First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Bob Strong / Reuters

The gun massacre in Parkland, Florida, was nearly six weeks ago. In those weeks, thousands more Americans have died from gun violence. (The average rate is around 90 per day, more than half of them suicides and the rest homicides or accidents.) Today hundreds of thousands of students and others have joined the “March for Our Lives” to demand a solution to what seems America’s most insoluble problem.

As I return to the country (and the online realm) after several weeks away from both, I’d like to resume the discussion that ran in this space in the three weeks after the Parkland killings. Starting with the most recent, the previous entries in the series are:

and before that:

Now, a sampling of messages that have come in, responding to arguments in the preceding rounds.

Seriously, why stop with the AR-15? A previous installment was from a reader who said it was unfair to single out the AR-15 for attention, even though it is a weapon originally intended for military use, now present by the millions in civilian households in America, and very commonly used in recent massacres. After all, that reader said, many other kinds of guns can have roughly the same effect. Another reader takes similar reasoning in a different direction:

A well-regulated militia USA Today Sports

Here are two pro-gun arguments, from people who are not bots and who don’t go in for the “you libtard cuck!” style of discourse. Obviously I disagree with their perspectives. But because they’re making sustained versions of two main arguments against current gun-control measures, I quote them at length.

The first argument is that it’s meaningless to concentrate on one weapon, the AR-15, even though it has been used in the most notorious recent gun massacres. A reader writes:

I am an avid firearms enthusiast, and I own an AR-15 rifle.

One of your articles begins as follows: "I’ve argued over the years that the AR-15 is a weapon designed for the military, which was never meant to be in civilian hands. Dissenting arguments fall into three main categories: slippery slope (any step toward gun regulation is really a step toward confiscation and prohibition); pointlessness (disturbed people will always find a way to kill); and hypocrisy (how can you complain about gun killings, when abortion goes on?).”

I would provide you with a fourth dissenting argument: functional non-uniqueness. The AR-15 style rifle was introduced into the civilian market in the early to mid 1960’s, not long after its fully automatic variants were introduced to the military. While the rifle was indeed originally designed for the military, there is nothing notable about that fact.

Such is the case for all semi-automatic rifles, both “assault"-style and wood/steel traditional style, bolt-action rifles, lever action rifles, etc. I would encourage you to research the M1 carbine, M1A, and M1 Garand. These rifles have all been used in the US military, but none are ever mentioned in the context of an “assault weapons” ban. Indeed, they would not even be affected by any such legislation. [JF note: as non-peevishly as I can, I’ll point out again that I researched and wrote in detail about the engineering and wound-ballistics history of these Army weapons, back in the 1980s, in my book National Defense and in this Atlantic article.]

AR-15 and AK-47 rifles are not functionally different from other semi-automatic rifles. You cannot provide any evidence to the contrary of that fact.

Are they fully automatic? No. All firearms available to civilians in this country are semi-automatic, which is a very different mechanism.

Do they have a particularly high rate of fire? No. The rate of fire of an AR-15 or AK-47 style rifle is no different than that of a handgun. [JF note: Without getting into all the details, I’ll note that this is a hotly contested claim.]

Do they fire particularly powerful rifle ammunition? No. In fact the AR-15 is illegal for deer hunting in many places because it tends to use very low-powered ammunition. I’ve recently read articles that compare AR-15 ammunition to handgun ammunition and arrive at the conclusion that the AR-15 is so powerful that it must be banned. What’s missing is a comparison to other rifles. Virtually all rifles are more powerful than the average handgun. Such does not render the AR-15 different.

Joshua Lott / Reuters

For the list of previous entries in this series, please see the index at the end of the post. But: if you’re revving up to send me a note explaining what kind of ammunition the AR-15 uses, and how it is similar to (and different from) the military’s M-16 (and so on), please first at least look at this 8,000 word Atlantic article I did on that exact topic more than 35 years ago.

For today’s installment, letters from readers who are familiar with weapons and with the military application of firepower, and the lessons it has for civilian use.

First, from an Army officer:

I’m a Regular Army officer and have served in frontline positions in Iraq (this only to mean that I’ve got a very small slice of experience with the practical application of what military grade weapons were designed to do).

I’m a southerner who grew up shooting .22s in the field behind the house from the time I could hold the rifle.

I own several “classic” firearms like the M-1 Garand and a Martini-Henry, though not an AR-platform, which I shoot enough at work, to be honest (something half-submerged in my mind makes me think that in my house I don’t need a weapon designed exclusively for combat, either for sport or home defense—my German Shepherd is a much better platform for both).

All that to say that for the first time ever, I find myself more strongly on the side of gun control than of unrestricted gun circulation. (Addendum: I am not one who “vet-splains” and expects that my service makes my point of view infallible, but I hope this might tease out some further lines in the discussion.)

