James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
This morning I was on the "Domestic News Roundup" hour of the Diane Rehm Show, on WAMU in Washington. The topics naturally started with the latest gun-safety proposals and went on through Chuck Hagel, the economy, the Dreamliner, and so on.
Here's a message from a listener in the Midwest, who objects to the way the gun discussion unfolded on this show and in most other political/media forums. Emphasis added:
This panel, and the rest of the media nearly always misses two points that are critical.
- Daily gun deaths [not the big massacres] are the real killer.
- The shooters are most likely to be either pissed off and jealous or perfectly rational with a heavily distorted value system, not mentally ill. And mental health experts state whenever they can that it is very hard to determine which patients will become violent. Most will not, and that is certain.
The neglected mental health workers are glad to hear that they can get some attention and funding ... and the NRA is glad to put the blame on, of all things, lack of government funding for mental health.
Here in tea party country, my cousin, the local outspoken liberal, is afraid to write to the paper about guns. Me, too. We are rightfully afraid of being shot. After all, the gun nuts don't have to be mentally ill to pull the trigger, just pissed off, and Limbaugh and Beck have that service covered.
This is an opportunity to mention again Dina Rasor's powerful article about the toll of the "daily gun deaths" as opposed to the too-frequent but not-quite-daily newsmaking mass killings. Previous discussion of it here.
Bonus point: I also argued on this show that Barack Obama's long-standing success in luring his critics and opponents out onto extreme, hard-to-defend positions applies to several items in the news now. This is what Andrew Sullivan has often called the "meep-meep" effect, and what Chuck Spinney identified this way immediately after then-nominee John McCain chose then-phenom Sarah Palin as his running mate:
I am beginning to sense that McCain behavior is destroying himself and that Obama has the good sense or instinct to take a deep step back and let McCain dig a hole so deep he can not get out.
I think of this as "Obama overreach" in reverse: he has found a way to bait, lure, outwait, and in other ways entice his opponents to overreach themselves. And I think we see this now with:
the GOP threat to bring on a financial crisis by not raising the debt ceiling, a position from which the party is even now in evident retreat;
with differences in degree, the GOP positions on immigration, abortion, gay rights, etc: popular with a minority, very difficult to sell to a 51% majority;
the Wayne LaPierre-style angry counter-response from the NRA, which in the long run will put the NRA in a difficult position. (Though it will probably win this year's legislative battles.)
the over-the-top attempt to disqualify Chuck Hagel from Cabinet consideration by preposterouslylabeling him an anti-Semite rather than straightforwardly opposing him on policy grounds. This manifestly did not work in dissuading Obama, and if anything it rallied support for Hagel -- and increased denunciation of the groups and people leveling the charges. On the other hand, I agree with John Norris in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration has gone way too far in "vetting by trial balloon." That is, letting a potential nominee's name be "mentioned" and seeing how the pro-and-con goes.
These past five-plus years we've seen the mismatch of Obama playing long-game against opponents with a shorter-term focus. That has helped Obama long-term -- comfortable re-election, powerful demographic prospects that favor Democrats nationwide -- but has left Republicans with significant short-term blocking power and immediate victories (2010 elections, gerrymandered current control of the House). It's a leitmotif for the next few years.
If you haven't seen it yet, you certainly should look through the exchange that the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates are having about Jeff Goldberg's story on guns and gun control, which appeared just before the Newtown massacre. Their main discussion is here. TNC has follow-ups here and here, and Jeff Goldberg here and here.
An important part of their discussion turns on what Jeff Goldberg calls the "Saint Augustine question," about when and whether those who forswear violence may justly use violent means to prevent a greater evil from taking place. As he puts it in one part of the exchange:
Let me ask the Augustinian question: Let's say you're in the mall with me, or another friend, and a psychopathic shooter is approaching us, AR-15 in hand. In this situation, my life is at stake, as well as yours. I'll ask the question again: Would you want a gun in hand to help keep us alive, and to keep the strangers around you -- each one a human being created in the image of God (I know you lean atheist, but you get my point) -- alive as well?
TNC has his own comeback to the Saint Augustine issue, here. Since we're rolling out the big-time thinkers, I'll say that the reason I prefer the Coates side of the argument (more guns are not the answer), over the Goldberg side (in the right circumstances they can be), is well expressed not by Augustine but by Immanuel Kant.
