Tag Archives: guns

What Now For Gun Control?

Congress appears to be on the cusp of passing a gun-control measure, breaking a 30-year standoff. The bill takes baby steps toward the sort of gun measures that would meaningfully reduce the carnage, but the fact that Congress is passing anything  must be applauded as progress.

Of course, whether those baby steps will survive the horrendous, twisted logic of the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of government’s ability to control armed mayhem remains to be seen.

Given that astonishing and dishonest opinion, what can be done?  

As a recent article from Talking Points Memo reminds us, it’s always, ultimately about the culture– and cultures are shaped by prevailing narratives.

An object, cloaked in an aura of glamor and cool, is, or at least feels, ubiquitous in American society. The object is a clear threat to public health — though that fact often gets eclipsed by arguments emphasizing the rights of those who like to use the object. Powerful, monied and well-connected special interest groups stand behind the object, and work fervently to thwart regulation and restrictions on it. 

Today, that object is a gun. In our recent past, it was a cigarette. 

Most readers of this blog remember when cigarette smoke was everywhere. We encountered it on airplanes, in bars and restaurants, and in our offices. The federal government was loathe to act; the FDA didn’t even get authority to regulate tobacco until 2009.

So–if government didn’t drive the change, what explains the anti-cigarette movement’s incredible success? In 2020, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control provides data, 12.5 percent of Americans over the age of 18 smoked. In 1965, it was 42.4 percent.

That’s a pretty impressive victory. The question is, can we use the tactics that were so successful against Big Tobacco to get meaningful gun control, especially since the Court has evidently all but neutered government? 

Gun owners are in the minority. Smokers were also a minority — but, as the article notes, they were a powerful minority.

“In the 20th century, the smokingest segments of Americans were white men; now, the most gun owningest segments of Americans are white men,” Sarah Milov, associate history professor at the University of Virginia and author of “The Cigarette: A Political History,” told TPM. “The consequence of that for non-gun owning Americans is that they live in a world where public space is governed by the political demands and practices of what is truly a minority.”

The gun and cigarette lobbies spent millions obscuring that fact, presenting guns and cigarettes as foundational and ubiquitous parts of American life. Resistance to them, then, is futile — even unpatriotic.

The anti-smoking campaign changed attitudes about smoking in public places. They countered arguments about smokers’ rights by focusing on the harm to those unable to avoid second-hand smoke. When Big Tobacco fought no smoking rules for bars and restaurants, arguing that customers who didn’t like smoky venues could go elsewhere, activists pointed out that workers in those establishments had no such choice.

Experts think there are lessons to outsource to the fight for gun regulation: the anti-tobacco movement was coalitional, with outposts in every state; activists quickly realized the power of changing the narrative and stigma around public smoking, and of centering the rights of nonsmokers being harmed by cigarette smoke; instead of despairing at Congress’ coziness with big tobacco, they took the fight to local government. 

Even before the Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen,  ALEC had made it impossible to enlist most local governments in the movement to control weapons; a majority of states have so-called “pre-emption” statutes drafted by ALEC, preventing local governments from regulating firearms and ammunition.

The gun industry also benefits from a seriously devoted fan base. Many — though far from all — gun owners see their firearms as more than a recreational tool or even a means of self defense. The cult of the gun has grown so powerful that some owners consider it a part of their identity: shorthand for individualism and freedom, for triggering the libs and intimidating a federal government that supposedly wants to change their way of life. 

Even the tobacco industry’s biggest customers largely lacked that fervor.

Despite these considerable disadvantages, gun control advocates can begin to change the narrative from the NRA’s emphasis on gun owners’ rights. We can form coalitions emphasizing the rights of the rest of us–a clear majority– not to be shot and not to live in constant fear for ourselves and our children.

It took a long time to change the culture around smoking, but when the narrative changed, so did the culture– and when the culture changes, so (eventually) do the laws–and even Supreme Court opinions. 

