I have tried to avoid much commentary on guns and gun control in the aftermath of yet two more mass shootings (the white supremacist attack on a Wal-Mart in El Paso and the at this point indecipherable attack in Dayton). It is a circular argument that goes nowhere and I don’t care to burn what little free time I have engaging in the same frustrating argument for the millionth time. A recent piece from Matthew Continetti made me break this vow.
Continetti is right to point out how polarized our gun control debate is. But like too many in our polemic political commentary landscape, he misattributes malice to actions more easily (and accurately) described as sincere beliefs that create sharp policy disagreements. In this case, it is that liberals (and moderate urban/suburban conservatives) are frustrated with the pro-gun crowd because it reminds them that they have yet to fully impose their values on one segment of our population.
This argument fits a larger pattern on the right of assuming that liberal desires for government regulation are an attempt to impose elite, educated social, political, and cultural mores on “regular” Americans. It assumes bad faith on the part of liberals (and fetishizes the “regular” Americans).
I’ll use the civil rights movement as an example of this process. Liberals in the 1960s start to embrace the civil rights movement. Rather than accept that some (if not most) liberal voters and activists are motivated by the moral argument that our legal segregation of public spaces and services was a violation of our Constitution and the Enlightenment ideals the United States was founded on, the bad faith counter-narrative is that liberals were only advocating for civil rights laws to buy the votes of black people. You might recognize this argument today in the form of immigration.
This process gets taken one step further by clowns like Dinesh D’Souza who try to distort history by saying “actually, liberals (meaning the pre-1960s Democratic party) were the racists (both parties were largely complicit with racist policy from 1865 well into the 1970s), conveniently leaving out how the Southern Strategy and the exodus of the Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party and into the GOP fundamentally altered the racial calculus of our political environment. This is how the worst parts of our punditry distort the political discourse. They attach bad faith explanations of their opponents’ views in order to galvanize the base and provide simple, repeatable talking points to “arm” their followers with.
That isn’t to say that liberals always take conservatives at face value either. Liberals are far too dismissive of conservative opposition to abortion, for example. While it is easy and even appropriate to be cynical of Mitch McConnell’s moral compass or Donald Trump’s religious convictions, there absolutely are millions of American men and women who believe that abortion is wrong. Not because they want control over women’s bodies, but because they have come to the conclusion that conception (or whenever else along the timeline they fall) represents human life and abortion means ending that life. They view themselves as voices for the voiceless.
I do not agree with them politically or ethically, but I do not doubt they sincerely believe what they say. If I cannot start from this point no dialogue is possible. Likewise, they have to accept that I do not desire the ability to murder babies indiscriminately, but instead see scientific and philosophical nuance in the concept of life, find the circumstances in which a woman might choose to pursue an abortion very fraught, and believe that less regulation on choice is the best option on a menu full of bad options.
When we argue in bad faith or assume bad faith on the part of others we make democracy impossible. Lazy arguments like “liberals want to impose their way of life on us” are made in bad faith. There is no way that I can convince someone who chooses to believe in this statement that it is not true. Any policy they disagree with is proof of my insidious plans. And in the case of this particular bad faith argument, it is laughably off the mark.
Unlike most of the conservative pundits you hear on the radio or read on twitter, I grew up in gun country. Most of the men in my family not only own guns, they vote on the issue of their guns, and in many ways identify with their guns. I’ve never seen any of the women in my family use a gun (I assume some, if not many, have), but I know that most of them support gun rights as part of what they think are foundational rights in America, their family lifestyle, and the culture they are a part of. I do not think they feel this way because the NRA tells them to nor out of devotion to GOP talking points. If anything, I believe that conservative politicians pander to them when they pretend to love gun culture too. After all, Mar a Lago is a gun-free zone.
Any mention that is made of gun control laws to my family falls on deaf ears. Like conservative pundits in the media, my pro-gun friends and family will either pivot to asking for a moratorium on politicizing the issue until we can all be less emotionally connected to it, propose some non-gun policy that could “really” deal with our mass shooting problem, or ask why I want to personally take their guns away. To these folks, especially my family, I become an outsider who wants to destroy something important about their way of life. Though I grew up in the same world they did, I am no longer part of it. They never say the words “liberal indoctrination” but the implication seems clear.
