Democracy Dies in Darkness


It’s apocalypse now on guns

February 26, 2018 at 7:41 PM

Activists rally for gun-control legislation on Monday in Tallahassee. (Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

It is one of the dirty habits of our political discourse that so many people use thermonuclear rhetorical weapons as a first resort. It is not enough for defenders of gun rights to be wrong; they must be complicit in murder. It is not enough for gun-control advocates to be mistaken; they must be jack booted thugs laying the groundwork for tyranny.

These competing apocalypses, paradoxically, make politics appear smaller — the realm of unbalanced partisans and professional hyperventilators. But more destructively, this type of argument makes incremental change — the kind that our system of government encourages — more difficult.

This is a particular shame on the issue of gun violence. The maximal solutions — broad restrictions on gun ownership or fixing the mental-health system — are so difficult or unlikely that they have become obstacles to action. They are something like, on the issue of global warming, recommending that the Earth be moved farther from the sun.

But on guns, there is hope in focus. While overall gun violence in America has gone down dramatically in the past few decades, the use of guns in suicides (constituting about two-thirds of ­gun-related deaths) has spiked, and so have mass shootings. Gun use in domestic violence and gun use in gang-related activity present particular challenges. No single policy would solve all these problems. But in each discrete area, good policy would make a difference.

When it comes to mass killings, we know what the perpetrators generally look like: disappointed loners, motivated by grudges, seeking fame and planning their violence carefully. So here is an answerable public-policy question: What can we do to identify these dangerous malcontents and keep ­military-grade weaponry out of their hands? We should be considering: special police task forces that actively identify and track prospective killers instead of ­passively responding to warnings. ­Higher age restrictions on gun access. Broader application of gun­violence protective orders that forbid gun ownership to people exhibiting warning signs. Better education on those warning signs among adults who deal with young men. Media norms against using the names of mass killers, which only encourages their deadly performance art.

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Members of The Washington Post Editorial Board appeal to President Trump and Congress to stand up to the gun lobby. It takes moral courage, they say, to back gun-control legislation and prevent mass shootings. (The Washington Post)

Surely there are other focused, proactive responses as well. Yet on the left, such ideas are sometimes dismissed as unambitious. And on the right, these proposals reveal a durable division.

When it comes to American gun culture, the issue of motivation matters a great deal. If you defend access to guns for sport and self-defense, there is no logical reason to reject reasonable ­restrictions on firepower and access. Some compromise — focused on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous and unstable people — is within the realm of possibility. But if you view the ultimate purpose of gun ownership as resistance to a future (or present) tyrannical government, then restrictions on firepower and access are exactly the things a tyrannical government would want. Because the goal of an oppressive state is to have a monopoly on sophisticated weaponry, any incremental movement toward that goal is unacceptable.

This argument — summarized by David French as “the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against tyranny” — is perhaps understandable in a country born of revolutionary violence. But more than two centuries removed from the ­revolution, the concept seems, well, frightening.

When I look at many of the people holding the guns, I don’t really view them as legitimate protectors of my rights, or as qualified to make choices about the employment of violence in politics. I don’t view America as halfway to tyranny. And I am grateful that Americans such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — who suffered actual oppression by government — made a principled commitment to nonviolent political change.

It is one thing when Thomas Jefferson said “the tree of liberty must be ­refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” It is another thing entirely when your well-armed neighbor says the same.

I have no idea how much this attitude infects the right. But the fever can be measured in talk of a “deep state” coup against the president, in sympathy for Cliven Bundy in his armed standoff with federal agents, in support of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) when he ordered the State Guard to monitor the Navy SEAL/Green Beret joint training exercise Jade Helm 15. All destructive madness.

It is not just apocalyptic language but apocalyptic thinking that paralyzes our political system on gun violence. And it is difficult to see how incremental progress can be made unless that mind-set is marginalized.

Read more from Michael Gerson’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook .

Read more about this topic:

Kathleen Parker: Something is deadly wrong in this country

Gary Abernathy: After the latest mass shooting, we’re focusing on the wrong amendment

Greg Sargent: Stop sucking up to ‘gun culture.’ Americans who don’t have guns also matter.

Letter: Mitch McConnell beat me by scaring people about gun control. Nothing has changed.

Leah Libresco: I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post.

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