Working with gun guys

Vocal proponents of gun control probably won’t find much to satisfy them in David Cole’s current New York Review of Books piece, “Facing the Real Gun Problem.” It’s not just that there’s little in the way of red meat; it’s that the sensible, healthy fare comes with dubious explanations of why it’s necessary to eat this way, never mind that other folks don’t have to.

Cole doesn’t downplay the degree of carnage in this country (nearly one and a half million people killed by guns since 1960), or the folly of the Senate stopping the background-check legislation favored by nine out of ten Americans from even getting to a floor vote. He casts reduction of gun violence as a moral imperative, and he calls rightful attention to Joe Nocera’s The Gun Report blog, which daily collects and posts local news reports on firearm violence: “It may well be the single most effective example of pro–gun control advocacy being produced today.…  Every citizen should read [it].” He advocates focusing on efforts that have a realistic chance of succeeding (reviving background-check legislation and pushing for safe-storage laws), and abandoning those that don’t (banning assault weapons and limiting magazine capacity).

All very reasonable, which is fine. What’s frustrating is that Cole makes it seem only one side in the debate should be expected to exhibit such decorum. There’s been hyperbole from both camps, Cole writes, but now

if any meaningful reform is to be achieved, it must be done in league with, not in opposition to, many of those who own guns and feel strongly about their right to do so. The way forward requires identifying reforms that would be both effective and respectful of gun owners’ legitimate concerns.

As a proposed way forward, it’s better than, say, calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. But what those legitimate concerns are is hard to say. That 230 million individually owned weapons are about to be confiscated? That the federal government is hoarding ammunition both to deprive gun owners and use it to impose tyranny? Or simply that the eponymous “gun guys” of Dan Baum’s recent book are feeling “disrespected”? As Cole notes, the “NRA has for years warned that any regulation is a step on the slippery slope to a wholesale ban—even after the Supreme Court announced in 2008 that the Constitution precludes outright bans on handguns and ordinary rifles.” Yet the NRA and other paid representatives of gun owners and gun manufacturers have since succeeded in blocking or dismantling purchase, wait-time, background-check, and licensing requirements throughout the country; in getting states (now numbering forty-two, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence) to enact pre-emption laws that prohibit cities and municipalities from regulating the use and carry of weapons in their parks, swimming pools, and other public spaces; in helping propagate “stand-your-ground” statutes that greatly expand the permissibility of use of deadly force by one person upon another; and in making it easier for gun manufacturers to market lethal weapons directly to children as young as eight years old.

These are also legitimate concerns, to many of those who do not own guns, and they have the advantage of being rooted in fact. Further, the watering down or blocking of licensing and tracking measures helps maintain the flow of illegal handguns into the places where Cole acknowledges the greatest damage is being done: cities like Chicago and Baltimore and Los Angeles. His prescription for this:

The problem in the inner city will not be solved by gun laws alone, but by efforts to respond to systemic poverty, unemployment, gangs, broken families, failed public education, and drugs. Dealing effectively with these causes would reduce gun violence without in any way affecting gun rights, and so should trigger no objections from the NRA. Indeed, if the NRA and gun owners want to preserve their rights and reduce gun violence, they should affirmatively support such initiatives.

Again, fair and reasonable enough. Or maybe too reasonable? Cole himself cites findings by Baum and Nate Silver that suggest gun ownership correlates highly with libertarian conservatism. How likely are the NRA and its members to “affirmatively” support measures on inner-city poverty and unemployment? Don’t forget that some of the same interests helped shut down Centers for Disease Control research into the causes and effects of gun violence, doing lasting damage to the field by getting Congress to cut off funding for some seventeen years.

Empathy, reasoned appeal based on sound evidence, meeting the opposition on its terms—all are necessary in making progress on emotionally charged issues. But why is it necessary that only one side should be called on to adhere to such sensible conventions?

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

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