The weekend’s March for Our Lives rallies against gun violence were powerful — all the more so because their leaders were passionate, outspoken teenagers who have survived a horrific school shooting. But will the protests make a difference in changing America’s gun laws?
The marches came on a wave of real momentum for reform. Recent polls have shown a record proportion of Americans — more than two-thirds — supporting stricter gun legislation. Popular measures include mandatory background checks, waiting periods, a higher minimum age for gun purchases, and a ban on assault weapons (a term that has no strict technical definition but is widely understood to apply to semi-automatic rifles that can fire quickly).
Is this merely a short-term spike in support for gun control? The cumulative effect of several recent mass shootings with high death tolls — culminating in the Parkland, Florida tragedy in which 17 people died — might have produced a lasting shift that extends to traditional gun-rights supporters.
“I have to say, even as a gun-owning Second Amendment type, it’s good to see people finally getting fed up with our love affair with weaponry,” my libertarian friend Mark, a mining engineer in his early 60s who lives in Nevada, told me in an online conversation over the weekend. (To avoid political arguments with co-workers, he declined to give his full name.)
Some counter that the push to prevent school shootings is an overreaction to extremely rare events whose toll is far smaller than that of car crashes. But mass shootings, like terror attacks, produce an effect that cannot be measured in statistics.
An extraordinary event that instantly kills a large number of people — and produces survivors who have undergone a terrifying ordeal — will leave people far more shaken than everyday tragedies. Random deadly events that are beyond people’s control, with virtually nothing one can do to reduce one’s own risk, are particularly terrifying. This is not necessarily irrational; to change this response would require changing human nature.
I believe more thorough background checks and restrictions on weapons that can quickly wreak large-scale damage are reasonable steps. It’s not clear to what extent these measures will prevent mass shootings in schools and elsewhere, but they can satisfy public demand for action without eroding the basic right to bear arms for recreation or self-defense. (The Second Amendment does not preclude regulations.)
The movement against gun violence has momentum on its side, but some of its rhetoric is counterproductive. Talk of a world without guns and mockery of gun owners who supposedly seek to compensate for their inadequate manhood play right into fears of gun-grabbing. Gun ownership advocates rightly believe that attempts to achieve a society without guns would bring about a society in which good guys are disarmed while criminals are not.
Counterproductive rhetoric also includes denunciations of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has opposed many gun-control measures, as a man with blood on his hands who has sold children’s lives in exchange for contributions from the National Rifle Association. Support for gun rights is not simply about NRA money — a fairly small share of overall campaign donations — but about politically active voters whose interests must be acknowledged.
Meanwhile, the student activists seem to downplay the responsibility of government agents and officials who did not act on tips that could have stopped the Parkland shooter.
If gun owners believe they are being demonized while law enforcement is let off the hook for its failures, the result will be less reform and more heat in the culture wars.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.