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Guns and the Great Culture Divide

Most men, and above all intellectuals, believe what they want to believe, once and for all, I perhaps included, and in the last analysis they make statements of faith which are totally immune to argument. — Raymond Aron

The president is all over the map on gun issues, rattling off proposals bullet-point style like an ADHD kid who neglected to take his meds. His grab-bag couples reasonable, modest policies with demagoguery and nuttiness. Improving the existing background-check system, banning bumper stocks, and raising the minimum age to purchase an assault-style rifle are minimal steps forward. They may represent the maximum that can be passed by Congress and signed by the president. There is no assurance that even this much will come to pass.

The call to arm school teachers and other staff is a logical extension of the president's vision of fortress America protected by border walls and tactical nuclear weapons. Mass shootings have a special resonance when they occur at schools. They also happen in churches, malls, nightclubs, and other places where people gather. Shall we call for armed ministers, sales clerks, custodial staff, bartenders, and baristas? To my mind this is an absurd, rhetorical question. I fear though that it reflects the vision of the NRA, rightwing militia groups like Oath Keepers (In Oath Keepers Webinar, Student Gun Control Activists Are ‘The Enemy’), and conservative opinion-meisters who have the president's ear.

Abuse has been heaped on the Broward County sheriff's deputy who waited outside the school instead of going inside to confront Nikolas Cruz. The president was quick to paint him as a coward or someone who does not love children. He seems to believe we live in a John Wayne movie where it can be held as an article of faith that the good guy with a gun takes out the bad guy with the gun and saves the day. It is not a given that the deputy would have been fortunate enough to kill or otherwise neutralize the shooter. Nowhere have I read what kind of weapon he had at his disposal. He may have been outgunned. He could have been another victim.

Members of the "good guy with a gun" school do not consider the collateral damage that could result from an indiscriminate exchange of gunfire or the terrible possibility that in a confused and frightening situation an innocent person could be mistaken for the shooter, as happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where fortunately a well-trained SWAT team acted with great professionalism (Florida Massacre Survivor Describes Harrowing Experience Of Being Mistaken For Shooter). Yet the president blithely told students in the meeting at the White House that arming teachers and staff would solve the problem. I am not arguing that the deputy, and apparently three other deputies on the scene who also failed to act, as came out later, did the right thing. Maybe lives would have been saved if they had confronted the shooter. Maybe not.

The incident should prompt authorities to examine hiring standards, qualifications, and training required for law enforcement personnel. I have not any report indicating that the president has addressed this issue. Maybe I missed it. What we get is blather about the deputy's cowardice and failure to love children, arming teachers who of course do love children, &c. That is a smokescreen and a distraction to divert the subject away from the guns that are a necessary condition for mass shootings at schools and other public places.

Marco Rubio in what passes for a profile in courage has come out in support of raising the age limit to twenty-one for those who want to purchase AR-15 style rifles and said he is "reconsidering" his position on high-capacity magazines. Rubio is right when he says that the genie is out of the bottle because there are millions of assault-style weapons in the streets. The country is awash with guns. The honorable senator from Florida neglects to mention that the genie is out of the bottle because people like himself, the president, and that raving lunatic Wayne LaPierre have steadfastly and successfully opposed restrictions on purchase and ownership of these weapons. In a better world we would be talking about restrictions on handguns as well as assault-style weapons. We would also be talking about ways to get some of those weapons off the streets.

Rubio informs us that gun-control advocates are wrong when they claim that cassault-style weapons are not used for hunting and sport shooting.

"What is a legitimate reason for an AR-15 to be able to have 30 or 50 rounds in a clip," [Jim] DeFede [WFOR] interjected.

"Well, first of all, they don’t have 50. The second reason is people that are in– whether it’s sport shooting, or, for example they are used in hunting, I heard somebody say yesterday that they’re not."

"And so the rationale is that they use those, and if you have to reload every time, it would affect either the sport shooting aspect or the hunting aspect," he continued. (Shuham, Rubio Defends NRA Ties)

People enjoy using these weapons for hunting and sport shooting; therefore, they should be allowed to own them for those purposes with minimal restriction or inconvenience. Well, some people enjoy sex with children. They might even consider it sport. I am not suggesting that gun owners are comparable to pedophiles. I use the extreme example to point out that this argument can lead to absurd conclusions. There are all manner of activities people enjoy that are regulated for the sake of the general welfare and common good.

