The Good Life and Gun Control

Like many of you, I’ve been horrified by the events in Newtown, and dismayed by the debate that has followed.  Josh Marshall (at TPM) thinks that “this is quickly veering from the merely stupid to a pretty ugly kind of victim-blaming.”  Naive realism, meet thy kettle!  Contrary to what you’ll see on various liberal outlets, the NRA didn’t cause Adam Lanza to kill innocent children and adults, nor did Alan Gura or the army of academics who helped to build the case for an individual right to gun ownership.  Reading discussions on the web, you might come to believe that we don’t all share the goal of a society where the moral order is preserved, and where our children can be put on the bus to school without a qualm.

But we do.

We just disagree about how to make it happen.

Dan Kahan’s post on the relationship between “the gun debate”, “gun deaths”, and Newtown is thus very timely.  Dan argues that if we really wanted to decrease gun deaths, we should try legalizing drugs.  (I’d argue, following Bill Stuntz, that we also/either would hire many more police while returning much more power to local control).  But decreasing gun deaths overall won’t (probably) change the likelihood of events like these:

“But here’s another thing to note: these very sad incidents “represent only a sliver of America’s overall gun violence.” Those who are appropriately interested in reducing gun homicides generally and who are (also appropriately) making this tragedy the occasion to discuss how we as a society can and must do more to make our citizens safe, and who are, in the course of making their arguments invoking(appropraitely!) the overall gun homicide rate should be focusing on what we can be done most directly and feasibly to save the most lives.

Repealing drug laws would do more —  much, much, much more — than banning assault rifles (a measure I would agree is quite appropriate); barring carrying of concealed handguns in public  (I’d vote for that in my state, if after hearing from people who felt differently from me, I could give an account of my position that fairly meets their points and doesn’t trade on tacit hostility toward or mere incomprehension of  whatever contribution owning a gun makes to their experience of a meaningful free life); closing the “gun show” loophole; extending waiting periods etc.  Or at least there is evidence for believing that, and we are entitled to make policy on the best understanding we can form of how the world works so long as we are open to new evidence and aren’t otherwise interfering with liberties that we ought, in a liberal society, to respect.”

Dan’s post is trying to productively redirect our public debate, and I wanted to use this platform to bring more attention to his point.  But, I think he’s missing something, and if you follow me after the jump, I’ll tell you what.

There’s a compelling scene in Batman: The Dark Knight which makes my point fairly well. The Joker is talking to Harvey Dent:

Joker: . . . Hmmm? You know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

People are upset about Newtown because violence in an elementary school, against children, just isn’t supposed to happen. It violates everything we hold sacred as a society.  The gun violence that Kahan’s legalization proposal (and Stuntz’s localization hypothesis) would reduce, by contrast, is, in a sense, part of the plan.  Gun violence has become tragic, but tragedies don’t motivate our Congress.   You didn’t see the President call a press conference to demand immediate action for the 321 people killed this year in Philadelphia this year. People are panicked about Newtown, not least because living in a society that makes that kind of event routine is literally unthinkable.  The more you consider the logic of which deaths count, the worse it gets. But it is what it is, and not addressing mass shootings like Newtown head-on sort of misses the point.

And so what solutions are on the table?  What’s striking about the proposals offered by gun proponents (rush the shooter//more men//arm the teachers) is that they seem almost designed to frighten folks who aren’t of that particular cultural group, and surprisingly unaware of how they’ll be received. I didn’t grow up with guns in the house, and the idea of allowing a child of mine into a school where the teachers are armed is horrifying.  Worse, I think, is the concept that we ought to militarize children – to teach them that they are all on their own, and the state is powerless before the forces of chaos in society. I know this appeals to some folks. Just not me.  I’d be better off not knowing that this is something that particular communities are trying. It makes me feel like we’re less close as a society when I’m confronted with stark evidence of just how differently we see the world, at least when the proposals are framed as empirical propositions.  And the same goes, conversely, for national proposals to regulate particular kinds of guns, especially when it’s pretty obvious that such regulation will have, at best, a marginal effect on rates of violence.

