Newtown, Connecticut: A Very American Tragedy - Spectator Blogs

18 December 2012

7:09 PM

18 December 2012

7:09 PM

I’ve not written anything for a few days because, well, I’ve been trying to organise what I think about the awfulness of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Trying, also, to find a way of writing about it that seems appropriate. There are moments, I think, when a too-polished piece of prose risks seeming distastefully narcissistic, too close to being from the School of Martin Amis. I remember Amis describing the “sharking” trajectory of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center more than a decade ago and thinking that, as apt and vivid as the image was, there was something unpleasant about it. Something that suggested the author was too admiring of his own imagery. The event made self-consciously fine writing seem superfluous and even oddly obscene.

And yet writing nothing is not quite possible either. We have, after all, been here before. For me, it was a cold, damp, spring morning in Blacksburg, Virginia five years ago. Recalling it now, it is the quiet I remember most. Hollow-eyed students, numbed by the horror of it all, gathered in Virginia Tech’s public places, offering each other what comfort they could. No-one spoke at much above a whisper; no-one knew what there was to say. Telling the story never felt so intrusive, so unseemly, so pornographic. The bald facts were – or should have been – enough. As a reporter, I felt guilty just being there.

There have been other mass shootings since and there will be others again. Ranking these horrors is grotesque but this massacre in Newtown is even worse, if that can be said at all, than all these previous miseries. If my experience is at all common, you will have seen parents, wherever in the world they live and whatever their nationality, posting messages on Facebook or Twitter giving thanks that their children were safe that night. It was awful and it made me cry.

There is a craving to make sense of the senseless. In such circumstances is it surprising that people lurch towards extreme reactions? So you have – to pick only two examples from many – Mike Huckabee blaming godless America or Adam Gopnik suggesting every gun owner in America shares responsibility for Adam Lanza’s actions.

Perhaps. But it is more probable that these like, again, so many reactions to the Sandy Hook horror, signify little more than the suspicion that if the world – that is, if other people – were more like me and shared my preferences (which are not, you understand, prejudices) then matters everywhere would be better arranged.

There is rage aplenty and just as much wishful thinking too. Again, how could there not be? Viewed from overseas, of course, it is not so much these American tragedies themselves that provoke disbelief, rather the American response – or apparent lack of one – to them. How many more people must die before, as the likes of dickheads such as Piers Morgan argue, America “gets serious” about gun control? Why, to put it bluntly, are Americans so thick?

But reality is stubborn. The (London) Times, for instance, editorialised that the Second Amendment “ostensibly protects the right to bear arms“. There’s no ostensibly about it. The Amendement does just that and no amount of sophistry about the Founding Fathers’ intentions or the difference between muskets and semi-automatic firearms can change that. The Supreme Court agrees. This is settled law. Arguing that, somehow, it should not be places you in the same category as those people who once began any discussion of the Northern Ireland peace process with the observation that Northern Ireland “should not” exist or that if it were born today it would have looked very different. But it did exist and it wasn’t created today. Regrettable or inconvenient as this may have been, it was the way it was. And is. So with the Second Amendment. (This doesn’t mean all guns are legal. Not at all. Machine guns have been banned for decades. Further restrictions are also possible; prohibition is not.)

For that matter, it seems to me that if you place a high value on some parts of the American Constitution  – the First Amendment, for instance – you cannot be surprised if other people place an equal value on parts of the Bill of Rights that you may, personally speaking, find less appealing. It is, in the end, a job lot that, sensibly, is exceptionally difficult to amend. Sensibly, because if it were easy for you to amend the parts you find distasteful it might be equally easy for others to amend those parts you prize most dearly.

Even so, there are things that may be said. One of them is that America’s gun owners have often been poorly led by their erstwhile leaders. The NRA’s members are frequently better than the NRA’s leadership. This may not be a high bar to clear. Even so, it is worth bearing in mind that actual members of the NRA tend to be responsible gun owners who may not merit – at least as individuals – the vitriol poured upon them by so many this week.

Nor, despite the impression given by the international media, are American guns the sole preserve of right-wing lunatics. True, conservative households are more likely to possess guns than liberal households but almost one in three self-identified Democratic homes contains a gun and nearly 60% of those in rural areas do so. So do nearly 40% of Democratic households in the mid-west and south. “No guns” is a fantasy.

There are things that could be done that might lessen the prospect of further horrors on this scale. The political kaleidoscope may have been shaken. Certainly it seems that way. If even Joe Manchin, a Democratic Senator from West Virginia, is prepared to countenance new legislative measures then so may others.  Many, probably most, gun owners would agree (in principle) with many of the ideas suggested this week even as they – and we – know controlling the sale of high-capacity magazines or especially-powerful ammunition would most probably make only a marginal difference to the number of people killed in these shooting sprees. Creating a system to track private gun sales would help too but it, like every other conceivable or feasible measure proposed this week, can’t guarantee anything. Nevertheless, making an effort to make it more difficult for guns to be owned by people who should not own them is now worthwhile, necessary and urgent.


After the Virginia Tech shootings a friend of mine, then working on Capitol Hill, was partly responsible for persuading the NRA and gun control groups to each support the creation of the National Instant Check System (they did). He points out that during negotiation about the bill it wasn’t the NRA who were opposed to putting people receiving anti-psychotic medication into the checking database, it was advocates for the mentally ill. That doesn’t mean the NRA is perfect or even perfectly responsible, merely that it’s more complicated than simply blaming the NRA or gun-owners. (The interests of gun owners are not, it should be clear, the same as those of gun manufacturers.)

Sometimes it seems as though we must endure the same old, shop-soiled arguments over and over again. It really is true that Virginia Tech’s prohibition of guns on campus helped the gunman slay so many of his fellow students as he did. You really could plausibly claim this as a case where outlawing guns ensured that only outlaws had guns. There was no-one able to shoot the gunman. And, naturally, we have heard this argument again this week. But I think it’s plausible to argue that there’s a trade-off here.

That is, in exchange for minimising the likelihood of regular, gun-related murders we acknowledge (alas) that extremely rare, extremely-terrible incidents will be even more horrific than they might otherwise be. This is a pretty grim conclusion but, on the balance of probabilities, it’s the safer option. More guns does mean there will be more gun crime. Arming teachers (as some now propose) is a counsel of despair and not just because, even this week, schools are still safe places for children. A 9/11 for schools? Please, let us hope not.

There isn’t, at least not in the United States, a legislative response to Sandy Hook that can do anything other than make it marginally more difficult for these events to occur or, perhaps, help minimise the number of victims killed when they do occur.

And so our loop returns to the initial, unanswerable question why? These horrors happen in other countries too – Germany, Finland, even Britain – but they unquestionably happen more frequently in the United States than elsewhere. And they do so even when you control for the number of households which contain a gun (which is not quite the same measurement as guns per capita).

So why? What is it about America that makes it different? Any attempt to answer that question is necessarily speculative. Moreover, like most great American problems (and virtues) any mono-causal explanation should be considered suspect.

But if it is the culture, stupid, what is it that makes American culture so different, so extreme, so exceptional? I think, like many American stories, the cocktail of history and myth plays a part in helping to explain this. Because, in ways that are not true of really any other western country, the United States was built by guns right from the beginning. The American experience really was different.

The idea of the rugged pioneer heading west with nothing but the possessions he could carry and a gun in his pack may have been romanticised out of all proportion to the tough, hard lives these adventurers endured. But the fact remains they did head west and they did build something new. And they did it with – and could not have done it without – their guns. American violence has a long and grubby history. The nation was built by men-at-arms and then held together by men-at-arms too. And for a century after the Civil War millions of citizens had their rights repressed by violent means too (albeit state-sanctioned violence).

When John F Kennedy called for a New Frontier he explicitly invoked that pioneering spirit. The old frontier had already been closed for more than half a century but the idea lived on. Accepting his party’s presidential nomination, Kennedy suggested the United States was on “the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled dreams”. Perhaps that sounds quaint today but it’s a message that has been echoed, in its essence, at almost every subsequent Presidential Inauguration. This is America and neither our journey nor our adventure is finished yet.

When myth meets reality, you print the legend. The frontier – or the idea of it – must forever remain open. Because if it – or the idea of it – closes then a part of the American idea is also closed. There’s a reason the western became American cinema’s greatest genre. These were the stories America wanted to tell itself; this the explanation for how America became America.

That doesn’t mean the western (or even computer games, these days) were “responsible” for Columbine or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook merely that the west’s reality – and then the western’s interpretation of that history – helped create and then sustain a certain idea of the American experience. And that had to have some consequences.

This ain’t just history either. These stories still exist. They still make westerns; they just don’t look quite the same these days. The Wire might be set in Baltimore but despite its east coast, urban location it is still, in essence, a western. Controlling commodities and territory, resisting the state’s encroachment and settling differences at gunpoint? Of course it is a western.

There are other threads to the American experience of course (organised labour vs capitalism for one) but freedom from shackling authority is still a large part of the American idea. That helps create, I think, a place in which the idea of the self and of personal reinvention looms larger than is the case in other, more static, societies. You can be who you want to be. Just go west, young man.

This need not even require you to actually head west in any literal sense. You can do so in your imagination. Read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or the novels of William Gibson or Philip K Dick if you doubt this. In Zero History Gibson even coined the term “Mitty demographic” to describe “gear-queer” young men who possess “an obsession with the idea not just of the right stuff, but of the special stuff. Equipment fetishism. The costume and semiotics of achingly elite police and military units. Intense desire to possess same, of course, and in turn to be associated with that world. With its competence, its cocksure exclusivity”.

That’s fiction, of course, but based on observed fact. I fancy you find it in many countries but I also fancy you find it more often in America. Most of these kids will be harmless; very occasionally one will not. One consequence of Newtown may be many more children placed on medication. Another may be that lonely kids who seem somehow “odd” will be treated with greater suspicion and, perhaps, on occasion, be persuaded (at least to their own satisfaction) that the world really is against them. This may have consequences too.

Official policy may not have helped either. By that I mean that the paramilitarisation of American policing has helped contribute, in ways neither obvious nor intentional, to America-at-arms. Even small towns now possess SWAT teams equipped with millions of dollars worth of military-grade equipment and paraphernalia. When the police look – and sometimes behave – like an army, I can see why some (plausibly deluded) people might conclude the authorities are preparing to take your guns from you. Like airport security and metal detectors at the school gates it helps persuade the all-too-persuadable that daily life in America is so full of risk that the sane reaction is to arm-up and hunker-down.

This is what I want to get at: I suspect that, perhaps in ways that are almost too awful to contemplate, these kinds of spree shooting are the dark side of the limitless American capacity for reinvention. The same culture that has helped permit or foster the most dizzying, varied, awe-inducing society the west presently knows is the same culture that incubates these horrors. Self-realisation is part of the American essence. Sometimes that has a terrible side too. (I think you could make some comparable points about the American religious experience too: this too often seems antiquated to european types but it is real and equally diverse.)

If, as seems likely, these kinds of shooting spree have become more common in recent years this too may be a feature of a culture in which the divides between those who conspicuously have and those who palpably have not have rarely been quite as great or, worse, made so apparent to those who do not have. Modern media – and technology – are part of this though not, of course, all of it.

