“Those who say that nothing can be done are wrong.” Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), repeatedly insisted in regards to the country’s gun violence crisis at a town hall last week, which was attended by 1,300 of his constituents. I fervently pray that my congressman is right. But if we are to overcome political intransigence and radio silence from members of Congress who are beholden to the NRA, some aspects of how we think about gun control need to change. We seek The Fix, a magical one-and-done solution, but such a thing doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to change our attitude and goals, and debate for the long haul.
We often deride the predictable and insincere “thoughts and prayers” from the right, but the left usually has an equally unproductive reaction: “Nothing is ever going to change.” This world-weary prediction of inaction is deleterious to the efforts of those actually motivated to fight against the gun lobby and lets opponents off the hook from defending their position. Yes, the gun lobby is influential, but not just because of campaign money; the NRA also depends heavily on the popular perception of its power, and reflexive liberal defeatism only underscores its impression as an indomitable force.
And with this liberal fatalism, card-carrying NRA conservatives can hijack the gun violence debate with a series of incoherent and inadequate policies. The risk is that these half-hearted measures will drain the energy from the movement demanding change — this is what the gun lobby is counting on. Raising the legal age to buy a semiautomatic weapon to 21 would be a step in the right direction, but it’s not a solution. Everytown for Gun Safety found that only five percent of mass shooters it studied were age 20 or younger. And the majority of children killed by guns are not killed in mass shootings but by accident, by their own hand or by other children or adults — with weapons legally obtained by adults.
Nor is the problem mental illness. After the Parkland shooting, President Trump blathered about committing people to mental hospitals against their will in order to prevent mass shootings, even if they hadn’t committed a crime. Never mind that among 133 acts of gun violence studied by Everytown, only 11 percent showed “evidence that concerns about the mental health of the shooter had been brought to the attention of a medical practitioner, school official or legal authority.” Trump’s ramblings are reminiscent of Soviet-era tactics, when doctors used dubious claims of schizophrenia with a slowly progressive course to imprison dissidents on the grounds that they were on the way to becoming insane. Mental illness does not cause gun violence, and unjustly stigmatizing the mentally ill and blaming an inadequate mental health system allows the gun lobby to sidestep responsibility and dilute the gun violence debate.
The real problem is that there are too many firearms in the U.S. — more than 300 million, or about one for every American. They are too easy to obtain and they are becoming more lethal, they are defended by a part of the Constitution revered as gospel, written almost 250 years ago when the country lacked a standing army or navy and when guns could shoot only one bullet at a time. Nor could the Founding Fathers conceive the technological advances that have made many firearms coldly efficient killing machines with no civilian purpose. The gun lobby has conned Americans into believing that they have a God-given right to own an unlimited number of any type of firearm without any restriction. But the Constitution was once amended to ban alcohol; it is not the word of God and should not be treated as such.
We can debate gun reform legislation until the cows come home, but as a country, we must address the widespread gun culture, fascination with violence and interplay of guns and toxic masculinity in relation to the gun violence crisis.
“The American idea is caught up in carnage … Its very beginning is rooted in gun violence,” wrote Charles Blow in a recent column in The New York Times. “It is by the barrel that this land was acquired. It is by the barrel that the slave was subdued and his rebellions squashed. And that is to say nothing of our wars. We have venerated the gun and valorized its usage. America is violent and the gun is a preferred instrument of that violence. America, in many ways, is the gun.”