Editor’s note: We at GPF are a group of (more or less) like-minded individuals writing for a common purpose – to make sense of the world. It’s a daunting job that makes it impossible for us to agree on everything, so rather than shrink from the task, we have decided to embrace the impossible by publishing Dissenting Opinions, a column that lays out what we disagree on and why. As always, your feedback is greatly appreciated.
Last weekend, there were two more mass shootings in the United States – one in El Paso, Texas, carried out by a white supremacist, and another in Dayton, Ohio, carried by someone who supports the left wing of the Democratic Party. Among all of us there is a hunger to find some motive for such violence. We believe that if we could find one, we could perhaps do something about it.
Since 1999, the year of the shooting at Columbine High School, the U.S. has experienced 88 mass shootings – defined as a shooting in which a lone perpetrator killed at least four people in a public place. In two decades, 738 people have died as a result of mass shootings. The killers were, overwhelmingly, angry men who took their anger to an extreme level, killing people in a black church in South Carolina and a white church in Texas; a gay nightclub in Orlando and a country music concert in Las Vegas; a university in Virginia and an elementary school in Connecticut – and many more. There is no external marker for these men. And while it is tempting to look for the motive behind their action, I focus on their choice of doing evil. The motives behind mass shootings vary; what does not vary is the evil behind them.
So, instead of trying to understand individual motives, let us examine the value that many Americans place on guns. I, like many other Americans, own guns. I am horrified by these killings, and I am prepared to accept any sort of limitation on weapons that will make my grandchildren safer. But I am also aware that banning guns will not work. The U.S. has imposed bans on products that some of its citizens want, like drugs. Laws may limit access to those products, but empirically speaking, bans only intensify the products’ presence among the lawless. Banning weapons would have that effect, concentrating them in the realms of the lawless. Banning drugs has not worked. Neither would banning guns.
The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimates that there are 393 million guns in the United States. That is an extraordinary number, and there are far fewer per capita in other countries. To address the question of how to mitigate mass murders in the U.S., we need to consider why there are so many guns here. It begins with the special role of guns in the United States.
In the 18th century, guns were extremely expensive, and they were made for the nobility’s use in hunting – an activity that in Europe and Britain, in particular, was aristocratic. Most hunting lands were off-limits to others, and the penalty for poaching game on those lands was death. Peasants, meanwhile, lived hard lives and died early. For them, access to food was sometimes uncertain. The possibility of eating meat depended on committing a crime for which execution was the punishment. Getting a gun and killing game could save your family from starvation – but at great risk.
There was no such limit in North America as that continent was being explored and settled. The forests were full of game, and guns, though still expensive, were obtainable. Having a gun made settlers self-sufficient. But it was also a symbol of freedom from the hated regime they had left behind in Europe, where guns were the domain of the nobility. In America, it was possible to have a gun and, therefore, stand equal to the nobility.
That was what the American Revolution was about: The common man was to be the new nobility. The rifle or musket was bound up in the assertion that the nobles could not write the rules in America. The gun, as a symbol of autonomy and as a real economic tool, was far more important then than it is now. The poacher’s fear of the noble is long gone and, with it, the gun’s ability to make one free and equal to the nobles. But the idea of a gun being linked to liberty persists. The cord linking it is hard to see, but it persists.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. The only other countries with that constitutional right are Mexico and Guatemala. America’s founders felt they had to include that provision in the Constitution not only to ensure a well-armed militia, but also because of the symbolic meaning of the gun. In today’s cultural web, that meaning still resonates. The right to own guns, enshrined in the Constitution, is exercised by many as a guarantee of liberty.
The country is, of course, divided on this. Those who are unyieldingly in favor of guns are in the minority, and yet they have disproportionate strength. That strength doesn’t come only from the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers, but also from the deeper historical connection between guns and liberty. And gun control can’t succeed until those deeper roots are understood. There are many who are not attached to this idea or who may even dismiss it. But in doing so, they miss a crucial dimension of American history that compelled the framers of the Constitution to enumerate that right.
American society is saturated with guns for reasons cultural and prudential. I have weapons because I live outside of Austin and, should something happen, the police would get here in time to write a report. That is true in much of the country, including in cities. I like shotguns for home defense, and I can easily live without semi-automatic weapons. But I don’t think banning them will get rid of them.
