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Today, we’re continuing our ongoing Masthead-member debate on gun rights. If you’re just catching up, here’s Justin Robinson’s argument for why gun rights deserve protection. The way gun-control advocates typically press their cases, Justin wrote, “throws gun-rights advocates into a reflexive, defensive crouch.”

We asked you to rebut Justin’s argument, and vote for the best rebuttals. We’ll get to those rebuttals (lightly edited and condensed by us)—and Justin’s responses—in a moment.

Because today’s issue is unusually lengthy, we’ve moved Justin’s recommendations for how to have a better gun control debate to the top. If you’d like to keep this email short, I recommend you focus on that and skip the rest. For those of you that savor a meatier argument, the full rebuttals and responses compose the rest of the email.

But first, register now for our call with Jeffrey Goldberg. We’re talking to The Atlantic’s editor in chief on Monday, November 6, at 1 p.m. EST. Register at this link to receive dial-in details. Write back and let me know what questions you have for Jeff. (Please note that daylight saving time ends this weekend in the U.S., so if you’re calling from outside the country, you may need to adjust your local time.)


Here’s a synthesis from Justin Robinson of his conclusions after participating in this debate. It’s a useful, concise statement of where gun-rights advocates can find meaningful agreement with advocates of tighter gun controls. If you don’t want to read the full back-and-forth, there’s plenty of insight here.

We all seem to agree that with 300 million guns in the country, we can’t get to total confiscation from where we are. We seem less in sync on how much confiscation is a good idea. Here's an explainer from Australia showing how difficult it is to own firearms there. Private ownership of pistols pretty much doesn't exist. With respect to James Fallows, that is a political impossibility here. But I'll close out with some suggestions of what I think may be achievable, in rough order of utility.

  1. A federal standard for training and licensing of gun owners, including cops. Drivers renew their licenses periodically; gun owners should have periodic background checks separated from purchases. Training would weed out some casual gun owners, and that’s good. As Betsy Schneier and Emily Brown suggest, we should acknowledge the dangers inherent in ownership.
  2. A federal standard for criminalizing negligent use. Briefly, "flagging," improper storage, and accidental discharges should have stronger consequences. ("Flagging" is pointing a weapon at a person, regardless of intent to fire.) Worked for drunk driving.
  3. A commitment to data collection. We can sell this to gun owners who fear witch hunts by pointing out that shoddy self-defense data is already subjecting them to witch hunts.
  4. Some kind of title program. We cannot imagine a mass "inventory reduction" of the excess weapons in circulation if we cannot guarantee that legal owners won't get caught up, too.

Getting even this much done would save lives, and maybe take decades to accomplish. Do we want to get started, or do we want to keep being right?


Here are the top responses to Justin Robinson’s original argument, as decided by our members.

The Right Debate Requires More Data

by John Harland

People on both sides of the gun-control debate have honed convincing talking points. Very few of us innocently caught in the motel-lobby situation with a gunman would not be thankful for the armed citizen who rescued us. On the other hand, other countries with more restrictive gun laws seem to have fewer mass shootings.  

Too much of the gun debate, from my perspective, is driven by "moral imagination" and anecdotes. Too little of the debate is driven by data. If we just have two extremes in the debate—guns or no guns—we are doomed to Sisyphean arguments.

We are having the wrong debate. We should acknowledge, first, that the United States will not be able to eliminate guns for both practical and constitutional reasons and, second, that lives are being lost needlessly and people are being maimed by bullets from guns. The debate should then be about what data we need to analyze the causes of deaths and injuries by bullets and how we can fund nonpartisan research to identify possible ways we can reduce the likelihood of these deaths and injuries.

We have historical precedent for using data to help us incrementally and substantially improve the safety record of cars. The number of deaths per million vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. has steadily dropped from about 25 in 1921 to about 2 today. Instead of an endless debate about whether to ban cars, there are detailed reports on major accidents providing data used to enlighten decisions on car safety. We even have a government agency dedicated to gathering data and researching ways to make the use of cars less deadly. Because of the data, we not only look at car design, but also driver training, design and maintenance of roads, how to encourage people not to drive tired, and the legal age for drinking alcohol.

How typical is the situation in the motel lobby where a person who is clearly trained saves the lives of innocents? How often do similar situations end with innocents being killed by a well-meaning Good Samaritan? If our goal is to reduce needless gun deaths, we need the data to inform our discussion and research to help us interpret the data. Let’s have the more realistic debate be about how to collect data to drive incremental improvements, not the unwinnable debate about whether or not to ban guns.

We Need Classification, Not Cowboys

by Jonathan Spoon*

I understood and appreciated Justin's argument for the good cowboy. It’s a neat way to skirt our current issues under the assumption that there are more good people than bad and that everyone wants to participate in this kind of daily shootout. Most people are neither the robber nor the store clerk. They are the innocent bystanders who don't want death to be a prevalent option when shopping for groceries. There are certainly well-trained, ethically sound gun carriers who save innocent people from criminals. There are probably more toddlers who get accidentally shot by their 5-year-old brother because we have too many guns and give them to people not responsible enough to own them. Basically, guns were a tool when the constitution was written, and they are a fetish now. Their nature and our use of them has changed, and our rules need to as well.

