After El Paso and Dayton, Three Ways to Think About Mass Shootings
“The worst is not,” Edgar says in “King Lear,” amid much—an old man’s madness, a father’s brutal blinding—that would seem about as bad as life can get, “So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ ” The true worst, his point is, will be so annihilating that we will not even have language left to reference it. But, if finding words for the worst is not within our power, finding them for what’s about as bad as bad can be is—and that is the case with the two gun massacres that took place over the weekend, in El Paso, Texas, with twenty-two dead, and Dayton, Ohio, with nine. Though neither is the worst that we have seen in recent years, together they had a particular brutality about them.
Those who have made gun sanity a consuming cause can only weep at these events. Figuring out what to say is hard enough; figuring out what to do is even harder, since no more actions seem likely to result from these incidents than did from other state-sanctioned mass shootings of recent years. (When the state, knowing what ought to be done, doesn’t do it, it sanctions what gets done instead.) To read of Jordan Anchondo, who died of bullet wounds because she threw her body over her two-month-old son to save him, and her husband, Andre, who died beside her while trying to protect them both, is to move past tears of pity to those of rage. This should never happen. But, amid the sheer madness and horror of the killings, it seems worth making some necessary distinctions. We can’t act wisely without seeing straight, and we can’t see straight if we don’t see clearly.
First point of clarity: the problem is guns, their availability, their lethality, their omnipresence in American life, and their protection by the ruling political party. There are racists in every country. There are video games in every country. There are mentally ill people in every country. There are not gun massacres in every country. And, when there is one, comprehensive new laws are passed, and there is seldom another. Why are there so many in America? Because there are too many guns in America, and, in particular, too many lethal guns easily purchased—guns modelled on military weapons whose only purpose is to kill as many people as rapidly as possible. Study after study, correlation after correlation provide the evidence on this point: control guns and you reduce gun violence. If we banned assault weapons and all their diabolic accessories, the number of gun massacres in America would be reduced—as was true during the decade between 1994 and 2004, when there was a federal ban on such weapons. We can have the same confidence in this correlation as we do in the efficacy of vaccines or antibiotics. Gun control works.
Past New Yorker coverage of mass shootings and the battle over gun control.
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To say this isn’t to deny the significance of the discernible motives of the killers. Apparently, the shooting in El Paso was an act of white-supremacist terrorism, and, judging from a manifesto allegedly written by the killer, he may have taken license, if not direction, from the racist in the White House. (The author of the manifesto said that his convictions “predate Trump.”) Everything that Donald Trump does as a demagogue involves, in classic demagogic fashion, giving license to others to act on their impulses without shame. And the fact that he, in a classic demagogic move, then recoils from the consequences of his words does not make them less empowering. Trump’s rote condemnation of bigotry, during his brief comments at the White House on Monday morning—seemingly authored by some other hand, and delivered with his usual insincerity, right down to his naming the wrong Ohio city—cannot permit him to escape responsibility for what his more spontaneous words may have wrought. There is, of course, a difference between words that are the direct causes of violence and words that create a climate in which violence is increasingly possible, but to recognize that difference is not to clear the demagogue of blame.
The danger with evoking the climate as though it were the cause, however, is that there are many climates in a country as big as this one. The next gun massacre may be motivated by some form of Islamist extremism, as in San Bernardino, or by some incoherent personal motive, as at Sandy Hook, or by no discernible motive at all, as in the massacre in Las Vegas. People will find all kinds of reasons to kill. It is, crucially, the weapon in the killer’s hand that matters.
Second distinction: there is a difference between those who fight to make gun control impossible and those who use guns to kill people. The majority of the first, much larger group often view weapons as powerful symbols of personal autonomy. (The deaths of innocents are, seemingly, a price necessarily paid for that idea of freedom.) As Alec Wilkinson has written, recalling his brief time as a police officer who had a gun but used it only at a firing range, in a small Cape Cod town, “a gun was an object in which a power of nature was concentrated so forcefully that a person could use one and feel party to a solemn and thrilling mystery.” Most of us satisfy our appetite for a symbol of personal autonomy in the form of more nonlethal objects—cars, or old guitars, or nice shoes. People who oppose gun control at every turn often cite the sense of control and power that weapons provide, regardless of how false that sense may be. The vast majority of those people will never shoot anyone, but they help put lethal weapons in the hands of those who will.
Third distinction: the Second Amendment is, in these arguments, a red herring—a blood-red herring, perhaps, but a distraction nonetheless. There is no Second Amendment guarantee of an individual’s right to own guns; the claim that there is is a recent and radical invention of the Supreme Court, in its decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. In any case, even within the absurdities of the Heller ruling, there is plenty of room for gun restrictions.
The strangest thing is that there are no really rational counter-arguments to be made against gun restrictions—merely the ritual invocation of the Second Amendment, misconstrued, and the argument for self-defense, which has been so often exploded that it no longer has even rhetorical weight. (Self-defense against the kind of weapons used in mass shootings is essentially impossible. And acts of self-defense attributed to gun ownership are, at best, rare, compared with the incidence of lethal gun violence.) In defense of the possession of lethal weapons meant for war, there is merely an appeal to “culture.” But, when your culture is killing children, you have to change it. Meanwhile, the solutions offered by the pro-gun lobby, parroted by Trump on Monday morning—a stronger death penalty, restrictions on video games—will change nothing.
When we make distinctions, it frees us to act in concert—it sorts out our rage into distinct, specific pieces. Mothers Against Drunk Driving did not rage against the lethal danger of guns, or of climate change, or even against the internal-combustion engine. They raged against the drunk driving that was killing kids, and they had many small and simple solutions for it: ignition locks, sobriety checkpoints, better enforcement and clearer penalties, and a broader range of protections. There are simple solutions to our gun predicament that, though far from the wider—and, in other countries, universally shared—restrictions and impediments we need, would change the reality. Background checks, an effective assault-weapons ban, a complete ban on large magazines, and licensing and training, and insurance, minimally comparable to those that we all accept for car ownership, for gun ownership. Even those who still want guns for their symbolic purposes can likely be persuaded to accept at least some of these restrictions. And, by arguing for the best we can get now, we might create still another climate. Pursuing the possible is the only way we have to keep away the worst.