My intervention here is to just to point out that the problem we actually have here is one of discourse – we are forced by the Internet to nationalize problems.  This makes it much, much harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order.  If a community in, say, Connecticut wanted to ban assault weapon clips (because it made them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!), Glenn Reynolds would lead a charge against the liberal fascists. Indeed. Heh. Yes.  If a community in Tennessee wants to arm its teachers (because it makes them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!) Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan would call them out as conservative fascists.  Or loonies. Or winners of the Moore award.  And we’d all get to pat ourselves on the back, but no one would actually get the benefit that law is supposed to provide, which is the helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are, and that we’re actually doing something to push back against the tide.

That is: a national conversation about guns and violence, facilitated and sped up by the internet, reduces our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminishes our capacity live together in peace.



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14 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    I think there is this difference, in that we have a national constitution, with a national Bill of Rights, which, if it’s going to be enforced, does rule out certain local choices. Gun bans are not a local option for the precise same reason book bans are not a local option, and segregated schools are not a local option. The precise same reason. And if you want to change that, you have to change the national Constitution. No use simply ceasing enforcement, and expecting the people who like the parts you don’t to go along with the pretense the rule of law is still in effect.

    More to the point, though, I think you need to seriously consider that the proposals from gun proponents might not be so much frightening to folks who aren’t of that particular cultural group, as they are folks who are of the opposing cultural group.

    Which is, on all the evidence, rather more of a “fringe” group than my side in this.

  2. Shag from Brookline says:

    ” … on all the evidence … ” is an absurd claim. Cites, please, e.g., proof that a mere engineer might require.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    1. The NRA, scarcely the only pro-gun organization, is more than ten times larger than all anti-gun organizations combined. And didn’t require foundation funding to get that way. Furthermore, unlike all gun control organizations, it’s an actual membership organization, with an elected board of directors.

    2. 44 states have 2nd amendment analogs in their state constitutions, a couple adopted recently, none repealed in living memory. Most state constitutions are quite easy to amend, making this a good measure of public opinion.

    3. Most states have CCW reform, enacted over the last decade or so, where has it been repealed?

    4. Stand your ground laws have been advancing across the country, where have they been repealed?

    5. When you got your ‘assault weapon’ ban enacted back in ’94, the result was a political tsunami which swept you out of power.

    For a movement that claims it’s mainstream, and that 2nd amendment defenders are fringe, you’re showing remarkably little ability to actually get things enacted.

    There’s nothing necessarily shameful about holding fringe views, many right and noble opinions started out on the fringe, and many may lurk there yet. But it really IS important to understand, when you hold fringe views, that you aren’t really in the majority, even if your views happen to be popular in your own circle of friends.

  4. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett has stated at another blog (Balkinization) that the NRA is more moderate than the NRA membership wishes. Brett, to my knowledge, is not a spokesman for the entire membership. He has declined at that blog to identify what the NRA membership really, really wishes, what the NRA is so moderate about. Perhaps after today’s NRA “major” press conference we’ll see if the NRA further moderates.

    But Brett does not understand the meaning of his claim ” … on all the evidence …” if this is all he can cite, ignoring polling both before and after the CT tragedy.

    Brett has stated on other occasions at other blogs that the Second Amendment is virtually absolute, comparing it to the First Amendment Speech and Press Clauses, that there should be no limit on the number and kinds of guns an individual can have and where he can keep and bear them It should be noted that fairly shortly after the CT tragedy the NRA tried to place blame for gun violence on the First Amendment Speech and Press Clauses for promoting violence. Perhaps that will be restated at the “major” press conference to be held today.

    As for Brett’s closing paragraph, I read it as a form of his self-defense. And it’s those changing demographics that are so worrisome for those on the fringe that he occupies..

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    Ok, let me identify it for you here: The general membership of the NRA has a really, REALLY strong aversion to tactical voting. Their preference, very clear and often expressed, is to simply vote for the most pro-gun candidate every time, without exception.

    The NRA leadership view this as foolish, as it would often lead to wasting our votes on somebody who’s not going to win, instead of somebody who is a bit less reliable, but who stands a chance of winning. And sometimes the NRA buys off a known anti-gunner by offering to not work against the, considered a cheap investment where they’re an incumbent unlikely to be defeated anyway.

    The leadership, in order to implement their preference for tactical voting, routinely fudges candidate ratings, to trick the members into voting ways they wouldn’t with accurate information. Tricking them into voting more moderately!

    There are other issues, too, which lead to the NRA being less than perfectly democratic. However, since none of the gun control organizations are democratic AT ALL, this still leaves the NRA quite a bit better on that score.

