December 17, 2012

In the aftermath of tragedy comes the discussion we’ve been postponing too long.


A Bushmaster AR-15 with ammunition. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

There are multiple discussions to be had — the lack of help for people struggling with mental illness, either themselves or for a loved one, is vital. But this is the conversation about gun violence.

And as usual with this particular discussion — the one about guns — it’s characterized by tremendous maturity and temperate use of language. 

Take, for instance, the comparisons of Philip Van Cleave, head of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. 

Trying to explain the appeal of the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, a gun used in the Sandy Hook shootings, he suggested: “I could ask you why should anyone want a Ferrari?”

Welcome to the land of imprecise analogies. 

Why do people want Ferraris? Really, they are just like semiautomatics: I can’t bring a Ferrari on an airplane. They are like something that the Founding Fathers had, but much, much faster and more lethal. I tried to conceal a Ferrari in my pants once, and it worked out badly. When I see men obsessed with their Ferraris, I worry that they are compensating for something. 

And if I want to buy a Ferrari, I need to pass a test, get a license, and carry registration. 

No, never mind, they are less alike than I thought. 

For instance, if I told you that Ferraris killed or injured almost 100,000 people annually, you would not say that the solution was to make certain everyone took a Ferrari with him everywhere he went.

Later, Van Cleave explained: “Guns are fun, and some of them are much more cool than others. It’s just like we have television sets that look cool, and others are much more boxy.”

Just exactly like that. 

That is exactly what it is like. 

I spend many hours in front of my cool-looking gun, watching Sesame Street. My television not only looks cool, but also it is a deadly weapon. 

The trouble with any analogy that you make between guns and any other product, regulated or unregulated, is that when a Ferrari kills someone, it is malfunctioning. When a TV set kills someone, it is doing something it was not intended to do. When a gun kills a person, it’s working correctly. It has fired a bullet and hit a target. That is what it is built for. 

This is a critical distinction. 

If this had been some kind of accident, they would be tearing the guns off the shelves. If anything had malfunctioned and caused as many deaths as guns have caused — not only in Friday’s tragedy, but also daily, across the United States — we would not make it any longer. If a Cabbage Patch Kid goes haywire, if a toy contains lead paint, turns out to be a choking hazard or hypnotizes your child into starting smoking, it gets recalled before you can blink. Furbies work perfectly, and we still sometimes chuck them out of windows in fits of annoyance.

But this wasn’t a malfunction, so what can we do?

Maybe we’d be better off if Bushmasters were more like Ferraris. After all, Ferraris can be deadly too, but they don’t have to be. For Ferraris, we have regulations in place to try to make this outcome less likely. Riders wear safety belts. Drunk driving is prohibited. There are speed limits. There are crosswalks and stop signs and whole hosts of precautions. In order to take a Ferrari on the road, you have to pass a driving test. Does this mean that accidents do not occur, and that there are no reckless drivers? Obviously not. But imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have these safeguards in place. 

But this is an imprecise analogy too. 

Unfortunately, Ferrari-izing these weapons would not necessarily prevent horrible, extreme incidents like the one on FridayHorrible, extreme incidents are the hardest kind to prevent. That has never stopped our trying, though. We are always fighting the last war because we cannot conceive what the next one will look like. Every oddly specific office policy is in response to that one disastrous party when Jim did things to the copy machine that no one was expecting.

But gun death doesn’t just happen in horrible mass bursts. It is horribly routine, with stories buried deep below the headlines every day — children, adults, babies, enough to fill miserable column after column, if we noticed. It would break our hearts to notice. To my mind, it would be sufficient victory to stem that bleeding.

I don’t know what legislation is the answer. Look at the District of Columbia, with its decades of bans on handguns but high per capita rate of gun violence — higher than other jurisdictions with much more lenient gun laws. One law doesn’t stop gun violence. Stopping gun violence means changing the culture, means cracking down on illegal guns, means trying to improve the other correlated factors. We don’t just need more regulations. We need sensible regulations, and we need to do better at keeping guns off the street. Violence without guns is still violence, but it’s much less deadly. What laws it will take to stem this tide — banning assault weapons, banning high-capacity magazines, focusing on registration and background checks– I’m not sure. But you can’t have gun violence without guns. 

Sure, people pull the triggers, as gun advocates keep pointing out. But without guns, you can’t kill anyone by crooking your index finger and pulling. You just look like an idiot. Take the Ferrari out of the equation and it hurts a lot less to bang into a stop sign. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.