This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Last week I asked readers for their thoughts on guns.
Mark laments changes in American gun culture:
To compare my experience as a little boy in the early ’60s to that of a 10 year old raised in the last decade … The firearms my friends learned to use were primarily hunting rifles. I never heard talk of shooting for “fun,” it wasn’t why firearms were kept. Those dads taught their sons about father/son rituals, not about firearms as recreation, or arming for arming’s sake. If today’s boys mostly learn about guns through gaming, social media, and entertainment, no wonder firearms aren’t feared or viewed as inherently dangerous—how can boys react with grief or feel the horror of actual gun deaths when they are exposed to ubiquitous, gratuitous, and immersive gunplay designed to pump adrenaline or dopamine with addictive fury? Today, there is no separating firearms from fantasy; sadly, the result is overly accessible firearms in the hands of people who never learned to fear a loaded weapon pointed at another human being.
I grew up in the decades after World War II on Western films and movies about The War. Many of us kids had toy guns realistic enough that today a person might get shot by a police officer who encountered you carrying one. We played war, and cowboys and Indians—a lot. However, my father was an Army Reservist all through my childhood, and I remember a lot of military firearms on our kitchen table as my dad refreshed his memory on disassembly, cleaning, reassembly. My dad made it plain that there was a big difference between our toy firearms and the actual firearms he worked on. My dad was also a hunter. He would go to hunt rabbits, pheasants, ducks. He kept a shotgun, a side-by-side double. And that for me is a touchstone for that time. Most guns were about hunting, less firepower was better than more. Double guns were “better” than pump-action or self-loading shotguns. Lever-action rifles were cool thanks to all the Western movies of the era, but serious shooters used bolt-action rifles, which were more accurate and showed that the person behind the sights could do the job with one shot. Accuracy, precision were respected; the ability, or tendency, to just blast away was not.
All that is to explain the shaking of my head as I look at what “gun culture” has become. I like firearms the way I like other well-designed and well-crafted tools. I own handguns and a shotgun. Still, I know a lot of people don’t own or like them. As I look at the gun “landscape” I’m not surprised. When an AR is a “modern sporting rifle,” when the firearms in the news are just like the rifles handled by soldiers in combat footage, what are non-fans going to think? That gun owners are delusional lunatics … Eliminate high-capacity magazines. Limit all mags to 10 or 12 rounds. Encourage owners to turn others in and confiscate any found in interactions with law enforcement. Compensate owners for their loss. Or at least require the sort of licensure that applies to full-auto weapons. There’s just no point for 20 or 30 round magazines in the civilian world.
Merideth fears MAGA America and has armed herself against the threat she perceives from it:
In spring of 2021, I saw news from NPR: first-time gun owners helped “push record levels of gun sales for what looks like the second year in a row.” I was/am one of those first-time gun owners.
Donald Trump led a horde of fascists out of their dungeons and now they are spreading like Covid. My wife and I are queer. Most of my friends are women. Many of my friends are queer. Fascism is a threat to everyone, but especially to women and LGBTQs, as evidenced by the erosion of LGBTQ rights and protections under the law and the spread of state laws prohibiting abortion. Trump’s brand of evil, coupled with the resurgence of fascism (and evidence of military and law enforcement officers joining fascist paramilitary groups in droves) are what led me to decide to purchase a firearm. I will defend myself and my family since I can’t trust the police or the military to defend us.
I had never even fired a gun prior to purchasing one, which should make a reasonable person pause to consider whether California’s so-called “strict” gun laws are actually that strict. I decided against taking a photo with my wife brandishing my bolt-action shotgun. My imagined meme: “Locked and loaded: now try and come for our marriage.”
Eric believes that understanding where gun culture has gone wrong is the key to reforming the right to bear arms without abolishing it:
I appreciate guns as useful tools. I will own some form of hunting rifle in the foreseeable future. And yet, I must state plainly and unequivocally, that the love and obsession that parts of American culture feel towards guns is abhorrent, perverse, and disgusting. Growing up in a family of avid hunters, no gun was described as “cool.” Nobody considered maximizing bullets they could shoot per minute. Those aren’t things a healthy gun owner considers. This is not to say a person cannot have a healthy sporting desire to have a well-functioning gun. But if a person is reading gun magazines, joining gun clubs, and spending considerably more time and energy with guns than with other hobbies, there is no good explanation other than a deep desire, at some point, to harm another. I’m sure many such persons believe they will harm another in scenarios of self-defense or protection of others, or to defend liberty, or some other noble goal; still, such a person seeks to actively hone their abilities to harm another living being.