The whole concept of Kant's "categorical imperative" -- testing an idea by what its consequences would be if everyone acted that way -- seems an ideal match for the "more guns" question. In Jeff Goldberg's hypothetical, I personally would feel better if I, uniquely, had a gun in hand to use against the perpetrator. But I would not prefer a situation in which everyone was carrying guns, all the time, and ready to open fire on anyone who looked threatening. Or even if a lot more people were doing so. Thus for me, a "more guns" policy fails the categorical imperative test. It's better for me if I do it, worse for us all if everyone does it. But read the exchange and see what you think. (That's I. Kant, at right, portrait source here.)
Now let's hear from two readers. First, from a father on the west coast:
Following on your physician wiki-contributor's experience re. promoting a broader understanding of "gun safety," my personal experience as a father of a 10 year-old boy may be somewhat relevant.
Neither I nor anyone in my family is a gun owner or has any interest in guns. Until the events of this past year, however, I had been considering learning more about guns, taking some shooting lessons, and perhaps acquiring a gun for safety reasons based on our unhappy experience with neighborhood crime.
A few years ago, shortly after moving into our middle-class neighborhood in [a large city], we had a break-in while we were out of the house. In the aftermath have learned that our local police do not patrol our area, have greatly reduced patrols citywide generally, and will be all but useless should we suffer another break-in.
As I say, I'm fairly agnostic on the gun issue; as with any contested social issue, I try to put aside emotionalism and take a rigorously analytical, objective, and empirical approach to the subject.
In this case, the brinksmanship displayed by the local police union, combined with the city's depleted financial resources and our region's extremely high number of transient criminals and gang members due to our broken immigration policy have all led me to conclude that there is a not insignificant risk that my wife and two children may be victims of violent crime at some point. Hence my tentative exploration of the prospect of owning a gun.
Here's where it gets complicated. Our older child (I'll call him "Danny") is strong-willed, emotionally volatile, highly intelligent, and crazy about Nerf guns and E-rated (child-friendly) video games. There is a history of depression in my family, and Danny shows some early signs of this. Adolescence seems to come early these days, and it appears that Danny has entered that turbulent stage already.
After Newtown, and after enduring our own child's latest adolescent eruption, complete with mutterings about "getting back at" his parents for the latest intolerable imposition (such as withholding video game privileges until homework's completed), I thank my lucky stars that I put away any and all thoughts of owning a gun. The chances of our being violently attacked are minuscule - maybe one in 100,000, despite our city's incompetent police and civic authorities - but the chances of a gun in our house being used by our volatile son against someone, especially himself, would be orders of magnitude higher.
Even if we somehow came to feel compelled to own a gun by future events - our neighborhood going to hell due to more gang members moving into our part of town, with no increase in police presence, say - there is no way on earth that we could get this risk of self-injury, at the hand of our volatile son, down to anything approaching a comfortable level.
To be clear, our son isn't remotely close to being mentally ill. He's actually quite normal, is at the top of his class, gets along well with other kids, wins praise from teachers, neighbors, other parents. He's become known for his kindness and compassion for weaker kids and kids with disabilities. He's a good kid.
But the fact remains that our family's chances of self-inflicted gun injury are orders of magnitude higher than our chances of being shot by an intruder. Perhaps this calculus is different for rural families and others living in remote areas who have to deal with predatory animals. Perhaps in such an environment, even a high-strung or moody adolescent can be raised to make intelligent distinctions regarding "gun safety." Maybe the rural paterfamilias can more easily separate the gun from the ammo. I don't know.
But I do know that this nation's easy assumptions about "gun safety" are at the very heart of the problem, and that this is exactly what needs to be debated. We are not, as a nation, safer due to our extraordinary proliferation of guns. I doubt we'll be able to restrict ownership significantly. But it seems obvious to me that these are like dangerous toxins that deserved to be registered, regulated, presented and made visible to regulatory authorities with maximum transparency.
Keep up the good fight. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," as the Irishman said.
Next, from a mother in the midwest:
When I worked at [a major news organization], we tracked every single gun death in the nation over the course of a week - almost 500, as I recall.
The thing that really hit me was the number of suicides -- something like half, if memory serves.
I know that people try to take their lives for a number of complex reasons. But if you don't have a gun, you're less likely to "succeed."
This really came home to me a few years ago. [A business associate] was a "gun nut," and used to rant about what would happen to anyone who tried to break into his house. He seemed tremendously fearful of home invasion.
Of course, no one ever broke into his suburban home. But one night after he had been drinking, he took his own life, using his handgun.