Because what strikes the foreigner most about the United States is its variety. Indeed variance may be its most significant quality. This owes something to it being a country of 300 million people but I fancy a country of 300 million Swedes (even if spread across a comparably sized landmass) would be a very different place indeed. This, coupled with the American predilection for individualism, has helped make the United States a country of magnificent wonders and jaw-dropping failures. Its highs are very high and its lows exceptionally low. This, if you like, is a feature, cause and consequence of American exceptionalism. Perhaps.

That may all seem a long way from Adam Lanza. I don’t know if I’m right about any of this but many people have been asking me why America is the way it is or why (and this is a related question) these things keep happening. This is my attempt, imperfect like all such attempts to answer these questions, to explain why. Like all such attempts it can only be, at best, a partial success even if it be deemed a success at all. Tell me what you think in the comments or at alexmassieATgmailDOTcom.

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  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • Saleem hatoum

    It is the second amendment that gives the right to bear arms by citizens. It is and was not the NRA which reaffirmed this right but the USSC which attested to the fact that second amendment is enshrined in the Bill of Rights for the individual citizenry (including green card holders) to bear arms. What I loved about this article was starting at ”

    What is it about America that makes it different?…followed by three more paras…” Excellent piece Mr. Alex Massie

  • theocritus

    The incendiary Ann Coulter weighs in:

    Among the gleanings:

    Someone planning to commit a single murder in a concealed-carry state only has to weigh the odds of one person being armed. But a criminal planning to commit murder in a public place has to worry that anyone in the entire area might have a gun.

    You will notice that most multiple-victim shootings occur in “gun-free zones” — even within states that have concealed-carry laws: public schools, churches, Sikh temples, post offices, the movie theater where James Holmes committed mass murder, and the Portland, Ore., mall where a nut starting gunning down shoppers a few weeks ago.

    Guns were banned in all these places. Mass killers may be crazy, but they’re not stupid.

  • Sarah

    Maybe it’s time for some founding mothers.

  • agdouglas

    The Times is correct. The right to bear arms was encoded specifically for the purpose of assembling a “well ordered militia” to contain tyrannical governments, and not to support random acts of violence. The provisions of the Second Amendment applied only to white colonial settlers, of course, so, as things stood then, the colonists alone were empowered to carry firearms with which to shoot Native Americans, African slaves, redcoats, deer, antelopes, coyotes and bears. To an extent, the NRA still embodies the current version of that unspoken racial agenda.

    On the other hand, American society has evolved rapidly since then, particularly the urban culture, which, is more advanced, for example, in its response to racial diversity than most of Europe. Indeed, the political system in foment has proven conclusively that the electoral process can indeed effect non-violent changes of government. It is generally understood over here that the rule of law prevails where laws are updated and synchronized with the fresh needs and considerations that arise in a rapidly developing society. Open debate in the media as well as in deliberative bodies is an important part of this process. We need extreme opinions to be voiced to arrive at a workable solution.

  • John W Meadows

    I am both British and American living in California,I do not have a gun in my house but I am quite certain many of my neighbors do.
    As the area where I live is upscale crime is almost unknown,a very few miles away the murder rate is truly dreadful.
    It is very largely related to gangs fighting turf wars and does not generally impact better areas.

    I believe a significant factor is a lowlife breaking into a home on my street understands there is a fair chance of getting blown away by the home owner.
    Disarming America as you point out is never going to happen and here,unlike Britain, to defend your home and family is considered the proper thing to do.
    As I do not believe there is any answer to the mentally deranged getting their hands on weapons the only solution is defense.

    In Texas where most people have guns their answer of teachers having concealed guns is starting to make sense.
    An interesting statistic in support of that idea is that Texas has a very low rate of home invasion burglaries.

    • theocritus

      When some whacko shot people in a Luby’s cafeteria in Central Texas about a decade ago, I heard a woman lament that her husband had begged her to leave her pistol in the car and not put it in her purse. She quite angrily said “I can shoot the thing and if I’d brought it in, I’d still have a husband and a son.”

      The consensus in Texas was shame that no one in the cafeteria was packing heat.

      Before our concealed-carry laws, deputies in small counties gave safety classes to the women in the town. “If he’s in your house at night, SHOOT HIM. If he’s on the porch, drag him inside. If you can’t, we’ll help you. Then go to pieces.” You know something? Those women didn’t have to do it. The crooks knew what would happen.

      In Houston a man shot a burglar, in the back, in broad daylight, stealing his neighbor’s television. The neighbor had been vandalized often before and the crime was rampant. He was no-billed by the grand jury, meaning that he would not go to trial. This was widely seen as salutary and the thieves took careful notice.

      It was a commonplace for a car of young thugs to nudge a man’s car at a stoplight or filling station, then surround him and demand his car as payment for non-existant damages. After the passage of the concealed-carry law, the victim shot and killed one thug; the others abandoned him–such honor–and ran. The man was no-billed.

      A small town in George passed a law requiring homeowners to have a gun. Their robberies plummeted. Crooks are better assessors of risk than is the U. S. Federal government–witness Solyndra–and a crook who knows he has a good chance of being shot will think twice about his target.

      • Dan Seward

        Yeah. And in Newtown CT, a man shot a score of children for no reason at all.

        • theocritus

          No reason that any sane person could conceive. But then no sane person could conceive 9/11.

          There are monsters in this world. There will always be monsters. Some shoot, some terrorize in other ways. People place too much faith in the ability of government to keep such atrocities from happening but a government that cannot deliver mail cannot be trusted with our safety.

          I don’t get this nut. The rumor is that he went postal on hearing that his mother wanted him to have a psychological evaluation. He would go nuts anywhere, I suppose, and there’s no meaning to be had from what he did.

          Horrible things like this have happened throughout history, and the only change has been the technology of death. We cannot insure that there are no nutters ready to kill us. We can only hope to control them once they show their intent.

          These people are not to be confused with garden-variety muggers and thieves, who, although utterly dishonest, are rational in their risk assessment and who are deterred in places like Texas and Georgia from practicing their craft, knowing that the pickings are easier elsewhere.

          Two different sorts of criminals. But in the end the best solution is still an armed populace. For both.

          • Sarah

            Nothing to do with a violent culture that revels in violence?

            • theocritus

              American culture has been violent–although not as violent as British culture. We have nothing like the lager louts and excepting hockey and soccer victories, and they’re foreign sports, American’s simply do not have the trashing of sports venues that happens all over the world. (European) football hooligans is a mild term.

              I admit that they don’t use guns. But aren’t baseball bats commonplace in England? Brits don’t play baseball. Why are they sold? Truncheons. Big ones.

              This is not the hideous violence of a madman shooter, for evil though they are, they don’t club together and go to stadia, already drunken, looking for violence. The shooter is nearly always a lone gunman, at most part of a folie à deux, and not part of a group of fans of a football club. “The Spectator”‘s Low Life columnist opened my eyes about European loutishness. NASCAR has nothing like that.

              The Japanese have a very low incidence of violence but their movies are gaspingly violent.

              The major violence increase that I’ve seen in American culture, if popular culture is that, other than crass entertainment, is from the so-called minorities. The Hayes Code regulated moves over a half century ago. Nothing now regulates movies or rap or hip-hop lyrics, and the lyrics talk without embarrassment about shooting people, raping women, who are known as hos or bitches. Women in modern hip-hop culture are back to the status of chattel.

              Come to think of it, there may be a correlation between violence in the entertainment of that culture and the violence in that culture. But of course we cannot talk of that because it is racist. And the fact that those guns are in general stolen has nothing to do with the violence.

              The most insidious aspect of the paroxysmal calls for gun control is that the most Draconian controls will have no effect whatsoever on the bad guys, who have already determined to be scofflaws. Only the law-abiding will be disarmed, giving the criminals more freedom.

              Once I heard a criminal, a footpad, in a Miami jail who was very enthusiastic about gun control. “Hell yes! They we know they don’t have guns!”

              That’s all you need to know.

              • Sarah

                You just have to look t the popular culture of America and Britain to see the difference in the psyche. The films and music that pour out of America reveal a highly macho and aggressive mindset. The most aggressive (and misogynist) people you come across online are young American males, they have been very instrumental in creating the hostile environment that now prevails in places like YouTube and Reddit. America is also highly militarised, it has been responsible for some of the worst violence meted out to civilians in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s crime rates are extremely high for a democratic, wealthy nation, its gang culture notorious. Ask any person anywhere in the world to name the first word to come to mind when they hear the word “America”, and it’s likely to be “guns”.

                • theocritus

                  I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ dictum that an assertion made without evidence may be dismissed without evidence. But when there’s evidence ready to hand, it’s a shame not to use it.

                  Some of the films and music that pour out are aggressive. And bought by you. And the other people around the world. More money is made selling this drivel to foreign fools than to American ones. But it’s not all aggressive: think of the kiddie pix. Pixar. Disney. And the chick flicks. It’s not all the Terminator. Condemnation for any violence and aggression in American movies, when the major bank is made outside of America, is like the secret drinker showing up at a temperance meeting.

                  Judging a culture by YouTube and Reddit? I’ve seen some of YouTube and if you spend a lot of time on it, and if you think that it’s a cultural barometer, you seriously need to get a life.

                  There is nothing in American culture which however calls for the death of dissenters as there is in say Islamic culture.

                  America is not highly militarized. Rubbish. We have the world’s biggest army but we’ve been keeping the peace–Pax Americana, not Pax Brittannica these days–for the last half century which let you have your welfare states. Britain being the (mostly) noble exception to a Europe which has been sucking on the American tit for 60 years for its own defense. And we’re not highly militarized. We respect our military and love it, but it is not a militaristic society. There is nothing in the slightest like the marching in Red Square. No military parades even on the 4th of July. No. Rubbish. If you think that Americans owing guns is militarization, then you have no concept of taking care of yourself.

                  Now for the worst violence meted out to civilians in the 20th and 21st centuries. My mind simply refused to take that in when first I read it, any more than I could take in a statement that 2+2=5.

                  An article in The Spectator about a decade ago totaled up the body count for the various political philosophies. The left murdered over 100,000,000 people, mostly civilians. Mao, Stalin, Hitler–all the same color inside. The right-wing nations? 800,000. (I use right and left designations perhaps arbitrarily to distinguish between those which have democracies and autocratic ones for I believe that the essential characteristic of the left is a deep love for authoritarianism.)

                  I am an Anglophile. I’ve read the magazine in the West Texas desert for 28 years. So I wasn’t going to bring this up but I shall, having been given entrée.

                  Ever heard of Bomber Harris? Ask the people of Dresden what nation they think of when they think of war. It ain’t America.

                  You mentioned the 20th and 21st centuries: well, let’s go back a bit to the Opium Wars. That was just appalling, and done by a nation that I consider to be one of the four lights in Western Civilization.

                  Now for the 800,000 civilian deaths. The article I read, by a Brit, stated that those were Soviet soldiers, out of the military since the end of WWII, who were forcibly repatriated, much against their wishes, to the Soviet Union by the Brits. And since they had seen that there was life outside the Soviet Union, Stalin killed them. So in fact the free nation which has visited the most violence on civilians in the last 200 years has been Britain, not America.

