The Atlantic and the 'More Guns' Solution

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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.


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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. 

[pause]

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.
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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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