I really don't think he would have been likely to hang himself. And if he had taken an overdose, I think he would have probably called for rescue. The gun made it impossible for him to change his mind.
I am tired of people blaming "mental illness" for gun deaths. The issue is what happens when anyone, of whatever mental state at the time, has easy access to ruthlessly lethal weapons.
The NRA's greatest ally in these policy fights, greater even than its PAC contributions and single-issue campaign interventions, is that outrage fades with time. A massacre occurs; everyone says Never again; times goes on; and the news spotlight moves elsewhere. That's why it's worth keeping up attention this time.
Last week I argued that people who want to reduce gun carnage should start talking about "gun safety," rather than "gun control." The newly reinforced no-compromise position of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA may make the distinction moot. But for those gun-owners who recognize that there is a problem to be solved -- and that the solution might involve something more than all school teachers carrying guns to work -- and emphasis on safety rather than control might conceivably do some good.
A reader who was trained as a physician and works as an epidemiologist tried to put this policy into effect. He started editing the Wikipedia page on "gun safety" to reflect this broader view. Here's what happened:
1) The reader's initial message:
I appreciate ... talking about 'gun safety' as a goal for America...
This approach makes complete sense to me. America's outlier rates of firearms homicides and suicide are almost certainly the direct result of the overwhelming number of guns carelessly owned. Hence, the long-term goal must be either a radical change in safety practices (as in Switzerland and Israel) or a radical reduction in gun ownership by persons not prepared to keep them safe.
In the short-term, a much more modest change is required: a transition in the common meaning of the term "gun safety". Until now, "gun safety" has been a topic dominated by proponents of gun ownership. Take for example the definition of gun safety provided by the wiki page (until I added a sentence - which may be deleted as too "political"): "Gun safety is a collection of rules and recommendations that can be applied when handling firearms. The purpose of gun safety is to eliminate or minimize the risks of unintentional death, injury or damage caused by improper handling of firearms." This overly narrow definition excludes efforts to persuade people to forego firearms purchases or to dispose of weapons if they can no longer prevent the firearms from being misused. This, I am convinced, is what will be required for effective gun safety - fewer households like the Lanza's.
2) Wikipedia pushback. The reader then reported:
Here are the 3 sentences I added this morning to the Wikipedia "Gun safety" article:
'The phrase "gun safety" is now frequently used to refer to measures that go beyond the prevention of unintentional injury. This includes efforts to reduce gun ownership by persons not prepared to assure safe use of guns and policies aimed to reduce firearms homicides and suicides. Please refer to the wikipedia article on Gun Politics for further discussion of this broader concept of gun safety.' ...
My additional 3 sentences lasted about 1 hour. To see the justification for the deletion of these sentences you can look at the "Talk" page, then "The scope of gun safety". The justifications for deleting my comments appear below the 20 references (which may be of interest to anyone studying current usage of the phrase "gun safety". I have since compiled another 20).
After one editor complained that all of the references were from the US, I added the following:
Please review the following document from 2007: "A Review of Literature on 'Gun Safety' Education Programmes" by the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons. 14 March 2007. This review begins by stating that "The USA is the only country where there are programmes related to gun safety for pre-school children (four to five) and for primary and secondary children. There is no evidence of the effectiveness of these programmes; this is hardly surprising, as they are not based on a solid foundation of knowledge about child development. Unfortunately there is also little evidence from the USA that attempts to educate parents are very successful. This seems to be due to the strength of the belief that guns protect individuals and families, and misperceptions about the ability of children to engage in safe behaviours." http://www.seesac.org/uploads/documents/Gun%20safety1.pdf
I have elevated the debate to another level by posting a notice on Wikipedia's dispute resolution notice board. I am a Wikipedia newbie (believe it or not) so I don't know what comes next. My immediate objective is to get a notice posted on the article itself saying that it is being reviewed for neutrality....
Also of great relevance is this piece suggesting that "gun safety" education is being used by proponents of gun ownership to convince children to become future gun owners: "Joe Camel with Feathers -- How the NRA with Gun and Tobacco Industry Dollars Uses its Eddie Eagle Program to Market Guns to Kids. Section Three: "The Safest Thing is to Not Keep a Gun at Home"" by the Viloence Policy Center, undated.
3) Finis. The reader learns a lesson, which he shares with us:
Since I filled your inbox with several previous emails on my experience with updating the Wikipedia article on "Gun safety", I feel I should let you know how the issue has been addressed.