                  I had no idea until I read it in The Spectator.

                  Sarah, your scattershot accusations are nothing more than the sniff of the bien pensant, who have the advantage of believing that attitude trumps reality.

                  And it’s a LOT LESS WORK.

                • Comrade_Tovarich

                  It is interesting that much of the cinematographic tripe you note, Sara, sells far better outside the US. What is it that drives the rest of the world to consume such offal? Why do so many unthinkingly or willingly believe what they see in US movies as realistic portrayals of life in the US? I suspect it is for the same provincial reasons all people engage in nationalistic Schadenfreude: It helps them quiet their own suspicions that their private and national lives are just as, if not more, unfulfilling than Americans’.

                  From my own expatriate experiences, a far more hostile environment is being American when teaching with British colleagues who are Guardianistas or Canadians from that country’s largest cities. The zeal with which such Commonwealth members self-righteously open fire on Americans–for simply being Americans, for being “the Other”–is almost frightening.

                  My understanding is that the most aggressive (and misogynist) people one encounters on the streets of Europe are Muslim males, who have been instrumental in creating the host-nation-citizen “no-go” areas of many cities like Malmö or the encircling public housing slums around French cities. However, movies and “documentaries” about these minorities or anti-heroes don’t seem to get far in Europe. Perhaps the content would lead to inconvenient truths about domestic social engineering failures.

                  Two decades of teaching in provincial cities of East Asia were quite educational. Life there is not unlike that in the US (or any other largely functional developed country), with people going about their business normally, shunning trouble, and occasionally giving vent to the universal plague of corrupt and incompetent politicians at all levels. The advertising is better, the poverty arguably worse (but the US does have undeniable socio-economic decay being actively promoted by Obama now), the social hierarchy and mores far more stifling, criminal activity certainly lower but catching up. And, yes, the people and students were interested in “guns” but they also equated the US with wide spaces they couldn’t imagine and “freedom.” I’ve also yet to meet a foreign student in the US who has refused an offer to go shooting, not even the occasional European.

                  Perhaps nothing makes fruit more desirable than forbidding it.

                • theocritus

                  Excellent points, Tovarich. I have hard stories about the Guardianistas’ visceral hatred of Americans. Read some of their articles; then try the English-language version of Pravda. I’ve only done it a few times, but the old town crier of the old USSR was on whole more sensible, and much more understanding of liberty.

    • Sarah

      What kind of bizarre turn of events requires teachers to conceal guns to defend their charges from being massacred? Do you live in a civilised country or a war zone? Do you not appreciate how extreme this is? That the rest of the world isn’t like this? Not even Mexico City or Afghanistan? What parent in their right mind would want their child going to school somewhere where their primary teacher had a concealed weapon and had to learn how to shoot to kill? What kind of person would want to become a teacher where they were expected to do this? You’d leave the country rather than raise a child in such a place.

  • John Murrell, Outlaw

    I would also like to point out that very little about the current Supreme Court’s position on gun ownership was “settled law” until very recently, as in the last couple of decades. Prior to that, the Court and the culture had a very different idea of what the right to keep and bear arms meant. In 1977, the NRA took a radical shift right at its annual conference in Cincinnati, now known as the Cincinnati Revolt, and began to push the most radical of 2nd Amendment interpretations. Subsequent to that, even conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger said in an interview that the new interpretation of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” The gun rights extremists themselves even recognize that what you claim is the inevitable result of our 230-year history, our “settled law” on gun ownership, was in fact a radical change orchestrated over only the last several decades. In 2012, NRA President David Keene himself said: “If you had asked, in 1968, Will we have the right to do with guns in 2012 what we can do now, no one, on either side, would have believed you.” The beauty (and chaos) in a constitutional system is in the fact there is no such thing as this “settled law” you talk about. By the very means the NRA and the gun industry used to change gun law in the last 40 years — political pressure, lobbying, public education, organizing — that same “settled law” can be clarified or superseded entirely.

    • GirondistNYC

      But part of the reason for this was gun ownership was not heavily restricted for most of the nations short life – there were exceptions, like the Sullivan laws in New York, local bans and type restrictions, but generally “gun control” as a meaningful nationwide concept came up in the era of cheap and deadly handguns. Before that, the 2nd amendment was generally viewed as something along the lines of the “Republican form of Government” clause that the courts shied away from. It’s not surprising the NRA became much more interested in the clause then – it’s the same time that anti-gun academics pushed their own rather radical interpretation of the Amendment as applying only to militia. Both sides now needed arguments.

      The real loss here is had the NRA been more reasonable and recognized that handguns are really a separate issue that only touch the Amendment tangentially, and that sensible restrictions tailored to the needs of law abiding gun owners were in everyone’s interest, we could have ended up with good laws. And if the anti-gun movement tried to pitch it’s arguments to hunters, valid self-defense owners and target shooters they might have succeeded in isolating the paranoid fringe, ultra-libertarians and maniacal collectors from the debate.

      • douglas clark

        I am quite confused by all of this. It seems to me that back in the day, 1776 or so, that almost every citizen would have had a gun, for the purposes someone outlined above, killing rodents and rattlers and stuff like that.

        The society that existed when the ammendment was passed appears to me to have been subverted somewhat. A gun, back then, was a tool for exterminating bison and the like. As a newly established entity the USA could call on guns, tools if you like, to be used to protect the nation against it’s enemies. Particularily the UK.

        What you now appear to have is a society where the primary purpose of gun ownership, by either the good guys or the bad guys, is to kill other people. The discourse is no longer about killing rattlers, which I assume are extinct in most of the continental USA. It is about personal defence.

        I think Ayn Rand has corrupted your very soul, but there you go, I would say that, wouldn’t I. For that is the wellspring of this particular focus on self protection as a necessity.

        I had a chum once who went to a gun club in the UK. He stopped going and I asked him why?

        “These are really scary people.” was his reply.

        • theocritus

          Rattlers extinct? Hahahaha. Ooops! I wet ’em. By all means. Come to Texas or New Mexico–I know only the desert rattlers here, and walk around a mesquite bush in the winter when they’re hibernating. You’ll fall in, break through the ground into a rattler den, and be bitten. Fifty miles to the hospital? Either die or lose a leg.

          Sweetwater, Texas, every year has a rattlesnake roundup. I heard a Brit presenter sniff about the extermination of the species, then in two minutes he spoke of the ever increasing yield. The festival is a mature one. I doubt that the yield is up this year; the drought is so that the rattlers in South Texas, by anecdote, don’t even have the energy to rattle.

          Fifteen years ago if you went dove hunting down there, and it’s all grassland leading to the Gulf Coast, and the dove came down in the grass, you left it there. If you got out of the pickup, you had on metal leggings. Ron told me that the rattles sounded like frogs in a large pond after a rain. He shot a dove, and it fell on the road. He started for it, and watched a rattler slither out of the grass, eat the dove, rattle, and slither off. Betcha it’s the same in Arizona. The southeast has its own rattlers too. BTW, if you surprise them, they don’t rattle. They just strike.

          Coyotes. Mangy curs. If a cow’s penned up in a chute, they’ll noble her legs to get the blood. A cow can defend herself if she’d not calving; a rancher told me she’d seen coyotes eat an emerging calf. If you have a cat in the country and it’s light colored, to be seen at night, keep it in. Meal for a mongrel.

          Those, while sufficient, are not the real reason for guns. They are the only rational response to the fact that we have to take care of ourselves. Or, and this is of the uttermost importance, APPEAR to be able to take care of ourselves.

          It is unimaginable to hear of breaking and entering into an occupied house in Texas. The burglar knows he would be shot quite dead. So no deaths, no burglaries. A true win/win.

          It is a simple fact that states with concealed-carry laws have lower incidences of murder, rape and aggravated assault. As Taki says, or said, two styles ago, c’est tout.

          Oh, not quite. The real reason was of course taught us by George III.

  • John Murrell, Outlaw

    This must also explain America’s ongoing, pervasive obsession with horses and steamboats.

  • Anonymous

    Well, you were aiming for something other than “fine writing” and you certainly hit your mark. What a bunch of pointless drivel. Trying to explain the inexplicable and pointing fingers from across the pond won’t bring those children back.

    • theocritus

      Nonetheless Mr. Massie’s invocation of Martin Amis’ rather-too-colorful phrases as being slightly unpleasant sticks, and makes me remember why I cannot read Mr. Amis. Unlike his father.

  • Freddie

    A thought-provoking article illustrating some of the complexities of this issue. So many of the negative responses seem fixated on the concept that there is a single categorical problem or even a ‘right or wrong’ answer. I personally think that America struggles with issues like this, as it’s people seem so polarised and un-accepting of other views and points of view. However, i also appreciate that this is one of the reasons WHY America is great in it’s way and how it’s people approach life with such zeal.
    PS, as a counter to my own comment above RE the dangers of being too categorical, i wish to state my (categorical) opinion and agreement that Piers Morgan is a complete dickhead, and possibly add additional descriptors such as “sly” and “self-righteous”. There is a reason why he has thankfully deserted GB… a society we rumbled him, I hope America doesn’t get taken-in.

    PPS RaymondSwenson, do you really want to live in a society where your primary school children are individually searched when going to school?! In the UK a tiny minority of the police have ever even held a gun and despite this we have a gun crime incidence which is a fraction of the USA. Do you not appreciate that escalating levels of armoury and security measures just perpetuate the problem?

  • RaymondSwenson

    Underwriting the recent rulings of the US Supreme Court upholding the individual right to own and carry firearms has bern recent historical research into the recognized rights of Britich and colonial Americans. The conclusion is that the Second Amendment was very much meant to be an individual right, not a right belonging to a state.

    Besides, the only way to remove all guns from private ownership would be to create a massive police state that tosses out the protection against unreasonable search and seizure and create armed confrontations between otherwise law abiding citizens and the police.

    The means of protecting schools and other vulnerable locations against illegal attack with firearms is well known. It us used by the White Hoyse, Congress, and all Federal courts. You have a checkpoint at entry manned by armed guards who screen everyone with metal detectors and x-ray machines. If you are worried about school attacks, then forego the next two years raises for teachers and install a standard manned security system. The reason idiots attack schools or otger venues that have signs prohibiting law abiding citizens from carrying guns is that they may be crazy but they are not stupid. The crazies never try breaking into the Pentagon or even a local courthouse. They never attack a store that sells firearms. If you want to protect school children, then give them the same security that the courts have. It is just a matter of a little money.

    • Crissa

      Of course, you skip over all the gun sprees and killings at courthouses and accidental shootings by police and armed guards and…

      • theocritus

        Evidence, please. I want evidence of a shooting by the police on a school ground. And killing sprees at courthouses? Evidence please. I’m sure there are some but none springs to mind.

