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GUNS AND GUN CONTROL

On December 14, a 20-year-old man killed his mother with her own legally obtained guns, then opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Connecticut. Adam Lanza murdered 20 first-graders and six adults before killing himself. In December’s “The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control),” which appeared just before the events at Sandy Hook, Jeffrey Goldberg argued that such massacres might be stopped earlier if more civilians, after obtaining a license and training, carried weapons. The response to this article was so overwhelming, and so varied, that it warranted singular attention in The Conversation.


After 60 years of not owning a gun, in 2007 I purchased my first handgun, practiced until I was proficient, took a class, and got a concealed-carry permit. Why? After my daughter was attacked by an ex-boyfriend/stalker, I realized a well-run police department does a good job of responding to crime, but a poor job of protecting against crime. If police are in position to stop an attack, the attacker will simply choose another time or place. We would live in a better country if the 300 million guns in it disappeared, but I will not risk my family’s safety to make a political statement.

Raymond C. Harlan
Aurora, Colo.

The officer guarding the former Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado, where I live, said, “I guess people move on,” after Goldberg asked whether people drive by to look at the scene of the shooting. Move on? I hardly think so. Will we forget? Never. Will every single resident be lined up on opening night of the newly renovated Century 16, surrounded by friends and family? You better believe we will. And trust me: I won’t be the only one with a packet of Kleenex in one hand while the other rests firmly on the 9 mm strapped to my hip. In Aurora we take care of our own.

Karen Madsen
Aurora, Colo.

My understanding of the gun-control debate began with personal experience: I was present, and two of my friends were wounded, during last summer’s shooting at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. Since then, I have tried to better understand what happened, and why. Knowing what I do now, I find this article to be the most intellectually sloppy piece I’ve ever seen in The Atlantic.

Mr. Goldberg largely fails to distinguish among types of gun violence, focusing instead on mass shootings. The vast majority of gun violence is not in fact committed during a mass shooting like the one I witnessed in Aurora; the plurality is committed during arguments, followed in frequency by robberies and juvenile gang activity. In assessing the potential effects of more (or fewer) guns in our society, ignoring this fact is simply negligent.

Mr. Goldberg might have come away with a better understanding of what more guns really entails had he been interested in asking why many victims of mass shootings don’t go out and buy a gun to protect themselves, and in some cases advocate against the further erosion of gun-free zones.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent
Southbury, Conn.

Jeffrey Goldberg makes the excellent point that armed self-defense is enshrined in our Constitution—and that it works. “Guns are with us, whether we like it or not,” he writes. “Americans who are qualified to possess firearms shouldn’t be denied the right to participate in their own defense.”

If you think the problem of mass violence is just about guns, you’re wrong. If you think it’s just about an entertainment industry that markets violence to kids, you’re wrong. If you think it’s just about insufficient security at our schools, you’re wrong. If you think it’s just about the lack of mental-health services, you’re wrong. We need to address all these issues.

We cannot have this conversation without gun owners and groups like the National Rifle Association. If you blame the NRA for what happened in Newtown, you’re blaming 4 million law-abiding Americans. And you’re blaming me, because I am an NRA member.

Responsible gun owners should be at the forefront of any effort to find a balance between rights and responsibilities, to make America safer for our children. We understand better than most that guns made this country free and are an important part of our culture and heritage.

Senator Joe Manchin (D)
Charleston, W.Va.

After reading this article, the NRA’s seemingly outrageous suggestion that we install armed officers at our educational institutions becomes more plausible, even persuasive. Such security could deter future attacks on our students or ameliorate the effects of these attacks should they occur. The response times of local SWAT teams, however fast, cannot match those of armed personnel already on-site.

How to pay for this extra security? Under the Wildlife Restoration Act, an 11 percent federal excise tax on sales of “long guns and ammunition” and a 10 percent tax on pistol sales have been in effect since 1937. Each year, $3 billion to $4 billion is generated by these taxes and used for wildlife conservation and restoration. Would it be unfair to increase these taxes and funnel the additional revenue into enhanced school-security programs administered by local law-enforcement officials? Locally generated revenue might also be raised, by increasing fees for concealed-weapons permits and by charging more for weapons-training courses.

Finally, would it be possible to offer recently returned combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan some preference in hiring for these new positions?

Jack Jackson
Albuquerque, N.M.

