Reporter's Notebook

The Certainty of More Shootings
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James Fallows leads an ongoing discussion with readers on the inevitability (or otherwise) of mass shootings in the U.S. To join in, drop us a note:

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The Certainty of More Shootings, Cont'd

A regular reader, Doug Pancoast, joins the depressingly ongoing thread led by Fallows:

I think America’s gun problem (and I do believe that America has a gun problem) really boils down to three major divides.

The first is the urban-rural divide. For the Americans who still live in rural areas, their experience with guns is very different from people who grew up in cities. There are far more shootings in cities than in tiny towns, and so the perceived level of danger is very different. Furthermore, cities have police who can respond to problems much more quickly than a sheriff might be able to respond to a shooter out in the country. People in rural areas don’t feel like they can depend on police to protect them, and therefore they feel like they need the protection of a gun. However, people in rural America want to to force people living in populated cities to live with the same loose gun restrictions, even though the dangers associated with guns are much greater for people living in cities.

The second divide has to do with the way individuals, regardless of where they might live, view guns.

Public Religion Research Institute

One reader wants to start a discussion on the question:

School shootings are absolutely horrific. They’re like plane crashes; very unlikely to affect you, but terrible and frightening if they do. We don’t want to alter our entire society to respond to a sensational but ultimately quite rare event. If you want to arm teachers, then you might as well mandate that every child in a car wear a full Formula One racing suit and helmet. A child is far more likely to die in a car crash than in a school shooting.

That said, I’d like to hear about other possible remedies and defenses.

A reader, Michael Jalovecky, takes the thread on yet another tangent—and a good one:

I found myself in agreement with one reader’s comment that “the Constitution guarantees a right [that pro-life and gun-control activists] don’t like, so they make it as difficult as possible to exercise that right.”  Well put. To that I would stretch the comparison to a larger liberal vs. conservative paradigm and highlight that both camps hypocritically apply interpretative theories of the Constitution that suit they’re preferred policy outcomes.

A few readers flip the analogy around:

To this conversation I would also offer the corollary: Pro-Life Activists are very much like Gun Control Activists. As Jim Elliott correctly notes, with both issues you have camps opposed on first principles. In both cases you have camps that are unable to accomplish outright bans, due to a combination of constitutional barriers and public opposition.

Most regulations on abortion are arbitrary, simply meant to make the process as onerous as possible. Requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges is not meant to enhance patient safety. Mandatory ultrasounds, including those of the highly invasive trans-vaginal sort, are not intended to provide the doctor or the patient with important medical information. Since bans are presently not feasible, anti-abortion activists will take any restrictions they can get.

Much is the same with most gun control proposals. Proposals to ban so-called “assault weapons” are perhaps the best example of this. It is essentially the “partial birth abortion” of the gun control world.

Jim Elliott responds to the criticisms from readers in these updates:

First, while all analogies are inherently flawed—there’s no one-to-one equivalence, ever—I think in this case, the analogy is somewhat effective, because it illustrates the practical problem of talking pragmatic policy trying to bridge the divide between camps opposed on first principles. I understand—though don’t agree with—many gun rights advocates’ concerns regarding gun control, because ultimately the “middle ground” solutions your reader says “most” people are in favor of—background checks, cooling off periods, safety training, and no assault rifles—are just tinkering around the edges.

Look at the “gun show loophole.” In 1997, the Justice Department found that 0.7 percent of guns used in crimes were obtained at gun shows. Many states—including California, which leads the nation in the number, but not rate, of gun crimes—already require background checks at gun shows.

Cooling off periods are, again, useful for some types of gun violence—i.e. suicide—but not gun crime. Even their utility in reducing suicides was found to only be statistically valid for intended suicides by people 55 or older. Again … tinkering.

Jessica Hill / AP

Jim Elliott, a reader whose writing on guns Ta-Nehisi featured a few years ago under a pseudonym, rejoins the debate under his real name:

Your reader's comparison of gun rights activists to pro-choice activists made immediate sense to me, as a gun rights liberal. Both gun control advocates and pro-life advocates primarily work upon first principles. They make a moral argument, not a pragmatic one.

As perhaps well they should. Pro-choice advocates, after all, weigh the potential for life against the liberty of a life already existing and choose the latter, whereas gun rights advocates weigh the potential for death against the liberty of a life already existing, and choose the latter.

When you’re essentially arguing against a moral axiom such as life, you’ve just picked the losing team. Just as a pro-choice advocate can’t really argue with the picture of an aborted fetus, neither can a gun rights advocate argue against the picture of a weeping parent. Nor should they; as Ben Carson and Jeb Bush just learned, it’s basically impossible to not be an ass if you even try.

Sure, us gun rights guys can quote figures all we want. I could point out that according to the National Institutes of Justice, the use of firearms in non-fatal violent crime is down, drastically:

Fallows promotes on Twitter an extensive, ongoing feature from The Guardian illustrating mass shootings across the U.S.:

The Guardian and Mass Shooting Tracker

The whole, depressingly long graphic is here. The current tally is “994 mass shootings in 1,004 days.” Those six red figures in the lower-right corner probably caught your eye, too. Details:

Scott and Nicole Westerhuis, along with their four children, third-grader Kailey, fifth-grader Jaeci, eighth-grader Connor, and sophomore Michael were believed to have died in a fire on Sept. 17 at their home at 36705 379th Street, 3 miles south of Platte.