Basically, the authors of the article have agreed to be explicit from the outset that their discussion is restricted to safe handling of firearms. My (hopefully) final comments on the article are given on the accompanying Talk page.
From this experience I have learned that a restricted understanding of "Gun safety" is likely to be very vigorously defended. In the process, I have compiled URLs for about 50 web sites with titles that include "Gun safety" or "Firearms safety" and content that includes a discussion of broader measures that might reduce firearms homicides and suicides. If anyone is interested in this collection, I am happy to share it.
I conclude my comments on the Wikipedia Talk page as follows:
Since the above Talk discussion has raised the issue of my personal intentions, I would like to close by elaborating on said intentions. As a health professional, and as someone frustrated with "gun politics", I am interested in peoples' personal decisions to own a gun. I believe that the peer reviewed research on the topic (which is dealt with in a very incomplete and non-neutral way in the Gun Politics article) provides overwhelming evidence that the risk of homicide and suicide is substantially higher for households owning a gun. I won't rehash here the complexity of this issue. As we all agree, this is best dealt with in the Gun Politics article. But the personal decision to own a gun and the personal decision to take all necessary precautions to keep safe the firearms in your possession fall within the purview of this article on safe handling of firearms. This decision has been politicized but it is not a political decision. It is a personal decision. And, as difficult as that is, Wikipedia should endeavor to provide readers with neutral and complete information to help them to make that personal decision. It is my intention to help Wikipedia with that effort.
What a complex, long effort this will be -- in keeping with most other large-scale social changes that have mattered.
The sheer horror of massacres like the one in Newtown -- and before that those in Oak Creek and Aurora and Tucson and Blacksburg and Columbine and... -- gets our attention, and should. But as every gun-safety expert has pointed out, the much greater overall toll is from the hourly, nonstop, one-on-one murders across the country. President Obama was careful to note this in including "a street corner in Chicago" in his list, at the Newtown commemorations, of the recent sites of gun-borne tragedy.
Dina Rasor has written about this daily toll in an extraordinary article in Truthout. The headline could make it sound as if it's a policy piece:
And it does contain data, for instance this from the Children's Defense Fund:
Between 1979 and 2009, gun deaths among white children and teens have decreased by 44 percent, compared to an overall 30 percent increase among black children and teens over the same period.
But overall it is a very powerful personal narrative, as compelling its way as anything we have heard form Newtown. I knew Rasor years ago when we were both living in Washington and working the defense-policy beat. Whether or not you had ever heard of her before, you will find this a remarkable portrait of our times and of the problems we confront.
In the wake of Wayne LaPierre's announcement today that the only answer to bad guys with guns is good guys with more guns, I'm going to start showing samples from the thousands of messages that have arrived in the week since the Newtown massacre. I'll try break them into some thematic installments, over the next few days, and eventually offer some general themes.
[Housekeeping note: As of late Friday night, Dec 21, I will actually be going off the grid for a week-plus, for real, in a way that has not been true in at least a decade. A number of items will appear in this space through this time, on guns and other topics, but I won't be able to see or use any response-response until after New Year's Day.]
Let's begin with a comparison to a previous "uncontrollable" phenomenon of mass American violence: the wave of lynchings in the early 20th century. From a reader in Florida. Emphasis added:
If you look at the yearly death tolls for mass shootings over the past three decades, they look an awful lot like the yearly death tools from lynchings from, say, 1900 to 1935. They ping pong around from as few as 10 to as many as 100, averaging 40 or 50. The Tuskegee Institute's count is my source for lynchings. Here is the source I used for mass killings.
I think you'll find many parallels between lynchings and mass killings. First and foremost is the irrationality of the violence, the notion that it's a uncontrollable condition that comes over the killer or killers. Both are a subset of violence in a violent culture carried out by people not considered professional criminals.
As events, lynchings had common catalysts, just like mass shootings do. And in each, individual incidents seem to seed the air and feed each other psychologically. Each new lynching or shooting increases/or increased the odds of the next one, it seems to me. And lynchings were considered just as inevitable and eternal as mass shootings are in America's modern gun culture.
A news editor wrote this after the Rosewood lynchings and pogrom in 1923 Florida: "We said that, whether justifiable or not, the impulse of primitive and even savage man, is to strike quickly in avenging a criminal assault upon an innocent woman. We were speaking, not of a theory but of a condition."
Take out the obvious element of race for a second, and lynchings and mass shootings are almost photo negatives of each other. An individual doing to an anonymous crowd what an anonymous crowd does to an individual....