    • alouette

      Your first paragraph is utter hogwash. There is a consensus among serious historians of the Constitution and Early Republic that the Second Amendment was not intended to protect the unregulated private ownership of firearms. Read the amicus curiae brief written by scholarly experts in District of Columbia v. Heller:

      The brief was signed by a veritable who’s who of Early American historians:Jack Rakove, Saul Cornell, David Konig, Pauline Maier, John Shy, etc., etc. These names might not mean anything to you, but I can assure you that they represent lifetimes of archival experience and are the leading figures in the military, constitutional, and political history of the Early Republic. They’re the historical equivalent of the Dream Team. And they all conclude that “the authors of the Second Amendment would be flabbergasted to learn that in endorsing the republican principle of a well-regulated militia, they were also precluding restrictions on such potentially dangerous property as firearms, which governments had always regulated when there was ‘real danger of public injury from individuals.'”

      No doubt you will counter with some bogus research cooked up by the hired hacks of the NRA, or cite Justice Scalia’s opinion–as if his tendentious view of history was actually worth something.

      Your view of the Second Amendment is tantamount to creationism, flat-earthism, and climate change denial. And like the believers in all these lost causes, your views are impermeable to facts and reason, because you’ve turned your back on empiricism and have decided to live in a world of fantasies and conspiracy theories.

  • Oddmund Grotte

    I just ran a correlation for OECD countries between the number of firearms per 100 residents and murder per 100 000 residents. Correlation is 0. If I leave out the US, it is actually negative: the more firearms, the less murders. I’m scandinavian. I used to have a shotgun in my closet and a rifle on the wall. In Switzerland and Scandinavia there is a lot of firearms, but murder rate is low. In my opinion I think it’s naive to believe the murder rate will go down by prohibiting firearms.

    • Crissa

      It’s not the murder rate we’re looking at, but the number of people killed quickly.

      Because obviously without controlling for other factors, one single factor is completely useless. But we’re not talking about lowering the murder rate – it’s lower – we’re talking about lowering the number killed in shooting sprees.

    • Paul Gustafson

      Key words, “If I leave out the US.”

  • Nicola Castleman

    Two quick matters: why do you insist that the 2nd Amendment is immovable and unchangeable? Not every old or ancient law is still regarded. Legal fictions have been replaced after hundreds of years, and modern attitudes have replaced archaic ones over and over, despite your tugging reference to Northern Ireland. If the amendment has been interpreted at all since its inception then it’s fair game, as any human law is. 2nd point US is hardly the only country to have experienced a wild frontier. The sculpting of a sometimes self-harming nationalism which followed didn’t take place in the same way in every colonially-developing nation. South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the closest examples of which I can think where those sentiments could very well have been fictionalized, dramatized, romanticized and fantasized to the same degree but haven’t. That addiction to a violent and confrontational national identity needn’t have followed, but whether that has significantly, or only incidentally, been linked to private ownership and use of guns is not proved.

  • Larry

    Why hate on piers? You sound like another bitter scot!!

  • Larry l

    Not a bad article at all, but you showed your self do be quite petty and amateur in the name calling of piers morgan? Why because he is British? Because he is trying to make changes?, hell nothing has been done since these shootings began, why not voice for change?

  • JS17

    This is thoughtful and I appreciate your humility. I think for the most part you are correct. We are a gun culture (I happen to think disease probably had more of an influence over out “success” against Native Americans, but that’s a different topic). But that’s not the whole of it.

    The reality is this isn’t about the 2nd amendment, which I think you got close to. If that were the issue then we Americans would be able to carry around bazookas– I haven’t heard even the craziest gun nut offer that yet. Then the discussion we are having must actually be where the lines are that achieve an acceptable balance between common safety and personal freedom.

    Those who are happy with the status quo now feel the balance has been reached with semiautomatics and megaclips being OK, with an occasional mass murder being an acceptable trade-off for that freedom. The other side (which I’ll admit includes me) looks at Newtown, Aurora, etc. and see ample evidence the line has been breached, and the policy is a failure (I don’t want to consider the event it would take to change the minds of those on the other side, if not this latest one massacre). I offer this as a hunter, and owner of a hunting rifle (non semiautomatic).

    It is also true that banning/buying back these guns would be only moderately successful, at least in the beginning. Eventually by the time my sons reach adulthood (first grade and younger now) though, it is likely through attrition of weapons lost to crime and entropy things would likely become safer.

    There is the strong sense we must do something, if only as proof that we care, that the loss of their lives created an imbalance that we need to adjust to. If we can’t do that then we are forced to consider that our own lives, and those that we love, would be equally insignificant.

    Ultimately it comes down to selfishness; as a nation we haven’t had to adjust to much. We inherited a land mostly ripe for our picking, with the full advantages of Western technologies and culture. We don’t want to adjust to climate change; we don’t want to address the stratospheric fiscal inequities in our culture; we don’t want to pay taxes; we want big cars that hog the road, and of course we don’t want to give up our favorite dangerous toys just because they are a danger to others. While there are, as you pointed out, good outcomes that result from our exceptionalism, this everyday selfishness is among the worst.

  • Daniel Maris

    My observations:

    1. Much of America is an extremely boring place: small town, small minded.

    2. All that meritocratic striving takes its toll on the more fragile members of society and in America revenge on society is only a shot away.

    3. Similar mass shootings have happened elsewhere, where firearms are legally readily available.

    • theocritus

      Actually America was once more meritocratic than it is now: political correctness has dulled the edge of the meritocracy. When it was more robust, we heard a good deal less about “taxing the rich” and “fair share” and more like, “That’s a great car and I want one like that.” Not, “You shouldn’t have one if I can’t.” I’m serious. When I was growing up, we didn’t hear demands, at least in Texas, for confiscatory taxation, rather demands for a less intrusive and cheaper government. We were told to get up, work, and try, and we’d have it too. Lots of us did so and got it too.

      Progressivism has banged the drum of class warfare for decades and we have at least one generation which feels entirely helpless, told by government that it is helpless, and I do not know of a better recipe for anger and resentment. Notice that the entire tenor of the progressive movement is to tell people that they’re helpless. They’re enslaved and resentful, and angry.

      It is no accident that most of these nuts are on the far left, the natural provence for people who feel anomie, the wholesale stock-in-trade of the left. The nut in Tucson was not terribly political but loathed W., and the Unabomber’s manifesto looks like a galley proof for one of Al Gore’s books.

      • Crissa

        I’ll grant you that America is less meritocratic than the 50s. For white people.

        But blaming ‘political correctness’ shows how out of touch you are. If you require the deliberate exclusion of entire groups of people by their color or sex or religion or whatever protected class, you aren’t truly meritocratic.

        • theocritus

          Your last sentence is quite correct and I would never suggest otherwise. Without question some people were barred by unimportant things. For example, I’m gay and that would have been very limiting even a decade ago.

          However, Thomas Sowell, a black economist, has done research into how much use force is. For plantation labor, you can use enough force. But for skilled labor, no. Pearl divers, for example, were paid, although technically enslaved blacks, because of their merit. The slavery was wrong. But there was meritocracy in it.

          Walter Williams, also a black economist, said that in the 30s single professional women made MORE than equivalent men. Whether or not that was owing to the drive it took to blaze a path in that time, I do not know. I suspect so. But still, it was meritocratic.

          Now the U. S. District Court of Appeals serving Texas, Louisiana and a few other states ruled that reverse discrimination, i.e., affirmative action, is illegal in admissions. And UT Law thumbed their nose at the court and went ahead. UT Law and preferences, one. The constitutional court, zero. No meritocracy there.

          A friend, graduate of Harvard Law, told me in the 80s that tests were not signed but numbered; some students would sneak in phrases like, “…as a XXX student, I…” and the XXX was a grievance group. Naked attempt against meritocracy in students in the most powerful and influential law school on earth.

          Now think of this. If you were to choose a doctor based on no more information than a police line-up, whom would you choose? I would choose an old black woman or a young white, straight man. The idea being that the old black woman must have been one HELL of a gal to get into medical school both black and female, and now I know that in some years medical schools decide, “this is the year of the older student, this is the year of the xxx student.” I have anecdotal evidence of this.

          I’d suggest that although there was without question horrible discrimination, it was in its own way still more meritocratic than it is now.

  • JKP


    Quite incorrect that “machine guns are banned” for ownership by private citizens in the USA.

    A federal law was enacted in 1986 that banned the sale of new fully automatic weapons to private citizens manufactured after that date.

    Fully automatic weapons that were legally circulating prior to that date may continue to be owned, bought, and sold. It requires a sign-off from the chief law enforcement officer of the local community and the purchase of a tax stamp from the federal government.

    (Some individual states may have banned the possession of such weapons, but there is no such blanket ban in the country.)

    The apposite statute is discussed here:

    • Crissa

      The point stands that it was written in such a way that some are banned, and that the 2nd Amendment existing didn’t strike it down.

  • CraigStrachan

    On “Black Friday” (the big shopping day after Thanksgiving) in 2008 I went with my elderly mother and then 7-year-old daughter to do some Christmas shopping at a Toys ‘r Us in Palm Desert, California. While in line at the checkout an altercation broke out behind us. Someone screamed “he’s got a gun”, and gunshots duly ensued. I pushed my mother and daughter down behind a display case and draped myself on top of them. From this position I watched as two young Latino men in gang-like attire (baggy jeans, white t-shirts, buzz cuts) dodged through the aisles, trading shots at each other from automatic handguns.
    When they were out of sight, and during what seemed to be a break in the gunfire, I hauled my family members up and bundled them out the rear of the store.
    It turned out that the two gunmen had shot and killed each other. (I would have thought that was quite a hard thing to accomplish, but it was also probably the best possible outcome once the guns had come out. No one else was hurt, and a potential hostage situation was averted.)
    The two young men did turn out to be gang members who had a previous beef, and who had been out Christmas shopping with their girlfriends and kids. And kids. Evidently, the girlfriends were the ones who started the argument that ended so badly.
    It is certainly disturbing to me that people would carry guns while on a family Christmas shopping expedition. But it is also very clear that no restrictions on gun ownership, however tight, would have prevented these two idiots from carrying on this occasion.

    • Crissa

      …And it also proved that gunmen were willing to shoot other gunmen. What’s your point, exactly?

      No guns were used in stopping them, either, since they both disabled each other in your story.

      And gun regulation could have prevented them from being armed – guns don’t just materialize, fully formed into a young man’s hand when he decides to be a criminal.

      • CraigStrachan

        Guns were used in stopping them – their guns. They shot each other dead.

        Gun regulation that starts now, with more than 200 million guns in circulation in the U.S., has zero chance of preventing criminals from accessing guns, and is near-certain to make criminals of law-abiding gun owners.

  • Burton Francis

    As an American, I have to say I find your analysis of our culture to be seriously misinformed and based more on innuendo and sensation than facts and reality. The very thing you had hoped to avoid, citing Amis, was a kind of well-written but ultimately self-indulgent commentary masquerading as some kind of profundity, and yet, to my mind, that’s all that you’ve really achieved here, despite your good intentions. The fact is, there are common sense solutions to a lot of these problems which can include promoting responsible gun ownership. (No one disputes that we’re not going to make 100 million guns disappear tomorrow.) Your mystification of the “American experience” only obscures those kinds of solutions, and you seem to have not really thought any of them through. In one sentence, you seem to advocate for gun control, in the next, it seems you reverse your position. Perhaps, because you’re writing for a British audience, that line of inquiry makes more sense, but to an American (just one of many) reading this, it seems a woefully inadequate take.