We can build a society that has a healthier relationship with guns. We can protect the right to bear arms to protect home and community. We can have sporting gun clubs. We can protect ourselves against tyranny. But we should not confuse those laudable goals with the sick desire infesting too many of our people, mostly young men, to be ready to kill at a moment’s notice. We can allow single-shot rifles and handguns, which serve all of our noblest goals. No reasonable hunter uses a semi-automatic weapon capable of delivering 20+ rounds per minute. We can ban or severely curtail semi-automatic weapon ownership and still protect the individual’s ability to protect family and preserve traditions. We cannot prevent all mass murders, but we can significantly curb them.
Lee is a convert to narrowing the Bill of Rights:
The most recent mass shootings have finished changing my mind about the 2nd amendment. The US constitution is a groundbreaking, time-tested document. But the founders failed to anticipate a populace that would feature more guns than people, and automatic weapons that could kill all 39 white men who signed the constitution in far less time than it took them to sign it. So yeah. They screwed the pooch with the 2nd amendment. And today, churchgoers and school children and others, usually minority but not always, are literally being gunned down in cold blood because the most developed nation in the world can’t navigate itself around a rule created well over 200 years ago.
We must be crazy.
I don’t know exactly what gun control should be put in place. I only care that it works to avoid killing innocents. Many will claim that it’s not the gun pulling the trigger. But if there is no trigger to pull, then school kids, elderly churchgoers, black supermarket shoppers, hair salon and nightclub patrons, music concert attendees and others might get to live their lives. It’s been 10 years since Sandy Hook. And every level of government has failed Americans. Do not quote the 2nd amendment at me. That’s just bureaucratic bullshit.
L.H. is a teacher with detailed gun-policy preferences:
As a gun owner, I would rather see assault weapons licensed than banned. One must pass a written exam and undergo hours of in-person, small-group instruction to be allowed behind the wheel of a motor vehicle; I’d think it fair to require the owners of powerful firearms to do the same. The study time would put a brake on impulsive acts, and an instructor’s impression of their students’ attentiveness, seriousness, and mental state would be a useful adjunct to a background check. (I wouldn’t go so far as to let an instructor unilaterally declare a student unfit to purchase an assault weapon, but I’d allow them to confidentially flag a student for a more intensive background check if something about the student seems off.) Another idea would be to raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons (so many mass shooters have been barely adults).
As a policy nerd, I’d advise anyone writing bans or restrictions on “assault weapons” to carefully consider how they define that term. A huge variety of firearms are made and sold in the U.S., along with an even greater variety of modifications, attachments, and replacement parts that can alter the capabilities of those firearms. Policymakers should study the record of mass shootings, pinpoint the features that make a firearm more capable of causing mass casualties, and take care that their ban (1) covers any design that provides those features and (2) causes minimal disruption to firearms they don’t intend to cover. For example, I’ve heard many calls to ban “high-capacity” magazines, but the size limit I most often see discussed (10 rounds) is less than the factory default for many medium-to-large handguns (including my own, a popular brand’s “compact” model, which shipped with 15-round magazines). And banning any weapon “capable of accepting” a high-capacity magazine would be a mess: that would leave third-party manufacturers able to effectively outlaw a firearm just by designing and producing a higher-capacity magazine for it. Also, the distinction between a pistol and a rifle is blurrier than you might think (see the weapon used in the 2021 Boulder, CO, shooting).
