“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” So said National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre almost four years ago, shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. This was a weak argument then, but now – with the mass shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge – it is completely untenable. “Good guys” with guns were still unable to prevent the “bad guys” with guns from inflicting terrible damage.
For far too long, the NRA has managed to get away with three very flimsy reasons for opposing gun control. The “good guys”/”bad guys” argument above is just one of them. The other two are what we might call “Second Amendment Fatalism” and “False Dichotomism.” Once we subject these three reasons to the slightest bit of rational scrutiny, they quickly unravel.
According to Second Amendment Fatalists, the only governmental action that might prevent dangerous people from possessing and misusing guns is confiscation. But, they claim, confiscation of most or all 300+ million guns out there is prohibited by the Second Amendment, not to mention logistically impossible. So we have no choice but to resign ourselves to the status quo. Gun violence is the “new normal” and we all just have to hope that we don’t get caught in the crosshairs.
Aside from sounding disturbingly complacent, Second Amendment Fatalists are simply wrong that confiscation is necessary to reduce gun violence. Many other comparably wealthy countries that permit gun ownership do not suffer nearly the same numbers of casualties. There must, then, be something different about us – what has been referred to as the “dark side” of American exceptionalism. And whatever this difference is, there is no reason to think that it can’t be addressed.
For decades, American media and entertainment industries have glorified rugged, violent individualism. They have continually conveyed the message that males can become instant celebrities – intriguing, masculine, powerful, and decisive – if they finally, dramatically take matters into their own hands. This cultural “script” underlies all gang warfare – hundreds of thousands of boys and young men trying to prove their toughness, courage, and loyalty by shooting their rivals. It also helped to motivate the spate of school shootings in the 1990s; the students who committed these acts were merely following, consciously or unconsciously, in the footsteps of people like James Earl Ray, Charles Manson, the Son of Sam, Michael Corleone, Rambo, and the Terminator. They saw random violence as the most effective way to vent their rage and ascend the social hierarchy. Adult “copycats” then helped transfer these mass shootings out of middle schools and high schools and into colleges, malls, movie theaters, workplaces, and – now – the streets.
So a large part of our effort to reduce gun violence must involve de-romanticizing it. We must also start chipping away at the other cultural causes of our pathologically high suicide and homicide rates. This means, among other things, reforming drug laws to make illegal drug-dealing less profitable and therefore less susceptible to “turf” battles and making a concerted effort in our various institutions – especially schools and workplaces – to minimize the causes of suicide and “going postal”: marginalization, bullying, unfair treatment, and exploitation (including excessively low wages). Police departments would also do well to implement policies that reduce bullying and unfair treatment as well.
All of this brings us back to LaPierre’s notion that we need many more “good guys” to be armed so that they can take out the “bad guys.” People who agree with LaPierre – call them “Superheroes” – are the lame foils to mass shooters. They fancy themselves as modern-day John Waynes and Dirty Harrys.
Again, the mass shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge expose the fallacy of LaPierre’s “wild west” mentality. What he and his many followers fail to realize is that, despite first appearances, it is extremely difficult to be a successful Superhero. Accurate and effective shooting in a sudden, stressful, and fast-paced emergency situation requires extensive tactical training. Without this training, a would-be Superhero will likely do much more harm than good – not only during a mass shooting but at all other times. The mere presence of a gun on one’s person significantly increases the chances of bringing about the very panic and violence that carrying the gun was designed to prevent – sometimes from trained police themselves, as the recent fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Philando Castile in Minnesota, and Dylan Noble in California attest.
Indeed, it will be tragic but not at all surprising if there are similar incidents at the Republican Convention this week, where both pro- and anti-Trump forces may take dangerous advantage of Ohio’s open-carry laws. At the very least, the possibility of all these angry people bearing arms poses a real threat to the many Cleveland police officers who are tasked with maintaining order and safety.
The third camp of gun-control opponents – False Dichotomists – insist that only people, not guns, kill people. So if we genuinely want to reduce the number of homicides and suicides, we need to figure out a way to control the people who misuse guns, not the guns themselves. Merely putting more serious restrictions on the manufacture and sale of guns will not prevent “bad,” “mad,” and “sad” people from deciding to kill themselves or others. Instead, they will all resort to stealing them, buying them on the “black market,” or finding some other means of killing (bombs, bats, knives, chains, bows and arrows, blow torches, etc.). After the terrorist attack in Nice, False Dichotomists were proclaiming – sarcastically – that we should now ban all trucks.
What False Dichotomists fail to realize is that, true to their label, they have set up a false dichotomy between “bad guys” and guns. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; both can be – and are – part of the problem. The fact of the matter is that guns are designed to kill much more easily, rapidly, and efficiently than most other objects – including trucks. So it stands to reason – and the data in different states indicate – that certain gun-control measures are the most effective cure for this part of the problem. These measures include expanding background checks, requiring rigorous background checks for all online and gun-show purchases, requiring a license for gun ownership, renewing the federal ban on assault rifles (both automatic and semi-automatic), repealing these ridiculously permissive open-carry and concealed-carry laws, and raising taxes significantly on bullets (“bullet control”).
Still, False Dichotomists do get something right. Unlike Second Amendment Fatalists, False Dichotomists often claim that we should expand access to mental healthcare. Of course, we need to take this suggestion with a huge grain of salt. Most False Dichotomists are Republicans, and Republicans are generally opposed to Obamacare and any other government-related mechanisms for delivering expanded mental healthcare. Once again, though, it doesn’t have to be one or the other – either expanded access to mental healthcare or gun control. We can and should do both.
The NRA and their Republican supporters’ enthusiastic encouragement and passage of lax gun laws and policies over the past 30 years have sadly enabled hundreds of thousands of senseless, needless deaths and injuries. It’s high time, then, that they atone for their destructive influence by renouncing the same old unproductive, callous platitudes and canards and finally getting on board with a sensible multi-pronged approach that includes gun control. In the end, this is really the only way to honor the Baton Rouge and Dallas police officers who were viciously murdered – and to better protect all of the police officers who are still serving.
Ken Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Associate Professor of Law at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University.