The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On guns, conservatives are winning. This nightmare is the result.

A woman cries as she leaves flowers on Monday at the memorial held at the Covenant School after the shooting in Nashville. (Johnnie Izquierdo for The Washington Post)
5 min

No recitation of the number of Americans killed by guns — men, women, and increasingly, children — can carry the emotional power of hearing that three 9-year-olds were just slaughtered in their school, the latest in a long line of such horrors. The result for all of us is terror: a state of heightened alertness when we’re out in public, a fear that even if we don’t think about it for a time never quite goes away.

That terror, and the ever-growing toll of violence that keeps it fed, were brought to us by the cooperation of the gun industry, its political advocates and the Republican Party. Can they defend what they have wrought?

The answer: They can’t, and they don’t. They have gotten almost everything they wanted on guns, and this nightmare is the result.

It’s useful to compare this debate to the ones we have about social issues, where liberals and conservatives agree that the liberals are winning, both in law and how Americans live their lives. Same-sex couples can legally marry, discrimination is less socially acceptable than it used to be and transgender people have become more open and vocal. That’s in addition to religious faith declining and traditional ideas about gender roles in the workplace and parenting being increasingly rejected.

Liberals and conservatives agree that the effects of these changes are enormous. Liberals believe the result is a profoundly better society — one that is more open, inclusive and humane. Conservatives believe the result is a profoundly worse society, one where moral anarchy reigns.

Compare that to the debate we have about guns. As on social issues, there’s no question who’s winning. Because of the Bruen case the Supreme Court decided last year, in which the conservative majority declared any contemporary restrictions on guns are unconstitutional if they don’t have a direct analogue to laws passed in the 18th century, state laws are being struck down left and right.

Republican-run states are rushing to remove even the mildest restrictions on gun ownership. Tennessee, the site of the latest school massacre, already had some of the loosest gun laws in the country. Now Republican lawmakers there are moving through the legislature a bill to lower the age for carrying a gun in public from 21 to 18.

Estimates for the number of guns in circulation in the United States vary, some as low as 352 million and some as high as 434 million. What no one disputes is that the total number is staggering, and it has dramatically increased in recent years. As far as conservatives are concerned, this is an enormously positive development for American society.

Christine Emba

counterpointWhy do Americans want guns? It comes down to one word.

But it’s important to separate what conservatives do and don’t say about the gun-saturated nation they created. They put a great value on the freedom they associate with gun ownership and would undoubtedly argue that the United States is more free today than it was a decade ago because of loosened gun laws. They celebrate the states where guns are least hindered as the freest places in the country.

What they don’t say is that all of us are safer. They believe the freedom to own guns is more important than the freedom not to be terrorized by the presence of guns and that the trade off in lives lost has been worth it.

They don’t deny the carnage; just three months into the year, 10,000 Americans have been killed with guns — roughly 4,200 homicides and 5,700 suicides. Nor do they deny the state of terror Americans feel about sending their children to school or just going to the grocery store. You won’t hear conservatives tell you that you have nothing to be afraid of.

Instead, conservatives say that our gun violence problem has little, if anything, to do with guns and can be solved with measures that have little to do with guns either. We can improve mental health services or address the vulnerability of side doors in schools.

Or, of course, we can just get more guns. The implication is that there’s a kind of “Laffer curve” of mass slaughter whose benefits are waiting to be enjoyed. After a certain inflection point of firearm ubiquity, the number of murders will reverse course and rapidly head toward zero.

Conservatives don’t articulate it precisely that way. They say, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” or claim that even more guns will bring down crime. But the implication is the same: We are gripped by terror now, but there is a road to safety ahead of us, and it’s paved with yet more guns.

Those claims are ludicrous, as even many gun owners would admit. But they give gun advocates something to say when the news is covered with stories of elementary school students gunned down with the instruments of mayhem Republican members of Congress pin on their lapels and pose with in their Christmas cards.

They wear triumphant smiles in those pictures, and they have indeed triumphed. Our terror is their achievement.