On Monday, the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office released the family's preliminary autopsy reports, which indicate that cause and manner of death for Nicole, Kailey, Jaeci, Connor and Michael Westerhuis were homicide by shotgun wounds. The attorney general’s office released information late on Monday that says the cause of death for Scott Westerhuis is suspected suicide based on the current investigation findings.

They both oppose any incremental regulations to abortion and guns, respectively, believing those incremental steps are a means to banning. At least that’s what the following reader suggests, quoting an earlier reader:

But the interesting point is that I don’t think any of the owners of these collections would take umbrage at being called the appropriate type of nut.* They’d just smile, say they love their hobby, and think wistfully about the next addition to their collection. So why do gun owners react so differently? Is it because they’re defensive about the reactions of others to their “hobby”? Because the central organizing theme of their collection is lethality?

Being defensive about other’s reaction to an arsenal is a lot different than being defensive about a collection of shoes. If you embarrass your friend about his computer collection, or his shoe collection, he only has to deal with embarrassment. In fact, he has no reason to suspect you noticing the number of shoes or computers he has at all, since nobody has ever mentioned or floated a ban on him owning multiple numbers of shoes or computers or tools or cars.

In this case, though, you have voices calling for a ban on arsenals, and defining arsenals as a number of guns generally lower than ten.

Back at the dawn of time I got the Marksmanship merit badge in the Boy Scouts

In an item after the Oregon shootings, I quoted a reader from Florida saying that if you owned more than 10 guns yourself, you might be considered to have an “arsenal.” And just now on TV I heard the British father of the Oregon murderer asking why anyone, including his son, would want or need so many guns.

Yesterday I quoted a reader who said, on the contrary, ten or more guns could be a perfectly reasonable collection for perfectly non-threatening citizens to have.

On the “how much is enough” point, responses from two readers. First, on the similarities and differences between “gun nuts” and other types of nuts, a reader argues that there really is something different in how gun owners relate with the rest of us.

Your correspondent argues that you can own ten guns without being a "gun nut", then proceeds to list an inventory that he feels makes his case.

Let's try to approach on different collections. Suppose I owned ten motorcycles of different types. Perhaps a cafe racer, an enduro bike, a big touring bike, and so on. Would that make me a motorcycle nut? Probably. You're a runner (I think). Maybe you own ten or more pairs of running shoes. [JF note: Over the years, yes. And let’s not get into old computers, or types of beer.] I'm sure you can come up with a better list than I can, but I can imagine shoes for street running, dirt running, trail running, training, racing, and so on.

Does that make you a running shoe nut. Yup.

Are we doomed to the ritual of “our thoughts and prayers go to the families” after whatever is the latest mass-shooting massacre, and to the knowledge that only in the United States will this keep happening week after week after week? That’s the theme of the posts you see collected in this thread. Now, further reader response.

The answer is the market. One reader says:

Two points. First, the reason for the certainty [of more shootings] is our bizarre, obsolete 2nd amendment. The only other nations with a constitutional guarantee are Mexico and Haiti. The rest of the world understands that they want their communities to choose the regulations they can apply to the ownership, storage and use of deadly weapons. But in the US, one zealot—ONE—can go to court, and on the basis of the 2nd amendment overrule the entire community’s decision. Now, that constitutional guarantee isn't going anywhere, but as long as it is in place, there’s not stopping the horrors from recurring.

Second, the only path to any kind of gun control in the US is market-based. The constitution guarantees you the right to own guns, but it doesn’t guarantee that you'll be able to afford them. Liability insurance, transfer fees, import quotas—we should concentrate on everything that can be done non-legislatively to drive up the cost and scarcity of handguns. It’s all we've got...


Why we don’t call it “terrorism.” Another reader:

I’ve received a flood of mail in response to the Oregon shooting and this item on whether the United States is doomed to be the only developed nation that tolerates mass-fatality shootings as routine.

The message quoted below is related to the evocative photo above, showing the moment in 1967 when armed Black Panthers marched into the California state capitol building in Sacramento. (This moment is also part of a great new documentary on the Black Panthers,  which its director Stanley Nelson discussed with our editor James Bennet at the Washington Ideas Forum this week.) This reader imagines what it would be like if today’s Muslims applied a similar approach:

One sentence in your article reminded me of an idea a friend and I have had for a couple of years to combat the NRA.  "[The President] highlighting the disproportion between America’s sky-is-falling sensitivity to the slightest potential risk that could be defined as 'terrorism' versus its blasé acceptance of unending home-grown killings."  What if gun control advocates combined the two and exploited that terrorism sensitivity?   

One evening, my friend, who happens to be of Indian and Sri Lankan descent, noted the potential hypocrisy of many Second Amendment supporters in that all hell would likely break loose if he walked the streets with an AR-15.