Friday, September 20, 2013

No Time to Despair About Gun Control Posted by Adam Gopnik

So here we go again, right back where we started, or seemingly so—one more gun massacre in America. This time at the Washington Navy Yard, a military establishment where the “schoolteachers” are trained members of the military, many of them armed.

Nothing seems to happen in the wake of massacre after massacre. No legislation, just a preening, self-congratulatory dance among the members of the gun lobby, which wholly owns the Republican Party and too many chunks of the Democratic one: Not even twelve more dead can shake our grip! Yet I don’t detect despair on the side of the sane, though despair might be helpful. “Though we cannot out-vote them we will out-argue them,” Dr. Johnson once said, and it is fortifying, if not comforting, to know that the argument only gets stronger with each new day and each new study. Another one was just published, in that left-wing rag The American Journal Of Public Health, called “The Relationship Between Gun Ownership and Firearm Homicide Rates in the United States, 1981-2010.” It shows the same things that every other scientific, refereed, and peer-reviewed study has shown:

We observed a robust correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher firearm homicide rates. Although we could not determine causation, we found that states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.

The caution about causation, as I have written before, is not a sign of uncertainty but, rather, a sign of proper reserve: correlations are not causes, but they are the strongest evidence we will ever have. This one is about as robust a correlation as exists in the social science.

Now, one can get depressed having won an argument without winning a political fight, but that misunderstands the nature of political fights. Once the argument is won—gay marriage is a fine recent example—the action will go with it, sometimes far more quickly than one expects. The broken consensus is vulnerable to simple aging, at the very least. There are no more grounds for despair about gun control than there were grounds for despair about the persistence of lynching in the face of the fight against that horror. The truth is known, obvious and inarguable. It cannot be said too clearly, and it cannot be said too often: guns make gun violence happen, gun-control laws make it stop. Anyone who says that this is “dubious” or “uncertain” or “as yet undecided” or “up for argument” is a liar or a fool or—well, the third possibility is that he is a true “American exceptionalist”; that is, someone who believes that Americans are so intrinsically, genetically homicidal that the same gun laws that have alleviated violence and ended massacres in Canada and Australia and Great Britain and Europe won’t work here. The only way not to know that is to decide not to know anything. People can do that for a long time, but not forever.

The other argument is that, whatever the truth, all that death is the price we pay for the Second Amendment, which is fixed in place to privilege private gun owners. In fact, as also can’t be said too often, there are grounds for an endless argument about what exactly the Second Amendment does or does not ban. The argument that its preamble—that “well regulated Militia” bit—is meant to define the area of argument seems to many to be decisive. (Ask yourself, If there was no preamble to the Amendment and someone wanted to add it now, would the N.R.A. support or oppose it? It’s obvious, isn’t it?) Only recently has the Second Amendment come to mean a radical departure from previous interpretations.

After there is finally a change on the Supreme Court, the minority in District of Columbia v. Heller, one of the decisive gun-control cases, may well become the majority in some post-Heller case, and the sane interpretation will be restored or rearticulated. That’s the practical way that the American Constitution works. The argument goes on. (The other argument, that guns must be kept in place in order to oppose tyrants, is itself astounding: our children’s lives must be in perpetual danger so that someone can reserve the right to commit violent sedition against our democracy. As Abraham Lincoln said about a similar piece of secessionist blackmail, “That is cool.”)

Getting angry with the people who are actually responsible for the tragedy is tempting, but not helpful. The love of guns, the identification of gun ownership with liberty—these are irrational beliefs, but a rational standard isn’t what’s at stake. Other irrational beliefs—that life is worth preserving at the extreme end of old age, say, or that all children have a right to a high-quality education—are just as irrational, in the sense of being recent and constructed and far from universally accepted.

Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” is a fine study of why societies persist in obviously irrational, sometimes suicidal, behavior, even when the reality of just how suicidal it is stares them in the face. Why do they continue to deforest in the face of floods, refuse to eat fish even at the price of starvation? Most of the time, he points out, the simple sunk cost of the irrationality helps it persist: we have always believed this, and to un-believe it is to lose our faith in ourselves. Yet sometimes things change. Diamond cites the success story of the Tikopia chiefs who presided over the decision to eliminate pigs from their tiny island, despite an ancient chieftain’s attachment to the destructive animals, and to turn instead to eating shellfish. Passionately held irrational values, even when they are hugely destructive, deserve empathy from all of us, since we all have values that are just as irrational, and just as passionately held. But it’s our job as grownups, not to mention as citizens, to learn the price of our pet irrationality and, like the Tikopians, to undo the animal forces, on our island and in our head, before they finish undoing us.

Above: A vigil for the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16, in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty.