Charleston, And The Next Time

After Virginia Tech, people arguing for gun control said that the worst of it was that it would happen again, and after Aurora they said that it would happen again, and then after Newtown they said the same thing. Now, after Charleston, we’re saying it yet again. There is no victory or happiness in getting that call right. The worst of it, put another way, is that mini-massacres that would, in any normal country, themselves be subjects of horror have been moved down the scale of monstrosity. Fewer than seven or eight people dead, and it hardly registers anymore—the six-person gun massacre is merely another multiple murder.

Yet there are signs of hope amid the horror. This time, President Barack Obama spoke with a forthrightness to equal his usual eloquent empathy. He was brave and on point, and what he said can only be repeated: “Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun…. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.” Against this, of course, was the suggestion, by a board member of the National Rifle Association, that responsibility for the massacre lay with the clergyman within the church, for opposing laws that would allow “concealed carry” in places of worship. Had he not taken that stand, the argument runs, there would have been a pitched gun battle in the church—a better thing, apparently, even though it would have only fulfilled the gunman’s mad fantasies of race war. Pitched gun battles in a Charleston church or a Connecticut elementary school, of the sort that some in the N.R.A. apparently dream of, would more likely be horrific blood baths, with crossfire and injured bystanders, not some well-tuned and well-timed action-movie scenario.

The reason that we have gun massacres in numbers wildly out of proportion to any other rich country is because we have too many guns. When gun massacres have happened elsewhere—as they sometimes have, in Canada and Scotland and Australia and elsewhere—the common-sense response has been to change the laws, and, almost always, after the laws are changed the massacres end. In the United States, they continue. It seems like a good bet that changing the law here would change that.

In the areas of gun crime where there has been extended study, we know for certain that serious gun control works to end, or at least limit, gun violence. It is as robust a correlation as any in the social sciences, as sure a thing, as I’ve written before, as knowing that antibiotics act to limit and end infections. You go looking for sane counterarguments in favor of overarmed America and find that none exist. Guns don’t protect anyone from anything. Their presence simply increases the odds of domestic tragedy, of a domestic altercation turning into a homicide (or a suicide). The data confirms what common sense suggests: not even the most desperately paranoid among us could possibly be perpetually prepared for an actual home invasion—as very rare as such incidents actually are. The fantasy of the armed homeowner bravely repelling the evil armed intruder is just that. The number of justified homicides is overwhelmed by the number of gun tragedies. In 2012, thirteen states, including New Jersey and New York, reported no justifiable homicides at all. Not one. The notion that gun possession could stop, rather than increase, the number of casualties in the home is another fantasy created by violent movies and television programs, and is only possible in them. (Violent crime is dropping under the gun-control regimes in Europe and Canada as well, just as it has in the States. We’re still the only country that has gun massacres so routinely that our leader has to figure out what new thing he can say each time out.)

So the President was as right on the facts as he was right to be exasperated: on the questions of gun violence, all the crucial evidence is in, and the facts known beyond all argument. Nor does the Second Amendment in any sense compel us toward an armed America. As Gary Wills showed in a masterly dissection, twenty years ago, the Second Amendment, and the arguments that led to it, uses military language to talk about military questions—ones that, in the absence of a standing army, are all about militias and how to keep them safe and, well, well-regulated. It was never intended to guarantee anything like unlimited private rights to private weapons—a view that was the commonplace consensus, until very recent radical views replaced it. Even if this were not so, not even the radicals on the Supreme Court deny that some regulation on weapons is necessary: no one is allowed to just walk into an armory and buy an atomic bomb. (Machine guns, properly so called, are tightly regulated.) There is nothing but our own choices—and, to be blunt, a vote or two on the Supreme Court—to keep us from circumscribing weapons, and their availability, exactly as we think most wise. Nor is there what a morally alert person could describe as a natural “right” or a liberty to own lethal weapons designed only for murder—every remotely free society, other than our own, is astounded by the notion that it might be. There is no “balancing act” between rights and responsibilities here. No “right” is violated when we keep people from having lethal weapons designed only to kill other people; no countervailing responsibility need be invoked. Rural people, who indeed often need rifles to shoot raccoons and beavers and the rest, are still able to have them within a well-regulated regime;they do in Canada. No society that regulates firearms suffers from the absence of any liberty at all, save the liberty of lunatics to murder their neighbors as they choose.

Another, parallel claim—what might be called the insurrectionist one—insists that guns are necessary to enforce a constitutional right to threaten and subvert the duly elected government as gun owners might see fit. This is a view that one Abraham Lincoln rather fiercely resisted, and put an end to in the eighteen-sixties. Amid the arguments over the Confederate battle flag flying in Charleston, the one that insists that the flag represents, above all, an effort to make slavery a permanent state for black people is probably the most relevant. But it’s also worth remembering that the defeat of the Confederacy involved exactly the defeat of the notion that the threat of insurrection was ever to be regarded as an acceptable political act. As Lincoln said, in his first inaugural, “No government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” You can’t say you need to have a gun to threaten the government.

The one sane counterargument to the President’s insistence on the necessity of new gun laws might be this: that gun massacres, however horrific, are blessedly less common than our reaction to them might suggest, and that overreacting to them expends political capital better spent elsewhere. (This is the not-quite-spoken belief of most Democratic Party politicians.) Not all sensational events are significant events. America has indeed become a less violent nation, but it is still one that is hideously and uniquely needlessly blemished by gun violence. It may well be true that, unlike the Birmingham bombers of fifty years ago, who sat within a shadowy network of support from the respectable white establishment, Dylann Roof acted largely and crazily alone in Charleston, without that network. But he didn’t need it. He had a gun, and the gun was, reportedly, not bought for him by Klansmen or neo-Nazis but with birthday money from his parents. Gun massacres, like other terrorist acts, may be statistically less significant than their sensational nature sometimes makes us think—but they are also far more needless than we have been forced to accept.

Mental health, the enduring structures of racism—these are issues that we have to deal with, too. But they are not at the heart of the tragedy. Gun massacres happen for no reason at all, as well as for crazy reasons. Every country has people who come into the grip of delusions. Even peaceful Norway produced its lunatic. Most countries keep lethal weapons out of their hands. After a mass killing, grief is supported by wisdom; laws change, and killings stop.

On most public issues, there are two reasonable views, even when one view seems, to put it mildly, cruel—the view, say, that poor people should be left without medical insurance. But on gun control there aren’t. All the facts are in; all the social science is long settled; the constitutional positions are clear, if contested, and the wiser way known and shared by mankind. On one side are facts, truth, and common sense. On the other, an obsession with dark fantasies of individual autonomy and power—the sheer fetishistic thrill of owning lethal weapons. On one side is the sanity and common sense shared by the entire world; on the other, murder and madness and a strange ongoing American mania. If we don’t change, then, well—it will happen again, again. And then again.