    Must suck, being a member of a fringe movement reliant on foundation funded astroturf operations. Must suck more, now that the foundations have largely given it up as a waste of their money. But you’re not going to improve your position by indulging in the delusion that you’re a majority movement. You aren’t, and likely never were.

  6. Shag from Brookline says:

    So Brett is basically a single issue gun rights guy and the general membership of the the NRA is likewise? Apparently of the entire Constitution as amended the Second Amendment is dominant for our nation’s democracy to survive. BE PREPARED, PREPPERS!

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    I notice you haven’t even tried to take exception to any of my points as to why the anti-gun movement is, yes, a fringe movement. May I take it you’ve conceded?

  8. Shag from Brookline says:

    My challenge was to Brett’s claim ” … on all the evidence ….” The word “all” is key. There is nothing to concede to selective fringe cites.

  9. Joe says:

    The 44 states allow lots of regulations while Brett repeatedly cites call for regulations to be the road to prohibition. Ronald Reagan et. al. disagree but then Brett, as compared to your average supporter of gun rights, is something of a minority. YAS doesn’t keep on bring up racial analogues as if gun owners were on the same footing as blacks in Alabama c. 1930.

  10. Brett Bellmore says:

    Joe, I have never denied that my personal views are somewhat fringy. I was simply pointing out that the NRA’s views, which are rather more moderate than my own, are a whole lot less fringe than the gun control movement’s.

    I think I’ve proven that. Outside of a few outlier jurisdictions, the gun control movement is a pathetic failure. (And I like it that way.) This is NOT the mark of a mainstream movement, and it is delusional to pretend otherwise. Gun controllers often live in liberal echo chambers, where they get to thinking their own “obvious” views are much more common than is really the case.

    But were that true, you’d be racking up political victories, not losses. Instead, the only time you’ve got a prayer of winning anything is when a rare tragedy helps your allies in the media whip up a short-lived hysteria.

  11. Joe says:

    The “gun control movement” is a telling phrase.

    Let’s try this again. The 44 states allow lots of regulations. These regulations “control” guns. Even when the USSC protected the right to keep and bear arms it (1) went out of its way to say the “core” involves home use for personal self-defense (2) set forth an advisory list of presumptably legal control laws.

    Not seeing the “pathetic failure” as such here. If “gun control” means “gun prohibition,” that’s something else. But, I surely don’t. “Control” and “prohibit,” not same.

  12. Xenophon says:

    The OP writes: ” I didn’t grow up with guns in the house, and the idea of allowing a child of mine into a school where the teachers are armed is horrifying.”

    Why is that a horrifying idea? That’s an honest question, btw. What, specifically, is horrifying about it **for you**?

    Note that I, too, grew up in a household with no guns. I don’t own any guns. I’m not a member of the NRA, and I’m certainly not a Republican.

    But if I were considering the possibility of sending my children*1 to such a school, before being horrified — or pleased — I’d want answers to a bunch of questions like:
    * What training do they have?
    * What rules are the required to follow?
    * What safety measures are in place?
    * What’s the relevant legal framework?
    * What sort of background checks have been done?
    * How is training/rule compliance measured and enforced?

    …and probably a whole bunch more. My reaction would depend on the detailed answers to my questions, and on the credibility of those answers. Depending on the answers, I could view it anywhere on the spectrum from “disaster waiting to happen” to “no big deal” or even “sounds OK.”

    *1 OK, my nieces and nephews, as I have no children of my own.

  13. BikerDad says:

    Xenophon asks a very good question, but I’ll expand on it if I may.

    Why is it horrifying to allow a child of yours into a school where the teachers are (more like “may”) be armed, but it is not horrifying to turn your children over to the care of strangers for 6-7 hours every weekday?

  14. Brett Bellmore says:

    “. If “gun control” means “gun prohibition,” that’s something else. But, I surely don’t. “Control” and “prohibit,” not same.”

    No, in practice they are the same. That’s been the experience: Gun controllers have little to no interest in controls that don’t have the effect of prohibiting, and defend prohibitions wherever they happen.

    If the gun control movement ever wanted to be able to plausibly deny wanting prohibition, Chicago and D.C. gave them the chance, by adopting extreme policies which could have been attacked as going too far. They blew it, choosing instead to defend those outliers when they were challenged in court. In the wake of that, nobody has to humor their claims not to want prohibition.