It’s a long truth-bomb today. If you’re reading The Bulwark for the first time, I hope you’ll consider signing up to get more of our free stuff. Or joining Bulwark+ to get everything.
Because this is what we do here.
I get asked a lot what political views of mine have changed as a result of my Trump-era departure from the GOP. My answer is always complicated and not very satisfying, because while my political priorities have changed dramatically, my views on the issues have only really changed on the margins, with one major exception. And that exception has nothing to do with the bad former guy at all.
My big change is on guns.
As a high school Republican, the debate around guns and school shootings was thrust into my consciousness in the most vivid way imaginable in the wake of the massacre at Columbine High School, which took place a mile from my house. The shooting consumed us. It was a dark cloud that hung over the end of the school year. It racked our class—our entire community—with grief.
At the time I was an unusually young political obsessive who was about to start a summer mailroom “internship” that the newly elected Republican governor of Colorado’s staff had made up for me since I had been such an avid volunteer on his campaign. And in the dank corner of the capitol in Denver, where I would read and file the crazy shit people send to their governor, Columbine and guns overwhelmed every other topic.
Not exactly being a “gun guy” growing up on the Denver suburbs’ mean streets (I am pretty certain I had never seen a gun in the wild when this all was going down), it was through these letters that I first started to really listen to all the arguments that we now hear ad nauseam. At the time I responded, I think reasonably, to the case made by the older staffers in the office and the pro-gun letter-writers that this was an unusual one-off. That the new governor shouldn’t overreact. If anything, Columbine demonstrated that we needed concealed carry for the teachers who were sitting ducks for that massacre. Or more security guards in schools. And more mental health resources. All of that jibed with my experience, it made sense to me.
I remember excitedly making this case for concealed carry in schools to my father at the time. He’s a bit more conservative than I am generally, so it surprised me when he was not as excited as I was by the prospect of teachers packing heat. Maybe it was having grown up in a community with gun violence in his childhood or the paternal instinct or, you know, his not being consumed by bloodlust.
With the brashness of a teen I brushed that off and honed my arguments, taking from the best of the letters that were sent in and considering the counterarguments. I went off to college not knowing how to fire a weapon, but zealous in my support for concealed carry and the Second Amendment.
Over the years, as mass shootings like Columbine went from black swan to black plague, I began to reconsider and soften. Columbine no longer seemed like an outlier. And my slow transition came to a head after the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown and the utter lack of interest among Republican politicians in even trying to address it.
Now a dad myself living in a community where gun violence is a real danger, I see my father’s protective hesitance in myself.
I say all of this as background because what I’m about to offer you isn’t groundbreaking. It isn’t going to be news to the families of those who lost loved ones or the residents of Japan or Australia or the United Kingdom where they don’t have these problems.
But despite not being a particularly fresh insight, I do want to say something that I know for a fact certain people of the conservative persuasion or background think, directly.
There are too many fucking guns in this country.
The way our culture treats them is perverse.
And we need to do something about it.
As I understand it, there was a time when gun ownership and gun safety were paired with a pride in the craft. Maybe that was only in the movies and lost cause propaganda; I don’t know. But it is a concept I can appreciate. I recognize the sincerity of those who speak with a “do you want to have a catch” wistfulness when discussing shooting with their parents or grandparents.
But all of this is within the context of seeing guns as a right of passage, a privilege, and at times a necessary danger. That’s a frame that makes sense to me.
Another way of putting it is, to borrow a phrase, that guns should be safe, legal, and rare.
But these days American “gun culture”—or put more precisely, the kinkification of deadly hand-penises—has spiraled out of control. From kids in our cities who are getting killed pretending to be hardcore, to the “hunters” collecting hand cannons, to the lonely boys importing their first-person-shooter video games to real life, to a member of Congress using a rifle cross for her backdrop like she’s fucking American ISIS.
It’s way, way too much.
Mass shootings, suicides, urban bloodshed, police violence—they all lead back to this fundamental issue.
I’m sure that everyone reading this is familiar with the recent mass shootings at the massage parlors in Atlanta and at King Soopers in Colorado. These have shocked our consciences, again.
