American Arsenal

Our gun problem is getting worse.
Armed demonstrators take part in a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, November 21, 2020 (CNS photo/Hannah McKay, Reuters).

The fact that there are 393 million weapons in the hands of private citizens isn’t suggestive of anything particularly good or healthy about a society. The average American gun owner possesses five weapons, while 14 percent of the gun-owning population has an arsenal of eight to one hundred and forty. Because federal law prohibits a central registry of firearms owned by private citizens, those totals can’t be confirmed, but you can bet they’re not an overestimate. In 2020, at least 8.5 million previously weaponless Americans armed up, a figure extrapolated from the number of pre-purchase background checks. Overall, more than 21 million guns were sold—the most ever in one year. And a new January sales record was set this year, with 2 million guns sold in the course of the month. Anxiety and anger spurred by the pandemic, last summer’s racial-justice protests, and the presidential election are all thought to be factors.

Proponents of unfettered gun ownership don’t see a problem. “These first-time buyers...are taking hold of their God-given right to keep and bear arms and protect themselves and their loved ones,” explained Lawrence G. Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. It is true that most people who buy guns say they’re doing so to protect themselves; it’s been decades since the primary reason was for hunting or sport-shooting. It’s also true that use of a gun for self-defense is exceedingly rare—though it’s unfortunately common for homicide and suicide. As all those millions of weapons were being purchased for self-defense, the number of gun-involved murders spiked across the nation, reaching its highest total in twenty years. Correlation may not be causation, but you can’t use a gun to kill a person if you don’t have a gun.  

Second Amendment essentialists forever insist that the government is going to outlaw gun purchases, if not take gun owners’ guns away, and now that Joe Biden is president, the Great Confiscation must be truly nigh. As if it needs to be said, that isn’t true. Prohibiting the purchase of guns isn’t politically possible, and confiscation isn’t practically possible, not only because there’s no actual initiative behind it, but also because there’s no way to track down and seize hundreds of millions of firearms. No matter: the loudest firearm owners warn that they’re ready to fight, or even mount a preemptive attack instead. Charlton Heston’s infamous boast at a long-ago NRA convention—“From my cold dead hands!”—is a laughably bad B-movie line next to “Let’s put a bullet in Nancy Pelosi’s skull,” which is what some Trumpist rioters were saying in the run-up to January 6. The insurrection revealed why such rhetoric can’t be dismissed as hyperbole.

Gun people like to say that the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun—but just who are the good guys? Someone managed to assure armed protestors that they were good guys and thus had license to storm the Capitol. The armed intimidators who descended on Michigan’s state house last year, and who plotted the kidnapping of Gov. Gretchen Witmer, were told they were good guys. GOP representatives like Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Andy Harris of Maryland believe they’re good guys, too, and that’s why they should be allowed to skirt metal detectors and security checks and bring weapons into the House chamber, no matter long-standing rules. Some suggest that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is exaggerating when she says her life was in immediate danger on January 6 and might still be, but with so many good guys with guns running amok, why should anyone doubt her? Or Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who reports being targeted by colleagues known to carry guns? Or any Democrat whom QAnon conspiracist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has said should be executed?

Correlation may not be causation, but you can’t use a gun to kill a person if you don’t have a gun.

For many years I’ve been making monthly donations to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The organization is named after James Brady, press secretary under President Ronald Reagan, who was severely wounded when he was shot in the head during the assassination attempt against Reagan in 1981. He and his wife, Sarah, are responsible for the Brady Bill, which mandates background checks on handgun purchases from federally licensed firearm dealers. The legislation was originally introduced in 1988 during Reagan’s final term, but it took multiple votes and many years before Bill Clinton finally signed it into law in 1993. James Brady died in 2014; his death was ruled a homicide because of the damage done to his brain by the bullet fired thirty-three years earlier.

Admittedly, a small recurring donation to an organization committed to “[combating] the epidemic of gun violence” can feel like a futile gesture given that the epidemic of gun violence rages on. The National Rifle Association bears significant responsibility for that, having spent lavishly over the course of decades to defeat common-sense proposals endorsed by the Brady Campaign (like a federal registry), squash epidemiological studies on gun violence, and ensure the “right” of domestic terrorists on no-fly watch lists to purchase weapons. Its political influence has waned in recent months amid infighting and embarrassing revelations of financial misconduct; it’s also under investigation by the state of New York for corruption, and has declared bankruptcy in what seems like an attempt to shield its assets from liability. But the damage it has done is lasting, and now the messaging of aggrieved victimization, distortion, fear, and lies it so skillfully and shamelessly wielded has been adopted by many in the GOP, who deploy it in turn to complain about everything from mask-wearing and alleged election fraud to “socialism” and fines for bringing guns to the House floor.

But even in the minority, the party still has enough sway to prevent the Biden administration from passing meaningful federal legislation on guns. Restrictions vary from state to state; notably, Washington D.C.’s relatively strict rules may have discouraged some Trump rioters from bringing weapons to the Capitol, perhaps helping avert a full-out armed attack. Yet this month in Florida, the state senate advanced legislation to allow guns in houses of worship; it’s known as the “bible-and-bullets” bill. Stanford Law Professor John J. Donahue believes the Supreme Court will soon expand the Second Amendment by asserting there’s a constitutional right to carry guns anywhere outside the home, extending to automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. “If such a ruling were to be handed down, most useful existing state gun-control laws would be wiped out,” he says. Far from being taken away, guns are proliferating; far from tightening, restrictions on guns are likely to loosen. Our “gun problem” is not a problem so much as a condition of American life—and in its apparent permanence, a dangerously debilitating one.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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