New York Times Editorial Morally Shames Gun Owners

Today the New York Times editorial board made clear (without directly saying it) that they think gun owners (who disagree with them) are immoral, disgraceful, and indecent, and that we should ban civilians from owning any firearm that can kill people quickly and efficiently (which is to say, most firearms).

I am a student of guns and gun culture, not an expert by any means. And my primary interest is in the lawful use of guns, not their criminal or otherwise negligent use. But because I have spent a considerable part of the last 3 years thinking about guns and gun culture, people (friends especially and rightly) expect me to have something to say about this aspect of our social reality. So, I am going to post some (hopefully) brief responses to stories or ideas about which people have asked for my thoughts.

I begin today with the widely-publicized, praised and derided, New York Times front page editorial, “The Gun Epidemic” (the print title) or “End the Gun Epidemic in America” (the on-line title).


A couple of points before I begin. First, I regularly read the “mainstream media.” I do not dismiss it out of hand. Second, as with any media, I do not accept what I read uncritically. The New York Times’ anti-gun bias is no secret. So that it made its implicit bias explicit is no major revelation to me.

In the following, I reproduce verbatim the editorial (in bold italics) and offer my initial thoughts.

“The Gun Epidemic”

Some people object to using disease analogies when discussing gun violence, but I don’t mind. I think analogical thinking can be helpful at times. The Times makes clear where it stands in its title: the problem is guns.

By analogy, the Times suggests that guns themselves are a disease. I have no doubt that many Americans agree and imagine an ideal society is one in which that disease could be wholly (or at least largely) eradicated. Hence the popularity of Australia, England, and Japan as models of gun policy for many.

My view: This is a poor analogical thinking. To the extent that there is an “epidemic” in American society, the disease would be violence. (Of course, the homicide rate today is lower than it was in 1900, but anyway…) Guns would be the mechanism, a particularly lethal mechanism, but one of many nonetheless.

So a better title would be “The Violence Epidemic.” Although I would again disagree with the panic inducing term epidemic, I agree that in certain places and among certain actors, there is an incredibly high rate of violence, including lethal violence. I have written about this before (regarding how violence gets passed through social networks in Chicago) and have highlighted both policing and public health approaches to addressing it that are effective and do not specifically target guns.

On the bright side, at least the Times is being up front about its dislike of guns per se, as this at least allows for a debate starting with how people really feel.

All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of innocents, in California.

Implied: Decent people will also adopt the Times editorial board’s “solution” to the latest slaughter of innocents.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are searching for motivations, including the vital question of how the murderers might have been connected to international terrorism. That is right and proper.

But motives do not matter to the dead in California, nor did they in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places.

Agree 100% that motives do not matter to those who are affected directly or indirectly by such violence. But motives matter 100% if we want to understand why these events happen and how we can make them less likely to happen.

  • Why would an American health inspector take up the cause of global Islamic terrorism?
  • Why would a disaffected community college student want to kill his classmates?
  • Why would members of different street gangs/crews/sets try to settle their disagreement with guns in a public playground?
  • And so on…

Does the Times want me to believe that the answer to these “why” questions is because guns? That is not convincing to me.

There is no question that guns are an efficient choice for people who want to do harm to others, but America has more than its share of non-gun violence which suggests to me a more fundamental underlying problem.

Emergency room data from NYC hospitals presented by Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at annual meeting of American Society of Criminology, November 19, 2015

The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.

Although rhetorically powerful, it is simplistic at best, and just plain wrong at worst, to suggest a simple equation in which elected leaders bow to the money and power of the firearms industry through their political lobby the NRA.

Even New Yorker writer (and no friend of guns) James Surowiecki recognizes, “The N.R.A.’s biggest asset isn’t cash but the devotion of its members.”

Or as I wrote, the NRA isn’t an 800-pound gorilla in Washington, but thousands of spider monkeys in local communities all over the country.

It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.

Let the moral shaming begin. What does it say about a person who would legally purchase such a weapon? Obviously that they are immoral and disgraceful.

By why reserve scorn for just those who buy combat rifles? After all, the same could be said of the Glock 17, Beretta M9, Colt M1911/1911 A1, the Colt Single Action Army, and many other handguns.

So, is it also a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase these weapons? I suspect the Times editorial board thinks so.

Because, after all, who could possibly want one of these?

These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection.

Of course. Anyone who wants a high caliber and/or high capacity semi-automatic rifle or handgun is immoral and disgraceful because they are motivated by macho vigilantism and possibly insurrectionism.

Do macho vigilantist and insurrectionist sentiments exist among gun owners? Absolutely. Does it predominate among gun owners? Hardly.