And as a high-school teacher (and fellow human), I’d encourage communities to remember that the problem of mass shootings has two sides: both the wide availability of powerful firearms and the widening availability of people willing to commit atrocities with them. Whatever it is about our society that’s driving more and more of its members to mass murder, it’s not going to be solved by speeches, protests, or even changes to gun laws. Human problems can only be solved at the human level, one to one, through a web of relationships strong enough to ensure that no one ends up so isolated and divorced from empathy that shooting up school children starts to make sense. One of the biggest protective factors for youth against mental health crises (of any sort) is having at least one trusting relationship with an adult. Knowing this, I do what I can to connect with each of my students, so that at minimum they know I notice their presence, appreciate their efforts, and am available to talk if they’re struggling. Is that enough to change a mind that’s already set on violence? Maybe not, but it might be enough to keep a mind from going down that path in the first place. Whoever you are, ask yourself: what can I do to show the young people in my life that they’re valued and needed?
Matt believes that guns can protect us from tyranny even if the right to bear them resides in state militias:
I very much believe the proper modern interpretation of the right to bear arms, which actually begins in reference to “A well regulated militia …” would be for the continued right of states to have their own militias (or national guards) independent of federal control. It’s the military version of checks and balances. Every ability we as citizens have to acquire personal firearms is a privilege, to me, no different than our privilege to have a driver’s license.
I say that as a gun owner, as a lifelong gun user, and supporter of the availability of firearms. I hunt and target shoot and hope to continue doing both for a long time. An AR-15 or other assault weapon has one purpose and it is to kill people. Even as a target shooting weapon, an AR-15 makes target shooting too easy. I’ve shot one and actually found it a little disappointing in that there wasn’t much challenge to it. Point, click, hit the target. Go figure they are used repeatedly to murder masses of people in short amounts of time. People mostly want them because they are fun to shoot, and yes they are, but our right to have fun ends at the repeated mass murder of innocent people.
Jonathan gets philosophical:
Ayn Rand was asked about her attitude on gun control at the Ford Hall Forum in ’73 and her response was, “It’s a complex, technical issue in the philosophy of law. Handguns are instruments for killing people—they are not carried for hunting animals—and you have no right to kill people. You do have the right to self-defense, however. I don’t know how the issue is to be resolved to protect you without giving you the privilege to kill people at whim.” If it were possible to regulate guns out of existence we would lose some of our ability to defend ourselves against criminals but we might gain a less fearful and less violent society. I’d be willing to make that trade. Killing people at a whim is far too easy and we should all hope to limit that ease.
David asks Americans to reflect on what their foreign adversaries are saying:
“Politicians in Washington are in no position to talk about human rights worldwide before getting their own house in order. Hope that the day Americans can live free from gun violence and fear will come sooner rather than later.” That was from today’s Twitter feed of Hua Chunying 华春莹, the spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry. I follow her because she is very adept at pouncing on every American weakness. In fact, if our country ever did an analysis of our Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (a “SWOT” in business school/consulting speak), her Twitter account would be a good place to start for the Ws and Ts.
As we look inward on America’s exceptionalism in gun violence, it would be helpful to look outward as well. When a massacre occurs, especially one that kills young children, what does the rest of the world think? They think that for all our wealth, for all our strengths in commerce and technology, for all our freedoms, we cannot keep our children safe. Our inability to do so makes us look weak and unserious. And barbaric. And, as much as I hate to say it, when so many American children die every year from gun violence and we do nothing, we look like the worst type of hypocrites when we lecture other countries about human rights violations. The mostly Republican fetish for the Second Amendment decreases American power because it decreases our moral standing. Hua Chunying’s words sting, so I’ll repeat them: “Politicians in Washington are in no position to talk about human rights worldwide before getting their own house in order. Hope that the day Americans can live free from gun violence and fear will come sooner rather than later.”
Richard urges Americans to look north:
As a Canadian firearms owner and competitive shooter, I think it’s unfortunate, for America, that a moderate system of gun control like Canada’s would be so impossible, politically, in your country. To own a rifle or shotgun here, you need a license, issued after a background check that includes asking your spouse if they have any objections. People with a history of domestic violence, other crimes, or mental problems can’t get one, generally speaking. Most rifles and shotguns don’t have to be registered, although it is a criminal offence to sell or give one to somebody who doesn’t have a license. You’re also required to keep them trigger locked, or in a safe, unless you’re in a spot where you need it handy for defence against predators, not uncommon in rural Canada. Overall, it’s pretty easy to own a hunting rifle or shotgun. Recently, the federal government has tightened up the rules about assault-style semiautomatic rifles considerably. Depending who you ask, this is either Justin Trudeau’s favourite kind of political theatre, at the expense of people who’d never vote for him anyway, or a legitimate attempt to prevent a repetition of the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique mass shooting in Montreal, in the wake of the many further and horrific examples from the USA.