    First off, your analysis of the second amendment is just factually incorrect. At the time of its writing, the purpose of the amendment was to allow the government to be able to call up an army post-revolution should we be drawn into armed conflict. As the fight during the revolution had been carried out by each individual state working in congress with one another, the federal government did not have a standing army in the aftermath of the revolution, and as a result, needed to be sure that members of each individual state militia would be armed should they be called to action suddenly. That’s why, you know, they put all that stuff about “a well-regulated militia” in there? At that time, there was no difference between a military-grade gun and a gun that one would have in one’s home, so the amendment did not account for that.

    The notion that the second amendment protects the individuals right to own firearms began to take hold in the second half of the 20th century, and was most vociferously advanced first by the black panthers, who sought protection against what they saw as corrupt and racist authorities who were murdering them in their homes. (See: Fred Hampton.) Chief Justice Burger, appointed by Nixon, who has always been thought of as a staunch conservative, strict constructionist Justice, said of the notion that the second amendment protects an individual right to private firearm ownership: It is “one of the greatest pieces of ‘fraud’–I repeat the word ‘fraud’–on the American public by special interest groups that I have seen in my lifetime,” and that, “the second amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to have firearms at all.” Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article covers a great deal of this, but it’s all been written about elsewhere:

    It is not “settled law,” as you claim, just because Justice Scalia thinks he was able to glean some kind of special insight into the mind of the framers, as he did in his idiotic opinion in DC v. Heller. Plessy v. Ferguson was settled law for years and now we thankfully live in a world without institutionalized segregation. The fact is, the law responds to the times, and even the most hard-line constitutional originalist has to admit that, as Scalia has by admitting that even though his philosophy would have dictated he vote for school segregation, he would like to have thought he would have voted with the majority in Brown v. Board of Ed. What’s “settled law” today is the stain on our history 10, 20, 50 years later.

    But, the reality is that, as you rightly note, individual ownership of guns is very much a part of American history. Again, I don’t think our culture will change over night, but even gun control advocates and most gun owners can find common ground on reasonable solutions for reducing violence, both of the mass shooting and more straightforward handgun-crime variety. The issue, ultimately, to my mind, is that we’ve lost the notion that gun ownership, even if understood as a right, must also be a privilege that comes with great responsibility. For years, the NRA backed reasonable gun laws, particularly in light of national tragedies, such as the spate of high-profile political assassinations in the 60’s. Only since the 80’s has the NRA become a corporate lobbying organization on behalf of gun manufacturers that opposes most, if not all, reasonable restrictions on gun ownership. You again rightly notice that the rank and file of the NRA are generally more supportive of things like forcing gun owners to obtain local licenses and limiting magazine capacity and banning modifying guns to be semi-automatic than the leadership, particularly that of the cretinous Wayne LaPierre, of whom my repugnance is indescribable. (It should be noted that the assault weapons ban, while good-intentioned, does not cover a good number of varieties of these semi-automatic weapons, and also obscures the fact that assault weaponry is already illegal in many states.)

    To be blunt, owning or selling ammunition magazines that fire upwards of thirty bullets at a rate faster than a bullet a second is irresponsible. These clips are completely unnecessary for all of the activities gun owners say the own their guns for (self-defense, hunting, sport shooting). (Thankfully, many of the larger magazines routinely jam, often saving lives.) As anyone who’s received even basic firearms training will tell you ( I can’t tell if you’ve had any), it is much more difficult to hit multiple, moving targets with a handgun that reloads one bullet a time than with a gun that fires multiple bullets without having to reload each one individually, allowing the shooter to spray gunfire rather than focus on specific targets. Just because a common sense solution, like banning high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic guns, would not forever erase deranged killers from our earth, does not mean we should aid and abet them in their quests to proffer mass death. And using a vague appeal to freedom, without any sense of gravity, as a justification to access such deadly weaponry is indeed also irresponsible.

    Treating guns as fetish objects on par with other trivial material goods is irresponsible. (From an NYT article on the kind of gun used in Newtown: “‘The average person can change stocks, they can put lasers on them, they can put locks on them,’ said Tony Dee, the chief gunsmith at the Gun Store in Las Vegas. ‘It’s just endless. It’s like building a custom car, you can accessorize it to your own personal taste.’ Mr. Dee said his wife owned a pink, chrome-plated AR-15. ‘It’s blinged out pretty good.'”) Selling hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of ammunition over the internet, where a lack of legal clarity has bred a sense of lawlessness, is irresponsible. (Anders Breivik bought $550 dollars worth of ammunition for his horrifying attack in Finland from the US, and our lax laws made that possible.) And though I was saddened to hear of her death, the information coming out suggests that it was irresponsible for Nancy Lanza to give her clearly troubled son firearms training and apparently easy access to semi-automatic weaponry and a cache of ammunition

    Claiming, as so many do, that because the loss of life in these instances constitutes a small fraction of the ways in which these guns are used that somehow that loss of life should be acceptable to us is not responsible. These events affect us both in terms of body counts and in terms of our national psyche. The September 11th attacks killed less than half of the people that are killed in gun violence every year, and yet we basically have to get strip-searched every time we go to the airport. Why do we treat gun violence with such indifference as compared to terrorism? A guy tried to blow up his shoes in a plot that was clearly never going to work, and all of us take our shoes off still, years later. We outlaw fireworks, but not machine guns.

    The most frustrating thing for a gun control advocate like myself is the sense that because both Democrats and Republicans own guns that means that the rest of us who oppose gun ownership or who would like to see more restrictions enacted somehow don’t count. The notion that the US is a “gun culture” is a lazy analysis and exactly the kind of political statement gun lobby organizations make in support of the most extreme parts of their agenda. They say it is an issue of freedom. But what about the freedom of those of us who don’t like guns, don’t want guns, and don’t want to live in a gun-saturated culture to live our lives as we see fit?

    I know that you have here written well-intentioned commentary on the peculiar relationship of Americans and guns. I appreciate that you are trying to grapple, as so many of us are, with these horrifying events. But I think that your take makes the American story far too mysterious. The fact is, we have dumb gun laws, and the segment of people who support them as opposed to reasonable restrictions has become a very loud and very obnoxious part of our political discourse. The laxness of those laws (and the incompetence of our mental healthcare system) has led to these tragedies being carried out again and again for no reason. Most other countries have taken reasonable steps in response to instances like this, and as a result have seen a drop in gun crime and an almost total absence of mass shootings. As our gun laws, particularly relating to heavy weaponry, have become more lax, these particular kinds of random killing have become more prevalent. Mass shootings, defined broadly to include robberies and gang-related killings, have remained steady. However, mass killings of the Columbine, VTech, Newtown variety have occurred at a rate of two per year since 1982, but there have been 25 since 2006 and seven this year alone. We were saved, by the shooter in Clackamas’ gun jamming, from having two in the same week this last week, although two innocent people still lost their lives.

    So, while I appreciate your attempt to wade through this murky muck, I feel you that you didn’t really get anywhere by the end. Perhaps the western is America’s “greatest genre” but the films, and books, and television that depict it are fiction and we have civilized ourselves. Thank god, because that way of life was nasty, brutal, and horrifying. Most of us don’t want to live that way anymore and while the legends may still hold sway, there’s a huge number of us who are unpersuaded by such silly arguments and who understand those ways of life are of a different time and place.

    Less than half of American households have a gun in them, and yet we are to be forever thought of as people who don’t care about gun crime or mass death. Just because our politicians are cowards doesn’t mean we all are. It’s just that some of us want guns, and a sub-section of those people are obsessed with guns and having any kind of gun they want regardless of their fellow citizens feelings about the danger those instruments of death represent to their community. And that sub-section all too often drives the debate. We can talk about responsible gun ownership, and we will have to in the coming days. But there is no reason that we should simply shrug our shoulders and say that’s just the way Americans are. We aren’t all so childish and pig-headed, and I hope I’m the first of many to change your mind.

    • Brian Murphy

      Burton Francis speaks for us, the silent majority. Hopefully, this tragedy is the game-changer that makes us silent no more. Thank you for saying what America needs to hear, Burton.

    • Me

      I agree with Brian Murphy. Thanks for , because I could not figure out where the author was trying to go.

    • Nicola Castleman

      Great article Burton.

    • Jelena

      This is fantastic. Completely agree with this response. Really well done, Burton.

    • Peter Haydon

      A very thoughtful reply, but like Massie’s post by the end it doesn’t really get anywhere. Because there is nowhere to get to?

    • RaymondSwenson

      Breivik was in Norway, not Finland. He started his attack using a BOMB not a.gun. It is impossible to ban the ingredients for bombs or Molotov cocktails. The attack on the Oklahoma City Federal building used a bomb made with fertilizer and gasoline. Total bans on gun ownership in cities like Washington DC were ludicrous in their total ineffectiveness to prevent gun crimes. All they did was reassure gun criminals that no law abiding citizen would shoot back. In the public milieu, there are going to be unifirmed poluce, off duty poluce carrying guns, plainclothes detectives, and armed security guards and bodyguards. Attacking a general crowd is liable to get an armed response. So killers seek out safer venues for themselves. An establishment that claims to be gin free but does not enforce that rule against violators is just inviting criminals.

      • Burton Francis

        You’re right about Breivik. It was a mental lapse, my apologies. I appreciate the reply.

    • GirondistNYC

      Good post, and it avoids some of the traps gun-control advocates usually step into. I would note, however, that one of the problems in the debate is the NRA has done a remarkably good job of bringing together widely disparate factions of gun owners and convinced them a threat to one is a threat to all, and the disconnection of many anti-gun activists mean they don’t even acknowledge the various strains within the culture.

      30 round magazines are concedely useless for deer and elk hunting, but that’s not the only type of hunting there is. Landowners in the West have to deal with a variety of destructive vermin and hunt them with regularity as part of good land management. An Ar-15 with a 30 round magazine is pretty effective for hunting, say, prairie dogs (the alternative is poison, which has problems for predators and livestock). Similarly target shooters tend to quite like larger capacity magazines and some business owners (perhaps unwisely) like the intimitadition factor inherent in military look rifles with extended mags. I think it is an excellent idea to ban them regardless, but it would help greatly if the concerns of sub-categories of gun owners were addressed in the debate.

      The real power of the NRA stems from its amazingly effective propaganda that has united a widely diverse universe of gun owners behind a maximalist position. If anti-gun activists made an effort to understand the other side they would be surprised methinks at how much common ground can be found

    • iarnuocon

      Meh. Sorry, Burton, but your response shows such a breathtaking display of ignorance regarding guns in general and the 2nd Amendment in particular that even though I’m tempted to believe we might have some common ground with respect to “sensible gun laws”, I’m disinclined to believe it. It simply isn’t possible for someone so ignorant of the reality of guns or of the history of the 2nd Amendment to, while in that state of ignorance, formulate “sensible” laws with regard to the topic.

