One of the small, rueful truths that many Americans held in the back of their minds throughout the pandemic year was that, for all of its horrors, it had at least reduced, or even eliminated, the spectacle of the gun massacre. School closings had momentarily ended school shootings; curbside delivery had, it seemed, halted in-store assaults. It is true that gun fatalities were disturbingly trending upward in big cities, for reasons that are as yet as mysterious as those for the great decline that preceded them, and that, according to the Gun Violence Archive, last year saw the highest number of shooting deaths in decades. In fact, keyed, perhaps, by a general sense of panic marked by the pandemic and a bizarrely unsettled election year—with that strange American certainty that they’re coming for you—gun sales soared, even amid groups that are not normally associated with buying firearms in numbers.
The gun massacre, however—five or twenty or fifty people murdered at a time—had, briefly, vanished. Yet, alongside the knowledge that mass shootings had gone stood the knowledge that they would, inevitably, reëmerge. And here they are, right on schedule, as the country “opens up,” and with a vengeance: seven in the past seven days, with eight people killed in three shootings in Atlanta, and ten in a grocery store in Boulder. With those shootings come back all the usual, understandable, and all-too-human reactions—above all, our urge to give them some kind of meaning by making them an index of a larger issue. Violence this blankly nihilistic needs a point projected into it, to redeem it as a subject of discussion.
We urge larger significance, and some of it is credible: violence against Asians and against women, as was the case in six of the deaths in Atlanta, is real, and part of a terrible pattern—as is the point that it’s almost always men who commit these crimes, and not women. But the unifying truth of all these tragedies is that they rise from a single, common source: the astounding availability in America of weapons designed to murder human beings quickly and in large numbers. It’s not complicated. The same kind of troubled and thwarted men exist in every other country. Sometimes, they emerge and commit mass killings, using the weapons at hand, as happened a year ago in the usually pacific Canadian province of Nova Scotia. But it doesn’t happen often—rarely, in Canada—and it doesn’t happen repeatedly. In Australia, gun laws were changed simply to keep it from happening twice. We search for the cause when the cause is staring us in the face, with the hideous blunt clarity of a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon image of a smoking revolver. Guns are easy to get, and people get killed by them. Make them harder to get, and there would be far fewer people dead.
Countries that resemble ours in every way except for the availability of guns have much lower levels of gun violence and far fewer gun massacres. Yet these truths, demonstrated again and again, meet the same resistance, over and over. The Second Amendment guarantees private ownership of even military-style weapons. (It doesn’t, or rather, until very recently, not even conservative Justices imagined that it did.) Guns are essential for self-protection. (They aren’t.) The way to stop mass shootings is to arm more people, such as teachers. (A “colossally stupid idea,” according to the co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.)
All this, even as the sheer psychic damage done by the omnipresence of guns in America is self-evident (no healthy society should have to train its children in active-shooter drills), while the social damage extends far beyond the immediate casualties. A reason for the prevalence of police shootings in America is that the police go about armed, in levels unique to our society, in order to deal with the uniquely over-armed civilians they fear encountering, with the frequently fatal results, we know too well, for the unarmed and the innocent.
The leadership of the Democratic Party does seem committed, at least, to a new attempt at restricting the availability of guns, with President Joe Biden blessedly calling for renewing the assault-weapons ban and talking of taking executive action, including to expanding background checks. Still, it’s only natural, given the long and futile history of such efforts, that, just before the latest round of gunfire, some progressive-minded people, as the political commentator Matthew Yglesias explained, had begun to argue that the wisest course may be to take gun control off the table—either through explicit argument or by tacit inaction—on the ground that it is a losing battle that ends up only diverting attention and political capital away from more winnable enterprises. That theory rests on the evidence that, despite the fact that a significant number of Americans want gun control—or say that they want it—the political obstacles created by their own uncertainty about exactly how they want to go about getting fewer guns in fewer hands, coupled with the disproportionate rural tilt in the Senate, makes achieving meaningful action close to impossible. As hard as it is for the rest of the world to accept, a large swath of the U.S. population takes the possession of a gun—and, often, guns—as not one but as the key symbol of its autonomy. To try to dissuade these people from their conviction is a losing game.
