Is fatalism the proper response to the grotesque massacre of children in Newtown, Conn., last week? It is important to resist such temptations on most policy issues — I still believe there's a small chance for peace in the Middle East, after all — but on the matter of controlling guns, the path isn't immediately apparent and resignation sometimes feels in order.
There are, of course, gun-control measures that make sense. For one, the so-called gun-show loophole should be closed. This is the rule that allows firearms to be sold at arena-sized shows, and even on the Internet, without federal background checks. About 40 percent of all guns sold legally in the United States pass through this loophole.
I was with Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence shortly after the shooting, and we were both searching for a better term than “loophole” — “gaping chasm,” though inelegant, came to mind. If President Barack Obama doesn't fix this particular problem, he's not fixing anything. Even so, the gun-show loophole seems to have had nothing to do with the Newtown massacre.
Similarly, it is difficult for me to understand why a hunter, or someone defending his family from a home invasion, would need a magazine with a 30-round capacity. If your home is being invaded by 20 or 30 burglars at once, you have an unmanageable problem. These high-capacity magazines should be banned; it is more important, in fact, to ban the magazines than the rifles they feed. Even so, the most lethal mass shooting in U.S. history, at Virginia Tech in 2007, was carried out with handguns, not rifles.
Another important step is to make more demands of mental- health workers, who should be our country's actual first responders. Privacy and trust issues loom large, but there must be better ways for psychiatrists and therapists and school counselors to flag people whom they judge too dangerous, to themselves and others, to possess weapons. And we must, as a country, make the funding of mental health care a priority, so that disturbed young men don't slip through life unnoticed until they are gripped by homicidal rage. Even so, the best mental- health system in the world couldn't possibly identify and stop every one of these men before they spin out of control.
The inescapable fact remains that the United States is a country saturated with guns — as many as 300 million of them, the majority owned legally, but many not. As many as 47 percent of adult Americans keep a firearm in their home or on their property; many own more than one. It isn't especially difficult for even the dimmest of criminals, or for the dangerously mentally ill, to find a gun in a country flooded with them.
It is for these reasons that I believe in the right of law- abiding, trained and government-vetted citizens to possess firearms, because one way to defend yourself against a gun is with a gun (which would-be victims often do, according to the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey).
I am less moved by the argument of libertarian Second Amendment absolutists, that guns protect citizens from the imposition of tyrannical rule, because I haven't seen a reason to fear domestic tyranny, and, really — the government has drones and Apache helicopters and nuclear weapons. Handguns and semi-automatic rifles will not be of great help.
The reason I support armed self-defense is practical: I doubt I would feel the same way if there were many fewer weapons in circulation, but I don't see a constitutional way to substantially reduce the country's civilian arsenal any time soon.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Dec. 16 on “Meet the Press” that if Obama “does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns.” The mayor (who is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP) is partly right: Although the prevention of murder should be a central public-policy priority, there actually isn't a great deal the president can do. He can't radically upend American gun culture, he can't do much to reverse the number of guns now in civilian hands and he can't alter the Constitution.
I sometimes think a straightforward debate on the Second Amendment would at least be clarifying (and quite possibly sobering for Northeast liberals). But Dan Gross told me he considers the debate closed. “We have to respect the fact that a lot of decent, law-abiding people believe in gun ownership.” Demonization of gun owners, Gross argues, drives them toward the kind of irrational militancy the National Rifle Association has become known for.
That's why NRA members — many of whom don't share the organization's extremist opposition to even mild gun-control initiatives — may actually be the key to real change. NRA members believe, as a rule, that guns should be available for hunting and sport, and that they have a legitimate role to play in self-defense.
The president could reiterate to these gun owners that he endorses their right to own weapons for such purposes, and that he doesn't want to take their guns away. In exchange, he should ask them to acknowledge that gun regulation is not gun eradication. He just might, at this horrible moment, split the pro-gun movement. Politically moderate gun owners, aghast at the devastation in Newtown, might see that something in their culture has gone awry, and they might distance themselves from the NRA's imprudent maximalism.
One small cause for hope: The NRA wasn't always absolutist on these issues. Until hardliners took power in 1977, the group had a long history of endorsing, even drafting, common sense gun-control measures. Of course, many conservatives in the 1960s, including Ronald Reagan, supported gun control as a means of keeping weapons out of the hands of black militants, but the NRA's interest in gun regulation dates back to the 1920s. The NRA's president at the time, Karl T. Frederick, helped draft legislation that required permits for carrying concealed weapons and forced gun dealers to report their sales to the government.
It is hard to imagine the NRA moving back in this sensible direction. And it is hard to imagine real progress on this issue without the support, or acquiescence, of the tens of millions of Americans who legally own guns.