My niche perspective is this: in the Army, firearms are much more heavily regulated than in civil society. How can so many enthusiastic gun owners say that they hold the military as a model, and yet not accept the strict regulations that go with the military’s use of firearms?

A memorial to victims of gun violence in 2013 Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Two readers with suggestions on talking and thinking about guns.

First, how we talk:

I’m struck by the central role language might be playing in impeding agreement on gun measures. In large part, this revolves around the manner in which words fall upon the ears of gun owners and the effect that has on gaining their (disclosure: our) cooperation (assuming this is truly sought).

Often the way gun control people call for regulation immediately discredits them in the eyes of the gun community or allows for far too-easy caricature.

Some examples are well-worn—for instance, the continued misuse of the term “automatic” instead of “semiautomatic.” Failing to make that distinction unfortunately provides an immediate off-ramp when it comes to engaging skeptical gun owners (assuming this is truly sought). Other examples (trivial as they may seem) include “clip” for “magazine”, “silencer” for “suppressor”, or “AK” vs “AR.”

We normally expect those seeking to regulate practices or products to have at least a passing knowledge of the same. If legislative debate confused wheels with tires (in the case of automotive regulation), ailerons with flaps (in the case of aviation), Oxycontin with Oxycodone (in the case of opioids), it would invite unnecessary obstacles to progress.

In more reasonable times or topics, we could get past inexact language either through faith in one another and/or the education that comes through civil exchange. That’s not where we are. Rather, what we have is a predominant viewpoint (additional reasonable gun regulations) confronting an intense, single-issue-voting, gun-identitarian minority saturated for decades with the doomsday fear and loathing of the NRA.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Previously in this series:

This installment  is  a sample of the range of recent response. Note: many people have written about David French’s post explaining why he feels “safer” owning an AR-15. Since I didn’t publish that item myself, I don’t feel that I should post dissents here. Instead I have forwarded those messages to the editors of the Atlantic’s new Letters section.

Moral equivalence and hypocrisy. I’ve argued over the years that the AR-15 is a weapon designed for the military, which was never meant to be in civilian hands. Dissenting arguments fall into three main categories: slippery slope (any step toward gun regulation is really a step toward confiscation and prohibition); pointlessness (disturbed people will always find a way to kill); and hypocrisy (how can you complain about gun killings, when abortion goes on?). Here’s a representative sample from the last category:

Funny how you write about gun violence in America

Iike so many others without a hint of care about the 700,000 (yearly average) deaths of kids in this country caused by abortion. Death is final no matter how it's done, legal or not.

All arguments about gun violence are hypocritical without addressing this sad, yet legal, genocide being accomplished by those liberal progressives who cry the loudest.

No I don't own any automatic or semi-automatic gun and I am not a Republican or Conserative party member. Just a middle of the road American Citizen who thinks the pot should stop calling the kettel black!

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Today, Eric Kingsbury, of San Francisco, on what he has thought, and felt, about guns after being robbed at gunpoint a year and a half ago. I should note that all the links in his dispatch are ones he added himself:

I’ve faced down a loaded gun once in my life. It was 10 PM on the night before the Fourth of July in 2016 and I was walking to the train from a friend’s house in Berkeley. Almost as soon as I walked out of my friend’s driveway, a kid ran across to the street to ask me if I had a phone. I told him I didn’t and asked that he leave me alone. That’s when he began to ask more forcefully. Within seconds I felt a hand over my mouth, as two other kids ran out from the shadows. I was completely helpless and, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t in control of my body or my fate.

The kid to my right showed me his gun. He told me he would, “pop a cap in you if you scream or tell anyone,” which would have been darkly funny—the sort of thing someone thinks they should say to sound hard—in almost any other circumstance. He then put the gun back in his sweatshirt pocket and pushed it up against my stomach. Meanwhile, his other two friends went to work grabbing my phone, peeling off my backpack, and checking all my pockets. Once they had everything, they let me go. It didn’t last more than 30 seconds, tops.

The aftermath of the whole situation was a bit of a blur. There was talking to the cops, a very restless night, and the conversations with all my friends and family the following morning. All of it was difficult, especially learning the truth that many of my most liberal-minded friends and family actually held quite retrograde views on race—the assailants were black, and I am white—that they felt freed to share now that something that they’d heard about so many times in the media had happened to “one of us.” But there was one question I got over and over again, one that really surprised me: Would it have been different if you had a gun?

George Frey / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Today, readers on the culture, psychology, and politics of regulating guns.

Really, pay attention to Australia—white-male privilege and all. Several previous messages have referred to Australia’s modern experience with guns. In short: After the mass-casualty “Port Arthur massacre” of 1996, a conservative government (technically, the Liberal party) changed gun policy, and since then Australia has had its share of gun violence but no remotely comparable massacres. By contrast, the five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, and 7 of the 10 worst, have all happened since 1996.

