My first trip to the shooting range was a formative experience. Before handling firearms on my own, my parents required I complete a basic gun-safety class, which culminated in a round of target shooting with single-shot, small-caliber rifles from the prone position. We were guided by a certified instructor from the National Rifle Association, who instilled in us a reverence for the four fundamental rules of gun safety: You must ensure all guns are always loaded, never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy, keep your finger on the trigger until your sights are on the target and identify your target and what is behind it. Thanks to this foundation, I consider myself a responsible gun owner.
It is largely because of this experience that I take issue with how much of the gun debate is currently framed by American political commentary, on both sides of the aisle. The recent massacre of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand has once again invited careless and lazy argumentation from Second Amendment fundamentalists and prominent progressives alike. The former erroneously characterize all gun control policies, even reasonable ones, as the first step in the unconstitutional disarmament of the American citizenry. Meanwhile, the latter seem convinced that pushing ineffectual gun control policies after every mass shooting is the best prescription for gun violence. I’ve seen up-close how responsible gun use is instilled in a society, so I feel confident in saying that these outlooks are wrong.
As demonstrated by recent commentary on the New Zealand shooting, the NRA and similar Second Amendment advocacy groups relentlessly perpetuate the myth that any gun control measures amount to an “evisceration” of gun rights. In fact, the text of the Second Amendment grants no immunity from reasonable restrictions on the sale, possession or use of firearms — just consult the majority opinion of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in the seminal Second Amendment Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller. This extreme interpretation matters. While Second Amendment fundamentalists do not comprise a majority of gun owners, gun policy is disproportionately swayed by pro-gun positions. Compared to gun control advocates, gun rights advocates prioritize gun policies much more when they vote (which explains why majority support for gun control measures do not translate to federal-level legislation). Though at odds with legal consensus and the needs of a safe society, uncompromising interpretations of the Second Amendment have nonetheless gained traction among diligent voters.
Second Amendment groups also advance the premise that the act of one should not lead to the rights of many being taken away. That this sophistry is often parroted by other pro-gun activists does not make it any less false. Restrictions of rights and privileges are always justified by the furthering of some public interest, even if those affected did nothing to warrant such a policy. I do not protest if I am subjected to an invasive search at the airport, even though I had nothing to do with the men responsible for 9/11. If smart gun control legislation actually helps reduce violence, the public safety of all citizens — gun owners included — is enhanced.
Another way these groups tend to distract from the real concern of formulating policy is by repetitively emphasizing largely irrelevant aspects of gun violence. The most prominent example is mental illness. Despite little to no supporting evidence, a high proportion of Republicans (and even a near-majority of Democrats) believe mental illness to be a key factor in gun violence. Attributing inadequate gun policy to health issues of individual perpetrators does little to address gun violence systematically, yet Second Amendment fundamentalists repeatedly do so.
None of this excuses liberals from their own myopia and folly when it comes to guns, however. Progressives who wish to tackle the problem of gun violence head-on have increasingly committed to over-enthusiasm at the expense of level-headed scrutiny.
For one, nearly all of the leading Democratic candidates for the pivotal 2020 presidential election have demonstrated their support of an assault weapons ban. It’s a policy that any good Second Amendment supporter knows to be extremely complicated in its effects in improving public safety, but well-proven at tanking electoral odds. Such a ban was previously signed into law by President Bill Clinton for 10 years starting in 1994. Later that year, Republicans rode a wave of popular dissatisfaction to take the U.S. House for the first time in decades. The subsequent era of conservative congressional dominance saw the Dickey amendment passed, which dealt a huge setback to gun control by effectively freezing federal funding on gun control policy. Liberals are sadly repeating the mistake of gambling away valuable political capital for ineffective policies.
What they should instead be focused on are universal background checks. Unlike an assault weapons ban, universal background checks enjoy majority support among American gun owners and would incur less political wrath. Most importantly, they would be but one step toward a more responsible distribution of guns in America. For even though no evidence suggests that universal background checks work on their own, they would make more proven gun control measures easier to pass into law — namely, permit-to-purchase laws.
Not only do such laws entail additional measures beyond background checks, they are also proven to significantly lower gun violence. Evidence is on the side of laws that regulate gun ownership, therefore encouraging responsibility. In a country awash with many more guns than qualified gun owners, laws like these are much-needed.
Looking at the sheer number of gun homicides, gun suicides and accidental gun deaths in America, one can start to feel hopeless. But, somewhere between the Dickey amendments and assault weapons bans, hope appears. Those additional measures and permit-to-purchase laws contribute to the responsible gun use I first encountered at my gun-safety class. And they are possible. What stands in the way are those who steer the conversation from policy to paranoia, and those who mistakenly lump together good gun control policies with bad ones. We just need to get better at tuning them out.
Ethan Kessler can be reached at email@example.com.