School shootings, which have become a depressingly regular occurrence in America, are invariably followed by polarized rhetoric on gun control and gun rights. Now, after the horror in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were shot dead by former student Nikolas Cruz, the war of words has been especially intense. Many gun-control supporters say that anyone who opposes curbs on lethal weapons is an accomplice to murder. Some pro-gun bloggers have launched character attacks against teenage Parkland survivors who advocate an assault weapons ban.
In this charged atmosphere, even to say there are no easy answers to the problem of gun violence in America can look like shilling for the gun lobby. And yet, in fact, there are no easy answers. But there are steps that could make a difference.
A ban on assault weapons looks like an obvious solution: It shocks the conscience that Cruz, a 19-year-old with a history of erratic and aggressive behavior, was able to legally acquire military-style weapons. While the interpretation of the Second Amendment holds that there is an individual right to keep and bear arms, it does not prohibit restrictions on specific types of firearms.
But an obvious solution is usually too good to be true. Statistician Leah Libresco wrote a controversial piece for The Washington Post in October explaining why, despite being a gun-control supporter, she had come to question popular proposed measures.
For one, “assault weapon” isn’t the simple category some imagine. The features that make the AR-15 particularly deadly, such as large magazine capacity, can be fairly easily added to other weapons by a do-it-yourself gun enthusiast.
Libresco is also unimpressed by arguments that we should follow the lead of Australia or England, which responded to mass shootings with harsh gun laws and confiscations. Both countries had so few mass shootings before the new policies that it’s difficult to tell whether the changes prevented new incidents.
No less important, there is no support for some aggressive gun-ownership restrictions in the United States. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll, post-Parkland, shows the country evenly split on a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons. A ban requiring current owners to turn in their weapons has virtually zero chance of being passed. An attempt to enforce such a ban would likely lead to large-scale violence — and massive violations of constitutional rights.
Liberals can deplore the barbarity of their gun-loving compatriots; but it would be much more productive to try to understand the other side’s beliefs. The view that gun ownership is a sovereign individual right, not a privilege granted or withdrawn by the state, is peculiarly American; but the same philosophy underlies other features of the American tradition that most liberals cherish, such as uniquely robust protections for freedom of speech.
On the conservative side, the argument that nothing can be done to stop mass shootings is also unhelpful: It looks defeatist and self-serving.
One conservative with a promising idea is National Review writer David French. He advocates “gun-violence restraining orders” — a process allowing family and community members to seek a court order prohibiting an individual from owning weapons based on various danger signs. Such orders won’t prevent all mass shootings, but they may well reduce deadly violence.
This is the sort of smart and innovative approach we should be discussing. But in a political leadership vacuum, it is unlikely the current debate on guns will do anything more than deepen the cultural and political divide.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.