More people than ever carry handguns. Homicide rates are falling. Must mean handguns are making us safer from gun violence. Wrong. According to The Wall Street Journal, “The reported number of people treated for gunshot attacks from 2001 to 2011 has grown by nearly half.” What’s changed is that doctors and first responders have gotten better at treating gunshot wounds, so fewer people die from these injuries.

Goldberg effectively plays on the fears generated by isolated, rare, and particularly brutal attacks. The fact is, we will be safer from gun attacks when there are fewer guns.

David Finck
Boone, N.C.

Goldberg provides a provocative case for carrying a gun: “Guns can be used to do evil, but guns can also be used to do good.” But perhaps there are better questions to ask than whether, when a stranger is shooting at you, you prefer to be armed or unarmed. The focus should be on the “Zimmerman Syndrome”: How does the gun carrier’s view of the world differ? Do political and social views harden? Does suspicion of others become common? In other words, what damage is done to the carrier, and how might that fundamentally harm a society needing to move away from violence as a response to fear?

Rodney R. Jones
Mendocino, Calif.

Referring to armed self-defense as something that “often works” and implying that the alternative is “encouraging learned helplessness” is a low blow to those who, while possibly naive, envision a safer, less violent society. After all, the primary justification we have for obtaining a firearm for self-defense is that there are so many guns out there already. It is a self-fulfilling premise. And it is most likely misleading. Although there might be many occasions when firearm owners have used their weapons to deter violent crime, where is the evidence that those incidents outnumber the occasions when their weapons are used to kill or injure an innocent?

Michael E. Santese
Andover, Conn.

It is human to wish that Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, who died heroically, had enjoyed some weaponry beyond her body. But are we then asking for a world in which the educators of small children are strapped? Do we want our hospital workers, our librarians, our babysitters, and our Little League coaches all armed? What is the message that such a society sends to itself and its children? What does that say about its government’s ability to perform the most essential of services—protection? And is it enough to simply be wholly sane? What do we say to the ghost of Jordan Davis, shot down over an argument about loud music, by a man who was quite sane? And where does it end? If more mass killers don body armor, should we then start fitting ourselves in Kevlar too?

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Excerpt from an Atlantic blog post

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 any-one else.

It is all too easy to imagine the mistakes, chaos, fog of war, prejudices, panic, and confusion that would lead a more widely armed citizenry to compound rather than limit the damage of a shooting episode.

James Fallows
Excerpt from an Atlantic blog post

Mr. Goldberg criticized John Gilchrist of Ohio for relying on anecdotal impressions of gun violence in his state after the passage of a concealed-carry law. However, Mr. Goldberg repeatedly commits the same mistake. He describes several events in which personal weapons were used to stop or deter shooting sprees. Those are incredible events, but they say nothing about the success rate of using guns to decrease violence across society. Gun-control advocates can just as easily point to many events in which the absence of a gun would have saved a life.

Mr. Goldberg offers no helpful per-capita estimates of successful uses of guns by civilians to stop crime. He states that guns are used defensively somewhere between 108,000 and 2.45 million times a year. But how do we know whether the gun deterred a criminal, or reduced the harm the criminal committed? These numbers only indicate that we have a high rate of gun ownership.

Mr. Goldberg states that potential victims “quaking under train seats” would “quite possibly” be willing to accept the risk of being hit with cross fire if more people had concealed weapons. However, when he talks with actual victims and their relatives, they unequivocally disagree with him. Mr. Goldberg fails to provide alternative interviews or (preferably) data that would support his opinion, but he does not change his conclusion.

John Whiteman
Laramie, Wyo.

In 1985 I was working in a suburban Atlanta dive. Late one evening, when the bar was empty, two young men robbed me at gunpoint. One of them said something along the lines of “Give me the money,” which I did without hesitation, further encouraged by his companion, who several times yelled, “Kill ’im, kill ’im, blow his head off!”

During the entire incident, which must have lasted less than a minute, my .357 Magnum was under the bar, near the register I was emptying, well within my grasp. I didn’t once consider reaching for it, and reflecting on the incident the next day, I knew with certainty that any attempt to do so would have got me shot. How many average citizens, if armed, would be sufficiently clear-minded and quick-thinking to respond to an armed attacker?

Yes, I realize there’s a difference between an armed robbery, where compliance will more than likely keep one safe, and Columbine/Aurora–style attacks, where an unstable individual is hell-bent on taking out as many people as possible. But c’mon: Is an armed citizenry really the answer to either (potential) eventuality?