From the time that serious pieces of the establishment began to condemn and try to systematically stop lynchings (around World War I) to the time that real progress was made -- after World War II -- was 30 years. This is a long-term project. During which horrors will persist that we will feel. And lynchings weren't effectively eradicated until the late part of the Civil Rights movement. Eradicating mass shootings may be impossible and even reducing them to something less chronic is going to be awfully hard. Legislators and courts and law enforcement had clear and major roles -- once they decided to play them -- in suppressing the mob. It's much less clear, obviously, what will work on mass shootings.
But I have some thoughts:
1) Clean the air: We need "responsible" gun owners to help police the "from cold dead fingers", Joe Manchin shooting cap-and-trade for a campaign ad, bullshit bravado that dominates right wing gun culture. All of that bravado, like almost all bravado, is based on an irrational fear. The government is going to take my gun. Bullshit. And we all need to attack it as bullshit. It is the same level of bullshit as That negro is gonna rape my daughter. It's the exact same irrational fear of the other. While the angry gun culture may not carry out most shootings, they are willing to tolerate them, just as much of America was long willing to tolerate lynchings, because of this primal/tribal fear. The NRA, like the Klan before it, is kind of a shiny object. It's hugely important, but it's the wider bullying gun culture that is the core of the problem. If the NRA suddenly moderates into reasonableness, a new nasty "NRA" will form to accomodate the bullies. That would actually be progress. We need to split gun people.
If we can reduce the gun rhetoric pollution in the air somewhat through shaming, that may make these explosions less common. Think of it like global warming. Hard to attribute any specific storm to warming, but the pattern is there. Reduce the mass media fuel a bit, and maybe the storms become less frequent.
2) Licensing v. Bans: Along those lines, your gun safety vs. gun control distinction is precisely correct. This is about meaningful licensing measures. Ways to assess the intersection of people and guns. Use the gun culture's own language. If you think people kill people, not guns, why do you object to closer monitoring of people? And I'd suggest working through concealed carry expansion. I would absolutely trade concealed carry expansion for stricter licensing and background measures. From what I can see, no law in place would have stopped this shooting. But closer monitoring of the intersection of gun and person might have stopped Aurora and Virginia Tech. And if they don't happen, then maybe this one doesn't happen because the notion hasn't crept into the type of mind that's open to it.
3) The Drug War: So much of our gun culture and violence organizes itself around drug prohibition -- both through tools of business and means of enforcement -- that any act of violence, especially gun violence, is inseparable from it. Many lynchings and acts of irrational mob violence had their roots in prohibition enforcement, ostensibly in response to the violence of the illegal liquor business. The negro raping the white woman was always drunk. The 20s Klan, in most places, was first and foremost a drug enforcement organization. We'll never fully clean the air today without ratcheting down the drug war and moving toward as much legalization as possible. History is quite clear about this, I think. That's also the reason I am against most forms of gun prohibition. There will still be huge demand, and an illegal gun trade would cause all the same problems and more that the drug war causes.
4) Seize this moment: One place where I think this moment is different than others is the growing sense in the country -- even among conservatives -- that right wing cultural nihilism is the greatest short and long-term challenge we face. The fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, voter suppression, global warming, keep your government out of Medicare, etc. The resistance to any effort to combat gun violence with something other than guns needs to be understood -- the NRA needs to be understood -- as a subsidiary of right-wing nihilism. The same cultural instinct that unskews polls and restricts voting to factor out minorities is the same that wants to renege on our national bills is the same that responds to the execution-style murder of 20 children by calling for us to arm the same teachers they despise as union members.
Over and over again, we ask what constructive suggestion do you offer to help govern your country to the benefit of all its people? And we get, fuck you, 47 percent. Arm yourself.
This is a tough nut to crack, but so was lynching. Gradual reduction, will lead to additional gradual reduction, over time. And maybe one day it will stop occurring so often to the addled mind to do this. And maybe when he tries, he'll find obstacles other than the lunge of principal.
Following post-Newtown massacre items #1, #2, #3, and #4.
1) Maybe this time is different. It's not simply Obama's speech last night, which moved from the standard Presidential post-massacre "we all mourn together" tone to a new "this cannot go on" emphasis. The more significant indicator may be this morning's statement from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Who is Joe Manchin and where does he stand with the gun lobby? Consider the way he conveyed his opposition (from a coal state) to cap-and-trade legislation two years ago:
Here he was today, on Morning Joe.
