This week, more than two months after the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Congress is finally set to tackle gun-control legislation.
Many proposed measures, such as expanded background checks and stronger penalties for those who act as "fronts" to buy guns for criminals, make eminent sense. But two things need to be recognized: One, these measures probably won't do much to reduce gun crime, or even mass shootings. And two, reasonable gun control can only succeed if its advocates show respect for law-abiding gun owners, their rights and their culture.
Last month, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, novelist and literary critic Walter Kirn published a piece in The New Republic, the leading magazine of liberal opinion, titled "What Gun Owners Really Want." Kirn disclosed that he grew up with guns and has owned them as an adult, at least once using a weapon to scare off a potential attacker and defend himself and his family. He also wrote about coming to support the need for more regulation, particularly for military-style firearms. His plea to readers was to stop demonizing responsible gun owners.
Yet the response on the magazine's website was far from understanding. Some mocked gun owners as driven by "fear of death" at the hands of criminals or state tyranny -- as if gun control advocacy did not rely on fear of death by firearms. Others questioned the truthfulness of Kirn's personal narrative.
Around the same time, another piece in The New Republic admitted that most gun control legislation under consideration -- including a renewed assault weapon ban -- would barely make a dent in gun violence. But this, author Bill Scher wrote, was not important: While we don't know yet what measures would work, we must affirm "the principle that it is our government's responsibility to keep attacking the problem of death by firearms until we're down to the low levels achieved by the rest of the developed world."
Such rhetoric rightly alarms gun owners. The government, we're told, can experiment indefinitely with restrictions in pursuit of what may be a utopian goal, considering that non-gun violence rates in the United States are also higher than in most developed countries, and that the correlation between gun possession and gun violence is by no means simple. (Switzerland and Norway have roughly half the gun ownership rate of the United States but about one-eighth the murder rate.)
Too many anti-gun liberals see the gun-owning culture as a baffling, repulsive, uniquely American barbarism. They are also inclined to treat gun owners as ignorant paranoid rednecks who don't know what's good for them -- who think, for instance, that they need a handgun for protection but ignore the fact that it's far more likely to put them and their loved ones in danger of murder or suicide.
Of course, these comparisons leave out plenty of relevant facts: that most defensive uses of guns do not include actually shooting an attacker; that many gun murders between people who know each other involve criminals; or that the United States has fairly low suicide rates compared to many countries with strict gun regulations and few guns in civilian hands, such as Hungary or Japan.
When gun control advocates make it clear that they regard the ownership of guns -- especially handguns -- as stupid, unnecessary and dangerous, their assurances that they only want to promote reasonable regulations and have no wish to ban or confiscate guns ring hollow.
Any gun control debate must start with the acknowledgment that disarming America, even if it were desirable, is impossible, and that the concerns of gun owners must be taken into account. Then, perhaps, we can start moving forward.