Jerry Kranitz
Columbus, Ohio

In Canada, the household rate of ownership of legal firearms is half of America’s, but the firearm homicide rate is one-sixth of America’s. Perhaps we just have a lower propensity to blow holes in each other. However, these statistical differences likely have more to do with Canada’s lower levels of poverty.

Please do not take this for Canadian smugness. Unlike Goldberg, I have not completely given up on America’s ability to generate intelligent public policy simply “because it’s too late.” Although I suspect articles like his do not help the matter.

Michael Blythe
Scotland, Ontario

Gun deaths are on track to exceed traffic deaths by 2015. Sixty-two percent of gun fatalities every day (53 out of 85) are suicides.

Jeffrey Goldberg does not account for this statistic, which suggests that our large surplus of guns makes us not more likely to commit crimes, or even to prevent them; it makes us most likely to kill ourselves.

If a person wants to die, he will find a way to do it, but the prevalence of guns in America makes it much more dangerous to be around a person who becomes suicidal.

Car deaths have decreased, even as the number of miles driven has gone up, because cars have been engineered to be safer—safer for drivers, for passengers, and even for pedestrians. You can’t do that with something that is designed to kill.

Adam Miller
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

Here in Montana, we have learned that pepper spray is a better defense than a gun against a grizzly bear. But against humans, even better than pepper spray is wasp spray. Fast and accurate at 20 feet, a hit in the face disables without endangering life. On each of Mr. Goldberg’s advantages of a gun, wasp spray outperforms.

Robert O’Neil
Kalispell, Mont.

Jeffrey Goldberg replies:

Senator Manchin’s letter reflects the feelings of tens of millions of Americans. Most gun owners are responsible people; many of them also believe there is a place for gun control in society. The gun debate was settled long ago in this country; a majority of Americans support individual gun ownership and believe in the right to armed self-defense (President Obama is on record supporting Americans who believe in this right), and a majority think the government should play a role in deciding who gets to own, and carry, guns.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent makes good arguments, but he is not arguing with me. I don’t want robbers and juvenile gang members to possess guns. This is why I support gun control, and strict enforcement of existing laws. What I want is for Americans who choose to participate in their own self-defense to have the right to carry weapons, provided that they are screened, vetted, and trained to do so by the relevant authorities.

Rodney R. Jones suggests that carrying a gun puts you in danger of becoming a vigilante. Statistics do not bear out this assertion. The population of gun owners I wrote about—the 9 million concealed-carry permit holders—commits crimes at a lower rate than the general population. Vigilante behavior is not widespread in this country.

Raymond Harlan’s letter is very similar to many letters and e-mails I have received. He is recognizing a tragic reality of the Newtown massacre and other such incidents, which is that the police seldom arrive in time to stop a shooting from occurring. Jerry Kranitz makes the essential point that each violent situation is different, and that there are many instances in which a handgun is of no use in thwarting robbery or attack.

Adam Miller says I did not account for relevant suicide statistics. I wrote, “Guns are responsible for roughly 30,000 deaths a year in America; more than half of those deaths are suicides.” I would be very happy to have America resemble Canada in its rate of gun ownership. But it doesn’t. Suicide by gun is one of the consequences of living in a heavily armed society. It would be wonderful if the government could devise a way to keep guns away from the mentally ill. Again, prohibiting concealed carry is not relevant to this question. I would also note that roughly 65 percent of suicides in America are not committed with guns.

In reference to the assertion that pepper spray is a more effective weapon against grizzly bears than a gun, I’ll take Robert O’Neil’s word for it.


The most-read stories on TheAtlantic.com in 2012:

1. Why Women Still Can’t Have It All
2. How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy
3. Sorting the Real Sandy Photos From the Fakes
4. “Gangnam Style,” Dissected
5. Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama
6. What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success
7. Fear of a Black President
8. The White-Savior Industrial Complex
9. All the Single Ladies
10. The Man Who Broke Atlantic City

The most-read stories on TheAtlantic Wire in 2012:

1. Look at All These Guns People Got for Christmas
2. Newtown School Shooting: Live Updates
3. Adam Lanza: What We Think We Know About the Apparent Newtown Shooter
4. North Korea Has Found a Secret Unicorn Lair, Apparently
5. An A-to-Z Guide to 2012’s Worst Words

The most-read stories on The Atlantic Cities in 2012:

1. The Geography of U.S. Gun Violence
2. Hurricane Sandy Likely Caused Alabama’s Incredible Light Show
3. The Death of the American Shopping Mall
4. 10 Techniques for Making Cities More Walkable
5. Mapping the Demand Side of Prostitution

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