We Need to Learn to Live With Guns

A passive Congress and hostile judiciary leave Americans with little choice but to change the culture of firearms.

A photograph taken inside a gun shop, in which columns of rifles hang on white pegboard walls. An American flag is visible through an open doorawy.
Didier Ruef / VISUM / Redux

About the author: Andrew Exum is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. From 2015 to 2017, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy.

The most important thing you need to know about yesterday’s tragic school shooting in Texas is that absolutely no laws are going to change as a result of it.

In the 14 years since the Supreme Court found an individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment in the landmark case of D.C. v. Heller, the federal judiciary has only grown more conservative. The courts will likely bar any meaningful restrictions on the possession of firearms for at least another generation.

Your fellow Americans, meanwhile, who collectively bought 40 million firearms in 2020 and 2021, have grown even less enamored with the various gun-control measures typically floated by politicians after such tragedies. In Texas, the same Republican lawmakers cruising to reelection this fall made relaxing the state’s already permissive gun laws a priority in the last legislative session.

And the simple commercial problem facing firearms manufacturers has not changed: They make highly durable goods. Firearms can be passed down through generations. To meet growth targets, then, firearms manufacturers must figure out ways to scare or otherwise motivate people who already own firearms to buy more firearms.

For decades, these firearms manufacturers have—in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways—convinced white people that they need to buy arsenals to protect themselves from people of color. More recently, thanks in part to various shootings perpetrated by those heavily armed white people, people of color have responded by arming themselves in greater numbers, which must delight the firearms manufacturers.

So we should all stop saying that something is going to change. Nothing is going to change. Democratic lawmakers—for whom overpromising and underdelivering is an incurable habit—propose measures after these shootings that they know will never pass through a highly divided Congress, or be sustained by federal judges hand-selected to stymie progressive legislation for the next three or four decades.

We all need to adjust to the idea that unfathomable levels of gun violence, including school shootings, are going to get worse, not better, in the decades to come. In the past month alone, my two sons had a baseball game canceled because of a shooting at the park where they were meant to play and, two weeks later, soccer practice cut short because a nearby gunman had opened fire on a school down the road. In that latter incident, no innocent lives were lost thanks only to the gunman’s inability to effectively use any of the three assault rifles—I’m sorry, “modern sporting rifles”—he had stockpiled in his apartment overlooking the school.

This is America, folks. This is who we are.

So what should we do?

First, we need to make firearms education a national priority. Once upon a time, when I was a young boy, a friendly organization called the National Rifle Association did great work teaching Americans about the safe use of firearms in hunting and other shooting sports. It still does some of that, but it’s a smaller and smaller portion of what that now extremely troubled organization is about.

The government, then, should step up. If we’re going to allow everyone in America to own as many firearms as they want, our children need to understand what to do if they see a firearm, which they inevitably will. Don’t touch it. Go find an adult. Older children, meanwhile, should also understand how to unload a firearm and render it safe. Families might not have any interest in firearms, but firearms are going to be ever-present in the lives of their children.

The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 funds various conservation and wildlife-habitat-restoration initiatives through taxes on firearms and ammunition. We should raise those taxes and use the additional funds to help state wildlife and natural-resources departments teach firearm and hunter safety in our schools. I knew how to safely operate a rifle by the age of 10, and I don’t think it’s ever too early to teach young children the golden rules of firearm safety:

Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.

Never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy.

Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.

Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond.

I still hunt and shoot sporting clays on a regular basis, and whenever I return from the range or from hunting, I clean my shotguns on newspapers spread out over the dining-room table. I use the opportunity to reinforce the rules for the proper handling of firearms to my three young children. I want my children to treat firearms as objects of respect, not of lust. I do not want them to fetishize these tools.

Because the second and much harder thing we need to do is to shift the gun culture in America. I have written before about how the gun culture I have observed develop since the September 11 attacks—the emphasis on tactical weaponry, the marketing of ceramic plate carriers and Kevlar helmets to civilians—is so very different than the gun culture I grew up with in East Tennessee in the 1980s, when the seemingly ever-present firearms were mostly shotguns for hunting and bolt-action rifles.

I bought a used rifle not too long ago, and the federal firearms license-holder to whom I had to temporarily transfer the rifle—I now live in the District of Columbia, where all firearms must first be registered with the police—told me her other customers were fascinated by it. Indeed, on a rack mostly filled with semiautomatic 9-mm pistols people were waiting to pick up, my rifle stood out: a single-shot, break-action rifle chambered for big game. About as far away, in other words, from a Glock or AR-15 as you can get.

My wife, who grew up in the suburbs of New York without any firearms in her home, tells me that I am fighting a losing battle. She tells me it’s impossible to recapture a more responsible approach to firearms.

But we have to try. Because the firearms are just not going away. The shootings are not going to stop. Our children are going to be exposed to a level of everyday gun violence that children in literally no other developed nation experience.

I wish it were not this way. But this is the country we’ve chosen for ourselves, and it is not changing anytime soon.