This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.
Umpqua Community College.
WDBJ in Virginia.
And that’s just the last 3 months.
So for real now — can we talk about gun control?
Every time a mass shooting occurs, the same chain of events unfolds: One group of people brings up the need for gun control, citing the alarming (and increasing) frequency with which these events are taking place and the slew of data indicating that gun control is an effective way to reduce gun deaths. Gun rights advocates respond with their usual litany of reasons why gun control is futile or somehow un-American. No meaningful action is taken. And then another shooting happens, and the cycle begins again.
Two things about this pattern concern me: One, how desensitized it’s making us to mass shootings, and how much more devastating each one needs to be in order to even register on our radars; and two, how gun rights advocates are able to shut down conversation about gun control — and thus prevent any kind of change from happening — given that their arguments are full of questionable logic.
I’m not sure what I can do about the former. But regarding the latter, I’d like to take a moment to respond to the arguments I hear bandied about every time we see a tragedy like the one that happened last week:
– “Today isn’t the time to talk about gun control. Today is about the victims.”
Yes — we need to take lots of time to mourn the victims and the unfathomable losses that their families and their communities have incurred. However, the worst way to honor these lives would be not to talk about gun control. Because if we don’t, then their deaths will have been in vain. The best thing we can do to honor them is to do everything we can to prevent the same senseless tragedies from happening again.
– “Second Amendment Second Amendment Second Amendment.”
Let’s look at the Second Amendment:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
And let’s look at the context in which the Second Amendment was written:
– The Second Amendment was based on the English Bill of Rights from 1689, when there was no police. Arms, then, were necessary for self-protection.
– When the American Bill of Rights was passed, Americans were concerned about maintaining militias should they need to defend themselves against a tyrannical government. Understandable, given the events of their recent past.
– At the time the Bill of Rights was written, guns shot bullets only slightly faster than you could throw them. We’re talking muskets and bayonets. Automatic assault weapons were completely beyond the scope of imagination.
So we can see how things are a little different now. Ergo, I have a very hard time when people insist that they have the right to bear arms for no reason other than that they’re American and the Constitution says they can.
Are you part of a militia? No? Huh.
You claim you need it for self-defense? Okay, but can you make a compelling argument as to why you would need an automatic weapon to do that?
And can you give me a good reason why someone who’s been convicted of a violent crime or who has a serious mental illness should be allowed to own a gun of any kind? “Because they’re American” looks pretty flimsy in light of the things we’ve seen in the last three months, let alone the last three years. Nothing in the Second Amendment suggests that the Founding Fathers wanted guns in the hands of people who weren’t fit to wield them.
Another thing that puzzles me about Second-Amendment-thumpers is the false equation of gun control with banning guns altogether. According to a Gallup poll from last year, only a quarter of Americans support an outright ban on handguns:
However, according to a Pew Research Center poll from 2013, the majority of Americans support background checks; preventing those with mental illness from buying guns; and banning semi-automatics, assault weapons, and high-capacity clips:
This is what people are after. Regulating guns is not the same as eliminating them. And frankly, if you’re a gun owner and you don’t have any criminal history or mental health issues, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about, so why are you so adamantly opposed?
The “because it’s a slippery slope” argument isn’t very strong, because if that’s your reason why we shouldn’t regulate guns at all and the opposing side has a staggeringly high (and ever-increasing) body count, including dozens of children, to support their position… your stance is pretty hard to defend, isn’t it.
The “because the black market for guns will explode” argument is pretty weak too, because most people aren’t advocating for a total ban on guns, which significantly reduces the demand for a black market.
And the “because cars kill people, and we don’t ban cars” argument is also flawed, because 1. As I said before, most people aren’t arguing that we should ban guns altogether and 2. There are lots of regulations regarding who gets to drive a car and how they’re allowed to drive it. We have things like speed limits and seat belt laws, we require people to take a test in order to get a license, and we revoke the licenses of people who no longer have the faculties to drive one safely. Not to mention that, as Nick Kristof pointed out last week, cars themselves are also regulated to make sure they’re as safe as possible for the driver and everyone in the vicinity. Also, cars aren’t designed for the sole purpose of inflicting harm, as guns are. So there’s that.