Earlier a reader in Melbourne described the experience of living with the normal range of urban concerns but not the fear of being shot. Another reader who emigrated to Australia writes:

I read your Melbourne reader's comment with intense empathy, because it exactly describes my experience.

I lived in the USA for almost five decades. From the age of 14 to 49, I owned my own guns. There was never a period in which I did not own a gun. I even put one to good use at the age of 15, throwing my mother's boyfriend out of the house after they argued. The gun in my hands made him leave. At various times in my adult life I would carry a pistol, when I deemed it appropriate.

When I immigrated to Australia of course I had to sell off my arsenal. By that point it was down to two pistols (my assault rifle had been stolen years ago).

After my first year here, I noticed there was something different. I felt odd, as if something were missing. It took a road-rage incident to realize it was the absence of fear. No matter how mad someone got at me, no one was going to shoot me. My three decades of martial-arts training would not be trumped by a drunk with three minutes of target practice. My choice to be engaged with the people around me, even when they seemed angry, would not put my life at undue risk.

The irony is that I know almost as many people here (2) that own guns as I did in the USA (3). Hunters and sport shooters can and do have guns. It does involve a fair amount of paperwork and some expense, but not materially worse than owning a car. But the guns are different: single-shot, small caliber rifles or shotguns, not assault rifles and automatic pistols.

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Back in the fall of 2015, in the midst of travels around the country in which my wife, Deb, and I saw countless examples of citizens taking responsibility for changing their own communities, I mentioned a specific way Deb and I intended to apply the lessons of what we’d seen. As the first item in this series explained:

Over the past two years, Deb and I have been increasingly impressed by the importance, vitality, difficulty, and effectiveness of local-level activism in the cities we’ve visited across the United States. We’ve interviewed and written about the people who are committed to changing the texture of life—and have!—in Sioux Falls, or in Fresno or San Bernardino, or in Greenville, or in Eastport or Duluth or Columbus or Allentown or Burlington or Redlands or Pittsburgh.

They have done it. What about us?

What about the place where our children were born and where they finished high school, where we own a house and have lived for more years than anyplace else: Washington D.C.? Don’t we have an obligation to keep pitching in too? The District is the site of national / international struggles but also of intense local involvement. Over the years, our local involvement has been mainly with our immediate neighborhood and with youth sports leagues and the public schools, when our children were there.

One way in which we got involved was to join a group of neighbors trying to bring the nation’s capital up to speed with a growing number of other cities, in phasing out use of the (obviously) noisy, but also surprisingly dangerous, polluting, environmentally destructive, and technologically outdated piece of machinery known as the gas-powered leaf blower. Dozens of cities have already done this, and the pace is increasing. A recent example is Key Biscayne, Florida, which mandated a shift to cleaner, quieter battery-powered equipment—and gave lawn-maintenance companies a whole 180 days to comply.

So over the past two years, or the parts of it when we’ve been in D.C., we have met with our neighbors and friends for the unglamorous but weirdly satisfying slog of trying to change minds and organize support for local legislative action. Specifically, we’ve been urging the District Council to consider and pass a bill proposed by Council Member Mary Cheh, which would phase out gas-powered leaf blowers over the next few years. (You can read its text here.)

The enjoyable part has been regular meetings of our little group of allies, over muffins and coffee at one or another of our houses. It has also meant talking with experts on air pollution, noise pollution, lawn maintenance, engine-design, regulation-enforcement, and other issues, from all around the country. Plus preparing testimony for City Council appearances. Calling council members one by one, and going downtown to for discussions with them (or first, usually, their staffers). Arranging and attending demos of new clean-tech lawn equipment. Raising money to support a website and informational videos. Going to local citizen forums to explain the issue. Learning about the regulatory thickets that apply in most U.S. states but are different in California (which has more leeway, under federal clean-air regulations, to set its own standards) and Washington D.C. (which has less leeway on almost everything than “real” states do, as attested by our “Taxation Without Representation” D.C. license plates.)

The most important work of all, done mainly by one of our colleagues and described more fully below, has been going from one Advisory Neighborhood Commission to the next, explaining the arguments, and getting commissioners to vote in favor of changing the District’s policy.

This item, which will be the last in the series in this space, is an account of what has happened since then, what comes next, and where further online updates can be found.

All notes on "Civic Engagement in Washington DC" >
The NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch has been speaking out against gun reform in the wake of the deadliest school shooting in American history. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Previously in this series:

What’s the mail like from those who reject the need for new gun laws? Here are two samples. The first is — unfortunately, but realistically—representative in its tone and argumentative style of most of the dissenting messages that have arrived:

No mass shootings else where? China...Mao...unarmed public....millions killed

Russia....gulag....KGB...unknown number killed....unarmed public

Balkans....Serb nationalism....thousands killed....unarmed public

You can argue both sides until you are blue in the face, but the way this country's government acts I want to be able to protect those I love and my property.