We are still left with the questions: Why now? Why this intense? Why such varied motives? Is this a sudden concentration of evil or some other force? I don’t know how to get rid of guns, I have a practical but not a cultural commitment to weapons, and I am at a loss for what to do. We all want to blame someone, but I will leave that to others. First, we must make sure we are asking the right questions.
George Friedman, founder and CEO
“There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” – Ronald Reagan, governor of California, May 3, 1967
There are very few policy issues on which the majority of the American electorate agrees. The need for stricter gun control happens to be one of them. Gallup has polled Americans on the question of whether gun control laws should be stricter since 1991, when 78 percent of respondents answered that question in the affirmative. Last year, a little over 60 percent still agreed. The devil, of course, is in the details – there are very real disagreements among Americans about specific gun-related issues – but examining polling data on guns is remarkable not for the stark disagreements shown but for the overwhelming agreement that exists. According to Gallup, 92 percent of Americans favor background checks for all gun sales. According to Pew, 89 percent of Americans favor prohibiting the sale of guns to individuals with mental illness, and 67 percent approve of banning assault-style weapons. Shelby Foote, the late Civil War historian, once said the true genius of the American people was their gift for compromise, but all the polls suggest stricter gun control is not an issue that requires compromise. If compromise is our true genius, then perhaps complacency has become our deepest flaw.
Before I go any further, I should offer my bona fides. That I feel the need to do so despite my awareness of these general attitudes toward guns in America is evidence of just how deeply emotional the issue has become to an extremely vocal minority in the United States. Even so, I would have offered them anyway because it’s important to let readers know where I stand. I personally do not own any guns. That doesn’t mean no one should. Many of my friends and family proudly own guns. I confess that I myself have always dreamed of finding and restoring an old Model 1873 .30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle, mostly because I love watching westerns and it always seems like the good guy in a western has a .30-30. I have also been known to shoot skeet with my sister and brother-in-law from time to time, and much to their chagrin I usually beat them. I do not support a strict prohibition on guns. Yet it’s easy to argue that they are far too readily available.
In an era defined by identity politics, one could argue that gun ownership is the identity that trumps them all. Consider this shocking quote from an article from FiveThirtyEight: “Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic, whether she lives in the South or a number of other demographic characteristics.” According to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, in 1973, 55 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they had a gun in their household. Over the next roughly 40 years, gun ownership actually declined quite a bit – especially among Democrats. In 2010, the last year for which the NORC’s General Social Survey has data on gun ownership and political party affiliation, 50 percent of Republicans reported having a gun in their home, compared with 22 percent of self-identified Democrats. The coalescence of a new “gun identity” in the United States is undeniable and perhaps inexplicable. Not all things can be explained.
That doesn’t make the idea that modern trends in gun ownership are inextricably linked to America’s supposedly gun-toting Founding Fathers any less facile. The American Revolution was not about gun ownership any more than it was about standing equal to the nobility. The American Revolution was about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that men should be able to enjoy those unalienable rights without the consent of a monarch an ocean away. The founders didn’t pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to enjoy the pleasure of shooting an AR-15 at a gun range, nor did they think of the musket as the symbolic talisman of their newly won freedoms. If they had, they probably would have made the Second Amendment less ambiguous.
And while its real meaning is a matter of enduring debate, it’s patently untrue to say the right to bear arms is uniquely American. Those who have read the English Bill of Rights will recall that the Lords Spiritual Temporal and Commons declared in 1689 that “Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” Nor was the Second Amendment specifically intended to make sure farmers could put food on their tables. Anyone who has read Federalist No. 46 knows that Publius talks about arms in the context of not individual ownership but a well-armed militia as a necessary check on the power of the federal government.
Ironically, the current gun debate is hampered by a rigidity incommensurate with the flexibility of the Constitution, which articulated a clear set of political principles on which a new country would be founded without forcing future generations to live by 18th-century interpretations or applications of those principles. It took centuries of argument, violence and new laws, but the Constitution was reinterpreted many times so that the spirit of the law wouldn’t be handicapped by the letter of the law. Advocates of unrestricted gun ownership are constitutional fundamentalists, so pathologically certain of their interpretation of the Second Amendment that any disagreement, no matter how small or legitimate, is treated as an infringement on their liberty. Advocates of outlawing guns are no less vociferous, often denigrating their ideological mirror images as cruel and barbarous.
