Repeating myself about guns

The only change since the last time I covered this issue is that more people have died.

From your cousin on social media to TV talking heads and syndicated columnists, everybody who comments on current events is facing the same conundrum: What do you say when nothing has changed since the last time you spoke out? There are no new insights to offer, no arguments that didn’t prove to be futile last time.

And yet, how can you stay silent? Silence is complacency that can even be interpreted as consent. Ten-year-olds get massacred in a public school? Grandmothers get killed for shopping-while-Black? Asians get shot at a church luncheon? It happens. This is America. Things that don’t happen anywhere else happen here, sometimes one right after another. And in spite of all the other countries that have responded to horrifying mass killings by taking effective action, nothing can be done here. This is America.

This week, I’ve decided to be open about the fact that I have nothing new to say. December 14 will be the tenth anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 six- and seven-year-olds. April 20 was the 23rd anniversary of Columbine. So I’ve had decades to compose my thoughts on mass shootings and gun control. There’s very little I can write that I haven’t written before.

So rather than repeat everything as if I just thought of it, I’ve decided to post a guide (and partial update) to my previous posts on guns. [1]

My most serious look at America’s gun problem was “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?” in 2019. Google, in its great algorithmic wisdom, recommended that post to people interested in the Second Amendment, netting me more than 18,000 page views and 300 comments, almost all of them negative.

The gist of my essay was that we argue so vociferously about the Second Amendment because it no longer has any recoverable meaning relevant to current issues. From the Supreme Court to that loud guy at the bar, anybody who “interprets” the Second Amendment and “applies” it to today’s world is really just making stuff up. We yell our own particular interpretations so loudly because interpretation is all we have at this point. To the extent that we can discern the “original intent” of the Founders at all, it’s completely tangential to anything happening today.

So I proposed that we replace the Second Amendment with a new amendment to capture what we really want out of guns in this era. The core of my rewrite was:

Congress shall make no law preventing individuals from securing adequate means to defend their homes and persons, or preventing state or local governments from equipping police forces adequate to enforce their laws and ensure public safety.

I gave the federal government explicit permission to regulate interstate transportation and sale of guns, while granting states the power to regulate guns within their borders.

In the face of the pushback, I wrote a sequel the next week to summarize and address my critics’ points. In retrospect, I’m surprised how much good humor I maintained after all that abuse.


As for what the Constitution doesn’t say about guns, see my 2018 post “Three Misunderstandings about Guns and the Constitution“. In particular, the Second Amendment was never intended to facilitate an armed uprising against the federal government.

The “well-regulated militia” it envisioned was supposed to make a large federal standing army unnecessary, not to fight against one. Militias, in the Founders’ vision, would enable state and local governments to maintain public peace and enforce their laws without begging the feds for help. Because of the militias, the federal army would only be needed in case of war with a foreign power like Britain or Spain, and otherwise would be a tiny force that wouldn’t tempt an unpopular president to stage a coup.

Not a militiaman

One reason why I later proposed rewriting the amendment was that all the ships in the Founders’ harbor sailed long ago. The outcome the Founders wanted to avoid when they wrote the Second Amendment is already here: We do have a large standing army with forts all over the country, as well as various kinds of federal police from the FBI to DEA to Treasury to TSA to ICE. We can still argue about whether any of that was a good idea. But one way or the other, here we are.

In 2016 I observed that “Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem“. Given our lax gun laws, complex 9-11-style plots aren’t necessary. Also in 2016, “The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights” pointed out how Second-Amendment rights really only belong to White people.

But perhaps my best gun post is “Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies” from 2015. This looks at the psychology of the gun issue, building on a tweet from cyberpunk novelist William Gibson:

People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don’t yet have a fully adult concept of scary.

One reason the gun debate goes nowhere is that the two sides aren’t really discussing the same issue. Gun-control advocates are looking at a public-health problem: Guns kill tens of thousands of Americans every year. What can be done to lower that total?

If that’s how you frame the issue, you look at numbers and graphs and examine how reforms have worked in other countries.