Alas, I don’t think the moral shaming of law-abiding gun owners for their choice of weapons — which weapons they almost always use for lawful purposes BTW — is going to help the Times and the gun control movement win over the middle, which it needs to do to realize its agenda.

America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.

Opponents of gun control are saying, as they do after every killing, that no law can unfailingly forestall a specific criminal. That is true. They are talking, many with sincerity, about the constitutional challenges to effective gun regulation. Those challenges exist. They point out that determined killers obtained weapons illegally in places like France, England and Norway that have strict gun laws. Yes, they did.

Acknowledgement of truth and sincerity on the part of those who oppose gun control! People of goodwill can disagree apparently! Although anyone who wants a combat rifle is an immoral and disgraceful vigilante (and possible insurrectionist).

But at least those countries are trying. The United States is not.

Although I agree that there is too much violence in the United States, we are trying to reduce violence, including gun violence, and succeeding. We are doing this in ways that accord with our political history, social reality, and governing Constitution.

According to data compiled by Kieran Healy, the assault death rate in the United States climbed after the 1968 Gun Control Act was passed and was declining prior to the passage of the 1993 Brady Act and 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. And through this entire period, the total number of weapons in the United States have increased. So, there are no simple causes of violence and no simple solutions. But to say we are not trying is wrong.

These realities must be frustrating for those who just want guns to go away.


Worse, politicians abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them, and voters allow those politicians to keep their jobs. It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their number drastically — eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition.

And so they say it: Why can’t we just make “large categories of weapons and ammunition” go away!? No need to read between the lines on this one.

It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment. No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.

Absolutely. It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment, because in the end the Times editorial board’s or my views of what the Second Amendment means doesn’t really matter. What matters is what the Supreme Court thinks it means. And what it currently thinks was made clear in the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Heller v. District of Columbia in Antonin Scalia’s much cited language.

As Adam Winkler writes in his excellent book, Gunfight, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” Scalia wrote in Heller. Adding that nothing in the opinion should “be taken to cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” Winkler observes that “Scalia also suggested that bans on ‘dangerous and unusual weapons,’ such as machine guns, were constitutionally permissible. While there was a right to bear arms for individual self-defense, the right was not ‘a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose.’” (p. 279).

It does appear to be Constitutionally permissible to, for example, retroactively ban magazines that hold more than a specified number of cartridges, as the City of Sunnyvale in California did. So the gun control movement can use the normal political process to seek its ends at the city, county, state, or federal level (as appropriate and allowed by law) and see whether restrictions it is able to pass democratically will be upheld as Constitutional in the end.

That’s democracy. That’s the system we currently have. What’s the problem?

Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.

I thought that the Times and its political allies in the gun control movement had only just recently given up on the idea of banning “assault rifles” – or “slightly modified combat rifles” as they are now called – in recognition of the fact that very few of the thousands of people who are murdered in America every year are killed with any rifle (including but not limited to combat rifles).

In fact, they did in a news analysis titled “The Assault Weapon Myth,” published September 12, 2014.

So, as noted in considering the very title of this editorial, the Times is not arguing on an instrumental basis for outlawing these kinds of weapons. If it was purely concerned with instrumentality, then it ought to be calling for bans on handguns. It is simply saying that it finds these kinds of weapons inappropriate for civilians regardless of the harm it does or does not do.

It’s like (though not exactly the same as) saying, “Not many Ferraris are involved in fatal car crashes, but these slightly modified race cars must be outlawed on the public streets. No decent person needs one of these.”

If the Times editorial board were more intellectually honest, it would just say what it really thinks: we should ban civilian ownership of all handguns.

What better time than during a presidential election to show, at long last, that our nation has retained its sense of decency?

I am old enough and have been a liberal long enough to remember when George H.W. Bush accused Michael Dukakis of being a “card-carrying liberal.” Rather than shrinking from that charge, we said “damn right” and embraced it.

All of us who think of ourselves as “liberals” ought to be wary of those who invoke the idea of decency in political rhetoric, because it has been used in such perverse ways throughout our country’s history.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t collectively discuss what our visions of a good society are, to identify commonalities in our visions, and to figure out ways of pursuing that. But to call those who disagree with you indecent is not an invitation but a conversation stopper.


  1. Between this screed and the cover of the Daily News blasting prayers as an ineffective in the face of mass violence, it’s pretty clear that the thought leaders of the progressivism see no distinction between their morality and their politics, and that’s very sad. Morals are universal and eternal, politics are (very) temporal and rather profane. If politics is your morality, you may not be asking for prayers, but you definitely do need them.


