Exactly what evidence would change your mind? A reasonable public debate, if all evidence is going to count for anything, always turns on that question. There are a few cases—genocide and mass famine, let’s say—on which there really are not two sides to the question. But there aren’t a lot of them, and most arguments about the right thing in social policy depend, or ought to, on what actually works in the real world: the arguments over Obamacare, for instance, tend to get caught up in the endless individual cases, but fall apart over the essential fact that American medicine costs more and does less than the socialized kind.
Those of us who have been arguing the case for gun control are so used to the non-responsive response—School buses plunge into ravines and kill people, sometimes! Why don’t you want to ban school buses?—that it’s a real pleasure to find a response rooted in the actual experience of guns and gun owners. It’s good to talk to someone who knows what he’s talking about. As it happens, a book written from a pro-gun, or at least a professional, perspective arrived on my desk the other day. Called “Guns For Good Guys; Guns For Bad Guys,” it is by Michael R. Weisser, a.k.a. Mike the Gun Guy, who owns a gun shop in Massachusetts and blogs about guns for the Huffington Post.
Weisser is truthful about guns and gun violence in ways that underline the essentially cultural, or symbolic, if you like, nature of the practices involved. (America, he points out, is the only country where small arms are fascinating to otherwise law-abiding citizens.) He’s quite right—however uncomfortable it makes either side—to say that those of us in favor of gun control aren’t really that interested in guns: the habits that make our countrymen so fascinated by them are alien to us, and we are, therefore, blind to their appeal. And he has many arresting things to say about how the actual gun trade happens. Weisser points out, for instance, that “guns may be the last consumer products that are still overwhelmingly sold in independent, personally owned stores.” (I suppose you could add wine to this small category, at least in certain states.) For all the lethal damage they do, guns are essentially a hobbyist’s enthusiasm—and the hobbyist’s appetite for the next cool thing drives the market in which Weisser makes his living as much as survivalist fears or apocalyptic nightmares: “Hobbyists have a funny way of always knowing that there’s just one more new product out there that other hobbyists can’t wait to buy.” He also makes the profound and disquieting point that the appetite for “black” guns—military-style weapons—is often driven by the new reality that ours is a highly militarized society, almost permanently at war, in which soldiers never quite stop being soldiers. “Troops are now lionized as ‘warriors’ and the notion of a distinction between a nation ‘at war’ and a nation ‘at peace’ has disappeared,” he writes.
He also debunks rather thoroughly the notion that there are often, or even ever, occasions when carrying a loaded, concealed weapon is likely to make an actual difference in a confrontation; when they do take place, it’s difficult for even a trained policeman to hit anything reliably. Above all, he points out how wildly improbable it is that such confrontations would regularly happen, as widely debunked pro-gun studies claim, and play out in ways that would make guns useful. “We train to drive cars safely because we know that if we don’t drive properly there’s a good chance we could get killed every time we get behind the wheel of a car. But nobody really imagines that if they walk down the street without their gun that it’s going to make much of a difference. Most people who aren’t criminals but like to carry a gun simply enjoy the fact that they can do it; that it’s there; that I can put my hand in my pocket and instead of wrapping my fingers around my key chain, can wrap it around my gun.”
Impressed by his book, I got Weisser on the phone and asked him where, exactly, he came down on the issues of new laws and preventive practices. He emphasized two points. First, the gap between gun owners and non-owning gun talkers is “immense.” “Here’s the bottom line—roughly thirty to forty per cent of the households in America have guns, mostly from habit and convenience. The degree to which gun ownership is a familial thing is overwhelming. If you don’t own a gun, and don’t have a family background in which it’s part of life, you’re totally clueless in terms of what guns mean to the people who own them,” he said. As a result, gun-control advocates “have no idea what guns are about on any level, and are seen by people who owns guns as, at best, a nuisance.” He’s in favor of what he sees as the right kind of gun control—he accepts that the best way to have less gun violence is to have fewer guns—but believes that enforcement is vastly more difficult than it seems. “There is nothing that makes any real change without aggressive enforcement, and this is where the whole issue of gun control collapses. … Laws on seat belts worked because they were aggressively enforced. I don’t see any discussion of gun control level with the issue of enforcement.”
Where does this lead us? To the understanding, which people on both sides of the question can accept, at least, that there is a cultural issue at the heart of the gun debate, and that it is tied to ideas about power. Weisser, of course, believes that gun culture is a social fact so deeply grounded in American reality that it is in vain to protest, and that it must instead be understood. He reiterates the most, ahem, disarming argument in the gun wars: that, while there are real social pathologies in America, and horrific stories passed around, the truth is that gun violence is, outside of poor, minority neighborhoods, relatively rare, except perhaps as an issue of suicide among the young, and how guns make it lethal and easy.
Yet we do obsess about it, because we care about what happens in those neighborhoods as well as our own, and because we understand that there are certain social risks that do some damage to the quality of life—that are so beyond the normal expectations of risk in a modern civilization that they can’t be tolerated at all. A similar argument can be made about terrorism. Having people in a skyscraper murdered at random in the middle of the day, or blown out of the air in a big plane, is one of those unacceptable risks; another is having kids in a kindergarten massacred.
But it’s good, at least, to hear someone arguing the details and filling out the fact-picture, good to be reminded that the cultures and rituals of the gun, however irrational in nature, are still felt to be essential by the people who engage in them. Curing the irrationalities of human culture later depends on understanding them now.