Tuesday, October 3, 2017

10 Questions Liberals Need to Answer About Gun Control if They're Really Serious About Saving Lives

We've returned yet again to the post-mass shooting ritual. People grieved for about three seconds. Then they patted themselves on the back for their righteous beliefs, shared memes about those beliefs, fought with people on social media about gun control, mocked their friends and family, and did absolutely nothing to stem the tide of violence in this nation. Conservatives insisted that the problem isn't guns; it's violence, culture, or something else. Liberals demanded to know what it will take before conservatives will accept some minimal gun control.

They're right to ask. Make no mistake: the NRA and its ilk are selling human lives for profit. Republican lawmakers are letting people die so they can get more donations. It's despicable, and our side is right to condemn extremists for the monsters they are.

The NRA has spent more than $300,000 on my senator, and more than $1.5 million to prevent his opponents from being elected. More than 400 people have been killed in mass shootings since Sandy Hook. These 400 lives are worth less to Senator David Perdue (contact him here) than money.

Sociopaths like David Perdue who do no more than offer "thoughts and prayers" sicken me. But here's where I diverge from most of my liberal friends: I am equally disgusted by liberals who reflexively call for gun control, but who are unprepared to answer conservatives' tough questions. 

I hate guns. Guns have killed people I love. I've written about the correlation between gun ownership rates and murders of women, the link between high gun ownership and police officer deaths, about research-supported policies to reduce gun violence, and the correlation between gun ownership and mass shootings.

The problem is that what we are doing isn't working. Memes about how stupid and evil Republicans are make us feel good. They don't change minds. They may turn moderates into zealots. They make everyone more entrenched. 

If we really want to see things change in this country, if we really want to end gun violence, then we have to address the other side's concerns about gun control. Sure, a small fraction of gun collectors are unreachable. They'll oppose gun control no matter what. A much larger percentage are reasonable. They have valid concerns about how to draft gun legislation in a way that's not racist, needlessly restrictive, or intrusive. 

You don't have to like guns. You don't have to agree with the other side, or relish the fact that they make some good points. But if you are serious about preventing gun violence, you do have to engage. Otherwise "we need gun control now" is no better than "thoughts and prayers." It's empty. Its only purpose is to make liberals feel good about themselves. 

Liberal friends, we have two choices: we can retire to our liberal enclaves, smug and satisfied that we are right, and unwilling to meaningfully engage with the other side. If we do that, we get to feel superior. We also get to watch people continue to die. Or we can consider the very legitimate questions that Second Amendment defenders raise, find solutions together, and solve this problem once and for all. 

If you're not willing to consider the other side, then you're willing to sacrifice human lives at the altar of your own smug sense of superiority. That makes you no better than the NRA you condemn. Before you make your next Twitter or Facebook post calling for gun control, consider addressing one of these issues instead: 

How do you address racial disparities in felony disenfranchisement? 
Most advocates of gun control say that "criminals" shouldn't own guns. They support background checks and prohibitions on gun ownership for people with a history of violence. The problem is that convicted felons are already prohibited from owning guns. And the results of that experiment are very clear: African-American men have been systematically stripped of their rights. 

1 in 8 black men has lost the right to vote and to own guns. That means that 1 in 8 black men can go to prison--possibly for many years--simply for being in the presence of a gun. Felony disenfranchisement has, so far, escalated disparities between blacks and whites, with no change in the rate of gun violence.

How do you protect medical privacy? What about mental health discrimination?
Nearly 90% of Americans support banning gun sales to the "mentally ill." Research consistently shows that mental illness is not a risk factor for violence. In fact, people deemed mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence. Most mass shooters are not mentally ill. So mental health-related gun control measures won't work.

One recent study found that most people have a mental health diagnosis at some point during their lives. So we're talking about banning gun ownership for most people. And because many people will not seek treatment if they are concerned that other people will find out, or that doing so will in any way constrain their rights, what we're really talking about is increasing treatment barriers. Mental health stigma teaches us to see the mentally ill as "them." In reality, they're us. They--we--deserve treatment, not discrimination. 

Say we ignore all of this. We're still talking about giving the government access to people's medical records, and then allowing it to remove their rights based on those medical records. That's dangerous, discriminatory, and requires a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution.

Is it gun culture, toxic masculinity, or something else? 
A ton of research has correlated gun ownership to gun deaths. Here's the problem: that research has failed to control for other variables. Violent people are more likely to buy guns. So gun ownership levels could be a proxy for how many people in a region have violent tendencies. We just don't know. Do people become violent because a gun is available? Or do they seek a gun because they are violent? 

Here's what we do know: white men commit more mass shootings than any other group. So perhaps the problem is one with our culture--and specifically, with men. We have really compelling data showing that the biggest risk factor for being a mass shooter is being white and male. So why is it that we instead talk about "mental illness," even though there's no data to support a link between mental health and gun deaths?

Could it be that people who support gun control can get away with targeting disenfranchised groups, but can't so easily target white males?

