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The most common argument against even mild gun control legislation in America has always been this: There are already so many guns out there (roughly 310 million as of 2009—essentially one for every man, woman, and child in the country) that new laws won’t do any good. If a criminal wants a gun—or for that matter, if a gun owner wants to become a criminal—the guns are already out there. Which is true. If AR-15 sales were stopped tomorrow, shootings with them wouldn’t.
When it comes to mass shootings, Australia is often cited as the model for gun control. In April 1996, after a mass shooting left 35 dead, the federal government passed laws that not only limited the availability of new firearms, but instituted a buyback policy that collected and destroyed over a million guns, roughly a third of all guns on the continent. Suicides and homicides by gun decreased accordingly, as the overall chance of dying from gun violence dropped by half.
America is not Australia. We have more guns, as well as the Second Amendment, which has been held as inviolate—despite the fact that it is itself an amendment to the Constitution. Changes can be made. They have been since the beginning. Our founders wanted that too.
At the same time, organizations like the National Rifle Association have long pushed that no one can take your guns away. Remember Charlton Heston? His infamous NRA speech in 2000 didn’t start the “you can take my gun from my cold, dead hands” movement, but he certainly embedded it firmly into the mainstream. Somewhere along the line it went from the right to gun ownership being inviolate to gun ownership itself being inviolate. And it wasn’t enough to own one gun for self-defense. Those who already owned guns bought more.
But what if we tried? What if the federal government funded a massive gun buyback program not unlike that of Australia’s? What would happen? It seems highly unlikely that a third of guns in American hands—100 million of them—would be turned in. But millions would. If 80 percent of Americans support stricter background checks, it’s not inconceivable that there are those among them with weapons they no longer want or need. A voluntary scale-back neatly sidesteps the whole us-vs.-them take your gun away aspect. It becomes a choice. And if the end result is fewer guns in circulation, it’s difficult to find a reason to not try.
In the meantime, the NRA and gun manufacturers alike thrive on fear. Mass shootings actually cause upticks in gun sales, in an insane escalation of non-nuclear mutually assured destruction: I need a gun because you have a gun. Meanwhile, guns in a household are most likely to kill a member of that household—you’re quite possibly paying for your own death. There are no “good guys with guns” or “bad guys with guns,” just more guns. Always more guns. And profits built on fear, of our neighbors, of ourselves. Instead of protecting us from the nebulous threat of tyranny, gun sales turn everyone into tyrants, presenting lethal force as a reasonable response to any threat. After all, better to kill than be killed. All the more, that seems to be the only choice we have left.
Before we can even consider de-arming the nation, however, we need to de-escalate the rhetoric. The longer guns are presented as a necessity to maintaining personal freedom, the harder it will be to scale back private ownership. The more the NRA (and to a lesser extent, the GOP) frames any gun control effort as a threat to the Second Amendment, as a slippery-slope first step to taking your guns away, the tighter the fearful will cling to them. The first step needs to be a wholesale re-assessment of the place of guns in our society and why we have so many. Scale back the fear, the presumed need for guns should fall away as well.
Because it seems necessary, here is a more or less complete rundown of my own history with guns: I shot .22s when I was a Boy Scout, always on a range. I owned several air rifles. I shot skeet with shotguns in an abandoned quarry a couple of times. When I was in my 20s, I had a pistol brandished at me and was robbed on the front steps of the building I lived in Delaware. For the past 20 years or so I have lived in New York City, where I have never felt the need or the desire to own a gun. I haven’t fired one in at least that long. I’ve never fired a pistol.
Guns are so tightly woven into American culture that it’s almost impossible to imagine removing the one without the other unravelling.
In a lot of ways, I am more the exception than the rule. Guns are so tightly woven into American culture that it’s almost impossible to imagine removing the one without the other unravelling. But at some point, unless we accept all of this as the new normal, it needs to happen. We send off young men (and women) to fight, train them to kill, then bring them back to a country bursting at the seams with military-grade armaments, and expect them to re-assimilate without our help. Too many commit suicide, a whole separate issue, an act made unconscionably easier by readily available firearms. (Perhaps we can follow Israel’s lead.) We arm our police forces like military units, then act surprised when they treat the citizens they have sworn to serve and protect as if they were enemy combatants.
There needs to be fewer guns out there, of this I am sure. Taking them by force would create more problems that it would solve, of this I am also sure. All of the NRA’s harmful messaging would be proven true. The government WOULD be coming to take your guns. There would be untold numbers of Ruby Ridges, all across the country. This can’t be allowed to happen. But neither can we allow ourselves to become immune to the horrors that cross our doorsteps every day. This isn’t the country our forefathers envisioned, nor can it be the one that our elected officials—on either side of the aisle—want to lead. Instead of free, we are all afraid. And who we should fear most is ourselves.