In the aftermath of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which left 12 people dead and 58 injured, Americans are once again intensely discussing guns and gun control. Despite the unfortunate circumstances that brought it about, this is a welcome development. However, I have noticed that there are several serious problems with how Americans often talk about guns that prevent any progress in the collective conversation. While I would prefer not to address specific policy proposals — though I think this list appears eminently reasonable — exploring these problems could potentially get us out of a generally locked debate and into substantive thinking and talking. So, here goes.
The first major problem with the American conversation on guns is that many Americans reject that there is a problem at all, and for the wrong reason: they wrongly link admitting to the existence of a problem with their ideological opponents’ proposed solutions. Similarly, climate denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has admitted to rejecting climate science only after learning what Democrats said it would cost to fight climate change. In much the same way, many people deny there is a gun problem simply because they disdain the idea of a society that doesn’t grant its citizens the right to bear arms (more on that in a moment).
Yet acknowledging a problem does not require us all to agree on the severity of the problem, or on specific solutions. It just means we can start a conversation on the nature of the problem. In other words, we can’t have a constructive conversation if we don’t all agree that there is a problem worth discussing. And with guns, there is.
We do not yet know all of the details surrounding the horrible Aurora event, though we can be sure the gunman would have encountered a much tougher time securing one of his main weapons, the AR-15, if the federal ban on assault weapons was still in place (it expired in 2004). However, whether or not you think that law would have truly prevented or lessened the severity of the Aurora shooting, the fact remains there is a serious problem with guns in the United States. More Americans are killed by guns each year than all other developed countries combined, spree killings appear to be on the rise, and unfortunately the Aurora shooting appears to be another among too many cases where mentally unstable people too easily acquire extraordinarily deadly weapons. Perhaps these facts do not disturb you as much as other trends in the U.S., but they should at the least merit your attention and consideration.
A second major problem with the American conversation on guns is that too often the many factions that exist are represented as two simplified camps: liberals, who want to completely ban guns, and conservatives, who want all guns legal, and believe everyone should carry one (if not several!).
Consider this article by Tammy Bruce, in which she argues that while liberals want to completely ban guns, the better solution to gun violence is to more widely arm Americans (no, really):
“We all want this insane violence exacted in Aurora, and Chicago, and Norway to stop, and one way we can begin to turn the tide is allowing law-abiding citizens to defend themselves with the ultimate equalizer — a firearm — and end this madness of blaming inanimate objects for the actions of individuals.”
Of course, there is no reason to assume an armed movie attendee would have made the situation in Aurora any better. Indeed, it would have likely ended up raising the death count as a result of a gunfight — one he or she would almost assuredly have lost given the shooter’s bulletproof armor, plethora of guns and ammo, use of tear gas, and vantage point — that would have seen bullets flying in every direction. The equalizer in Aurora would not have been a person with a handgun; it would have been the sort of fully armed Marine you find walking the battlefields of Afghanistan.
That point aside, as you can see, Bruce has taken the two-camps approach. I should note that I asked Bruce to name a couple of these supposed pro-gun-banning liberals. She hasn’t replied. I welcome your answer. But more importantly, this is precisely the sort of false dichotomy the public is widely offered, and often accepts. Is there not a middle ground?
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does guarantee citizens a right to have arms, and I believe this is an important right. But we still have to interpret what “arms” really means. To answer this question, it’s worth considering why people aren’t allowed to own certain types of “arms.” Why can’t people own rocket or grenade launchers? Or tanks? Or semi-automatic assault weapons with high-capacity magazines? Oh wait…
There are two reasons these types of arms are illegal. First, they are highly destructive and present a massive danger to society — the kind of danger not presented by hunting rifles and handguns. Second, they serve little use outside of wartime fighting (try using a grenade launcher to take down that deer you’re hunting, or a nighttime intruder, and you might run into a couple of problems).
Yet there is no friction between acknowledging certain weapons should be kept from civilians, and believing mentally fit and able Americans have a right to own arms, picked from a wide range of legal rifles and handguns. Pace Bruce, I don’t know a single person who would argue that owning a Glock makes you more likely to be a mass murderer (although carrying one makes it more likely you will be shot and killed). On the flip side, few people are arguing that there should be no regulation of guns whatsoever. Most people seem to be somewhere in the middle: they agree that there should be a protected right to own certain guns, but also that we need to have a critical discussion about what “guns” really means, and what legal steps we might take to lessen the chance of unwanted shootings.
A third major problem with the American conversation on guns is that too often people believe the discussion on gun control is nothing more than a discussion on gun laws. Consider this quote from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), in response to last week’s shooting:
“This isn’t an issue about guns. This is really an issue about sick, demented individuals. It’s a tragedy, and I don’t think there’s a solution in Washington to solve that problem. ... other than look to our families, look to our communities, starting with our education system. We’ve got to re-instill values in what we’re teaching our children. We need to look at families and the education system.”
Similarly, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said that the proper way to respond to Aurora is not to focus on changing gun laws, but on changing American hearts and minds.
Both Johnson and Romnney are wrong that this isn’t an issue about guns. But Johnson is correct to say that we can’t simply look to Washington (or our local statehouses) for end-all-debate solutions. Gun laws are only one part of the broader discussion about how to manage guns and our attitudes toward guns in American society. Along with gun laws, we need public education efforts. This is precisely what we do with cigarettes: we make them harder to buy (through taxes) and accompany that with public information campaigns (commercials, billboards, etc.). Why should we treat guns any differently?
But public education efforts should not focus only on the danger of guns. They should also focus on bringing mental illness out of the darkness. Too many people believe depression and other mental illnesses are embarrassing conditions fit only for concealment and shame. Instead, they should think of mental illness as a health matter worth addressing. And society more generally should be more open and welcoming, if not encouraging, of humans being candid about their mental health issues.
Let’s be honest: we can’t stop shootings completely. There will always be hard-to-comprehend acts of violence. But these facts should not prevent us from taking steps to improve the situation at hand. We might not be able to stop many instances of gun violence, but we can work to slow their occurrence — so long as we all agree that there is somewhat of a problem, believe improvements can be made, and accept that solutions are more complex than we have been led to believe.