Speaking of changes, tomorrow I’ll consider the radicalization of the Court…

 

 

 

 

Shoot-Out In The Fifth-Grade OK Corral

I’m hesitant to post about the most recent mass shooting–this one in a Texas elementary school. After all, what is there to say that hasn’t been said a million times before? As one commentator sadly noted, we’ll now hear Democrats talk about gun control and Republicans talk about mental illness.

Then, of course, there are Republicans like the odious Ted Cruz, who responded to an unspeakable tragedy in his state by asserting that the answer is to arm teachers. Not fewer guns, but more…and in the hands of people who, as a group, are least likely to want to own or brandish weapons.

Rand report looked at the pros and cons of arming teachers, and a fair reading suggested that gun manufacturers would experience the only “pro”–more sales of weapons. (Just what we need….) The relevant paragraph:

Arguments against arming teachers and school resource officers highlight the elevated risk of accidents and negligent use of firearms as more adults in schools are armed. The Associated Press reported, for instance, that there were more than 30 incidents between 2014 and 2018 that involved a firearm brought to a school by a law enforcement officer or that involved a teacher improperly discharging or losing control of a weapon (Penzenstadler, Foley, and Fenn, 2017). This compares with around 20 active-shooter attacks at schools over a comparable period (Cai and Patel, 2019). When even trained police officers have been found to successfully hit their intended targets in just 18 percent of incidents involving an exchange of gunfire (Rostker et al., 2008), critics question whether teachers can be expected to effectively return fire without inadvertently injuring the children they mean to protect (Vince, Wolfe, and Field, 2015). Finally, if teachers are holding guns or engaged in gunfire, it may make the job of law enforcement officers more difficult and dangerous when they arrive at the scene. Officers could mistake the teacher for an active shooter or could themselves be inadvertently shot by the teacher.

If silly things like evidence mattered to today’s GOP, we have mountains of it. I’m not going to bore you with links to the years of studies demonstrating the idiocy of America’s current gun culture–a google search will bring up more research than most of us want or need to read. The Republican mantra, on this issue as with so many, many others is: “don’t confuse me with the facts,” so marshaling those facts and using them as the basis of an argument is doomed before it begins.

The United States is the only modern country where mass murders are a routine experience. (I once met with a delegation from an African country that had only recently emerged from a bloody civil conflict, and was embarrassed to learn that the members of that delegation feared more for their lives on American streets than they had during their own civil unrest. They’d watched the shoot-em-up movies glorifying violence, and read the media reports about our routine carnage…)

Like so many others, I am bone-tired of writing about this insanity. Back in 2017, in a more analytic, less furious mode, I wrote:

There are 300 million guns in this country. We aren’t going to get rid of them–couldn’t if we tried. Furthermore, the vast majority of gun owners are responsible people–hunters, sportsmen, people hoping to protect their homes. It’s true that a significant number of the 30,000 plus gun deaths in America each year involve those responsible owners: suicides, domestic abuse, children accidentally shooting themselves or others. These deaths are tragic, but I’d draw an analogy to highway deaths–we don’t ban or confiscate cars because they can be lethal.

If we continue with the car analogy, however, there are lessons to be learned. We don’t let just anyone drive; in order to get a license you must pass a test. Your license can be revoked if you repeatedly break the rules. Academics study traffic deaths and issue recommendations for making our roadways safer–and legislatures, by and large, take those recommendations seriously. With guns, Congress has prohibited government from funding research on gun violence, and state lawmakers are constantly attacking and rolling back even the most reasonable firearm regulations. Congress even refused to pass a measure that would have prohibited individuals on the no-fly list–-people with demonstrable connections to ISIS–from owning guns.

The history and interpretation of the Second Amendment has been twisted beyond recognition. If self-proclaimed “originalists” are really interested in the original meaning of the Amendment (I have my doubts), they might find this explanation by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens edifying.