I think this is a quite profound difference, and very promising. As robust a "gun rights" defender as exists in the Senate is weighing in about incremental, practical, reasonable steps to reduce danger and increase safety, and is sounding open-minded rather than line-drawing and absolutist about it. In a part of the interview not included in the clip above he talks about the senselessness of AR-15-type rifles and very high-capacity magazines for normal gun-users' purposes. Good for him.
Joe Scarborough himself also had an eloquent "everything has changed" statement on today's show.
2) Are more guns the answer? Yesterday I hinted at, rather than fully laid out, one of the reasons I am skeptical of the idea that if more Americans carried guns, fewer Americans would die from gun violence. That reason is the likelihood of well-meaning civilians adding to rather than reducing the body count if they tried to "take out" a psychopathic shooter. A reader gives an example from the first of the four mass-shooting events that prompted a commemorative visit by President Obama, the rampage in Tucson early last year that nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and did kill six other people:
During the chaos immediately after Giffords was shot, a well-meaning and armed citizen bystander unholstered his pistol and almost shot an undercover cop from close range (story from the Denver post here).
This is an example of what I think is the biggest single reason for stronger gun control--that making lethal decisions "under fire" is a very hard and complicated thing to do. It's hard for our police and military to get the decision right every time, as we sometimes sadly see in the paper, and they are highly trained forces who do this for a living.
Similarly from another reader:
People who believe the only way of halting gun violence is to equip every American adult with a weapon may be well meaning. But they envision a United States populated by Jack Reachers. I think we'd get a United States populated by Barney Fifes.
That's how I see it too.
3) What about the "knowledge gap?" Plus some action plans. I have received a slew of messages on whether gun-safety advocates "know enough" about firearms to make sensible proposals, plus a lot of step-by-step action plans for making a difference. I'll try to wade through them and put them into groups. For now, two samples, starting with one on the knowledge gap:
Regarding the comments by a reader at a university who is also a gun owner. I know next to nothing about firearms. If, as your reader says, too many proposed gun laws have been drafted by people who don't know enough about firearms, then that's a problem that needs to be addressed.
However, I'd ask your reader: during this and other gun debates, we often hear complaints about knee-jerk liberal anti-gun bias and ignorance. But what have thoughtful gun owners done to address gun violence? Have they pushed for legislation they could support? Have they voted for candidates who supported such legislation? In practical terms, how have they separated themselves from the knee-jerk pro-gun insanity represented by the NRA? And more to the point, what are they willing to do now to craft and pass into law effective gun legislation they can support?
That is where comments like Manchin's can be important. To wrap it up for now, here is a combined knowledge-gap, "more guns," and action-plan dispatch from a reader in Virginia:
I do have a sense that there is at least a sliver of possibility that "this time will be different" with regard to gun safety in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. If nothing else, the emergence of reporting on the hard life of gun rights advocates (for example this piece in the Post today ) and their increasingly strident advocacy of a "more guns will make us safer" policy seems to be driven by concern that a shift in the political possible has occured.
I wanted to offer a response to your reader from last night regarding why those in favor of greater restrictions appear to have limited knowledge of fire arms.
First, to establish my gun-totting bonafides (which seems to have become requirement for one's opinion to matter in this debate), I grew up in rural New England in a household that hunted and target shot. My brothers and I learned to shoot rifles and shotguns when we were in elementary school. Handguns were a big taboo for us, as my father felt they served no practical purpose for a sportsman (there was quite a scandal in my family when my uncle bought a pistol because he was going to try bear hunting and was told he should have one in case he ran into a bear and his rifle wasn't enough to take it down). I've since moved to Virginia, and live down the road from NRA headquarters. My wife and I do not have any guns, but go to one of the local ranges to shoot for fun at least a couple times a year.
Your reader is right that there are a limited number of people with serious gun knowledge heard advocating for stricter gun regulation. But the reason isn't because Michael Bloomberg or any snooty liberals are excluding them. It is because the "reasonable" gun owners like your reader have chosen to withold their voices from this conversation. When they do arrive it is to cast a pox on both houses and then recede into the background. And the best they ever have to offer, after whining about how of course they don't think anyone should be able to buy a rocket launcher, is "let's look at magazine size" when that is already the most heavily regulated aspect of guns (alongside the full auto ban).