But most pro-gun arguments are story-based, because gun advocates are addressing something else entirely: Sometimes a dark fantasy gets stuck in your head and you can’t get it out. What do you do about that? Armed intruders invading your home, your daughter getting raped in the park, roaming street gangs killing people at random — those images can disrupt your peace of mind, no matter what the statistics say about their probability. Some policy change that experts predict would cut rapes in half, for example, doesn’t really help you deal with the what-if in your brain.

That’s what a gun is for. It’s a magical talisman that enables a counter-fantasy you can invoke to dispel whatever dark fantasy might be plaguing you. Home invaders? You’ll win a shoot-out with them. Your daughter? She’ll manage to get the gun out of her backpack and plug the guy before he can take it away and shoot her instead. (And the gun will never haunt her imagination on days when she’s feeling suicidal.) Gangs? You, the neighbors, and your AR-15s will form an impromptu urban warfare platoon to take them out.

Will any of that work in reality? Hardly ever, as ABC demonstrated with this gun-training exercise. But realistic thinking misses the point. If the problem lives in your personal fantasy world, a fantastic solution works just fine.

That’s why even the most common-sense gun reforms get bogged down in improbable scenarios. As in this argument against limiting the size of gun magazines: “Criminals don’t always act alone. It is often necessary to have enough ammunition to hold off multiple assailants.” Often? Would that be “often in the author’s experience” or “often in the author’s dark fantasies”?

We’ve seen that division play out this week. Gun-control advocates are looking at statistics, like how the number of gun deaths in a state correlates with the number of guns.

Meanwhile, the NRA’s mouthpieces float action-movie ideas that may help you overcome your paralyzing my-child-gets-killed-at-school nightmare, but are totally disconnected from reality.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s arm-the-teachers suggestion is a good example. Maybe a teacher with a gun gives his particular school-shooting fantasy a happy ending. But until she retired a few years ago, my sister was an elementary school teacher in the real world. Try as I might, I can’t picture her outshooting an attacker who has an assault rifle, body armor, and the element of surprise.

But maybe Paxton is imagining something more like Kindergarten Cop, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is an LAPD detective who goes undercover as a teacher. No doubt that movie character would fare much better against a shooter than my sister would. Which raises the question: What if we stopped recruiting teachers from wimpy liberal arts colleges and instead hired, say, ex-special-forces operatives (without raising pay, of course)? Or maybe it would be more cost effective to train the kids to defend themselves, in a scenario something like Spy Kids, or maybe Home Alone.

I’m sure that would work. I feel better already.

[1] I’m not the only person to take this approach. The Atlantic is doing the same thing. So is James Fallows. So is cartoonist Nick Anderson.

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  • nedhamson  On May 30, 2022 at 11:50 am

    Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News.

  • Chris Wendl  On May 31, 2022 at 1:23 am

    “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?” was a great post, but also something of a wake-up call for me, in an unfortunate way. I forwarded it to someone who was disagreeing with me about gun control on the internet, and his response was as if I had just given him good reason to ignore everything I say, because clearly I’m a wacko. The entrenchment is mind boggling.

  • orionblair  On June 3, 2022 at 12:14 am

    Your thoughts on photos of the dead children, if allowed by the parents, as Emmett Till’s mother chose to display his mutilated body to shock the nation? Or photos of the bloody classroom without dead children?
    Would these be useful in helping us understand the damage done by assault weapons?

    • weeklysift  On June 4, 2022 at 6:48 am

      Yeah, they probably would. If I were one of the parents, though, I’d have to think long and hard about agreeing to this.

      If we had such photos available, I think it would be a fair law to make every gun purchaser look at them. If we can make pregnant women look at ultrasounds before they get an abortion, we can make gun purchasers look at these photos.


  • By Adult Fears | The Weekly Sift on May 30, 2022 at 11:02 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Repeating myself about guns“. […]

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    […] last week, when I reviewed the Sift’s past articles about guns, I thought I might go some long while without discussing the topic again. But the news hasn’t […]

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