How to Speak to Gun Enthusiasts
Here are proposals to save lives, and arguments to back them up.
If you’re a reader of mine, odds are that you’re exasperated — maybe enraged — by America’s endless parade of gun deaths. And when other countries have had mass shootings, they’ve acted rapidly: It took New Zealand just 26 days after the Christchurch massacre to reform its gun laws.
We can do better, and I’m a firm believer that the only way to make progress is for us to talk to each other — in a civil way — and listen as well.
If you do have a conversation, here are some arguments you’ll hear, along with a possible response.
Stop this talk about regulating firearms. They’re protected by the Second Amendment. You wouldn’t want your free speech limited, so don’t limit my right to a firearm.
But free speech is regulated in many ways: libel, slander, trademarks, copyright, revealing state secrets or corporate secrets, speech that incites violence, shouting “fire” in a crowded theater and so on. Free speech isn’t absolute, and neither are gun rights. We generally recognize that private citizens should not be able to possess mortars or anti-aircraft weapons, so the question becomes where to draw the line.
Since 1934 we’ve drawn the line at fully automatic weapons, but does that make sense? We barely touched the semi-automatic versions such as AR-15s. After all, troops in war almost never use their military weapons in fully automatic mode, so for practical purposes soldiers are using the same kinds of weapons that are sold to 18-year-olds like the man suspected in the Texas shooting. Indeed, civilians arguably have more lethal versions, for any American with an AR-15 can buy and use hollow-point bullets that are banned in warfare as inhumane.
Drawing these lines is difficult, and regulators have had a tough time in the past defining assault weapons; that’s one reason the 1994 ban on assault rifles was disappointing. But some regulation is necessary, and we still must figure out where to draw lines.
The problem isn’t guns. It’s mental health. Don’t take guns from people who are just trying to keep their families safe.
American children are 82 times more likely to die from guns than children in our peer countries: Do you really think that America has 82 times the mental illness of other countries?
Of course it makes sense to provide more mental health services, and of course there will always be some violent offenders who will attempt to kill others. But we empower murderers when we give them access to weapons designed to kill people on a battlefield. Armed with a club or knife, they would still cause injuries or deaths, but fewer. That’s why we’re not sending clubs and knives to Ukraine. And as long as we’re talking about mental health, let’s think about red flag laws, which attempt to keep guns from people who are a threat to themselves or others. And let’s talk about universal background checks, which could help keep weapons from people with violent tendencies.
We do have background checks! A lot of good they do. The shooters in New York and Texas both purchased weapons and presumably passed their background checks.
Fair enough. But private sales don’t involve background checks, and 22 percent of firearms are transferred without them. And under the Charleston Loophole, an applicant still gets the gun if the background check can’t be completed in 72 hours. This wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would save some lives.
Imagine if we said that if the DMV couldn’t schedule you for a driver test within 72 hours, you could still get your license. That would be ridiculous.
The bottom line is that gun control just doesn’t work. Look at Chicago or New York City or other places that have gun laws and lots of gun killings.
It’s true that gun laws don’t end gun violence, and cities like Chicago have a particular challenge because they’re surrounded by states with lax laws. So it’s easy to drive a couple of hours from Chicago, buy a bunch of weapons and sell them on Chicago streets. Still, the reality is that overall, states with few gun laws have substantially higher rates of gun deaths: For example, Mississippi, Wyoming and Missouri all get “F” ratings on gun policy from the Giffords Center, and also are among states with the highest levels of gun mortality. Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have some of the strictest gun laws and among the lowest rates of gun deaths.
One natural experiment likewise suggests that gun laws have an impact. Connecticut tightened gun laws, and gun homicides dropped 40 percent; Missouri loosened gun laws, and gun homicides rose 25 percent. Curbing access to guns does seem to reduce gun deaths.
Most gun deaths are suicides, not murders. If someone wants to kill himself, he’ll find some way of doing so. The gun is just the instrument.
You’re right that more than 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, but it’s incorrect that there’s nothing we can do to reduce suicides. There’s overwhelming evidence that when we make it a bit more difficult to kill oneself, some people find other ways of killing themselves, but most don’t bother. We should also do more with suicide counseling, and the U.S. military has outlined a good plan to reduce suicide deaths.
Now people are blocking law-abiding young Americans from buying certain firearms by imposing age limits. President Biden urged such a step. But how can you tell 18-year-olds they’re mature enough to die for their country but too immature to buy civilian versions of guns they carry on the battlefield?
Yes, that does seem a bit unfair — but also life-saving. In the same way, we say that the 18-year-old can go to war but can’t buy a beer. And that 18-year-old is already barred from buying a handgun from a federally licensed gun dealer, though not from a private seller. We do this for practical reasons: It saves lives. Aren’t we better off with a certain unfairness, but more teenagers surviving?
There’s an air of unreality over this discussion. The truth is that we have 400 million guns in the U.S. We’re going to have lots of gun deaths, and we just have to accept that, just as we accept lots of vehicle deaths, or lots of flu deaths.
Yes, we will have lots of gun deaths, but shouldn’t we try to reduce that number? We’re not going to get to Japanese levels of gun deaths (more people died in the Texas school shooting than are typically shot dead in an entire year in Japan), but we can still try to reduce the toll, just as we try to reduce the number of auto fatalities and flu deaths.
There are many steps we can take: universal background checks, red flag laws, a 21-year age limit to buy handguns and AR-15s, a license requirement to possess a firearm, a waiting period, a limit of one or two gun purchases per person per month, micro-stamping of shells so that the gun that fired them can be identified, a ban on those convicted of violent misdemeanors possessing guns, background checks for ammunition purchases, an end to liability immunity for gunmakers, a crackdown on ghost guns and 3-D printing of guns, safe storage requirements, anti-gang initiatives like violence interruptors, ramped-up efforts to reduce lead poisoning of children (which is associated with greater violence and less impulse control in adulthood), greater suicide counseling, greater efforts to remove guns from people who aren’t eligible to have them, investments in smart guns that require a pin or fingerprint or matched bracelet to fire, and so much more. These would be difficult to craft — what does “safe storage” mean in practice? —and wouldn’t be transformative, but they would chip away at the death toll.
When we lose 45,000 Americans a year to gun violence, isn’t that a crisis that merits a greater response? When gun deaths are increasing sharply, isn’t that a reason for action? It used to be that gun deaths ranked second as cause of mortality for Americans aged 1 through 19, but in 2020 firearms overtook vehicle deaths as the No. 1 cause of death for America’s kids. That’s unacceptable.
Reporters for The New York Times calculated that the gun safety measures now proposed might have been able to prevent one-third of mass shootings. I don’t know if that number is right, but there’s no doubt that some could have been averted. And in general mass shootings may be more difficult to prevent than shootings of, say, domestic partners.
We can’t avert every death. But the bottom line is that we can certainly save some lives. The measures I outline above would work, albeit imperfectly, to save some lives. Why can’t we get started?