The first step is classification. There should be at least three classifications for firearms: (1) hunting guns, (2) personal protection, (3) weapons of war, and maybe (4) weapons of mass destruction. Hunting rifles and low-capacity shotguns should be available to most law-abiding citizens of a certain age. The University of Texas shooter was an exception, but, generally, people can't go on killing sprees with these weapons. Personal protection is the tough section. Lynyrd Skynyrd said it best: "Hand guns are made for killin' / They ain't good for nothin' else.” This is the area where we need serious regulation or innovation. Weapons of war are simple. Buy them back for five years at exorbitant prices, then go out and confiscate them. People don't need assault rifles and they shouldn't have them. If WMD come up, arrest the perpetrator immediately and sentence him to enough years for people to stop playing with rocket-launchers.

There is a big missing part to this discussion. We have not even broached the topic of smart weapons. These are guns that are technologically capable of recognizing their owner and only functioning in his or her possession. This should be the future of personal protection weapons.  

Being purely anti-gun won't work. Identify the ones that are creating a public health epidemic and start removing them from our populace.

The Most Important Right Is to Safety

by Michael Grattan

We need to address the issue of gun ownership in this country honestly.

First, we need to admit that we will never take away guns from their owners following the Australian model. There would be far too much resistance, and there are already too many guns in private hands. That horse has left the barn.

Second, we need to admit that the myth of a responsible "good guy with a gun" responding to a gun-related incident is just that, a myth. A study of police shootings found that law enforcement officers only hit 27 percent of what they were shooting at. I cannot imagine the average gun owner doing any better. Also, most people do not spend their day at the higher level of alertness required to be constantly "on guard" to be able to respond to a situation in a timely manner.

We need to talk about responsible gun ownership. You want to own a gun—fine. Then you must demonstrate competency and financial responsibility. In other words, you get a gun license that requires annual training, carry insurance for when you do shoot someone, and store your weapons safely.

You may have the right to own a gun. The rest of us have the right to feel safe.

Gun Extremists Hold Us Hostage

By Betsy Schneier

This is a very useful point of departure for a debate on gun control! Why? Because one gets the sense that the writer is level-headed and thoughtful with respect to gun ownership. I totally agree that the divide between pro- and anti-gun rights has become so toxic that it’s basically a nonstarter.

That said, however, I inferred the writer was someone who was trained to use a weapon. And herein lies the problem.  

Let me state that I lost a dear friend and knew all four other badly wounded victims of the hostage shooting that occurred in downtown Seattle, at the headquarters of the Jewish Federation in July of 2006. I still suffer from survivor’s guilt. I dearly wish that no civilian would wish to own a gun in this society. I watch the NRA hold the entire public hostage, metaphorically, as do extremist groups who wish to flaunt their guns.

But I’m a realist. People wish to hunt. People who are scared would like protection that the cops can’t offer. Possessing a firearm is legal in this country if one is not a felon. Even so, I think the writer is missing one vital aspect of gun ownership: Most people are never trained in gun safety, nor are they required to learn how to operate the weapon. I know many people who own guns. They either served in the military or took courses, and they store their weapons in safes. They have no objection to registering them in a database, so they will never fall into the wrong hands. In other words, they know they possess lethal force. And guess what? They all are happy to register their firearms now that Washington state passed an initiative overwhelmingly—twice—to do this.

But what about the rest of us? Why put us at risk, when punks, thugs, and hypocrites whine about common-sense controls?  

I’ll end with another personal story. Decades ago I spent the summer in Israel on an archaeological dig. Some terrorist activity broke out not far from where we were digging. Since there were some Israelis in the group who were still subject to reserve duty, they were asked to go home and bring their rifles to the dig in case of trouble. I’ll never forget how one American young girl saw a rifle propped up next to one of these guys and got excited, dancing around as if he was a Hollywood extra in a shoot-em-up movie. The guy, who was normally mild-mannered, started to scream at her. “Do you think it’s fun to kill? Because I have been in battle, and it is no fun at all. I live for the day when I don’t have to carry one ever again.”

Make Gun Licenses Like Driver's Licenses

by Emily Brown

I live in East Texas, where even if you don’t own a gun—though many do—you’ve shot one at least once. When I was in school, I had a political-science instructor who talked to us about gun control. He asked how many people owned a gun, and about half the class raised their hand. He asked how many had their campus carry with them, and 20 kept their hands up. Then he posed this scenario: If a gunman walked into the classroom and pulled his gun, how many of them would pull theirs out and shoot back? Only one man kept his hand up. He was ex-Army, so he said it would be second nature to him. All this to say, the number of people who would actually step up and use their gun are a lot less than people think.