      Alex is absolutely correct– the 2nd Amendment protects the right of the individual to own firearms. This comes as no shock, as common law protected that right well in advance of the Constitution having been written. But setting that inconvenient fact aside for a moment, the predictable gun-control advocate’s reference to the term “militia” in the 2nd Amendment as the imperative purpose behind the amendment is the first bright searchlight illuminating your failure (or rather disinterest?) in understanding the history of firearms in America.

      Start with the operative clause of the 2nd Amendment: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”. Whose right? That of the people, not of the militia, not of the state, not of the government. In every other amendment in which the phrase “the people” is used, the right being protected is an individual right. Thus, it follows that the right being protected in the 2nd Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms, is an individual right. It makes no substantive difference that the hoped for condition which would be fostered by the amendment– the availability of a “well-regulated Militia”– is mentioned in the Amendment, as the mention is not couched as a precondition for the presence of the right.

      Proceed to your convenient argument that the intent was to provide the potential for the states to call up “the militia” in the absence of a standing army. While turning on a peculiar failure to understand the difference between the general militia and a select militia, your story gets it entirely backward. It was precisely because of distrust of a standing military that states retained select militias. And the well-known situation at the start of the Revolutionary war in which the general militia was so abysmally trained to arms when called upon to form the select militia was what prompted the mention of the Militia in the 2nd Amendment. That, and the knowledge, fresh in the minds of colonists, that a military could, if the right were not protected, disarm a populace and force them into subjugation. They had the example of the British disarmament of Boston as an indelible example fresh in mind.

      So the issue was certainly less the notion that individual states would have to protect themselves, and more the notion that the populace (the Militia– i.e., the general militia, the body of the populace of an age to be called to the defense of the nation or state or locality) should not be disarmed, and would hopefully have some familiarity with arms (which is what was meant by the phrase “well-regulated”– i.e., well-trained).

      For these reasons– common law notions of self-defense, the need for a citizenry who understand the handling of firearms, the distrust of government without the ability of the people to enforce their will against possible tyranny– that the 2nd Amendment protects the right of individuals to own firearms, as a matter of settled law. And likely the only reason why you think Scalia’s decision in Heller was “idiotic” is because you, as Alex presciently pointed out in his article in a general sense, think that “were more like me and shared my preferences (which are not, you understand, prejudices) then matters everywhere would be [more intelligently] arranged”. But your prejudice does not make Scalia’s reasoning in Heller “idiotic”. Or, for that matter, a “stain on our history”.

      Top that by your peculiar notion that a “right” is nothing more than a “privilege” granted by either the government or society. That particular notion is not only odious, but well deserves your own label as “idiotic”. Rights are not “privileges”, nor should they be. You seem to have completely missed Alex’s reasoning as to why, in your zeal to suggest that “reasonable” people should agree with you. If it were easy for you to suspend or infringe upon rights you find distasteful it might be equally easy for others to deny you rights you prize most dearly. While it is certainly the case that the government, when it can show compelling reason, has the obligation to place boundaries upon rights for the purpose of balancing the conflicting tension between the right of the individual to be left alone and the right of the citizens en masse to a civil society, it has long been a matter of settled law that in doing so the government must do so clearly and with the minimum necessary infringement upon a right which accomplishes its aim. It doesn’t follow that local licensing, banning of magazines of an arbitrary capacity, or the elimination of privately owned semi-automatic remotely adheres to that standard, nor that such measure are “reasonable”, nor that they would in any sense be effective. And you haven’t demonstrated these things so much as simply assumed them, which is precisely the reason why reasonable people cannot agree regarding them.

      Your arbitrary standards, again, highlight the reason why your opinion on the topic, while perhaps popular, shouldn’t be taken as the reasonable position. You object to weapons which fire as quickly as one bullet per second. I assume your intent is to eliminate semi-automatics (for whatever unstated reason), but the limitation would impact revolvers as much as semi-autos. It treads perilously close to requiring a limitation on bolt-action long-guns, as well. Nor does it follow that high capacity magazines serve no legitimate purpose. As an example, exactly how many bullets are “necessary” for self defense? I’m reminded of Bill Gates’ early admonition (perhaps apocryphal) that no one should have need of a computer with more than 640k of RAM. How much is “enough” is obviously a function of the situation in which one finds oneself. That you cannot imagine a situation in which you might need more than ten bullets, or five, or one, is nothing more than a failure of your imagination, not a suggestion that there is no legitimate reason for owning a weapon capable of holding more than whatever arbitrary number of rounds is acceptable to you.

      Anyone who has received even basic firearms training will tell you that depending on a gun which requires you to load one bullet at a time is a sure way to get killed if you ever need it for self-defense.

      But I think, just from what you present as “reasonable” restrictions, that we can all agree you find the concept of armed self-defense itself objectionable, so that drawback to your “solution” probably doesn’t occur to you as a problem. Since we’re talking about irresponsibility, allow me to point out that your opinion on this particular point is a quintessential example of irresponsibility, both in the sense that some idiot out there might agree with you, and thus make more likely the possibility that individuals who take their own safety into their own hands will be denied effective means to protect themselves from harm, and also in the sense that you’re counseling us all to leave our own safety in the hands of whomever YOU feel best qualified to “protect” us– presumably the police, whose response time nationally runs at or above ten minutes: exactly the people I want to be forced to rely on when seconds may count.

      So, thank you, but no.

      And, of course, there’s the irrelevant observation that guns are treated as “fetish objects”. And? What you see as “fetishistic” reveals a total ignorance of firearms. Why would anyone customize a stock on a rifle? Anyone who has ever used one could give you a list of reasons– customizing the weapon to better fit the primary user, improving the comfort with which the rifle can be fired, reducing the amount of space required for storing the weapon– these all jump immediately to mind. But then, I’ve fired a rifle, both bolt action and semi-auto, so maybe I’m a little more familiar with them than you are. Why would anyone want a laser sight, or to alter the sights of any weapon in any way? Assuming preference isn’t enough (and I don’t), consideration of the potential uses to which a firearm might be put is a fine reason. If you expect to use the weapon for self defense, a laser sight isn’t a bad choice, especially at night. If you plan on hunting, a scope is a fine addition over iron sights, unless you’re Daniel Boone, of course. And locks? That’s a choice people make with regard to safety, securing their firearms from unauthorized users. Why you should consider that fetishistic is beyond me, but then you don’t seem to have considered very seriously the gun as an tool.

      And God forefend anyone purchase ammunition, right? Why would anyone (in a market which sees prices going ever upward) want to purchase large amounts? The lack of seriousness with which you’ve implied the question is precisely the lack of seriousness with which your suggestions should be taken.

      We have been putting into place restrictions on gun ownership since the mid 1930s, and have we seen gun violence drop as a result? We have not. By what tortuous path do you reason that the problem is that we lack enough laws to address gun violence? By what willful sweeping-under-the-rug do you conclude that the more effective path to reducing gun violence further criminalization of certain types of gun ownership, rather than specifically addressing the root causes of violence? Because it’s convenient? Folks such as yourself always tend to focus on tragic incidents such as this one to declaim that the public should effectively be disarmed, without any regard to whether the estimated 1-4 million defensive uses of handguns actually result in a net savings of lives.

      You seem to believe that gun restrictions equate to a lack of gun deaths, internationally, but this is clearly not true. For instance, South Africa employs many of the restrictions you claim will limit firearm homicides: licensing, inspection of the owners premises, competency tests, comprehensive background checks. Their rate of firearm homicides is more than seven times that of the United States. Mexico strictly regulates firearm ownership, Its gun homicide rate is triple that of the US. Northern Ireland banned all handguns. Their gun-related murder rate is roughly 50% higher than that of the US. Britain, prior to outlawing handgun ownership, enjoyed one-fifth the murder rate that the United States had. After the elimination of handguns, that murder rate remains one fifth that of the United States. People like you find the lower murder rates of some countries that have gun control convincing of the efficacy of gun control, when the unfortunate truth is that there are cultural difference in the levels of violence which suggest gun control has nothing to do with their lower rates of homicide. And that, whether you agree with it or not, is indicative that Alex is on the right track regarding gun violence in America. It’s a cultural issue, and until we deal with the underlying aspects of our culture which increase the likelihood of criminal violence, you can pass whatever ill-considered laws you like without impacting our rates of homicide significantly, much less limiting acts of mass violence such as this one.

      It’s not that your opinion should be discounted because both Democrats and Republicans own guns. It should be discounted because you so clearly fail to grasp the most basic rebuttals to your opinion. We can talk about sensible gun control, but not while the “reasonable” position is rooted in a frank ignorance of the arguments and realities acknowledged by those of us who don’t agree with you.

      • Burton Francis

        I appreciate the response, but I think it makes a few assumptions about me and avoids a few of the central points I was making. The post, by Mr. Massie, that I was responding to, was more about how American culture has evolved to the point that it has, in regards to the issue of guns. In it, I felt he made some assumptions about Americans en masse that were unfair, and swept a great deal of us under the rug, as you might say. I hoped to give voice to some of the frustrations of those of us who, as I said, don’t want guns, don’t like guns, and don’t want to live in a gun-saturated-culture.

        A few points:

        1) I am not against the ownership of firearms for the purposes of self-defense as a matter of policy, although I would indeed prefer to live in a society where such action was not necessary, and I am not afraid to admit that. I don’t believe that the response to gun crime or mass shootings can simply be more guns, just as you claim it cannot simply be less guns. But I understand the concerns of many as to their own self-defense, although I continue to believe that there is a better path to more safety in our communities. And, as I admitted, a realist must contend with the fact of gun ownership in the US, and not with the fantasy that he wishes it was. I am, strenuously, trying to do so.

        2) Each country is peculiar in its relationship to guns, of course. There are countries with strict gun control with very high rates of gun crime and murder. In addition to the countries you cited, I would include Brazil. I am not ignorant of these arguments, and your unfortunate assumption as such reveals, I believe, some of the very same ignorance of “the other side” you accuse me of. My point was that, in fact, these issues are complex, and it often feels that the gun lobby oversimplifies them by making vague appeals to freedom and the 2nd amendment. Certainly some gun control advocates are guilty of the same oversimplification, and I am hoping to avoid it. Regardless of my success in that regard, I hope that reasonable people like yourself and myself (yes, I think you’re reasonable, despite what you may assume) can open up a dialogue where gun owners can feel their rights are being protected while at the same time people who are uncomfortable with widespread gun ownership can feel that they are free to walk without fear. Your freedom to own weaponry cannot always and forever trample my freedom to feel secure. No fair society can function that way. And claiming that I must also arm myself is, I believe, an insufficient response. To be fair, you didn’t claim this, but it is the position many of us feel is implicit in the arguments of gun ownership supporters.

        3) No doubt a right is not a privilege, at least in a political/philosophical sense. Setting aside our disagreement about the 2nd Amendment, you and I both agree that gun ownership is a part of American life. My point was that, culturally, it seems that many of the gun ownership advocates I’ve seen speaking publicly seemed to have lost the notion that gun ownership comes with great responsibility. The historical NRA always emphasized such kind of responsible ownership until the last 25-30 years when they became obsessed with defending what they see as a right, seemingly at the expense of promoting what I and many others see as responsible firearm ownership. I was not trying to claim that a right is a privilege, but rather that one can retain a right while at the same time understanding the privilege and responsibility it comes with. As an American, I have rights, but I believe I was privileged to be born here. We retain the right to free speech, but most of understand in our daily lives that the words we speak have consequences and we choose them carefully, even though words are incapable of killing. I don’t doubt that many gun owners approach the issue of firearm ownership this way, but I frankly don’t see their voices represented in our public conversation, where I see too much of the “pry…from my cold, dead hands” crowd, who ratchet up the emotional level surrounding this debate and make gun control advocates feel like every NRA member is a wannabe Charles Bronson.