Assault-style rifles, in Canada, are just range toys anyway. To take a few examples that may be known to your readers: The AR15 has always been restricted to shooting range use, and the AK47 has been outright prohibited, although the Ruger Mini 14 has, until recently, been unrestricted. Nobody even pretends that these rifles are essential, or even particularly useful, for hunting or predator defence. As for handguns, since at least the 1930s we’ve observed a sharp distinction between long guns and handguns.
Handgun ownership is rarer than in the USA. Handguns have to be registered, and that license involves an even more thorough background check. Concealed carry is a serious criminal offence. The only lawful purposes for civilian handgun ownership are target competition, employment as an armoured car guard (not just a security guard), or for prospectors and the like to carry in Grizzly country (where anyone with any sense is toting at least a 12 gauge shotgun, not a handgun). Smallish handguns (with a barrel of 4 inches or less) are prohibited entirely, since they’re not suited to any of those lawful purposes.
It follows that the pocket pistols, occasionally used by drug gangs in Toronto and the suburbs of Vancouver, mostly to shoot inaccurately at one another, have largely been smuggled in from the USA. When I visit the USA with my family, I try to ignore the fact that many of the people out and about have handguns concealed in their clothes or vehicle, or that anyone, apparently even a teenager, can acquire an AR15 and a high capacity magazine. As a summer customs officer at a tourist crossing, years ago, I was amazed to see how many Americans had a handgun in the glove compartment, or rattling around in the back of the Winnebago, which they were very often incompetent to unload safely.
I might own a carry pistol too if I lived in, say Houston (though not Seattle). I’m grateful that I don’t have to make that choice. I’m also grateful that the Canadian police officers in my family don’t have to be much concerned that there’ll be a firearm in the car when they conduct a traffic stop. Despite these restrictions on our liberties, we enjoy a functioning democracy. We really aren’t worried that we need an armed militia to deter King George or his descendants from coming back or to overthrow our own government.
I don’t mean to be glib when I say that I think that one of the best things we can do to reduce these mass killings is to increase paid time off. Companies really like to “get the most” out of their employees. If society can enable people to spend more of their time in their communities and with their families, we stand a much better chance of reducing “lone wolf” alienation and other sources of this disease. On a related note, the “we are failing men” message—while probably true—really undersells the incredible resilience of women, who have plenty of challenges and yet are never these killers.
Kevin defends gun rights, including AR-15 ownership:
First off, I like guns. I grew up with guns, was a member of a Fish and Game Club in upstate New York and participated in the junior Civilian Marksmanship Program as a high schooler. When I went away to a Quaker liberal arts college, I didn’t shoot very often until after I completed law school and had been in the workforce for several years. I got back into guns and shooting when I was about thirty and now have what many would consider a small arsenal of rifles, pistols and shotguns. I know of course that I don’t “need” all of those guns, but as an enthusiast it is hard to resist the siren call to collect. I shoot semi-regularly as a member of a private gun range. I shoot pistols, largely to stay familiar with my pistols and adept at their use. I shoot rifles for fun, mostly bolt action rifles at long ranges or my .22 at shorter ranges. It is a hobby, a form of fun, and a considered choice to be armed in the event of some sort of emergency.
Constitutionally, I do believe that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to bear arms. The much contested Second Amendment is not a model of clarity and it is fair to contest its meaning. I am a lawyer and have very rigorously read many of the briefs.