I also believe that this country has turned away from the concepts that made it great. The media has been complicit in this by promoting "headline" horror stories to increase market share or to scoop others.

The latest shooting has just as much or more to do with the mental health crisis in this country than guns, but let's blame an inanimate item and not the user. It's part of the failure to make people take responsibility for their actions that is condoned by politicians and media both.

To truly fix societies problems is our greatest challenge, using a type of firearm to blame ALL societies ills is not going to solve anything. If you are not promoting a broad fix to a social problem then you are promoting a narrow "headline" grabbing stance, then on to the next"headline".

Americans are letting others think for them i.e. jump on any bandwagon. People need to think for themselves, the most underused human organ these days is the brain

To the reader’s last point I say: Amen.


A different kind of argument comes from a reader who contrasts my enthusiasm, as a small-plane pilot, for the “right to fly,” with my skepticism of AR-15 owners’ right to enjoy, use, or even possess their weapons. The reader says:

In response to your notes on the AR-15’s I think the pro-AR or at least neutral AR position comes down to that despite the high profile shooting, the actual deaths from AR’s are a small portion of total deaths and the lawful owners of AR’s don’t see why they should be deprived of their rights due to the illegal actions of others.

Kevork Djansezian / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Here are some readers with extra elements on this discussion—political, cultural, international. First, an American reader on the interaction of current concepts of masculinity and the nearly all-male population of mass gun murderers:

There are obviously many components to the gun and mental illness issues but one thread that never seems to be acknowledged: America is going through a crisis of masculinity brought on by structural changes in our economy.

Jobs, if men possess them, no longer provide routes to self-esteem for working class men and so, with the help of the NRA, guns have become a talisman for a potency and meaning that has evaporated in the marketplace.

Take a moment to look at the gun magazines at your local WalMart and register the themes that are hammered home. Constant references not to hunting but to warfare, and the trappings of masculinity, the humorless insistence on the tacticality of every day objects, including, I kid you not, a spork with a hidden knife. These industries are preying on the needs of men to feel like they have a job, bigger than themselves, a protector of the fatherland, the constitution.

When I look at [the Las Vegas mass murderer] I see a man who gave himself a job. He worked out all the details as though he were a character in his own mission impossible. He moved from stage to stage with the precision of an engineer. He embraced this culture of death that is fed to men as a surrogate for that which was available for all too short a time in this culture: the ability to take care of a family on one salary.

George Frey / Reuters

For recent items about gun massacres, and the public response, please see (starting with most recent):

An ongoing theme in many of these items is the responsibility—practical, political, moral—of the responsible gun-owning community in the face of ongoing massacres.

A veteran who owns AR-15s writes in on this point, with emphasis in original:

I read your suggestion that current assault-rifle owners (particularly of AR15 rifles or derivatives) might begin to recognize that the they don't actually need to own such a weapon and possibly even turn them in.

I happen to own two similar weapons myself, and I readily admit that I do not need them.  They are pleasurable to shoot, which I do not do all that often.  Other than that, they lay in the top of my closet.  My Revolutionary War reproduction Brown Bess musket gets far more use.

It also happens that I am a school teacher.   I spent yesterday afternoon in  class assuring 14 -year-old students it was okay to text their parents that all was well, after I observed several students earlier in the day replying to anxious missives from parents.

I told them their parents were a little freaked out.  I told them I was a little freaked out also.

I did not tell them that I was livid with anger.  I did not tell them I had not been able to sleep the last two nights because I was alternating between depression and rage.  I did not tell them that otherwise rational adults were now insisting that I and other teachers should now bring handguns into our classrooms and pretend to be infantrymen on a potential battlefield in school every day, because it was even more unthinkable to simply not sell any more weapons of war to civilians!

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

For recent items about gun massacres, and the public response, please see (starting with most recent):

In this installment, readers respond to the proposal in a previous item that the news media should become much less “restrained” and considerate, much more blunt and shocking, and instead “show us the carnage”: Run pictures of the corpses of children and other civilians after gun attacks.  

From a reader in Kentucky:

What prompts me to write was the "show us the carnage” headline of your recent column. That headline likely resonated with anyone who lived in Louisville in 1989, when Joseph Wesbecker killed eight coworkers and wounded many more with an AK-47 at the Standard Gravure printing plant.

The plant was owned by the Bingham family, which had also owned the Courier-Journal until a few years prior. The next day, the Courier ran the attached photo on the front page, along with other photos of injured (and possibly dead) victims. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Archive screen shot, via Atlantic reader.