But did you know that since those shootings, eight people were killed at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis? A former NFL player killed four people in South Carolina? Two brothers killed four family members and themselves in Texas? A gunman killed four people—including a 9-year-old boy—at a real estate office in California? A guy killed his parents, two others, and himself at a convenience store in Maryland? A man was shot to death at a “shot house”? Another in a drive-by shooting at a strip mall? Another in a drive-by at their home? Another during a domestic argument? A 19-year-old was shot and killed trying to break up a different domestic argument; another shot and killed on the sidewalk; another shot and killed in his car?
And those last seven all happened in a single small city—Birmingham, Alabama (population 210,000)—in the last 10 days.
How is this an acceptable state of affairs?
What about the police shootings? Last week, the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo horrified the nation. And while racial justice and corrupt police unions and other cultural and policy issues are at play, the reality is that both Daunte and Adam would be alive today if we lived in a country that didn’t have our proliferation of guns. The fear of getting shot makes the cops more trigger happy than they would be elsewhere and as a result, more unarmed and quasi-armed victims get executed by agents of the state.
In the United States in 2019, 3.5 out of every million residents were killed by police. This rate is on par with Iran and Angola and Sudan.
Meanwhile in Denmark, police didn’t kill anyone in 2019. In the U.K. it was 3 people total (0.05 per million). In Japan it was 0.02 per million. Police killed 20 times more people per capita in the United States in 2019 than in Australia. These same dramatic disparities exist when you compare non-police violent homicides in these countries as well.
Gun absolutism is one of the few dogmas still in place in conservatism. There are conservative politicians and pundits and voters who feel the way I do. I’ve met them. These are people who respect gun rights and individual freedoms but are deeply alarmed and horrified by the amount of carnage in our country and believe we need to rebalance the equation.
But saying that out loud is akin to self-deporting from the conservative movement.
This language is policed aggressively by the NRA, Dana Loesch, conservative politicians, and media personalities who immediately shoot down (intended) even minor restrictions or reasonable reforms that are proposed.
Every proposal to try to rationalize gun laws fails one of the (many) litmus tests that have been set up by the gun fetishists.
Want background checks at gun shows?
Well it’s ackshually only small-time unlicensed gun proprietors who don’t already do background checks.
Let’s make them have background checks, too, then?
Okay, but what about inheritances, gifts, and the temporary borrowing of guns among family and friends
Fine. Let’s limit magazine capacities then?
There are so few shootings where limiting magazine capacities would make a difference. And frankly, most of the gun deaths in this country are suicides.
But maybe we could at least curb some of the big mass shootings. Wouldn’t that in itself be good?
Most of these shooters aren’t following the law when they acquire their weapon anyway, and making them reload one more time isn’t going to make a material difference on the lives lost.
Well let’s go back to the assault rifle ban then?
Can you even define an assault rifle? It’s a meaningless term. Do you know the difference between a suppressor and a silencer? I bet you don’t know AR stands for ARMALITE, dingus.
Mass shooters do seem to like AR-15s though, no?
Millions of law-abiding varmint hunters use them too. And you never know when the gangs might hunt me down in my manse and I’ll need it for safety.
In other words: Any proposed reform is useless unless it solves every problem. Any proposed reform that solves every problem can’t work. Any proposed reform that can work is an abridgment of God-given liberty. And anyone who can’t field strip a pistol with their eyes closed like Gene isn’t allowed to have an opinion.
And here’s the thing: It’s true that any one individual reform isn’t going to make a big dent in the problem—because the problem is:
We have way too many fucking guns in this country and too many people treat them like they’re cool toys.
Humans are fallible creatures who when given easy access to cool deadly weapons at scale will use them to kill themselves and others.
That’s the problem.
But saying this out loud on the right is verboten and politically toxic.
As a result, any discussion about proposals that attempt to manage the problem turn into the same Thoughts & Prayers, it won’t make a difference, Armalite & Costello routine that everyone is tired of hearing.
So we end up back here, heartsick over Adam Toledo and Anthony Thompson Jr. and Matthew Farias and Tahijer Lafleur and Samaria Blackwell and all the rest. But feeling like there’s no hope for it to ever stop.
A line from the song that a pair of students wrote for the Columbine memorial stuck with me.
Columbine, friend of mine, peace will come to you in time.
That was written 22 years ago.
I never could have imagined that two decades on not only would peace not come, but that the horror of that day would become a weekly occurrence and nothing would be done.
It needs to stop.
Our gun culture itself is the problem.
Solving it starts with people saying that truth out loud.