        5) As to rebutting my claim about guns being fetish objects, I think it’s pretty obvious that you entirely missed my point. I’m sure that changing stocks, and adding lasers or locks can be legitimate gun alterations, although I do wonder at what point they become more a reaction to paranoid fantasy than legitimate danger. I have fired guns in my life, but you clearly have more knowledge in this area than I do. I don’t think that every gun owner has an irrational or childish obsession with guns, and I tried to make clear that I believe most gun owners are responsible. But I think it obvious that the section of the quote I was objecting to was the gun salesman’s comparison of guns to custom cars, and his description of his wife’s pink, chrome-plated rifle as “blinged out pretty good,” which is why, I imagine, you left those words out of your response. It would be unfair to use the words of one gun owner like this man to tar all gun owners (just as it is unfair to use the actions of one deranged gunman to make assumptions about the millions of gun owners who responsibly own guns). But surely he is not alone and the attitude his comments seem to reveal is, frankly, scary to those of us who are uncomfortable with weaponry like the AR-15 being freely available to the public.

        6) Following that, I think your broad claim about culture is correct, and must also be a part of this conversation. But, I don’t see why you stop short there when you’ve demonstrated yourself to be capable of such insight. How does our culture and not our laws “increase the likelihood of criminal violence?” How would you suggest we deal with what you see as this cultural trend? I think you can see that some of the cultural objections you make are also made by those of us on “the other side.” The gun salesman I quoted is an example of the kind of thinking that those of us on the other side would like to see repudiated by “your side.” And it often feels to those of us who would like to see more gun control that claims about “changing our culture” are made to avoid having to think through changing our laws. You say, “we can talk about sensible gun control,” but I didn’t see you make one specific proposition in that direction, beyond “changing our culture” in a broad sense, which, while worthwhile, will take precious time that we don’t have and will not solve many of the concrete problems we face. For example, a mental health registry for the purposes of information sharing as it relates to guns has been partially implemented. The VTech shooter, notably, should have been on that list and therefore barred from buying guns, but the system has, even to this day, yet to be fully set up. That is a concrete problem that has a concrete solution, and is not simply a matter of “changing our culture.” You say there are steps we could take, but I don’t know what you believe they should be. Should you have any prescriptions, I’d be interested to hear them.

        I’m disappointed my response inspired a “meh” from you, but I hope I’ve at least convinced you that I believe your argument to be worth discussing, in the hope that people like us can come to some sort of understanding, and we can dissipate some of the mistrust that has been bred between us by political forces. The post I was responding to painted Americans with a broad brush. Surely, Mr. Massie’s attempt was made in good faith, but I hoped to illuminate that a very sizeable number of us don’t hold the positions you do, and often find it frustrating that it feels like we are forced to be a part of a culture that won’t acknowledge our views, and live in a society where we feel powerless. I think that we also have the right to live our lives as we see fit, and I hope that we can find common ground. I have no interest in denigrating responsible gun owners, but I am interested in bringing an end to these kinds of tragedies which are affecting us with increasing frequency, in addition to changing the way we talk about gun ownership.

        To that end, I think you have frankly offered no help, beyond a defense of yourself and others not to be forced to be made responsible for the actions of one deranged individual. Certainly you are not solely responsible. In some sense, we all are, for allowing our laws and culture to perpetuate this violence. In the same way, we are all responsible for finding ways to avoid these incidents. Mr. Massie said Newtown was a particularly American tragedy. I believe he’s right, and I’m embarrassed by that sentiment, as all responsible gun owners should also be. But, I don’t think an arms race with madmen and criminals is the solution. You may have other ideas, but I’ve yet to hear them. We will continue to disagree about many of the bedrock principles of each other’s arguments, but that doesn’t mean we must forever live in a gridlocked society that cannot have an adult conversation about taking steps toward solving these problems.

        • iarnuocon

          I have to question whether you’re simply being disengenuous. I would applaud your willingness to “start a dialogue” (although I think this dialogue started many, many years ago) but for your strategy of misinforming and insulting those with whom you’d seemingly wish to discuss the issue. Suggesting that anyone owning a semi-automatic or high capacity magazine is “irresponsible”, and calling their opinion regarding the individual right to bear arms a “stain on history” (among other things) seems more a strategy for closing dialogues than for opening them.

          Thus, if I’ve made assumptions about you, I think they’re driven by what you chose to write, nothing more, nothing less.

          In the interests of brevity, I’ll get right to addressing your numbered points.

          1) Glad to hear it, as this gives us common ground. Neither of us wishes to see more violence in this country, and both of us believe there are better paths to improving safety in our communities.

          2 & 3) I think the very real flaw in your position, here, is that your “feeling of security” is not a right and cannot be exercised without directly curtailing my freedom. My right to choose to arm myself for protection has no bearing on you unless you directly threaten me. There are laws firmly in place precisely to punish me for violating your rights at the barrel of a gun. You would, however, in pressing your “right” to an arbitrary “feeling of security”, directly interfere with me, making a judgment for me as to what constitutes my legitimate concerns. Nor could you say that your own particular level of “comfort” with respect to the risks inherent in society represent the most reasonable level of concern– others might not feel secure without even more draconian restrictions on my or your choices. When we begin curtailing the rights of others in order to meet our own preferences, we simply eradicate the notion of rights– my decision to own a firearm is curtailed to your preference for an illusion of safety, your practice of religion is curtailed to accommodate my preference for secular reason, both our rights to speak are curtailed to accommodate some third individual’s preference regarding what forms “acceptable” opinion, et cetera, et cetera. Whether or not a right becomes limited by government has to hinge on something other than preference.

          I have to laugh at your portrayal of the NRA. Yes, prior to widespread efforts to ban guns, the NRA focused on responsible ownership. They still do, to some degree. But it should come as no shock that in response to efforts to dismantle the 2nd Amendment and disarm the American public, their response has been to shift toward defending the right. It’s no coincidence that this shift you see came at precisely the same time as vocal minorities formed to try to eliminate that right. I’d suggest you stop trying to put the cart before the horse.

          I won’t quibble with you over your choice of the word “privilege”. If we agree that rights are not privileges, then there’s nothing more to be said regarding the substitution of the one term for the other. There are, without a doubt, individuals who fail to realize the obligations which come with all rights, including the right to free speech. You claim not to see the voices of the many gun owners who approach ownership with a serious understanding of the obligations that ownership imposes upon them with regard to their use of firearms, but simultaneously acknowledge that you don’t doubt that many of them approach firearms with this understanding. If true, then you’re holding all gun owners to the standards of the least respectful of them, rather than to the mean or median. I would submit that if you don’t hear their voices in this debate, it’s because you aren’t listening carefully enough, but irrespective of that, the simple fact that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who do nothing to risk the lives of their neighbors and are never involved in criminal acts should be suggestive that, in fact, the majority of them do take gun ownership with a degree of seriousness regarding their obligation to their fellow citizens. There isn’t a single acquaintance of mine holding a CCW who entered into that decision lightly. I don’t know a single gun owner that I’m aware of who thinks his firearm is little more than a toy, and employs it with reckless disregard for his fellow human beings. I believe that those people exist, and I also believe that they’re in the minority.

          Do the “pry from my cold dead hands” crowd make you feel every NRA member ( a distinct subset of all gun owners) is a wannabe Charles Bronson? It should come as no surprise then that most gun owners, viewing the ban guns/ban bullets/ hold hands and sing Kumbaya crowd makes most gun owners feel that all gun control advocates are gun-grabbing idiots. The cure to that dynamic certainly isn’t to make bad arguments about the 2nd Amendment, nor to suggest that anyone owning a semi-automatic is “irresponsible”, and in that regard, you’re more a part of the problem, at the moment, than you are the solution.

          4) There is no four.

          5) So we can agree that the customization of firearms is not, per se, a fetishization of firearms? That’s progress, of sorts. But focusing on those gun owners who decide to paint their rifles pink (or blue, or tan, or add whatever gewgaws they like, simply for the look), I have to ask, so what? I didn’t leave those out of my response because they were your point; I left them out because I saw them as completely irrelevant. And I’m at a loss as to why you would feel that those people are “scary”, any more than you would feel someone who customizes his own car is “scary”. Use “the words of one gun owner like this to tar all gun owners”? How in the world does this “tar” the man himself, much less the tens of millions of gun owners who don’t bother?

          6) Thankfully, we have yet more common ground. How does our culture increase the likeliness of criminal violence? Think about our glorification on television and in movies of violence. Think about our peculiarly American notion of rugged individualism. think about how our culture drives both sides of this particular debate– we both glorify violence and suggest that it is inevitable, daily. And while I do not in any way advocate restricting what can be shown on television or in movies, I think it is incumbent upon anyone taking part in this discussion to recognize that, yes, we partake in a culture which frames the debate in a particular way, and we have a responsibility not just to consider how it frames the debate of the “other side”, but how it impacts the formation of our own position.

          You’ve objected that I haven’t made one specific proposition in the direction of sensible gun control. Fair enough. I have multiple propositions, some directly pertaining to guns (which I think are actually the least effective at curtailing gun violence) and other directed specifically at our culture and non-gun laws:

          A) Fix the NICS system so as to include, in ALL states, individuals with certain psychiatric diagnoses– if you’ve been judged psychotic, anti-social, or a habitual substance abuser, you ought not to be able to purchase a firearm until such time as you can prove that you’ve undergone effective treatment. Currently, it isn’t the NRA that’s bucking this solution, but the mental health crowd, who rightly fear stigmatization. Those fears can be somewhat alleviated by providing for specifics (curtailing the rights of only those who pose the most risk for violence) and providing for the possibility of “recovery”.

          B) Provide public classes on the proper handling of firearms.

          C) Give the laws against straw-purchases some teeth. If you’re buying a firearm to bypass the restriction upon a third party regarding gun ownership, you do jail time. Period. If you’ve transferred ownership of a firearm to someone and that someone then commits a crime with that firearm within a relatively short period of time (say, a year), you’re charged with complicity in the crime.

          D) Allow non-FFLs to participate in the NICS system– make it easy for the so called “gun show loophole” to be voluntarily closed by private citizens in whose interest it would be to do so. We don’t need to require someone who rarely sells a personal weapon to acquire a dealer’s license or to keep records in perpetuity, but we should make it easy for them, if they recognize the need and justification, to participate in preventing firearms from falling into prohibited hands

          E) Eliminate the War on Drugs. By eliminating the black market in prohibited substances, the impetus for many criminals to go armed will drop, as will the profit motive. Legalize pot, regulate it in the same way as alcohol, and channel a portion of the proceeds toward drug treatment centers to ameliorate any predicted (but likely absent) spike in drug use. The long term effect will be the elimination of many of the illegal cartels which currently fuel some of the violence we experience in this country.