My Texas background keeps me from saying we should ban all guns, but I think there needs to be a more thorough process for obtaining a gun or a gun license. I've recently seen the argument about making gun licenses obtainable like driver's licenses. Driving a car takes months of practice with an experienced instructor because cars have the potential to hurt or kill. A gun's sole purpose is to hurt or kill. The fact that someone can get their hunting license at the local Walmart is absurd. I was allowed to go hunting with my family when I was 10 because I didn't technically need a license. I was 10 when I shot a gun for the first time. There's no logical reason a child should ever hold a gun. There's no reason a person should so easily be handed a weapon, either.


by Justin Robinson

Before I begin, please know that I appreciated having this opportunity, and I value all of your perspectives, whether I agree with them or not.

In less than 1,000 words, my essay tried to articulate the self-defense argument for gun ownership and explain how gun-control advocates could benefit from addressing the argument head-on. Gun-control advocates mostly dismiss self-defense. Instead, they use versions of the following arguments:

  1. The number of self-defenses cannot make up for the lives lost. Show me math. Otherwise, gaze upon my stats and despair!
  2. Most folks would just make things worse by shooting the wrong people.
  3. If nobody had guns, then good guys wouldn’t need them.
  4. A single data point is an anecdote unless it’s Australia’s buyback program.

Arguing in this way dismisses the gun owner’s right to agency, and inadvertently brings up the specter of confiscation, whether or not we intend to do either. I fear that not adapting the argument will lose key allies we need to implement controls that are achievable.

Virtually all of the pro–gun-control responses to my essay used some part of the outline above to dismiss self-defense. I often agree, but I hope I can reinforce which bits of these arguments may be counter-productive.

Cut the Cowboy References

When it comes to guns, we seem to want moral victory more than progress.

I’m sure that Jonathan Spoon’s heart is in the right place. He raises good points and offers concrete suggestions. But he says I’m arguing in favor of "the good cowboy" as a "neat way to skirt" issues. He goes on, but basically suggests that self-defense is a diversion from what he'd prefer to be talking about.

I don’t appreciate the cowboy comparison. I live in the Old West, 20 minutes from Tombstone. Here, the Cowboys were murderous thieves who disobeyed gun control regulations. This line of argument may feel good, and I'm guilty of excessive snark often enough that I'm not passing judgment, really. But we argue like this all the time, both as liberals and conservatives. It doesn’t get us what we need.

How to Understand That Video

We all agree: The more data analysis we have, the better this debate will go. And John Harland is right: we need to legalize and fund better research.

But the video I shared is a data point, not an anecdote. It shows that an individual:

  1. can be in a situation where the choices are only using a gun or capitulating;
  2. can be trained as well as cops;
  3. and can respond to a crime without harming bystanders.

I acknowledge that these results are not uniform, and perhaps not even typical. We can and should fix that.

A Gun's Purpose Is Beside the Point

Jonathan Spoon also offers the Lynyrd Skynyrd/“.38 Special” argument. It often pops up in response to a gun-rights advocate pointing out that cars or swimming pools kill more people every year than guns do (to downplay gun violence statistics). The ".38 Special" argument responds that unlike cars or swimming pools, guns are only meant to kill (and so are more "worthy" of restriction).

Emily Brown also brings this up. Michael Grattan hints at it by asking, essentially, what if the good guy misses? Let me try to show why the ".38 Special" isn't as definitive as it may seem.

  1. Swimming pools and cars are not for killing people. They only kill people when misused.
  2. Guns have three legitimate intended uses: threatening or harming people who can credibly, lethally harm you (we can argue what’s credible); sport (again, open to definition); and practicing for the first two.
  3. Pools and cars do kill more people than guns, despite safety controls. (Tragically, cars at least are sometimes used to kill people on purpose.)
  4. Of the people who are harmed by guns each year, that number breaks down into legitimate uses and illegitimate uses. Cops, for instance, legitimately deprive criminals of life, liberty, or property with guns. (Though Michael Grattan points out they could be doing it better.)

If we're banning guns based on the pure numbers of deaths involved, we should ban personal cars first. If we argue that what’s decisive is how guns and cars are meant to be used, we shouldn't totally ban guns unless we also argue that guns should never be used by anyone. If we accept that using a gun is okay in even one case, then a gun's purpose is irrelevant.

I will admit that we don't control guns as well as we do cars, and that's insane.


  • Question of the Day: What argument in this debate moved you most? What was most persuasive?
  • Your feedback: We’d love to know what you thought of this experimental debate format. Take our survey and let us know how you liked it, and what we can improve. (And feel free to suggest other topics for debate.)
  • What’s coming: Tomorrow, Caroline looks to Magnolia, Mississippi, a small town that has become the surprising vanguard for nondiscrimination policies.
  • What we’re thinking about: We’re getting ready for our call with Jeff Goldberg on Monday, November 6, at 1 p.m. EST. Register here, and send us your questions.

Matt Peterson


* Correction: An earlier version of this article used the wrong first name for one of the contributors. It is Jonathan Spoon, not John. We regret the error.  

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