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.
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.