I don’t know whether our legislative “gun nuts” are really as ideological and twisted as they seem (speaking of mental illness…), or whether–undoubtedly like Cruz–just deep in the pocket of the gun lobby.

And I don’t know how or where this ends.

 

 

The Cult Is Armed

Last week, Politico ran an interview with a scholar of autocracy.You really–really–need to click through and read it in its entirety, because I lack the space and ability to offer a coherent synopsis.

The scholar, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, had made accurate predictions about Trump’s likely refusal to concede his 2020 defeat, and she made them well in advance of the election. During the course of the interview, she made several other penetrating observations. Among them: the likely permanence of the changes Trump has effected to the GOP. She says that his sway over the party has permanently transformed its political culture, changing it to an authoritarian party in which you don’t only go after external enemies, but also after internal ones. Authoritarian parties don’t allow dissent

When somebody like Trump comes on the scene and holds office, it’s really like an earthquake or a volcano, and it shakes up the whole system by gathering in this big tent all the extremists, all the far-right people, and giving them legitimation. The GOP was already going away from a democratic political culture, but he accelerated it and normalized extremism and normalized lawlessness. And so the GOP over these years has truly, in my estimation, become an authoritarian far-right party. And the other big story is that his agenda and his methods are being continued at the state level. Some of these things were on the agenda way before he came in, like getting rid of abortion rights and stuff like that. But these states are really laboratories of autocracy now, like Florida, Texas.

Ben-Ghiat made a particularly important point about a favorite Republican talking point that she noted is a time-honored strategy of right-wing authoritarianism. Authoritarians like to label democratic systems as tyrannical. (Psychiatrists might call that projection.) According to Ben-Ghiat, Mussolini was the first to make the accusation that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem. That introduced a whole century’s worth of the strategy of calling sitting Democrats dictators. “Biden as a social dictator, [is] a phony talking point. It has so many articulations from “They’re forcing us to wear masks.”

Her observations about the “Big Lie” were equally interesting, especially for those of us who have read psychological profiles of Trump.

The genius of the “big lie” was not only that it sparked a movement that ended up with January 6 to physically allow him to stay in office. But psychologically the “big lie” was very important because it prevented his propagandized followers from having to reckon with the fact that he lost. And it maintains him as their hero, as their winner, as the invincible Trump, but also as the wronged Trump, the victim. Victimhood is extremely important for all autocrats. They always have to be the biggest victim.

There are several other points in the interview worth pondering, especially her acute observations about Ron DeSantis, but the one that really struck home with me was her response to the question whether the U.S. faces a civil war. She began by saying that she thought it unlikely.

But then she made a point I’d not previously considered.

I think that it’s not out of the realm of possibility, because if the Republicans tried to impeach Biden and impeach Harris, there would be protests. Whether that becomes a civil war is very different because it’s predominantly only one side which is armed, first of all….

The wild card is guns. No other country in peace time has 400 million guns in private hands. And no other country in peacetime has militias allowed to populate, has sovereign sheriffs, has so many extremists in the military, and that matters because of these other things. And in fact, if January 6 didn’t bring out a massive protest, what is going to bring out a massive protest? Because that showed that groups of people who were there were people unaffiliated with any Proud Boys or any radical group. And Robert Pape, who studied them, called them middle-aged, middle class, but they were all armed. Some of them had private arsenals and they showed up at January 6. So that’s the wild card. That’s one thing that’s extremely American, that violence, that the population believes it has the right to rebel against tyrannical government. Like Matt Gaetz says: The Second Amendment is not just about hunting. And here we go back to the idea of Biden as a dictator. And that only works if your citizenry is armed and ours is to a degree that no other country is in the entire world.

The insanity of America’s gun culture has been evident for a long time. What hasn’t been evident is the fact that “only one side is armed.”

Read the whole interview.

 

 

Law And Order

According to Fox News and other Republican sources, America is experiencing a crime wave. Actually, we aren’t. What we are experiencing is a rise in homicides–almost entirely as a result of gun violence.