  2. “I agree that there is too much violence in the United States”

    I posted this on you Facebook page some time ago. The perception that there’s too much violence or that everyone is equally at risk is flat-out wrong and very misleading. According to Robert Muggah, the Canadian founder of the Igarapé Institute, 99% of violence in the United States is concentrated in 5% of street addresses. Let me repeat this: 99% OF VIOLENCE IN THE US IS CONCENTRATED IN 5% OF STREETS.

    Source: “Global Strategies to Reduce Violence by 50% in 30 Years: Findings from the Global Violence Reduction Conference 2014”

    There’s much more going on behind this, but unfortunately nobody wants to talk about it. For example about a third of the murders in the US are not cleared. The unsolved homicides are disproportionately urban and black, and probably committed by other blacks. In Chicago no suspect is arrested in two thirds of the homicides. It’s about the same in Detroit and Atlanta and New Orleans, all high bodycount cities that collectively have a significant effect of the nationwide statistics. The unsolved homicides are mostly the result of anonymous black urban street violence. In Chicago 77% of the victims are black, and it’s a good bet that most of the perps who killed them but whose race is unknown are also black.

    That’s why the actual percentage of murders committed by blacks nationwide is closer to 60%, maybe more. Putting it differently, despite making up just 6% of the population, black men commit around 60% of homicides in the United States.

    – DOJ report: “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008”
    – Darrell Steffensmeier, “Reassessing Trends in Black Violent Crime, 1980-2008”
    – Thomas Hargrove & Charles Wellford, “Murder Mysteries”


  3. David: With all due respect, I think your comments are entirely besides the point. Here’s the bottom line:

    What makes the assault rifle an assault rifle and not a sporting rifle is one thing and one thing only, namely, that it fires ammunition specifically designed to kill or maim military combatants (who happen to be humans, not sporting animals) and it can be shot and reloaded so as to easily deliver 50 or 60 high-powered rounds in 30 seconds or less.

    David: The above is from my next column due out Monday. To deny what I wrote above is to deny reality. The AR is not a sporting rifle, it never was and it never will be. Further, as an academic, you should really ask yourself whether it is fair to criticize anyone for something that they didn’t say but you know that they said it even if they didn’t directly say it. That’s the lowest form of academic McCarthyism and as an academic, you shouldn’t practice it.

    I get emails all the time from people who tell me that even though I have never said I am “against” the 2nd Amendment, they “know” I’m against the 2nd Amendment because I criticize the NRA. You know what? You’re doing the same thing.


    • MiketheGunGuy: Your definition of an assault rifle confuses me. Does it mean that any AR-15 is an assault rifle even if you only use Hornady v-max in it since it is also capable of firing 5.56 NATO? Since the v-max ammunition was designed specifically for varmints, it doesn’t fit your criteria that the ammunition was specifically to maim or kill enemy combatants. Your definition is ambiguous enough that it seems an AR-15 only used with v-max might not qualify as an assault weapon. I can understand how a standard AR-15 is an assault rifle under your definition, even if you only use ammunition specifically designed for non-human varmints.

      Even if the standard AR-15 is included, then is an AR-10 chambered in 6.5 creedmoor an assault rifle? The 6.5 creedmoor was specifically designed for competition. Even though an AR-10 can be shot and reloaded so as to easily deliver 50 or 60 rounds in 30 seconds, since it’s chambered for a cartridge that was specifically designed for competition it doesn’t meet your criteria. Maybe you can dispute that it can “easily” deliver 50 or 60 rounds in 30 seconds, but it’s ambiguous what that means and I think most people could accomplish that task using a 6.5 creedmoor AR-10 with some practice.

      I’m not trying to deny the reality of what you wrote above. I’m just trying to understand what weapons it actually encompasses. Your definition might capture the spirit of what an assault rifle is but it seems too ambiguous to implement. If you could provide some clarity on the issue, I would appreciate it.

      On a slightly related note, besides banning or restricting access to an “assault rifle”, is there a reason to define the term “assault rifle”?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Woof, Mike, where do I even begin man? I mean, your statment indicates you are not, as you claim to be, a “gun guy”.

      “What makes the assault rifle an assault rifle and not a sporting rifle is one thing and one thing only”

      Select-fire, right? It’s gonna be select fire?

      *looks down*


      “hat it fires ammunition specifically designed to kill or maim military combatants”

      Nearly all ammo is specifically designed to “kill”. Very few is designed to maim. Ammo like .22lr is designed for target shooting(indeed, it was originally designed for indoor use!).