Gun control might help if it prevents a specific subset of men from getting guns. On its own, it's not enough. We need to address toxic masculinity, and to research other factors that may contribute to gun violence. 

Who is a fair arbiter of which people are fit to own weapons? 
If we're not going to prohibit the "mentally ill" from owning weapons, then how do we decide who can't own guns? Who is a fair arbiter?

Doctors? Ok, but what about the long history of racism in medicine? What about the fact that doctors may not be equipped to determine who is dangerous, and that "about to go shoot someone" is not a medical condition? 

Any process to revoke gun rights has to be an adversarial process, in which a person has a right to present evidence in their favor. Otherwise revocation of gun rights just becomes one more way for the poor and disenfranchised to be abused. It becomes another way for people to harm one another. Abusive husbands could report their wives as just one more way to terrorize them. There must be a process in place to prevent this from happening.

How will people protect themselves during a natural disaster or other apocalyptic incident?
Hurricanes Katrina and Irma have shown us what a natural disaster can do to a modern American city. Imagine how a terrorist attack that wiped out the electrical grid, even temporarily, might affect people. You can stockpile as much food as you want. Without weapons, you won't be able to defend it in the wake of an apocalyptic event.

It's easy to laugh at preppers. That doesn't make their concerns any less real. We've already seen how quickly things can devolve following a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. Gun owners think they need powerful weapons to protect their families. They want to be prepared if the worst happens. What can we do to balance this desire against the need for better gun reform? Dismissing this desire out of hand is not the answer.

Are you willing to abandon gun regulations that aren't scientifically supported? 
Liberal gun control supporters often lean on science. It's a way to elevate their arguments, and to feel smugly superior. It's also, of course, the right way to argue. 

The problem is that some of the gun control strategies most beloved by liberals actually make things worse. Assault weapons bans increase gun deaths. So too do standardized gun locks. Giving law enforcement discretion about who gets concealed carry permits fails, too. 

So are liberals willing to find solutions that actually work, even if they don't intuitively feel good? Some strategies that research supports include:
  • Reporting stolen and lost firearms 
  • Ammunition background checks
  • Requiring safety training for people who buy guns
What will you do about illegal guns? 
Gun advocates often express concern that a war on guns could go the same direction as a war on drugs. It could be a racist failure that emboldens police, escalates violence, and ultimately does nothing to save lives. 

Even if it's not, gun control advocates must address how we will deal with illegal guns. Some point to nations such as Canada and Australia, which have restrictive gun laws and far fewer gun homicides. That's a good place to start the analysis, but it doesn't go far enough. Over time, gun control should drive down the number of illegal guns available. In the short-term, they're still out there. So what do we do today, right now to drive down gun violence while we await the potential rewards of gun control? 

How do you address concerns about a repressive government? 
The morning after the 2016 Election, I woke up afraid of my government. I was worried about what a Trump administration would do to protesters, to free speech, to people who are arrested. I'm still scared. That helps me understand how the right wing feels. They are suspicious of government. 

I can hear my liberal friends scoffing already. 


This country was founded by rebels breaking away from an oppressive nation. Regimes can and do become repressive. And some members of this nation--namely indigenous peoples and African-Americans--have already lived under an oppressive, terrifying government. 

Some gun collectors collect guns in the event they have to defend themselves against the government. That's why they want machine guns and tanks. They want to protect themselves, their families, and oppressed minorities. You don't have to like it or agree with it. You do have to accept this reality, and find a way to address it. 

So if we only let people own handguns, how will we reassure them that they can defend themselves against tyrants? That was, after all, the purpose of the Second Amendment. 

Are you prepared to deal with a massive, and possibly racially biased, increase in incarceration?
The U.S. incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the rest of the world. It puts children and mentally disabled people into solitary confinement. Some people spend years of their lives in solitary confinement, often for offenses no worse than mouthing off to a corrections officer. 

Criminalizing some forms of gun possession will necessarily increase mass incarceration. That, in turn, will increase the number of people of color who are incarcerated. Gun laws will be unevenly enforced, just like all laws are. Poor people, people of color, and other disenfranchised groups will be disproportionately affected. 

How can we prevent this? Or how, at least, can we find a way to ensure fair enforcement? 

What will you do to prevent government overreach and 4th Amendment violations? 
When there are more laws, there are more searches, more arrests, more rights violations. Witness the failed drug war. When we're talking about criminalizing gun ownership--something in which a third of Americans participate--we are talking about creating a new criminal class. We're talking about more police searches, more police shootings, more incidents of police brutality. 

Tell me how to prevent this. 

Liberals, we need to stop telling our conservative friends what guns they do and do not need. If you are serious about gun control, serious about stopping the violence, then it's time to start listening. Otherwise you might as well do nothing at all. 


  1. So much talk about gun control. No talk about mental illness.

    1. I actually devoted an entire section of this blog post to mental illness.

      Since research shows no connection between mental illness and mass shootings, how do you think mental illness is relevant here?


I moderate comments. Don't waste your time leaving a comment that I won't publish. All comments are subject to my comments policy. I welcome open discussion and differing opinions, but not abuse.