Contra Rubio's milquetoast response to the latest mass shooting comes the announcement from the CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods that the company is halting sales of assault rifles and will no longer sell guns to anyone under twenty-one.

Last November, the alleged gunman, a 19-year-old former student of the high school, legally purchased a gun from Dick’s Sporting Goods, [CEO Edward] Stack said. The weapon was not the same guns he used in the school attack, but Stack said company officials “had a pit in our stomach” when they found out.

“We looked at this and we went back and we did everything by the book that we were supposed to do from a legal standpoint,” he said. “We followed everything we were supposed to do, and somehow this kid was still able to buy a gun from us. … We need a responsibility to these kids, and we decided we’re not going to sell these anymore.” (Dick’s CEO: We ‘Expect Backlash,’ But ‘Don’t Want To Be Part Of This Story Any Longer’)

David Brooks speculates that attempts to implement even minimal restrictions supported by a majority of the country go nowhere because the debate devolves into a culture war.

…the gun issue is not about guns. It’s become sort of a proxy in a culture war.

And a lot of people who are on the gun side feel, this is not really about the guns. It’s the elitists who want to crush our culture.

And so they put a wall down and say no compromise at all. And so, to me, the way to move forward is, let’s depressurize this and let’s say, we’re not trying to take your guns. We just want a few things. (Brooks and Marcus)

In his customary fashion Brooks puts the onus on gun-control advocates to avoid provoking a backlash from gun owners, as if it is too much to ask any concession from those on the other side of the issue. Brooks does have a point about the gun debate becoming a proxy in a culture war, and I am sympathetic when he calls for depressurizing this issue. But how the heck do you accomplish that when any restriction, however modest or minimal, is considered a threat by people who hold that the right to own firearms is absolute? They make up a substantial portion of the Republican base and thus wield an outsized influence on Republican lawmakers at all levels of government. No restriction on gun ownership and little else by way of regulation proposed by gun-control zealots, as they see us, will fly.

There must be something in the water at the PBS Newshour. Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report took up the theme of guns and culture during her regular Monday Newshour segment with NPR's Tamara Keith.

I think there’s a cultural issue here. As you pointed out, about, I think, is a good opposite of that, as you could think about it. We talk so much about the NRA when we talk about guns. We spend not as much time the;looking [sic] about people who either are gun owners, may not be part of the NRA, or people who live in areas or who are a part of a cohort who believe that guns are fundamental to their safety and their sense of freedom.

It’s a core value set to them. (Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report in her regular Monday Newshour segment with NPR's Tamara Keith, February 26, 2018)

Walter takes this up at greater length at The Cook Political Report (It's Not All About the NRA), pointing out that gun owners "see the ownership of a firearm just as valuable as the right to vote, freedom of speech and freedom of religion." She and Brooks are right about the existence of this cultural divide that leaves us at an impasse on guns time after time. Neither has anything to offer by way of bridging the divide, nor do I.

I recognize that I will have to settle for far less than I believe is called for by way of gun control. The gun issue puts to the test a principle that I try always to bear in mind, sometimes with less success than I might wish: People of good will can disagree about the most fundamental principles and values, even about gun ownership and rights and what restrictions on those rights are permissible and legitimate.

I know good people who own guns. I have friends for whom ownership of guns and proficiency in their use for hunting and to protect themselves and their families is as much part of an existential sense of identity, self, and worth as is my sense of myself as poet, runner, and intellectual after some fashion or other. It is open to debate which attributes are more fundamental. Maybe I would a better person, brother, friend, and citizen if I had their skills and capacity for self-reliance.

I am in my own way as much all over the map as the president. There is no single measure, nor any combination of measures, that will solve the problem and prevent mass shootings from ever happening again. It does not follow from this acknowledgement that we should buy the NRA line that the response to gun violence lies in just about anything but trying to prevent a would-be shooter from obtaining a gun in the first place.

The House Freedom caucus and others are already pushing back on even modest proposals relating to gun purchases and ownership. The president has shown himself to be susceptible to the influence of hardliners on DACA and other issues. I am not optimistic.


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