuasive (the Brady Campaign has collected a ton of relevant statistics on its website).
Again, the "guns don't kill people" argument completely misses the point. Of course people can kill in all sorts of ways. Limiting the sale of assault weapons wouldn't eliminate mass attacks. But it would make it harder for those contemplating these kinds of killing sprees to succeed. It's not brain surgery to figure out that the harder you make it to kill people, the fewer people will be killed.
- I want guns to defend myself/The solution to guns is more guns. I've seen all over the Internet people saying they want to be able to protect their family in case someone breaks into their home. (And let's put aside for a second the issue that the kind of gun control legislation Americans favor would not stop people from having a gun, only certain types of weapons, and only in the hands of certain people.) If we go to facts rather than gut feelings, the argument doesn't hold water. The fact is that, statistically, a gun in a home is more likely to end up harming someone in the home than an intruder and raises the chance of a homicide in the home.
This is why I say opponents of reasonable gun control are irrational. They may think that having a gun makes them safer in their homes, but the evidence points to a very different conclusion.
As for the "more guns" argument, we had a sitting member of Congress make the claim Sunday that things would have been better in Newtown if the teachers were armed. Think about the implications of the congressman's statement: Do you want to live in a perpetual cross-fire? Again, such a view is irrational. A gun in the hands of an amateur during a highly stressful firefight is as likely to kill an innocent person as it is the assailant. And how does law enforcement sort out who is whom?
- Taking away my guns is the first step to taking away my freedom. This one is my favorite. It sounds so compelling, but it is completely without substance. How is having a gun the symbol of freedom? The only partially historically accurate facet of this argument goes to the Second Amendment's opening language: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State ..." So the argument is that the Second Amendment was intended to allow for militias to fight a suddenly tyrannical government. But in 2012, if the government decides to become tyrannical, I don't think an assault rifle is going to help, given the arsenal at the disposal of the U.S. armed forces. A semi-automatic pistol isn't going to do much against a drone attack or a bunker-busting bomb.
And, call me crazy, but I don't think a suddenly tyrannical government is something we have to worry about right now. We have way bigger problems, which include madmen going into public settings like movie theaters and elementary schools and shooting innocent people.
The "freedoms" argument is nothing more than a rhetorical smoke screen. It is, again, irrational. If the federal government were to enact a ban on assault rifles, the only people who would have their freedoms infringed would be those trying to carry out a Newtown-like attack.
- The Second Amendment doesn't allow for any limitations on the right to bear arms. Most constitutional scholars would disagree with this argument, for several reasons. First, again, the amendment begins with the reasoning for the right, the need for militias. So the right is not absolute.
Second, it took until 2010 for the Supreme Court to agree that the Second Amendment provides a personal right to bear arms. In other words, for 207 years after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, no such right was recognized by the Court. It took an extremely conservative majority to do so as part of a larger agenda to establish far-right readings of everything from voting rights to the Commerce Clause. The Court's reading of the Second Amendment is not inside of the mainstream approach to the amendment of the last 200 years.
Finally, none of the rights in the Bill of Rights are absolute, so why should the Second Amendment be different? You have the right to free speech under the First Amendment, and yet the states and the federal government can prohibit defamation, speech that incites violence and obscenity. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from warrantless searches and seizures, and yet there is a long list of exceptions (borders, airports, exigent circumstances, etc.) recognized by the Supreme Court. The Fifth Amendment protects our right to due process and against double jeopardy, but, again, there are exceptions. Same goes with the Sixth Amendment right to counsel (try asking for a court-appointed lawyer the next time you get a speeding ticket).
The point is, even if you accept that the Second Amendment limits how far the government can go in preventing citizens from acquiring guns, the right is not absolute. Surely banning convicted violent felons from buying guns would not violate their Second Amendment rights. The Court never accepted a challenge to the assault weapon ban that expired in 2004, but I'm sure most mainstream legal scholars would admit the Second Amendment would be no impediment to such a ban.
The bottom line is that arguments against reasonable, limited gun control are not based on empirical positions but on subjective gut-feelings. The reasons offered to oppose gun control are emotional responses meant to divert the argument from the evidence. And we are all suffering from the refusal to engage in a rational discussion on the topic.
It is also important to note what it is and is not being proposed, so that the paranoia of the most ardent gun supporters does not take over the debate. Nobody is talking about banning all guns. As Sen. Charles Schumer noted today, nobody in power is pretending that the Second Amendment doesn't exist. And I certainly am not dismissing the reality that guns have different geographic meanings (e.g. the family traditions and day-to-day realities of someone growing up in a rural area are very different than those of someone raised in a city), and we have to recognize those predispositions while addressing the epidemic of mass shootings.
What people are proposing are reasonable limitations on certain types of weapons and licensing procedures. The vast majority of gun control advocates are asking for common sense measures to help make it harder for someone like Lanza to brutally murder 26 people, 20 of whom were between 5 and 10 years of age.
My point here, again, is that the opposition to these reasonable measures is not rational. They don't come from reasoned arguments, the marshaling of (truthful) opposing data and evidence. Rather, those opposing reasonable gun control measures can only make lousy arguments (e.g. people would kill anyway) to cover up for gut-level reactions (e.g. "I feel safer" or "This is my culture") that are not based in evidence.
What I am asking for is that we at the very least be able to have a discussion on the issue based on reality. But I don't think we'll get one. Because in the current political environment, we don't get to have reasonable discussions based on facts. We can't talk about the effect on guns without being told we are taking away people's freedoms, even though a majority of people now support reasonable gun control measures. Just like we could not talk about the public option, even though close to 60 percent of people supported it, or global warming, even though there is virtually unanimous scientific agreement that it exists and is man-made.
I'm fine with losing an argument when both sides stick to the facts. I just think democracy can't work if we don't even have a reality-based argument in the first place.