– “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
This is a curious thing to say, as it’s hard to deny that guns make it infinitely easier for people to kill other people. Case in point: There was another incident of mass violence in China on the same day as the Sandy Hook shooting, where a deranged person went to a school and stabbed 22 children. Terrifying. But how many of those kids died? Zero. How many kids in Newtown died? Twenty. So the argument that gun control is futile because people would just use knives or axes instead is pretty flawed. You can do infinitely more damage with a gun than you can with a knife or an ax. It is ludicrous to pretend that guns don’t make incidents like this infinitely worse.
I get that some people say this to mean that we need to deal with mentally unstable people who wield guns. Which leads me to the next argument…
– “Gun control isn’t the issue. Mental health treatment is the issue.”
As someone with a doctoral degree in the field of mental health, I am completely behind increasing funding for mental health services, increasing access, increasing awareness, increasing education, increasing resources, increasing everything under the sun when it comes to mental health. And you cannot overlook the fact pretty much all of the perpetrators of these mass killings have had serious mental health issues. But I’m not sure why people think that mental health treatment will completely solve the problem, for a few reasons:
1. You cannot force someone into treatment unless they’ve committed a crime. Thus, since many of these shooters had no prior criminal history, there was no way to force them to seek help before they started shooting. And even if you could, anyone who’s ever worked with a court-mandated client will tell you that mandated treatment is rarely effective, because in order for change to happen, the client has to actually want to change.
2. Even if you did increase awareness and availability of mental health services and decreased stigmas and all the other barriers to treatment, the reality is that many people who need help won’t seek it. This is especially true of people with issues like antisocial personality disorder, which is disproportionately prevalent in perpetrators of violence. Individuals with ASPD demonstrate a blatant disregard for the rights of other people, no empathy, no remorse, and no interest in changing. So even if you were to increase the awareness and availability of mental health services, the likelihood of someone with ASPD seeking treatment is slim. And on the off-off-chance that someone with ASPD did seek treatment, there are zero known treatments for the disorder that are effective.
So if you’re saying all we need to solve the problem is to increase mental health awareness and services, you’re mistaken. The people who we’re most concerned about are the least likely to seek treatment or to have treatments that even work.
– “If more people had been armed, this wouldn’t have happened the way it did.”
This argument is especially perplexing. The problem isn’t that guns are too available, but that there aren’t enough guns? So UCC professors, in addition to worrying about teaching and overcrowded classrooms and budget cuts, should also have to worry about students carrying weapons and learning how to wield them themselves? And keeping guns in the Sandy Hook classrooms would have been a good idea? That would’ve made them safer? Right, because nothing bad ever happens when guns are kept around small children.
This argument is especially galling to me because the data is clear: The more guns a society has, the more gun deaths they have. The relationship holds when you compare states and when you compare countries. All of the evidence we have indicates that having more guns makes us less safe, not more.
– “The shooter was already breaking a law by bringing a gun onto school grounds.”(This was not the case at UCC but was at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, UCSB, and Seattle Pacific University.)
Let’s talk through the implications of this argument: That because a shooter breaks one law about bringing a gun onto school grounds, we should stop trying to enact other laws that keep this dude with a gun away from schools and this dude away from guns in the first place. That we should stop trying to put more barriers and checkpoints between this dude and a gun and a school. That any attempt to make it a little bit harder for this dude to get a gun is futile.
This is ridiculous.
All of this to say: It’s mind-blowing to me that what keeps us from being able to reduce the number of these completely preventable tragedies is a lot of terrible arguments. (And fistfuls of NRA money, I suppose.) And what’s even more mind-blowing to me is that many of the people who make these arguments are Christians who seem far more concerned about their freedom to carry a weapon (which is nowhere in the Bible, as far as I know) than the safety and well-being of their neighbors (which is certainly in there) and building a healthy and flourishing society (that’s in there too).
I’d like to think that we’re better than that as a nation — that we wouldn’t let bad reasoning and powerful lobbies keep us from doing what we need to do to keep each other safe. I’d also like to think that one of these days, all of us would finally come to our senses and realize that we need to do something — but I’m not seeing either of those things. And that keeps me up at night, because the longer we go without doing anything, the less likely it is that anything will be done.
For more, I recommend Adam Gopnik’s “The Simple Truth about Gun Control” and Jeffrey Toobin’s “So You Think You Know the Second Amendment?” — two New Yorker pieces from 2012 that are, sadly, every bit as relevant now as they were then.