That is a bad faith argument. I’m going to unpack where I think this bad faith comes from, as I think it plays directly to the idea that Continetti was playing with. In large part, I attribute this to the confusion that comes out of someone making a radically different life choice. I am sure that everyone in my family respects what I have accomplished and is proud of me. I don’t have to guess it either. Most of them outright say so. And it means a lot to me. But when our politics and culture divide us it forces people to confront an uncomfortable choice. I have abandoned our way of life, faith, or worldview and it is a lot easier to blame that on impersonal forces (like some mythical liberal agenda) rather than examine how and why I changed. Much like questioning faith, people in general dislike examining why they or others hold the political positions that they do. It either leads to being angry with the individual in question (me) or could cast doubt on the righteousness of their position. Blaming the boogyman is a lot easier.
The truth of the matter is that my reading of history views the recent turn of the Supreme Court on the 2nd Amendment to be illogical and inconsistent with the plain wording of the text. As such, I do not view contemporary individual gun ownership rights with the same reverence that I do 1st Amendment protections. Statistically, it is hard not to correlate the number of guns possessed by civilians in our society with gun violence. No comparable nation has a similar problem with gun violence or mass shootings and the key difference is clearly the number of weapons floating around our society.
Likewise, the physical places we live and work in are different. I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life on college campuses. They have been the target of mass shooters before and are very vulnerable. People who suggest arming students and faculty have clearly not spent much time around these groups. My graduate advisor famously did not know how to operate a stapler and you want him to use a gun? Most colleges can barely get education majors who are going out to do student teaching or observation hours to not show up hungover, covered in bar stamps, and reeking of booze at a very critical juncture in their professional lives and you want to rely on them as protection from lunatic shooters? Come on. This does not mean I forgot about what it was like to live in a place where a gun could be a useful tool. It simply means I’ve also lived in places where guns in the hands of untrained civilians only serve a destructive purpose.
I do not consider gun ownership to be a key component of my identity and instead see marketing campaigns and media portrayals of gun use as part of a toxic masculine culture. Not because I think being a “man” is bad or because I am some sort of sissy, but because ads like the one below are literally selling weapons as an extension of a fragile form of male identity. Healthy masculinity is rooted in selflessness, a strict code of honor, and a sense of responsibility– especially for those to whom much has been given. Toxic masculinity commodifies masculinity as something you can buy. If you have to buy it you don’t have it. How fragile is your claim to manhood if you need to buy a particular type of gun to declare it?
We can say “guns are not the problem, people are the problem” until we are blue in the face. Please let me know how advertising weapons like this is helping with our people problem.
I did not come to these conclusions because someone told me to or because I desire to remake your world in my image. They are based on my formal understanding of history, my understanding of comparative politics, and my study of identity formation. They are the context behind why I think gun control measures, including buybacks, should be on the table for negotiation. This is entirely motivated by my desire to limit the number of deaths in this country caused by firearms and not some authoritarian streak to make sure you can never rebel against our rightful leadership in the future (also, this sort of talk is paranoid nonsense– you are not standing up to the US military with anything you can legally purchase). These beliefs are every bit as sincere as the idea of gun ownership as a part of your way of life and the notion that you need a gun for protection of life and property is to you.
As a historian, I rarely think what is happening today is terribly unique. This particular issue is. I cannot think of an example with this much lethality that was ever met with a shrug from the American people. Look at how aggressively we have attacked various forms of death caused by automobiles (and drastically decreased their rate in the process). Did we seriously go from a nation audacious enough to put people on the moon fifty years ago to one that resigns itself to saying “oh well, we will never solve this problem of angry men taking guns to public places and murdering scores of people”? What happened to us?
The issue of mass shootings in American society is complex and cannot be solved with one simple move. Comprehensive reform is necessary. We must address untreated mental health issues– it will help sort out homelessness and a whole host of lesser issues as well. We must combat how the internet is desocializing people and radicalizing their views in dangerous, conspiratorial, and violent ways. Making platforms and hosting services in some way accountable for what they allow to be broadcast into our society seems like a good place to start. We have to learn to argue in good faith with one another and stop using sloppy generalizations to ignore the concerns of people with different beliefs than our own. We must tone down the rhetoric and talk to each other without malice. We also have to talk about guns.
A plurality of the nation is ready to have this talk. For many of us, it seems long overdue. We are willing to discuss every measure the pro-gun crowd points to as a potential cause of these shootings. But guns cannot be off the table in these talks. To keep this factor off the table sabotages the debate (essentially telling one half of America that the discussion cannot start unless they drop the solution they most agree with is a non-starter in every political fight). Failure to even discuss guns guarantees we will never solve the problem.
How many places in this country need to be synonymous with mass shootings before we try to address it? Must we all lose a father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, or child before we say “enough” and at least try to solve the problem? To quote the people of Dayton, Ohio, it is time we “do something.” Do something starts with this conversation. So go forth and do something.