The tenor of this debate mimics a much broader malaise in American society, from which not even GPF is immune. George is categorically mistaken when he writes that the Dayton shooter was motivated by his support for the left wing of the Democratic Party – investigating authorities have said they are not sure of his motive. Casually saying so, especially in service of the hard-to-prove assertion that there is a general increase in violence in America, borders on moral irresponsibility. It also conflates two crucially important issues: a general increase in these kinds of acts on the one hand and the very specific and recent proliferation of anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence on the other. The first issue is hardly new. According to the Congressional Research Service, gun-related mass murders (defined as shootings in which at least four people died) have increased from a 1.1 annual incidence rate in the 1970s to a 4.5 annual incidence rate in the early 2010s. Even though household gun ownership has decreased, the lethality of guns has increased. I am no statistician, but it’s safe to say that violence won’t go away by eliminating guns, even if the absolute numbers of fatalities would likely decrease.
The second and more disturbing issue is the officially sanctioned anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the highest levels of American politics and the ethnic violence that has occurred as a result. Sadly, this kind of rhetoric is hardly unique in U.S. history either. Just look at the Alien and Sedition Acts, or the success of the Know Nothings, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. Individuals may ultimately be responsible for their actions, but leadership also matters. George himself has written about how the U.S. president must provide moral leadership to the country. (His best-selling book, “The Next Decade,” was in part about that very subject.) U.S. President Donald Trump has failed to provide that leadership. He and his administration have repeatedly likened immigrants to “invasions” and “infestations.” At a rally in Florida in May, when an audience member suggested shooting illegal immigrants would be an effective deterrent, the president laughed and made a joke.
To his credit, Trump condemned racism, bigotry and white supremacy in the wake of last weekend’s horrific shooting in El Paso, rightly decrying them as “sinister ideologies” that must be defeated. He also rightly pointed out that the U.S. desperately needs to overhaul its immigration laws. But none of that can be said without also noting that the El Paso shooter published a manifesto online in which he decried a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas – and that it really does matter that a domestic terrorist attack was carried out invoking language borrowed from the White House itself. To pen an article on understanding gun violence in the United States without noting the uniqueness of the El Paso shooter’s motives, or without noting recent FBI statistics that showed that, of 850 current domestic terrorism cases, almost 40 percent involved white supremacists is no better than laying all the country’s problems at the feet of the president. There is something qualitatively different about what happened in El Paso. It’s not enough to blame maniacs or the president; our society produced them both. But that doesn’t give American leadership a pass.
The tragedy of recent events overshadows the breakdown of our discourse and our legislative process. A large majority of Americans want gun control – and yet there is no gun control. A large majority of Americans want immigration reform and even agree on some specifics, like providing a path to citizenship for dreamers (70 percent), using an E-Verify system to ensure only people with a legal right to work in the U.S. get jobs (72 percent), and increasing temporary work visas for industries in the U.S. that would benefit from immigrant labor (69 percent) – and yet there is no immigration reform. Yes, the U.S. legislative process is designed to be inefficient to prevent a tyranny of the majority – but is it really supposed to so cripple the American government that it cannot prohibit the casual sale of armor-piercing rounds for military-grade assault rifles, or enforce immigration laws that would more adequately protect the country’s borders? There is a fine line between inefficiency and dysfunction, and we have reached it.
George wrote of “evil” in his column. I am reminded of the famous 1961 John F. Kennedy quote (which he incorrectly ascribed to Edmund Burke): “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Right now, I see a lot of good men and women doing “nothing” in the United States of America, and I wouldn’t exempt myself. In the wake of El Paso, Dayton and a hundred other tragedies, the burning question should not be, “Why do Americans like guns more than people in other countries?” The question must be, “What is wrong with our country – and can we fix it?” I think we can, but then, I have always been an optimist. The geopolitical nerd in me wants to chime in now and remind readers that there are plenty of other countries in the world rooting against our ability to fix our problems, but that will have to wait for another time.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis