End the Infinite Loop: Let’s Improve the Gun Debate

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After every mass shooting, American society re-enters its infinite loop of dumb arguments, bad analogies, and cynicism. Banging your head against a wall is more productive. Anytime I hear any variation of the following, I want to make like this corgi and teleport out of the discussion:

  • Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
  • Blaming guns for gun violence is like blaming spoons for making people fat.
  • Do you think we should ban cars since more people die in car accidents than gun violence?
  • When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.

There are very simple rebuttals to all of these tired arguments that I could spend time explaining. I’ve tried that, for years. It doesn’t work. Unless the person making those arguments is 14 years old (or a Republican politician), they’ve made these arguments before, they’ve heard the rebuttals, and they’re still making the arguments. Don’t waste your time. They usually aren’t doing it in good faith and don’t intend on actually understanding your positions or pursuing solutions.

If your response to calls for gun control is "Should we get rid of cars too?" the answer is, for you , yes. You should not have a gun or a car.
Treat stupid arguments with the respect they deserve: none.

Let’s move past that level of discourse and towards something more productive. The Parkland, Florida shooting has seen an unusual amount of staying power in the news cycle due to groups of incredibly brave students taking the cause of ending gun violence into their own hands. Their efforts have put a magnifying glass up to the issue and have already begun influencing public perception, which is what we need in order to get anything changed. As the debate (hopefully) rages on, these are the ideas and techniques that I plan to focus on employing and hope others will too.

Focus on statistics, studies, and macro-level effects instead of isolated incidents and anecdotes. Way too often we get into a cycle of “well what if this happens” specifics instead of keeping our eyes on the big picture. You’ll be left chasing your tail trying to accommodate every single person’s lifestyle and arguing the merits of your ideas in every single theoretical situation. For example, a person could say “In a situation where a woman fears for her life and needs immediate protection from an abusive spouse, wouldn’t a waiting period on purchasing a gun be unsafe for her?” Instead of addressing this very isolated theoretical situation, focus on the macro-level effect of states with waiting periods having 17% less murders. 

Solutions are going to come in the form of policy, and policy is going to affect large populations. Even though the CDC is banned from studying gun violence as a national health issue, we still have plenty of other statistics we can use to get an idea of what arguments are good and which aren’t. For example:

The list goes on. These are the types of things we should be basing our arguments around.

Remind folks that we’re not going to prevent every death with one single law. Those that are brave enough to propose specific solutions will inevitably be held to the standard of stopping every single shooting with that solution. For example, in a discussion about an assault weapon ban, the most common retort is usually something to the effect of: “well the Columbine shooters didn’t use assault weapons, so how would your ban have helped there?” It wouldn’t have. Maybe a different law could have, but that one wouldn’t. Not every law will stop every shooting. Let’s focus on how this one law could possibly prevent some shootings, and at the very least would decrease the lethality of others. If it can do that, it’s probably a good proposal.

Continually confirm that all parties in the discussion have the same primary goal. We all want less violence right? While the NRA doesn’t seem to, the vast majority of people do. Sometimes it feels like the gun advocates I’m speaking with are so used to defending guns in every scenario that they haven’t even given much thought to what they actually think would decrease gun violence. Imagine you didn’t care about gun rights at all and your only concern was stopping the violence, what would you propose?

The reflexive defensiveness of guns not being a problem is partially born out of the simple desire for them not to be. The evidence of this can be seen in the relative ease that gun advocates mostly agreed that a bump stock ban is a good idea. They don’t really care that much about bump stocks, so they’re willing to admit (without specifically saying it) that the devices could potentially make mass shooting situations more lethal and don’t serve much purpose otherwise. Whatever happened to the usual logic of “if people want to kill lots of people they’ll find a way to do it regardless of the legality of the tool”? Remove the love of guns from the equation and I doubt folks will still feel the same about gun control effectiveness. If we can agree on some possible solutions that might work, we’ll still have our difference in priorities, but we might be able to start the compromise there. And if a person doesn’t think that there are any solutions, and we’re stuck with the situation we’ve got, then kindly refer them to the below tweet.

Tweet: If your answer to a persistent problem (*any* problem is "nothing can be done, let's not try," then kindly sit the fuck down and let those with ideas see if they can help.

Be accurate about what you say about guns. It shouldn’t be as important as it is, but gun advocates are just waiting for you to slip up with some terminology so they can lecture you on your supposed naivety. Remember these simple facts to cut your unwanted replies in half:

  • AR-15s are technically not automatics or machine guns
  • AR stands for Armalite and not Assault Rifle
  • Automatic weapons are not technically legal except for very few people who have obtained the proper licensing 
  • There is a difference between Assault Weapons and Assault Rifles, AR-15s are Assault Weapons

With that said, don’t let the debate turn into a contest of who knows more about guns. That stuff doesn’t really matter and is counter-productive. Most of the corrections I see are technically correct but incorrect in the context of the argument anyways. AR-15s are a weapon made for war. You can buy an AR-15 and a bump stock perfectly legally and have yourself perfectly legal automatic fire. Tell us with a straight face that this gun fire isn’t actually automatic. Let’s all stop being pedantic and stick to the subject: making the country safer.

The Second Amendment is not a trump card, so stop treating it like one. Gun zealots aren’t “pro Second Amendment”, they’re “pro their interpretation of the Second Amendment.” Well-meaning gun control advocates feed into this by prefacing every argument for gun control with “I support the Second Amendment but…”. It automatically frames the debate exactly how the gun lobby wants: a nod to the idea that their position is founded on a concrete, unchangeable basis that even the opposition accepts. That’s not an accurate representation of the situation. The interpretation of the Second Amendment should absolutely still be up for debate (don’t forget about the “well regulated militia” qualifier in it) and its modern usefulness should absolutely be questioned. The 2008 D.C. vs Heller Supreme Court decision is still controversial, and it still doesn’t guarantee the ownership of every type of gun. Uber-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia said as much: “We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.”  This fantastic piece by Dan Pfeiffer expands on these ideas much better than I can.

Let’s define what “freedom” really is. The gun lobby has successfully positioned themselves as the ones on the side of freedom, but their scope of the idea of freedom is limited only to the ownership of killing machines. Not only is it limited, but it infringes on other basic freedoms that citizens of a democratic nation should be able to expect: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Imagine telling a person that was shot in the Parkland massacre and clinging to life, unable to pay their monstrous future medical bills, that the situation they’re in is what constitutes freedom. Freedoms don’t exist in a vacuum, and they must be prioritized.

Gun owners’ feelings don’t need to be coddled. David Brooks recently published an absurd column in the New York Times basically saying that gun control advocates need to just chill out and let the gun people lead the issue. That is the opposite of what we should do. We’ve tried letting the pro-gun side lead the debate, and it’s resulted in the highest gun violence rates in the first world. What we should be doing is penetrating the sense of entitlement in American culture that says owning high powered weapons is a desire that should never be questioned. That the legendary “responsible gun owner” must be respected and exempted from any scrutiny or potential laws that may inconvenience them. Folks should absolutely be expected to have a good reason to have the positions they do. Don’t let them off the hook for the consequences of what they support or how their priorities line up.  

Gun advocates will try to convince you that you need to woo them and get them on board before any changes can be made. That’s just not true: A nationwide assault weapons ban polls at 67%. We don’t need to get every gun owner on board with every change, we just need to elect politicians that will make the changes (i.e. not Republicans).

Don’t let people push bad faith solutions that they don’t actually care about.  The vast majority of the folks that scream “mental health” immediately after any mass shooting are full of shit. It is a deflection tactic. Paul Ryan, a man who has spent his entire adult life attempting to defund mental health services, is an almost-too-perfect example of this type of bullshitter. Call these people out on this immediately. What specific mental health policy proposals do they have, and how would they work? Do they vote for Republicans or Libertarians? If so, do they know that they are not only actively opposing policy that addresses mental health, but making it easier for the mentally ill to obtain weapons? It should go without saying, but mental health is a fine cause to fight for, and it is not mutually exclusive with gun control. The faux-concern for mental health solutions that the right uses as a deflection technique should continually be called out as such until they actually put their money where their mouth is.

Last, but not least: stop acting like the battle is already lost. The gun lobby feeds off that feeling of futility. They can be beaten. The students of Stoneman Douglas High have exposed the cracks in their armor. Let’s learn from our past mistakes and keep their movement alive