We Need To Change The Way We Talk About Mass Shootings In America

A decade ago, America could go months without a horrific mass shooting happening. These days, we often do not even have enough time to bury the dead before the next tragedy unfolds.

In a recent moment of startling candor, Senator Bernie Sanders went onto the Joe Rogan Experience podcast just days after the El Paso and Dayton shootings and admitted to the world that he had no answers to the current crisis. “I would be lying to you,” Sanders said to Rogan, “if I told you I had a magical answer.” Regardless of one’s thoughts about Sanders himself, the revelation that a Senator and Presidential Candidate with a long history of working on gun control legislation could not offer an explanation for the dramatic increase in the number of mass shootings per year was a wake-up call. Of course, it is perhaps a bit of a tall order to expect that one person has the answer to such a large and complex issue, but if Sanders and his fellow legislators do not know why the problem is happening, then it is hard to see why their suggestions about how to solve the problem are worth considering. To be fair, Sanders did go on to suggest that stronger background checks and similar popular policy proposals on the Left would help. But without understanding the root cause of the problem, many of these proposals start to seem no better than the absurd suggestion that teachers should be given guns to keep in their classroom.

The reality of the situation America is in is this: the nation is stuck between a rock (the Second Amendment) and a hard place (mass murders) and no one has an answer as to why the shootings are happening or how to stop them. There are theories on both sides, and the debate is full of the best reasoning one could hope for from a civilization that is traumatized and angry. But no theory is airtight, many of the solutions are tainted by partisan rhetoric, and the conversations are so routinized that they seem like little more than thoughts and prayers at this point.

Every time a mass shooting happens, pundits roll out the same arguments. The first reaction from many on the Left is to argue that the problem stems from the prevalence of guns in the United States generally. For Leftists, the fact that America is the only country with tens of millions of guns floating around is all you need to know. In the rest of the developed world, where guns are regulated heavily, they are rarer by an order of magnitude. The estimated number of firearms in civilian possession in India, which has the second-most guns after the US, is about 70 thousand. Meanwhile, the US has about 400 million guns in civilian possession. America is a veritable powder keg waiting to pop off. Remove some of the guns, so the argument goes, and the number of shooting deaths will be reduced. 

The Right will usually respond to this argument by saying something along the lines of, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” What they mean is that the problem is not that people have guns; the problem is that people use them in the wrong way. Like the terrorist who used a truck to kill pedestrians in Manhattan in 2017, the goal should not be to remove the tools that mass killers use but to stop the mass killers themselves. It makes no more sense to ban vehicles in order to prevent truck attacks than it does to ban assault rifles to prevent mass shootings. The problem is not the weapon. The problem is the person.

There are a number of related derivative arguments to these positions that both sides will reference during the ensuing debate. The Left will often say that we do not need to remove all guns from civilian possession, just assault rifles. The Right will counter that a) that is a slippery slope toward removing all guns and b) the category ‘assault rifle’ is nearly meaningless since guns exist on a spectrum with only vague lines between the notion of handguns, automatic weapons, shotguns, etc., and c) even if you did remove these guns from civilians, deranged mass murderers would find another way to kill people, because, after all, they are deranged mass murderers, and not having a gun is unlikely to change their intentions. The Left will come back with several more rebuttals: a) the slippery slope is a fallacy, just trust us, and b) we just want to reduce the number of rounds that a shooter can fire at a time, whether that be by reducing the size of magazines or regulating what kinds of guns are sold, and c) it’s true that deranged killers will still try to kill people, and that’s why we need to make it harder for them to do so by removing the tools they use as well as passing legislation to implement universal background checks. At this point, the Right will usually accuse the Left of playing into the hands of would-be tyrants while the Left will accuse the Right of ignoring common sense. “But the Second Ammendment,” yells the Right. “But mass shootings,” screams the Left. The rock meets the hard place, and nothing changes.

Eventually, the tired and dejected public sinks back into their chairs. When the next mass shooting happens, the cycle of counter-arguments, rebuttals, and accusations of bad faith repeats. It is easy to lose hope in this type of situation. We have been thinking about this problem now for a generation, and we are no closer to solving that we were 20 years ago. With the conversation so deeply routinized, it almost appears hubristic to suggest any new ideas. But of course, that is exactly what we need. We need to make new arguments and develop new ideas and explanations for a range of phenomena, from the psychology of mass murderers to the economics of gun manufacturing to the fundamental rights of human beings as enshrined in the Constitution. Without new ideas, we will not be able to transform our society from one in which mass shootings are common and accepted to one in which mass shootings are rare and un-American. 

