It is one of the dirty habits of our political discourse that so many people use thermonuclear rhetorical weapons as a first resort. It is not enough for defenders of gun rights to be wrong; they must be complicit in murder. It is not enough for gun-control advocates to be mistaken; they must be jack-booted thugs laying the groundwork for tyranny.
These competing apocalypses, paradoxically, make politics appear smaller — the realm of unbalanced partisans and professional hyperventilators. But more destructively, this type of argument makes incremental change — the kind that our system of government encourages — more difficult.
This is a particular shame on the issue of gun violence. The maximal solutions — broad restrictions on gun ownership or fixing the mental-health system — are so difficult or unlikely that they have become obstacles to action. They are something like, on the issue of global warming, recommending that the earth be moved farther from the sun.
But on guns, there is hope in focus. While overall gun violence in America has gone down dramatically in the last few decades, the use of guns in suicides (constituting about two-thirds of gun-related deaths) and in mass killings have spiked. Gun use in domestic violence and gang-related activity present particular challenges. No single policy will solve all these problems. But in each discrete area, good policy would make a difference.
When it comes to mass killings, we know what the perpetrators generally look like: Disappointed loners, motivated by grudges, seeking fame and planning their violence carefully. So here is an answerable public-policy question: What can we do to identify these dangerous malcontents and keep military-grade weaponry out of their hands? We should be considering: special police task forces that actively identify and track prospective killers instead of passively responding to warnings. Higher age restrictions on gun access. Broader application of gun-violence protective orders that forbid gun ownership to people exhibiting warning signs. Better education on those warning signs among adults who deal with young men. Media norms against using the names of mass killers, which only encourages their deadly performance art.
Surely there are other focused, proactive responses as well. Yet on the left, such ideas are sometimes dismissed as unambitious. And on the right, these proposals reveal a durable division.
When it comes to American gun culture, the issue of motivation matters a great deal. If you defend access to guns for sport and self-defense, there is no logical reason to reject reasonable restrictions on firepower and access. Some compromise — focused on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous and unstable people — is within the realm of possibility. But if you view the ultimate purpose of gun ownership as resistance to a future (or present) tyrannical government, then restrictions on firepower and access are exactly the things a tyrannical government would want. Since the goal of an oppressive state is to have a monopoly on sophisticated weaponry, any incremental movement toward that goal is unacceptable.
This argument — summarized by David French as "the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against tyranny" — is perhaps understandable in a country born of revolutionary violence. But more than two centuries removed from the revolution, the concept seems, well, frightening.
When I look at many of the people holding the guns, I don't really view them as legitimate protectors of my rights, or as qualified to make choices about the employment of violence in politics. I don't view America as halfway to tyranny. And I am grateful that Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr. — who suffered actual oppression by government — made a principled commitment to nonviolent political change.
It is one thing when Thomas Jefferson said "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." It is another thing entirely when your well-armed neighbor says the same.
It is not just apocalyptic language but apocalyptic thinking that paralyzes our political system on gun violence. And it is difficult to see how incremental progress can be made unless that mindset is marginalized.