          F) Shift government expenditures toward effective social safety net programs which improve chances of the poor to make a meaningful living– education, vocational training, meal programs, et cetera, et cetera. Closing the gap between the haves and have-nots, whether through social safety-net legislation, by redistributive taxation (as in a negative income tax scheme), or simply by improving the economic health of the economic bottom half of America will do a lot toward reducing violence, and hence reducing gun violence.

          Those are just off the top of my head. Your turn– what have you got that doesn’t require treating law abiding citizens like children, or banning anything along arbitrary lines of demarcation?

      • theocritus

        Splendid. Thanks. And thanks for the facts. They can be inconvenient but any honest man will welcome them. Otherwise it’s merely a religion, i.e., a superstition.

    • theocritus

      “But what about the freedom of those of us who don’t like guns, don’t want guns, and don’t want to live in a gun-saturated culture to live our lives as we see fit?”

      It is a fact that there will be force and the most potent force generally available is guns. Before they were available people used what they had. Now we have oh jetliners used as force.

      I am a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and I hate guns. I loathe them. I don’t like anything about them. I don’t like the noise, and I don’t like the culture. Still, it gets down to a simple fact: force is what decides human events.

      Who wields the force? Who can stop it when it’s inimical? Miscreants will find ways to kill; I don’t recall Ted Kaczynski using a gun but his rein of terror was long. The gun should not be reified. I will be mocked when I quote the saw that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but it’s true.

      Granted. Let’s keep guns out of the hands of the insane. Let’s keep guns out of the hands of felons. All if we can. But our best defense against these people is an armed populace because the slightest cerebration will show that the police–those professionals trained in this–cannot be on the spot when needed nearly as fast as an armed populace.

      We must have an armed populace for it is impossible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals; criminals steal. If we cannot keep cocaine out of America (and being libertarian I don’t wish to), then why believe we can keep out guns?

      I have a visceral reaction to being disarmed, even though as I said, I loathe guns. I know no organization on earth that I would ultimately trust with my protection. As humans we have a responsibility to look out after ourselves and it is manifest that our government, which cannot even protect its own ambassador, isn’t up to the job.

      As an aside, it is slightly farcical for us to talk about gun control after Operation Fast and Furious. No, more than slightly farcical. And that’s our government, which some want to control the possession of citizens’ firearms, while it is arming criminals.

      So, it always boils down to Quis custodiet ipsos custodes. I wouldn’t trust this lot with a burnt match. Or, to validate a certain Georgetown Law student, a used condom.

  • Kevin

    This is a pretty grim conclusion but, on the balance of probabilities, it’s the safer option.

    You have obviously given this subject a lot of thought, but this grim conclusion will never be acceptable to an advocate of self-defence.

    The statistical argument misses one important fact: when it comes to our own deaths, the data are not yet in. So while the statistical likelihood of being brutally slain may be very small, if and when it does happen to someone, the chance that it was going to happen to that person is 100%.

    And that person will have deserved the right to make his or her own decision on self-defence.

    • Crissa

      You don’t get to know when you’re going to be shot and killed. You don’t get a day, an hour, or even a minute to prepare. It’s not a matter of whipping out a gun and defending yourself: That never happens.

      What does happen is otherwise well-meaning folks shoot and kill each other accidentally, through poor procedure and safety, or out of anger or pain, such as recently.

      A simple gun-safe would’ve stopped the last two spree-shooters; since they both got access to guns just lying about the house they had access to. And the NRA is against that. Justice Scalia is against that.

  • theocritus

    One problem is that in the last 50 years our civil libertarians have made it damned near impossible to lock up a ticking bomb, even if everyone knows he’s just about to explode. The madman in Arizona. The others. This happens in America but also other places: where someone is not deemed dangerous until he sins, after spilt blood.

    The least violent of our shootings was however at the Law School of the Appalachias: the reason is that those hillbillies ALL had guns and with them. Those people just aren’t concerned with law-enforcement professionalism; they’ll tend to it and they did.

    More than once a man licensed to carry a gun has pulled it on a man stabbing others with a knife. Result? No more knifer, or no more knife. Either way is fine.

    States with concealed-carry laws have reduced incidences of aggravated assault, rape and murder decline from 5 to 15%. In cities with strict gun control, it is not uncommon for burglars to break into an occupied flat and rob and possibly kill the tenants. In Texas that doesn’t happen: the burglars know the tenants have guns.

    Some states, e.g., Florida, prohibit car-rental agencies from displaying a sticker that they are hired. Muggers know that the renters don’t have a gun and so they are at greater risk. There are excellent reasons for an armed populace.

    But the most important and essential reason that Americans must have guns is so we can shoot our government agents if necessary, and we learned that from your Brits.


    A common slogan here is, “Fear the government that fears your guns.” Just so. That’s why we keep the guns.

    BTW, there was worse violence in the 20s.

    • Redneck



      Truly tragic in Newtown, sincere condolences.

    • Jorge

      The violence was worse in the 20’s because of prohibition and a culture that glorified bank robbers and men with names like “Machine Gun” Kelly.

      Also, the two Appalachian Law School students who subdued the gunman there were both off-duty cops, not civilians:

      • theocritus

        I’m not sure that it was the culture in the 20s. I’m not sure how widespread the culture was. My grandfather was born in 1902 on a covered wagon traveling to New Mexico, where he grew up in a dugout on dry-land farming. He told me of the first time he heard a radio; he told me of the time that he and the other men in the wagon yard in Portales, NM, couldn’t figure out how to turn off the first electric light they’d seen, so they put a horse blanket over it. This was not a culture which had the instantaneous transmission of images and names that we have now. Machine Gun Kelly seems to me to be a version of “History is the polemics of the victor”; we remember the soubriquet but think that everyone knew of it. That’s not the case.

        Movies then, such as they were, were regulated with, inter alia, the Hayes Code.

        Today’s violence is commercialized. Robert Heinlein’s fine novel “Starship Troopers” became a movie so violent that I cannot watch it. Yet it caused no violence.

        As far as the students at the law school. I would be gobsmacked if other students didn’t have guns, there. My brother and I went to high school in the 70s in West Texas. All boys of a certain sort–ranching, farming–would on getting a driver’s license at 16 get a pickup and the boy’s father helped him install the headache rack in the cab, for holding his rifles. The boy would have several. All boys carried knives to school.

        The boys used the rifles for hunting, which I don’t get, but for pest control, mostly rattlesnakes and coyotes who had been nobbling penned cows and killing sheep. Or killing barnyard cats. Reasonable uses of a gun.

        No one thought anything of it. The teachers would borrow a boy’s knife. There were NO incidences of gunfire; I saw one fight in four years in a public school of 1000 people. I never saw a knife pulled. And I promise you that if some nutjob had come on campus with a gun, 20 boys, aided and abetted by teachers, would have run for their pickups to get the rifles that they knew how to use. And yet again, utterly no violence in schools. I suspect that shooters knew this.

        (It’s another conversation but it’s worth noting that of the 70 to 100 kids whose families I knew, the only single parents were widowed, and not a single girl got pregnant before marriage and marriages were all after high school and in general are still going or lasted for decades.)

    • scottrose

      You make me want to puke. On you.

      • theocritus

        The scattershot accusation of being emetic has no suasion, mostly because it’s so solipsistic. I did not advance some racist mantra and can only think that I managed to damage your tender feelings, which you do not explain but expect me to respect. As I said, rank solipsism, but then I repeat myself.

    • Crissa

      None of the gun-wielders at the instance you cite were private citizens. Sure, they weren’t there in an official capacity, but they were all well-trained and carried a gun on their job.

      Even moreso, none fired a shot: They subdued the gunman with physical force and handcuffs.

      That’s vastly different than the complete fantasy by which you mean to sell.

      I hate liars like you.

      • theocritus

        Who’s the self-admitted hater now? The relentless politicization of everything by the left demands hatred of everything different.

        I did not say that you had to fire a shot to subdue someone. I did say that a gun is useful in subduing criminals. Please note that I specifically above stated that guns have been pulled to subdue others, not that a shot was fired. The threat must be there. Do you think that they could have been subdued by an earnest dissertation on say Al Gore’s “An (Utterly false) Inconvenient Truth”?

        Exhortation to the gunman’s better feelings? An analysis of his childhood? Pelting him with packing peanuts made of biodegradable cellulose?

        Here’s the good one: telling him in glutinous tones that he didn’t have enough self-esteem when he was a juvie and you’ll hug him and put it all right.

        What about having people like you dinning at 110 dB in a circle? Would that work?

        No. The threat of death or failing that, injury or death, will work infinitely better. Even better than a Siren call.

        Sorry. Not that scyntillating.

    • Moya

      the reason the appalachia shooting was “the least violent” is because TWO off-duty police officers — people who are better-trained than the average gun-owning civilian to deal with violent criminals — were able to stop him. so your contention that “those people just aren’t converned with law-enforcement professionalism; they’ll tend to it and they did” is false. it was the law enforcement professionals who “tended to it.”

      • theocritus

        Okay. Two off-duty police officers were there. Their training was good and I’ve no doubt that their leadership, honed by training, made things better.

        This has nothing to say however about my contention that we cannot rely on having trained people there; we cannot rely on having trained people currently involved in law enforcement there; my statement is nothing more than the irrefutable fact that it doesn’t make any difference to the threatened or the dead whether or not a beneficial action was done by someone credentialed. It was done. It is entirely possible that a beneficial action may be done by someone who is NOT credentialed.

        If someone is choking, do you want to wait for the paramedics to arrive to administer the Heimlich Maneuver? Infinitely better of course that anyone choking be in the ER of say M. D. Anderson in Houston should he decide to choke, or should someone decide to shove a fishbone down his throat to make him choke. But I promise you that anyone who removes the fishbone will have done a good deed, and that absent that good Samaritan, someone would have died. You do not in actual fact have to be a surgeon, a pulmonologist, a nurse practitioner, a physician’s assistant, a registered nurse, a licensed vocational nurse, a certified nurse’s assistant, or even a bed-pan-emptying orderly to administer the Heimlich. You do not have to be a trained cop to have the legal, licensed possession of a gun which you can point at someone to stop him from murdering people. Just until the professionals arrive.

        I think it’s great that ex-cops were there. I like them personally. I like Texas Rangers. I like our State Troopers. I like having them for neighbors. And I’ll tell you something: I’ll bet you that at least in Appalachia, and certainly in Texas and the South, the cops would have utterly no problem with someone taking out a shooter.

        What’s important? The action or the credentials? Both are nice. We can only count on action.

  • Steve

    Well perhaps Hollywood has a bit to do with it. Americans do action films very well and people see Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson etc firing guns onscreen like its second nature and its just ingrained in peoples consciousness.

    Also, every cop you see is carrying a gun. If these public servants who we should admire can have one why can’t the general public? It’s chilling to imagine a society where the police are armed like militias but the public cannot carry a gun.

    Then again this could all be superfluous. Some people flip out. It happens every day to varying degrees. Occasionally we see tragedies like this. It’s heartbreaking but there is no definite solution.