A good way to begin the long and tedious task of rethinking the problem of guns in America is to assume that both sides are wrong in some way. After all, the current paradigm of partisan bickering is not working. Therefore, it follows that something about the way that the paradigm is constructed is wrong. Some underlying premise is off the mark. Of course, accepting that one is wrong about their strongly held convictions on a matter as personal and dire as gun legislation is very difficult. But look at it this way: if you expect the other side to accept that they are wrong about guns on some fundamental level, then you should also be open to the idea that you are wrong as well. Call it epistemic courtesy. 

For a start, the paradigm might be wrong about what guns are and how they ought to be used. On both sides of the aisle, guns are often treated like pet tigers: dangerous status symbols of aggression, dominance, and power. The Left usually evinces this position by talking about guns as if they are frivolous, mythical sources of death and destruction that serve no purpose other than to wreak havoc on society. Like pet tigers that should be left in the jungle, guns are elements of war best left on the battlefield. The Right also tends to mischaracterize guns as tokens of masculine superiority that imbue their owners with an unimpeachable level of dignity and that provide proof of their owners’ alpha status within the community. Like a pet tiger lounging comfortably across its owner’s lap, guns are treated as objects to be displayed by ‘real men’ in a show of bravado.

Perhaps it would be better if both the Left and the Right treated guns more like forklifts: boring tools that no one sees as status symbols and which require a significant amount of training to be able to use properly. Without the proper training, and often despite proper training, forklifts also kill people accidentally. Forklifts could also be used to kill lots of civilians intentionally by deranged murderers, but most often they are used for more mundane purposes. 

Similarly, the Left could start by acknowledging that guns do serve a valuable function in American society, even assault weapons: self-defense. Each gun is built to be used in a specific context and for a specific purpose. If we remove a certain type of gun from civilian ownership, then civilians will not have a tool for the specific need that that type of gun was built to address. You cannot use a revolver in place of an assault rifle any more than you can use a ladder in place of a forklift. A helpful implication of this fact is that each gun requires different training to be used effectively. And with proper training, guns become far safer, which means that the Left need not approach them with as much fear. After all, a well-trained pet tiger is far less dangerous to be around than a wild animal. Therefore, the Left can start by focussing on the fact that training in handling and safely storing firearms can vastly reduce the danger that guns pose to society. Happily, once the fear is removed from the equation, Leftist can begin to treat guns like the boring forklifts they are, which will give them the ability to propose more effective and appropriate solutions to the rising problem of mass shootings.

At the same time, the Right could stop treating guns like status symbols that make men feel more manly. Sexism and misogyny are widespread in gun communities, as anyone who is in those communities will acknowledge. Social media is full of pictures of guys holding Glocks and showing off their AR-15s like they are the Terminator or Rambo. Those images send the wrong message about guns. Guns are not cool toys to show off to your friends. They are not pet tigers that you can use to make yourself feel special. Instead, the Right should treat guns like boring forklifts built to do the heavy lifting that no other tool can. They are fantastic, interesting machines, but not symbols of masculinity. A helpful side effect of shifting away from treating guns like vanity items is that men will stop putting their feelings of self-worth into their identities as gun owners. In turn, that will free them to consider a wider range of options for preventing mass shootings without worrying so much about what allowing such options to be implemented would signal about their own manhood.

One benefit of shifting the paradigm away from treating guns like pet tigers is that a wider range of voices would be let into the conversation, and these voices might have novel ideas which could contribute to better solutions. For instance, pacifists and their libertarian brothers who follow the Principle of Non-aggression would be given more opportunities to argue for positions that are seen as common sense in other parts of the world but which are seen as outlandish in America. The suggestion that humans are genetically programmed to be violent and that we must, therefore, develop social policies aimed at mitigating our violent tendencies by, say, proactively teaching ourselves principles of nonviolence developed by our forefathers like Martin Luther King, is currently seen as naive and dangerous by both the Left and the Right. But such a suggestion might go a long way towards developing new versions of American manhood that troubled young American men can adopt. That, in turn, could give our society more options for dealing with the types of anger that propel men toward antisocial behaviors.

At the end of the day, we all know that the conversation we have after every mass shooting cannot go on forever. If we do not shift our culture toward a paradigm that allows for a more realistic conversation, then it could eventually devolve into draconian policies or even civil war. None of us want those outcomes, so let’s all work together to be more self-critical, find common ground, and move forward.

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