The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our gun laws were built on fantasy and terror

(Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)
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Those who designed and built America’s horrifying status quo on guns are now begging us to talk about anything else. We must not “politicize” the latest mass shooting, they say, by exploring what made it possible and what policies we might change to make such massacres less likely in the future.

But to imagine something different, we have to understand the ideology that created our current legal regime. It was constructed on a foundation of fantasy and terror, one that elevates imaginary threats and decrees that our response to those threats can only be confronted by each of us alone, never through the institutions we create or the government that represents us.

No, only the isolated, heavily armed, perpetually terrified individual can hope to keep his family safe — so don’t even think about changing the laws, unless it’s to put more guns in more people’s hands.

What kind of fantasies are we talking about? The most important is that the U.S. government — the one designed by those sainted Framers whose genius conservatives praise so often — is always moments away from devolving into totalitarian oppression, and all that keeps it from happening is its fear of an armed populace ready to start killing soldiers and cops.

So after the killings in Uvalde, Tex., a Florida state representative tweeted an explicit threat to kill the president of the United States: “I have news for the embarrassment that claims to be our President — try to take our guns and you’ll learn why the Second Amendment was written in the first place.”

This idea is not unusual at all; gun advocates are forever claiming that their gun rights are the only thing that keeps America from turning into Nazi Germany. Or as Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters puts it in an ad, “Without gun rights, before long, you have no rights.”

Oddly, they never explain why countries such as England, France, Denmark, and every other liberal democracy haven’t devolved into brutal dictatorship despite their relatively unarmed populations.

The next fantasy, the one that guides so many of those deeply immersed in gun culture, is that of an impending assault that can only be met with sufficient firepower. Why do I need all these semiautomatic rifles, weapons designed to kill human beings in war? Because of the home invaders, the terrorists, the gangbangers coming to kill me and my family.

This idea of a world of chaotic violence saturates conservative media (where antifa and Black Lives Matter are forever burning down cities and coming to destroy your community) and the rhetoric of gun groups and gun enthusiasts. It’s absolutely central to that message that no collective or governmental response will protect you and your family. The cops won’t get there fast enough, laws don’t stop “the bad guys,” and in the end you are atomized and alone, left to either kill or be killed.

The tragic irony is that when this fantasy is the guiding principle of law, it creates its own justification and a version of its own reality. Since it’s so easy for anyone to get an AR-15, you need one too. Since you never know when somebody might cut you off in traffic or be rude to you at the Starbucks, everyone should be allowed to carry a gun, no permit or training required.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If that turns out not to be true — as it wasn’t in Buffalo or Uvalde — then the answer must be more and more guns.

The political implication is obvious: It’s not worth even trying to craft any kind of policy solution to gun violence. As Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — allegedly the state’s top law enforcement official — said after the Uvalde massacre, laws are pointless.

“People that are shooting people, that are killing kids, they’re not following murder laws. They’re not going to follow gun laws,” he told Newsmax. Though in fact, the Uvalde shooter did follow gun laws: He waited until his 18th birthday to legally purchase the rifle he used to kill those children.

Or as Fox News’s Sean Hannity put it, anyone who wants gun restrictions should answer this question: “What are you going to do if somebody breaks into your home in the dark of night and wants to bring harm to you and your family?” The nightmare is coming, and no one but you and your gun can stop it.

I know the objection many people will have: “I’m a safe and responsible gun owner. I don’t think I’m going to confront a terrorist strike team at my local supermarket. I have no problem with reasonable gun regulations.” There are millions of people about whom that’s true. But they’re not the ones setting the agenda of the Republican Party, and they’re not the ones whose beliefs have guided our laws.

It’s their fantasy world of horror and fear that gave us the laws we have now. And they’ll do everything they can to keep it that way.

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