As the father of a young daughter, I for one do not want her growing up in a world where she is told she has to carry a gun to be safe. The reason why - because it is a recipe for violence. While gun rights activists are happy to talk about the potential for a fellow citizen to live out a Hollywood sequence, they are mute on the thousands who die from gun-related accidents. There is an incredible parallel to those who reacted to 9/11 by advocating people drive more, even though the odds of dying in a car wreck are orders of magnitude higher than dying in a terrorist attack on a plane.
There is another reason against the "more guns at school" argument. My personal lesson from the tragic Trayvon Martin case earlier this year is a reminder of the danger of an armed citizenry that thinks they are empowered to exercise the state's monopoly on violence. My brother is a police officer back in New England, and they go through hundreds of hours of training before they get close to that responsibility. The reason isn't because it is hard to shoot straight or learn how to cuff someone, it is because it is really hard to tell whether someone is about to commit a crime and what is the appropriate level of force and approach to minimize danger for the officer, suspect, and surrounding community.
If someone were to propose giving concealed carry permit holders a 500 hour course with continuing education requirements before they walk into my child's classroom, I will think about it. But even that is the pragmatist in me. If people really think cowboys and posses are the key to public safety try taking a trip to Iraq or the Congo and ask their citizens how that is working out.
Here is a serious proposal for gun safety:
- Privately owned handguns should be limited to revolvers. If you can't defend your home or persons with 6 well placed rounds, squeezing off a dozen in rapid succession isn't going to save you.
- Rifles should be limited to bolt and lever action. Rifles have no place other than hunting or target shooting. If you can't take the kick - and frankly anyone who is properly trained can shoot just about any rifle or shotgun short of a .50 caliber - get something smaller.
- A mandatory safety training course specific to the class of weapon and provided by a state-licensed provider should be required before someone can purchase a gun. Feds should allow portability across State lines, but online courses should be banned. Instructors should receive training in spotting and reporting a high risk student.
- State and federal firearm laws should be fully extended to gun show sales. Seriously, have you ever been to a gun show in the South? I've literally seen a grenade launcher (for $25k!) at one with the seller noting "honey, if you buy this gun we make sure you never have to worry about finding ammo."
Taken together these have the effect of limiting the availability of more dangerous weapons as measured by the number of bullets some one can squeeze out in a minute. That is the real enabler of mass shootings.
I also want to push back on you and many others fatalism that since we already have 300m guns we can never reduce the number. Through out Africa and Asia in a lot of post conflict societies a critical piece of the DDR process is reducing the supply of weapons. How is it done? It is a simple, free market solution. The government offers to buy back anything that is no longer legal to manufacture and sell new post-ban. An AR-15 can be bought for about $1k these days. Offer $2k a piece and they will dry up fast, and the price of one on the resale market will go way up. This also has the added benefit of making them less accessible to unemployed 20 year olds suffering from mental illness. If no one takes the offer - which I doubt, arbitrage is a powerful force - then you take a step back and think about the implications and adjust course.
Sometimes the Atlantic is on the news for upbeat reasons -- for instance, our two current stories, by Charles Fishman and me, on positive manufacturing trends in the US. These fortunately appeared just before announcements from Foxconn and Apple of manufacturing-expansion plans in America.
Sometimes we are on the news for tragic reasons, as with Jeffrey Goldberg's current "The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)." The story is well-reported, revealing, and very much worth reading, so please go check it out now if you haven't done so already.
Now that you're back, I want to continue the discussion Ta-Nehisi Coates began yesterday, about the part of this article with which he disagreed. I disagree on the same point.
As you know if you've read the piece, it goes into the practical realities of reducing gun violence (on which Jeff Goldberg has elaborated here). Its starting point is that any plan to "ban" or remove guns is a fantasy, given the hundreds of millions of them already in circulation. I agree. Prohibition didn't work with alcohol, it isn't working with drugs, and it wouldn't work with guns. The main hope of minimizing damage lies in practical measures to increase gun safety.
But the piece also argues that America would be safer if more people were armed. To me this is more "interesting" than convincing. I can see the appeal of such reasoning on the individual level. Jeff Goldberg describes the Long Island Railroad shooting in 1993 and says that if he had been on that train he would rather have been armed than not. "My instinct was that if someone is shooting at you, it is generally better to shoot back than to cower and pray." Undeniably. But like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I don't see how this scenario extends to a policy that makes us safer overall.