Attempts at gun control, the argument goes on, contravene the oldest truth of politics in organized society, perhaps first and still best articulated by Edward Gibbon in the famous Chapter 15 of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in which he explains that what brought the Christian minority to power in the empire was an extreme commitment to its position. A myopic minority is more powerful than a distracted majority. Most Americans may well be, as the polls show, in favor of some kind of gun reform. But they have many other issues and desires on their minds, too. For those who are committed to guns, though, no other issue takes equal prominence, or directs their electoral intentions so narrowly. The three-quarters of the people who have, over the years, been for gun regulation, among many other things, are helpless in the face of the minority who, as one Pew study showed, believe that their right to own guns is essential to their personal freedom. To invest political energy in this fight is classic American progressive quixotism.
Yglesias makes an analogy between the regulation of guns and the regulation of alcohol, which can, indeed, be as dangerous as its antagonists have always said it can: “In terms of moral urgency, alcohol kills more people than guns.” After a rather vivid era devoted to prohibiting alcohol—driven largely by women activists, as it happens (nineteenth-century saloons fuelled domestic abuse)—the country recognized the practical impossibility of a ban, and has accepted very limited, state-level alcohol restrictions (basically, unevenly enforced age limits) ever since. That policy is either resigned or realistic, depending on your view. As with the demon rum, so with the demon gun: we have to learn to live with some things if we’re to go on living with our fellow-citizens. Such thinking is, in its way, both a counsel of pragmatism and a policy of despair—accepting regular gun massacres as a feature of American life, with the sole consolation supposed to be that, on a proportional scale, at least, they are still relatively rare. Americans, in the end, like most people, seem to be better at acceptance than at resistance.
Yet this counsel need not be the last word. Positive things can still get done. An instructive, if counterintuitive, example, perhaps, is the fight for the right to life, as it is called, which, without yet breaching the wall of Roe v. Wade, has, through small-bore actions, effectively curtailed abortion rights throughout the South, particularly for low-income women and women of color. This is a repellent parallel for progressives, but it makes the point: big change happens through incremental measures. It is often said that the states alone can’t counter the gun lobby, given that guns pass so easily from state to state, but states with strong gun laws already have significantly fewer gun deaths.
That pattern is reflected, to a lesser degree, in state liquor laws, but the analogy of guns to alcohol does not map exactly; alcohol is not the instrument of action in the same way that guns are. A better analogy is to cars, which are dangerous and often deadly, particularly with a drunk driver behind the wheel; nearly thirty people are killed every day in D.U.I. incidents. In fact, there are nearly as many motor-vehicle deaths each year in this country as there are firearm deaths, but far more people have access to cars on a daily basis than to guns. So, what do we do about cars? We regulate them. We have mandatory insurance in nearly all states, we have compulsory lessons, we have universal licensing (achievable by almost everyone in relative youth, and even some latecomers). We create, at the state and local levels, ever more ingenious ways of preventing people from driving while impaired. According to the Violence Policy Center, auto-related deaths have declined over the past two decades, while gun deaths have risen. No group has had more success, or provides a better model for social action, than Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose legislative lobbying for ignition interlock devices and sobriety checkpoints may have, by now, cut alcohol-related driving deaths fully in half. There are still plenty of dangerous-driving fetishists, and they make popular and entertaining movies. But, with a countervailing force of common sense and the common welfare, public-health progress still gets made.
The truth of reform is that it can begin anywhere, on any scale, and, once begun, it tends to be self-renewing. And, as reformers well know, it does not always matter where the reform starts—if it starts at all, it magnetizes other reforms toward it. The President’s proposed assault-weapons ban, for that reason, is a good place to start. It may not lasso all or even the most dangerous weapons, and it will certainly not immediately end gun massacres or the psychic costs they exact. But it is a start. The gun lobby opposes it so irrationally because it understands this, too.