The modern presidential campaign is essentially an endless series of arguments that begin with “He said what???” as one candidate after another gets his chance to be pilloried for something he said, with feigned outrage and cries of “Gaffe!” reverberating throughout the land. In this week’s installment, Ben Carson is in the hot seat for comments he made about the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. But the real question is, why is everyone so upset with Carson? What he said is nothing more than the logical outgrowth of what nearly every Republican candidate and officeholder believes about guns. You can say he’s wrong, but you can’t say that his views should be any kind of surprise.
There were two things that Carson said that drew condemnation, one on television and one on his Facebook page:
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson attracted criticism Tuesday for appearing to suggest in an interview that the victims of last week’s tragic school shooting in Oregon should have acted more forcefully to prevent the attack.“I would not just stand there and let him shoot me,” Carson said on “Fox and Friends” Tuesday morning. “I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.'” …Carson on Monday night took to Facebook to denounce calls for increased gun regulation in the wake of another mass shooting, saying that the problem is not caused by Second Amendment protections and accusing gun-control advocates of politicizing the tragedy.“As a Doctor, I spent many a night pulling bullets out of bodies,” he wrote. “There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking – but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”
Let’s take these one at a time. Was it unspeakably insulting to the victims of the Oregon shooting and their families to suggest that they were killed or injured because they didn’t have the physical courage and quick thinking that a hero like Carson would have displayed had he been in their shoes? Of course. And is it an absurd fantasy that in the instant he was confronted by a gunman, Carson would in the space of seconds organize a bunch of terrified strangers to mount an assault on someone ready to kill them? You bet it is.
But this fantasy is nothing unusual at all. In fact, it lies at the heart of much of the efforts Republicans have made at the behest of the National Rifle Association in recent years to change state laws on guns. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” says the NRA, and Republicans believe it, too. So they push for laws to allow guns to be brought into as many places as possible — schools, government buildings, churches, anywhere and everywhere. They advocate “stand your ground” laws that encourage people to use guns to settle arguments. They seek both open-carry and concealed-carry laws on a “shall issue” basis (meaning the government presumes that you should get the license unless it can prove you fall into certain categories of offenders) to put guns in as many hands as possible.
All of this is driven by the fantasy of the gun owner as action hero. Sure, the world may see you as just a middle-age middle manager with an expanding gut and a retreating hairline, but at any moment you could be transformed into Jack Bauer! Woe be to the al-Qaeda commando team or deranged shooter who comes to your town, because you’ll be ready for ’em! The world is divided into the sheep who cower while waiting to be killed, and those possessed of the courage and firepower to stand up at those life-and-death moments. This is what the gun industry, the NRA and the Republican Party encourage people to believe. So, of course, Ben Carson believes it, too.
As for Carson’s assertion that “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away,” that, too, is the natural outgrowth of the contemporary Republican position on guns.
Think for a moment about how we reorganized our government, our airline industry and entire swaths of our society, spending hundreds of billions of dollars, creating a new apparatus of surveillance, all because nearly 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001. We didn’t like spending all that money, creating all that fear, compromising our privacy and constitutional principles and making everybody take off their shoes at the airport, but it was a price we had to pay because of those 3,000 deaths, right?
It takes about a month — every month, month after month — for that many Americans to be killed with guns. Just imagine how we would have reacted to an attack 10 or 11 times the scale of 9/11, which is but a single year of the death toll guns place on our country. In 2013, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released data, 11,208 Americans were murdered with guns, and 505 Americans died due to accidental firearm discharge. Another 21,175 Americans killed themselves with guns (having a gun in the home dramatically increases one’s risk of suicide), for a total of 32,888 gun deaths.
But unlike their position on terrorism, the position that the entire Republican Party now adopts — not necessarily all its voters, but virtually all its elected representatives — is that a toll that size is simply not meaningful enough to justify any action to not even restrict, but merely to inconvenience Americans’ ability to own as many guns as they want and to get them as easily as they want. Presumably there would be some level of carnage that would make even Republicans sign on to gun restrictions — say if a million Americans every year were being shot down, or 5 million or 10 million. But 33,000 a year? Not a big enough deal.
I don’t know if the thought he describes actually ran through Ben Carson’s head when he was on his E.R. rotation — I doubt that the young doctor said to himself, “Wow, that’s a tragedy that we saw three people shot to death this week, but it sure would be a bigger tragedy if people had to get background checks at gun shows” — but it is indeed the position of his party. The fact that it sounds crazy when he speaks it out loud doesn’t mean it’s not what they believe.