In his column "It's Apocalypse Now on Guns," Michael Gerson wrote that “It is not just apocalyptic language but apocalyptic thinking that paralyzes our political system on gun violence.” To be fair, he does spend the bulk of his time focusing on the apocalyptic and conspiratorial worldview of the party he calls home, but he only does so after arguing that “It is one of the dirty habits of our political discourse that so many people use thermonuclear rhetorical weapons as a first resort,” and laying responsibility for the gridlock at the feet of those on both sides of the debate.
But we should be clear.
Gerson states that:
“The maximal solutions — broad restrictions on gun ownership or fixing the mental-health system — are so difficult or unlikely that they have become obstacles to action. They are something like, on the issue of global warming, recommending that the Earth be moved farther from the sun.”
This view is indicative of the sorry state of the discourse on this topic and how far it has been dragged to the right over the last few decades. To compare the possibility of “broad restrictions” on weapons that play a crucial role in 33,000 deaths, 77,000 injuries, and hundreds of thousands of crimes each year to “recommending that the Earth be moved farther from the sun” is to acknowledge, not the impracticality of gun control advocates, but the obstinacy of the gun lobby. I’m not sure broad restrictions on gun ownership are practical or even advisable, but a world in which they are akin to moving planets like interstellar legos is a world where one side of the debate wields irrationally outsize influence.
When we talk about fault on “both sides,” it’s important to examine some sort of context. When gun control advocates talk about a gun lobby being complicit in murder or rail against politicians who don’t care about violence they are certainly engaging in a sort of maximalist and probably counterproductive rhetoric. When gun rights purists boil over about the government confiscating guns or pushing us down the road to tyranny, they do the same. But there is a crucial difference.
In the decades since the NRA and other advocates adopted their absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment, the number of guns has increased more than four times over. The government has done remarkably little to curb that wave with the notable exception of the assault weapons ban of the early nineties (that was subsequently allowed to expire). Democrats and progressives frequently stepped gingerly around the issue when they didn’t endorse a similarly extreme position themselves (see: Bernie Sanders 2016 for the former and the vote count on Toomey/Manchin for the latter). The gun hysteria reached a fever pitch during the Obama administration, but, rather than a government crackdown on gun ownership, the availability of guns skyrocketed.
Still, calls for universal background checks or restrictions on magazine sizes or certain types of weapons were met with accusations of tyranny, liberal conspiracies, and false flag operations. Rather than push for moderate reforms that have overwhelming support among gun-owners, the NRA releases inflammatory advertisements about protesters that refer repeatedly to an ominous “them” and implore their viewers to “fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”
In the twenty years that mass shootings have become more and more commonplace, on the other hand, politicians have indeed done nothing. The assault weapons ban was allowed to expire and was never renewed. Universal background checks that enjoy broad support are continuously met with accusations and rabid resistance by the gun lobby. The parents of Sandy Hook took action to prevent gun violence and conspiracy theorists on the right called the killing of their children a false flag operation designed to justify a government seizure of guns. No such seizure materialized, but the current President of the United States appeared on the show of one of the theory’s chief proponents.
During that time, liberal accommodation of maximalist gun rights gave way to moderation. Moderation became peppered with more radical positions and more strident rhetoric. If nothing changes, moderation will likely give way to that more radical element.
In the last few years, both sides of the gun rights argument have engaged in more and more extreme rhetoric but the rhetoric of one side is the product of frustration with a status quo. That of the other is, in large part, responsible for the broken nature of that status quo. To argue that the anger of gun control advocates finds any reasonable comparison in the paranoia of the gun lobby and its most ardent defenders is absurd and disingenuous.
“These competing apocalypses” do, in fact, make incremental change more difficult. But pragmatism needs a place for both feet. One side of the debate has repeatedly been a source of firm if somewhat unstable ground whereas the other has, for decades, offered no quarter for moderation.