As a recent Guardian article explained: homicides were up across the US in 2020 and appeared to be primarily driven by rising gun violence. Other crimes, however, fell.

A preliminary government estimate shows a 25% single-year increase in killings in 2020. In some larger cities, the number of homicides has remained higher than usual through the early months of 2021.

While official national crime data will not be released for months, some trends are clear. The 2020 homicide increase happened across cities and towns of all sizes, from those with fewer than 10,000 residents to those with more than a million, according to preliminary FBI data.

The rise in homicides likely translated into an additional 4,000 to 5,000 people killed across the country compared with the year before, according to early estimates.

The increase in murder comes as robberies declined more than 10%, and rapes declined 14%. Overall, violent crime increased 3%. The obvious question is: why? Why is murder up while overall crime is down? And how worried should we be?

Some context is helpful: even with the rising homicide rates, Americans are safer than we have been historically.

And yet, even after an estimated 25% single-year increase in homicides, Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s, and the homicide rate across big cities is still close to half what it was a quarter century ago.

New York City saw more than 2,200 killings in a single year in 1990, compared with 468 last year, according to city data. In the bigger picture, that’s a nearly 80% decrease.

Los Angeles saw more than 1,000 homicides a year in the early 1990s, compared with fewer than 350 last year.

Furthermore, the article quotes one scholar of crime for the observation that the increases in homicide are taking place in neighborhoods where homicides have traditionally been concentrated. The incidence is not spreading out.

The pandemic has clearly contributed.

There is some evidence that national factors, including the many stresses and disruptions of the pandemic, may have played a role in the 2020 homicide increase. The uptick was “widespread,” Rosenfeld said. In an analysis of big city crime trends for the nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice, “We found very few cities that did not experience pretty significant rises in homicide during 2020,” he said.

Whatever researchers ultimately determine, it is impossible to ignore the effect of America’s gun culture and the sheer number of weapons owned by our citizens.

A preprint study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that a spike in gun purchases during the early months of the pandemic was associated with a nearly 8% increase in gun violence from March through May, or 776 additional fatal and nonfatal shooting injuries nationwide. The researchers found that states that had lower levels of violent crime pre-Covid saw a stronger connection between additional gun purchases and more gun violence.

There has been a predictable effort to attribute the rise in homicides to criticisms of police, or to unrest blamed on Black Lives Matter, but the data simply doesn’t support those accusations.

Some police officials and their allies have asserted that last summer’s big, volatile protests against police violence diverted police resources and attention away from their normal patrols, and have suggested that demoralized, angry police officers might be less proactive or effective in dealing with violent crime.

But Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who writes extensively about homicide trends, examined 60 cities and found no correlation between the number of Black Lives Matter protests, and the size of a city’s homicide increase.

Rosenfeld cautioned that any policing-focused explanation for the homicide increase needed to explain why the change would have only affected serious and deadly violence.

“Most crime is down, including most felony, serious crime,” he said. “If the de-policing argument is correct, why did it only affect an uptick in violence and not other street crime?”

At this point, the stresses of the pandemic, especially on low-income neighborhoods, appear to be a significant cause of hostility and despair and “acting out.” But the easy availability of guns clearly was–and continues to be–an enormous factor.

I’ll believe Americans seriously want to reduce violence and homicides when we get serious about gun control. But I’m not holding my breath…

 

 

Really Telling It Like It Is

A recent op-ed in the New York Times considered the passions of the gun lobby.

The column was written by Will Wilkinson, Vice-President for Research at the Niskanen Center. I first encountered Wilkinson’s writing when I was doing research for my most recent book;  I’ve been consistently impressed with his thoughtfulness and the quality of his various analyses.

The column was headlined “Why an Assault Weapons Ban Hits Such a Nerve With Many Conservatives,” and the sub-head was “The premise of Trumpist populism is that the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens matter more than democracy.”