The Constitutional Convention, like any legislative body, was populated by people with different aims, desires, and understandings and was created as a compromise of all these competing thoughts. There certainly was a strain of the body that was concerned that a strong federal government might attempt to restrict state militias. But there were also strands of thought concerned with individual rights. I think the best reading of the amendment, that gives value to both propositions and which best comports with the contemporary understanding of the amendment, is that the Framers wanted to protect both state militias as well as individual rights and that the best way to preserve a militia was to protect the right of individuals to keep and bear arms so that a large percentage of the population might be familiar with the usage of firearms. I don’t believe the right is restricted to those who participate in a militia. Furthermore, the “militia” as then understood was the entire adult male population (which via our modern understanding of the constitution would now consist of the entire adult population).
As to logic or arguments based on first principles and without recourse to the constitution, I think that overall, there should be a right to carry. I am happy to condition that right on some government regulation, and to grant the government the right to restrict firearms from sensitive locations, events, etc. Experience teaches us that licensed concealed carriers in the U.S. are extraordinarily law abiding and very rarely misuse their firearms. If we could realistically restrict firearms carrying to only those who have a carry license, we would very easily be in the same line of gun violence as experienced by all the western European countries always mentioned. The problem of gun violence does not flow from the people who obtain a carry license. Rather, it largely flows from criminal elements (i.e., those who are engaged in criminal activity separate and apart from their ownership/use of guns) who use guns. If we truly are a country that wants to maximize individual freedoms and curtail them only to the extent necessary to protect the rest of the population from abuses of those rights, then we should be focusing gun violence prevention efforts more narrowly on the people who abuse those rights and less broadly on the larger population who responsibly enjoys those rights.
Fabrice is wrestling with how to understand human nature:
I am a longtime liberal and I at one point in my life considered myself a gun enthusiast. My hobbies have not changed, but the world of gun culture in the US has changed around me.
The discussion about the right to bear arms and whether people should be permitted to do so is linked to a more fundamental question—can people be entrusted with the right to govern themselves and still live in a healthy and safe society? My view on gun ownership is linked to a fundamentally optimistic view—that yes, people in general are trustworthy enough to bear arms and that the norms of American society are sufficient to keep the right in check.
All of the shootings over my adult life should compel a questioning of this belief, but I struggle with the implications. If enough people cannot be trusted to bear arms, on what basis do we entrust them with the franchise? Voting for a sufficiently bad government is arguably an even worse outcome since the effects become wide-ranging instead of localized. If we can’t trust each other on the street to responsibly own a firearm, how many other assumptions about personal responsibility must be tested?
The rise in gun violence is most likely part and parcel of an unraveling of American society in general, where we begin to actively distrust each other in motive and intention. This is a sad state of affairs, and likely moves us to a place not fundamentally compatible with democracy. The sickness of modern gun culture is evident here, because there’s a not-small chunk of gun owners who would actively cheer the downfall of democracy and either the rise of strongmen or a total societal collapse.
While I favor concepts like firearm insurance and red flag laws, I think the root issue has to be re-embedding all of these young male shooters back into society and getting them invested in the world around them, rather than stewing on /k/ and /pol/ and all of the derivative festering holes on the internet. No gun policy other than a total ban would significantly mitigate the root problem, and I don’t have a solution for the root problem.
I did have one suggestion, harkening back to the idea of societal ties. Invert the concept of a red flag law and require anyone who wants to buy a gun to bring a hand-signed affidavit from someone not related to them, affirming that the person is someone they would trust to own a firearm. (The less constitutional but more effective version: apply this restriction to men only, and require the affidavit be signed by a woman.) Most shooters are young manchildren soaked in the brine of the worst parts of the internet as a social substitute for their lonely real life existence. I suspect that something along the lines of this restriction would have stopped the majority of recent shooters.
John warns the NRA to compromise:
I am a concealed carry permit holder. I live in rural America, and I love to hunt. I have a bolt-action rifle every bit as powerful as the weapons used in these appalling mass-shootings, but the fire-rate and magazine capacity are lower and smaller. My words to the NRA and its powerful constituency: Compromise. Right now. If you look to the future, you will recognize threats to your beloved pastimes. The younger generations have made their voices very clear, and they will not tolerate this nor should they. Frankly, they are more interested in cell phones and social media than firearms, and the wise among you know it. Compromise now, or they will amend the constitution.
Thanks for all of your emails. I’ll see you Wednesday.