To spell it out:
Being in a shopping mall, on a train, in a theater, or at a school where someone starts shooting is statistically more frequent in America than anywhere else, but is vanishingly unlikely for any individual. Yet if we were to rely on the "more guns make us safer" principle, logically we'd have to carry guns all the time, everywhere, because ... you never know. Jeff Goldberg and I have both railed against TSA policies based on the premise that every single passenger is a potential terrorist. A more-guns policy would involve a similar distortion in everyone's behavior based on outlier threats.
There is very little real-world evidence of "good guys," or ordinary citizens who happen to be armed, taking out shooters in the way the more-guns hypothesis suggests. After all, and gruesomely, the mother of the murderer in Newtown was heavily armed and well experienced with weapons, and that did not help her or anyone else.
It is all too easy to imagine the real-world mistakes, chaos, fog-of-war, prejudices, panic, and confusion that would lead a more widely armed citizenry to compound rather than the limit the damage of a shooting episode.
In short, I hope you read this article, and I'm glad we published it. But my "gun safety" agenda doesn't include making it easier for more people to walk around armed.*
(*It's probably time to point out that this culture is not entirely alien to me. My dad was a small-town doctor who frequently made nighttime housecalls to far-flung rural and desert areas, while carrying a medical bag that included a variety of drugs. He took a handgun with him on nighttime calls, and he did regular gun training. I shot at tin cans and targets en route to a Marksmanship merit badge as a Boy Scout. In those days I once hunted for rabbits in the nearby San Timoteo canyon but stopped because I found that I hated killing animals. When we were in China my wife and I spent a wonderful afternoon at the PLA's for-profit shooting range in downtown Shanghai, where -- for a price -- we could shoot pistols and military-issue rifles at targets.)
Now, a proposal from a reader at a university who is a gun owner. Emphasis added:
I have been getting in trouble with many of my friends for asking them to think about what is politically possible, actually effective and might find agreement among reasonable gun owners. Full disclosure - I am a gun owner myself but very much in favor of stricter controls.
It frustrates me to no end that no one on the gun control side of the debate knows anything about firearms, the differences between them, or precise ways to differentiate between them in law (or for that matter, in conversation). So all we hear are knee jerk cries to 'ban assault weapons'. And to hear that again after a horrible event in which an 'assault weapon' wasn't even used is just inane. It's like calling for a ban on convertibles after a truck accident.
Here's my problem with the focus on 'assault weapons': what people are really talking about are not weapons that are designed to look like military weapons- that's merely cosmetic and it always diverts the conversation. What they are really talking about are three features - the fact that these rifles are semi automatic, that they are designed to accept high capacity magazines and that they are often - not always but often - chambered for small, high velocity rounds, rounds designed to break up in the body and cause maximum damage.
Whether they have flash suppressors or a handle on top or look like an AK47 is absolutely irrelevant. There are other rifles that have some or all of the above features and not all weapons styled after 'assault weapons' do. It is critically important in this argument to be very precise.
Furthermore, many people still talk as though these weapons are fully automatic, which none of them are, at least legally.
If we concentrate our gun safety efforts on those specific features I listed, I truly believe that we would not only gain traction among the public who do not own guns, but also some respect from those who do. Most gun owners can see the sense in restricting those features - especially in rifles like the Bushmaster .223 that Lanza carried (but apparently did not use). [JF note: later information indicates that the Bushmaster was in fact used.]
With handguns it would be trickier. Nearly all handguns currently sold are semi auto and there is a good reason - they are lighter and easier to control. The force absorbed by ejecting the spent shell and re-cocking the gun reduces the recoil considerably, making it possible for example, for a woman or a smaller man to shoot in a controlled way. While there is a great deal of support for eliminating semi-auto rifles it might be harder to find the same support for handguns. Magazines, however, might be a place to start.
Importantly, there is a consensus on some points and those are the points where new legislation should concentrate. Also even the NRA has agreed in principle to stricter background checks, more diligent checking on mental health and above all better enforcement of current laws before the creation of new ones.
I apologize for the rant, but I am a pro gun control/safety gun owner and I am crazy frustrated with the current debate, the language in which it is framed, and above all the idiotic assumption that people can legislate or petition to change something which they can't be bothered to understand or know anything about.
Nearly twenty years ago, Erik Larson -- now known for Devil in the White City and other books -- published Lethal Passage, which was a carefully reconstructed narrative history of the weapons used in a school shooting.
Unfortunately it remains relevant reading, and as an introduction please consider the lengthy excerpt the Atlantic ran in 1993, as "The Story of a Gun." It is in our archives, here.