Wilkinson began by describing the blowback encountered by Beto O’Roark over O’Roark’s proposed assault weapon buy-back program. One Texas lawmaker issued a not-very-veiled threat to use his own weapon on O’Roark, and there was predictable hysteria from the usual suspects.

“So, this is — what you are calling for is civil war,” Tucker Carlson of Fox News said of Mr. O’Rourke’s comments. “What you are calling for is an incitement to violence.” On ABC’s “The View,” Meghan McCain maintained that “the AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America, by far. I was just in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. If you’re talking about taking people’s guns from them, there’s going to be a lot of violence.” On Twitter, the conservative writer Erick Erickson said: “I know people who keep AR-15’s buried because they’re afraid one day the government might come for them. I know others who are stockpiling them. It is not a stretch to say there’d be violence if the gov’t tried to confiscate them.”

Wilkinson notes the obvious: no such program is likely to go into effect, absent an overwhelming electoral outpouring of majoritarian sentiment.

In that light, all of these ominous “there will be violence” warnings clearly imply that it simply doesn’t matter whether or not mandatory buyback legislation is enacted by duly elected representatives of the American people with an extraordinary popular mandate, because the wildly outvoted minority would nevertheless be right to regard the law as an intolerable injustice that warrants retaliatory violence. Just ask them.

Wilkinson then considers what this reaction signifies. As he points out, democracy is what we do to prevent political disagreement from turning into violent conflict. Trumpism, however, considers government legitimate only when it agrees with  white Christian conservatives.

Who, you may sensibly ask, granted Tucker Carlson’s target demographic veto power over the legislative will of the American people? Nobody. They got high on their own supply and anointed themselves the “real American” sovereigns of the realm. But their relative numbers are dwindling, and they live in fear of a future in which the law of the land reliably tracks the will of the people. Therein lies the appeal of a personal cache of AR-15s.

Weapons of mass death, and the submissive fear they engender, put teeth on that shrinking minority’s entitled claim to indefinite power. Without the threat of violence, what have they really got? Votes? Sooner or later, they won’t have enough, and they know it.

Nearly every Republican policy priority lacks majority support. New restrictions on abortion are unpopular. Slashing legal immigration levels is unpopular. The president’s single major legislative achievement, tax cuts for corporations and high earners, is unpopular.

Public support for enhanced background checks stands at an astonishing 90 percent, and 60 percent(and more) support a ban on assault weapon sales. Yet Republican legislatures block modest, popular gun control measures at every turn. The security of the minority’s self-ascribed right to make the rules has become their platform’s major plank, because unpopular rules don’t stand a chance without it.

As Wilkinson notes–and as rational people know–this isn’t about self-defense. Nobody needs a gun that can shoot 26 people in 32 seconds to ward off burglars.

The Second Amendment doesn’t grant the right to own one any more than it grants the right to own a surface-to-air missile.

I particularly loved these two paragraphs:

They’ll tell you their foreboding “predictions” of lethal resistance are really about preserving the means to protect the republic against an overweening, rights-stomping state. Don’t believe that, either. It’s really about the imagined peril of a multicultural majority running the show. Many countries that do more to protect their citizens against gun violence are more, not less, free than we are. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, 16 countries enjoy a higher level of overall freedom than the United States, and most of them ban or severely restrict ownership of assault weapons. The freedom to have your head blown off in an Applebee’s, to flee in terror from the bang of a backfiring engine, might not be freedom at all.

I’m not too proud to admit that in my misspent libertarian youth, I embraced the idea that a well-armed populace is a bulwark against tyranny. I imagined us a vast Switzerland, hived with rifles to defend our inviolable rights against … Michael Dukakis? What I slowly came to see is that freedom is inseparable from political disagreement and that holding to a trove of weapons as your last line of defense in a losing debate makes normal ideological opposition look like nascent tyranny and readies you to suppress it.

Clarity. Sanity. Why do I despair about the likelihood that Wilkinson, et al will prevail?