Joe Manchin, Trayvon Martin, and Barney Fife: Implications for Gun Safety

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.  

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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. More

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.


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