Last week’s massacre in Las Vegas has unavoidably put gun control back into the public eye, and with it a great deal of careless or uninformed commentary. It feels insensitive to be worried about such things in the face of slaughter on this scale, but perhaps the best tribute we can make to the victims is to engage in the sort of clear thinking that will be necessary if we are to reduce the risk of such ghastly events in the future.
The first thing to be clear about is that America’s problem does not lie with the famous Second Amendment. You can argue repeatedly about whether it protects an individual right to bear arms or simply a right to join the militia – these days, the National Guard. (Or, on an even weaker interpretation, the right of states to maintain a National Guard.) The Supreme Court majority in D.C. v. Heller considered this at length and decided for the first interpretation.
For what it’s worth, I think it was right about that. But that’s something about which reasonable people can disagree.
In the gun control debate, however, it’s mostly a red herring. An individual right to bear arms isn’t something that can’t be subject to regulation; the words “well regulated” appear in the text of the amendment itself.
Antonin Scalia, who wrote the judgement in Heller, made it very clear that extensive regulation of gun ownership is constitutionally permissible – including such things as licensing of gun owners, restrictions on types of weapons, requirements for safe storage and “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
It’s true that an attempt to comprehensively disarm the American population would be struck down, but no such attempt is on the cards anyway. Of course a rogue state government may do something far out, as the District of Columbia did in Heller, but that’s not where the debate is. For all the schemes of gun regulation that are within the bounds of the politically possible, or are going to be in the foreseeable future, the Second Amendment is unlikely to be a problem.
Whether the Second Amendment is a good thing or not can be left as an argument for another day. One reason that I count as pro-gun in the Australian context (although in the American context I count as strongly anti-gun) is that I don’t think the idea of an armed citizenry serving as a last-ditch safeguard against tyranny is completely crazy.
But I have very little time for those conservatives – which is most of them – who have been a party to trashing every other restraint on government, but think the Second Amendment is the one part of the Bill of Rights worth defending. (Conor Friedersdorf made this point a few years ago.)
Clearly something else is going on here. Which brings us to the key point: that widespread ownership of guns is not, of itself, the main problem. Other countries manage to combine that with a homicide rate far below that of the United States. (Switzerland is an obvious example.) The problem is cultural. Americans have a relationship with their guns that is not found in any other developed democracy, and it is deeply unhealthy.
Not all Americans, of course. The true gun nuts are a small minority. But the attitudes that make them possible have deep roots in the culture, as seen also in such things as the idolisation of the military. Only in America is a desire to own dozens of operational firearms treated as a routine personal preference, rather than something pathological.
And the gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association, is not just defending gun ownership as a right – as one might, for example, defend a right to commit suicide without promoting suicide as a good thing. The NRA and its backers positively promote gun ownership as a solution to society’s ills, although even the NRA has been careful to point out that it is not opposed to all regulation.
But this sort of piecemeal regulation, which may or may not happen in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, will at best only help at the margins. What’s needed is cultural change, and in the age of Trump that seems as far away as ever.
The idea that the damage is done by a culture of violence, rather than the guns themselves, is not a new one; it was the central message of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine back in 2002. But it’s a message that neither side wanted to hear then, or wants to now.
The left doesn’t want to hear it because it denies the efficacy of its proposed simple solutions, and asks it instead to take on a broader debate with major political risks.
The right doesn’t want to hear it because it belies its caricature of Moore as a crude propagandist, but more generally because the idea of cultural change to delegitimise violence is unacceptable to it as well, even if in some sense it exonerates gun ownership.
Overall, the lesson is a deeply pessimistic one. The United States – on most counts an extraordinarily free, prosperous and successful society – has demons at its heart that no-one really knows how to exorcise. In fact, no-one much is even looking for a way.