      Military rounds like 5.56 or 5.45 are just as well designed to kill as cartridges of purely civilian cartridges like .30-30 or .38spl are. They are not especially deadly, they simply meet a set of requirements laid out by the military that adopted them.

      “who happen to be humans, not sporting animals”

      Probably the most common rifle “sporting rounds” in North America are .308 and .30-06, both calibers that originated as military cartridges. .223/5.56(that which is used in AR-15s) is commonly used as a “varmint” round. Plenty of people use SKS rifles as cheap “deer guns” where the state requires that the rifle caliber is .30 or greater.

      To pretend that military cartridges are not in common use in hunting camps all across the country is, well, pretty severe ignorance of how hunting is conducted in many, even most states.

      “reloaded so as to easily deliver 50 or 60 high-powered rounds in 30 seconds or less.”

      “High powered”. Interrogative. Have you ever FIRED a AR-15? How about Fired an AR-15 and then picked up, say, a Woodsmaster in .30-06 and fired it? Which one feels like a “high powered” rifle to you?

      Regarding reloading speed, I think you are vastly overestimating the speed of reloading. Yeah, actual gun guys in, say, 3-Gun competitions can do that sort of thing. Most people can’t.

      “David: The above is from my next column due out Monday”

      Well, you’re gonna get a lot of people pointing out that, your handle to the contrary, you very obviously are misinformed about even basic gun stuff.

      “To deny what I wrote above is to deny reality.”

      You’re the one who just made stuff up about military cartridges being especially unique or dangerous.

      ” The AR is not a sporting rifle, it never was and it never will be.”

      * The AR-15 is frequently used in plenty of non-hinting sports, like 3-gun, service rifle competitions, and regular target competitions. Don’t believe me? A way to get a AR-15 in countries like Sweden is to be engaged in those sports. Just because YOU PERSONALLY don’t think that that is a sport, doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

      * The AR-15 platform is frequently used for hunting, most states require a caliber size limit for larger game like deer or bear. The irony here is that the AR-15 often fails to meet this requirement because of small size of the caliber. As a result, things like the AR-10 are used.

      * A lot of people will point out that the words “sporting use” are not found in the 2nd Amendment…or in any of the similar clauses in various state constitutions. So, I don’t know why you keep bringing that up.

      Liked by 2 people

      • MountainSquid,
        You’re a whole lot nicer than I would be. My answer to “Mike ‘the gun(haha)guy'” would have been, “Shut up and sit down, moron. You’re embarrassing yourself. You don’t know the first thing about what you’re talking about.

        Also, even if everything Mikethe(NotA)GunGuy said was true, so what? There is a purpose for ordinary citizens to have a weapon optimized for shooting other people rapidly. It’s a stupid argument. “Oh, it’s BAD to kill people! We shouldn’t let people kill other people! That’s BAD!” How dumb are you, anyway?

        Don’t want to get shot? Then don’t put me in reasonable fear of death, serious bodily injury, or sexual assault. Don’t want me to shoot you and the dozen or so people with you? Don’t bring friends when you put me in reasonable fear of death, serious bodily injury, or sexual assault. See how that works? Or as my friend from military finishing school said, “Don’t start none, won’t be none.”

        I ask you, what kind of moron thinks that the Second Amendment centers around the “Sporting Use” of shooting animals? You will remember that the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware does not depict Washington and his friends going on a duck hunting trip. The Second Amendment protects weapons designed and intended for shooting people. Sometimes in ones and twos, sometimes in large groups. Out founders intended that we shoot criminals and tyrants. There are two groups of people who object to tyrants and criminals getting shot. Tyrants and criminals. Which group do you belong to, Mikethe(Don’tKnowAnythingAbout)GunsGuy?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Kohn begins her book discussing the prejudice against guns owners in academia and the media. “From the 1970s on,” she observes, “the American print media has carried on an all-out war against gun owners.” The New York Times, for example, publishes articles “straightforwardly indicting guns and gun owners for America’s high rate of civil violence” (p. vii). (It still does.) […]


  5. Point about the history of moral shaming in America well taken. Not only is morality being weaponized here, there is an equal amount of intellectual shaming — based on the assumption (a faulty assumption) that a proposition like “guns are bad” is not a synthetic, rebuttable, proposition capable of debate but an analytic one — deniable only by a fool or a scoundrel.
    “We don’t ask so much of you, do we? We demand merely a few common-sense measures, that’s all. If we can’t have that, then perhaps it just goes to show what we have always said about you: that you lack all common sense, to the point of mental defect. Be good fellows. Concede just these little points, and we won’t ask for more. Come on,” said the spider to the fly.


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