Is Compromise Possible In The Gun Debate?
The tragedy in Santa Barbara will. inevitably, revive the same old gun debate. But can it ever evolve beyond shouting?
There was another mass shooting over the Memorial Day Weekend. This time, a twenty-two year-old student at the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus named Elliot Rodger, who is apparently the son of a famous-for-Hollywood director, used both a knife and a gun to kill six people and himself at various locations in and around the campus. Within hours after the story broke, we learned that Rodger had posted a number of bizarre videos to YouTube and written a 140 page “manifesto” (speaking of which, does anyone other than mass killers write manifestos anymore?) detailing his complaints about the privileged world he lived in, many of which seemed to revolve around his lack of success with women. Rodger was also, not surprisingly, under psychiatric treatment. His family had even brought his condition to the attention of law enforcement, who performed what California law calls a “welfare check” on him some weeks ago, but didn’t find any evidence to justify further proceedings.
Inevitably, of course, the incident has led to a revival of all of the same arguments about gun control that we have seen in the wake of other mass shootings over the past twenty years or more. That was perhaps most emotionally personified in the comments that the father of one of the students killed in Rodger’s rampage, who directed ire at the National Rifle Association and other organizations in a press conference that was played many times over the weekend. Additionally, several Congressmen and Senators talked about reviving the gun control measures that were put on the table in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings only to die in the Senate. Gun rights advocates, meanwhile, have pushed back against those calls while also reviving their arguments against those proposals while pointing out the role that mental health plays in shootings like these, although they again tend to ignore the profound civil liberties issues raised by the idea of governments becoming more interested in the mental health of their citizens. Other gun rights advocates repeated the old argument that the solution to mass shootings like what happened at UCSB is to allow more people to carry guns. It is, in other words, the same old song and dance and, given that it is an election year, one that is likely to be repeated many times between now and November.
Amid all the noise, though, Saul DeGraw wonders if there’s any compromise possible in the gun debate:
There has been a lot of talk about the Big Sort and whether Americans are becoming more and more politically polarized or not but perhaps it is time to introduce compromise back to the US political landscape. There are always going to be liberals. There are always going to be conservatives. There are always going to be libertarians. No side is ever going to achieve a kind of total victory where their real and perceived opponents signs a document of unconditional surrender and defeat. The Second Amendment exists and it will probably not be repealed in the immediate future and neither will the Heller or McDonald decisions. So there is a constitutional right to own weapons/guns even if liberals like me wish the Amendment was interpreted differently.
Do you know what is not in the Second Amendment though? Any mention of concealed carry, unconcealed carry, or when and where citizens can carry arms.
Can we have this has a compromise? People can own guns for protecting their homes and property. They can take them to the shooting range or use them for hunting. They cannot take them about in public with some Yippie-Kay-Yay Die Hard version of themselves or thinking we live in a world that is like Mad Max, Escape from New York, or any other post-apocalyptic fantasy. The United States is not an Anarchy filled with warlords and gangs on every block. Nor is the Zombie apocalypse going to happen. Al Qaeda and Hamas are not going to storm the Des Moines shopping mall anytime soon.
Or are we just going to continue bashing horns forever while dreaming fantasies of total defeat for our ideological opponents?
I’m not sure why DeGraw chose the carry issue as the starting point for his proposed compromise, but it seems like the appropriate place to start given the current state of the gun debate in the United States. After the Heller and McDonald decisions, the basic right of Americans to own a gun for self-protection is, essentially settled. Even if the issues presented in those cases were to come before the Court in the future, which seems unlikely, it’s doubtful that the Justices would overturn the basic holdings of either of those decisions. In the years that have followed, though ,there has been much litigation at the Federal Court level about the question of whether the Second Amendment also covers the right to carry in public, and to what extent states may regulate that right or set conditions for people to obtain permits to carry a concealed weapon. So far, the majority of those cases have gone against the states, although its worth noting that most of those involved laws that made it essentially impossible for anyone to get a permit. However, the Supreme Court has yet to accept any of the cases on this issue that have come before it. Ultimately, the question is going to have to be answered, though, and I’m wondering if the best option might not be one that allows states and localities to make this decision for themselves, within boundaries that provide that regulations on the right to carry cannot be overly restrictive. That strikes me as a reasonable compromise that recognizes that there are differences between rural and suburban areas in the south and west, and the streets of America’s major cities, and it leaves open the possibility for both sides of the debate to make the argument in favor of their position and let the people decide what to do.
Another area where compromise seems like it ought to be possible is on the issue of universal background checks. In the wake of the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings, this was one area where some Senators attempted to act, ultimately producing a bipartisan bill drafted by West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, both of whom came into the debate with essentially perfect voting records from the NRA. Polling at the time showed overwhelming support for the idea of expanded background checks for gun purchases, even among Republicans, and the Manchin-Toomey bill seemed like a reasonable compromise on the matter. Ultimately, though, the bill failed to win a cloture vote thanks to opposition from the NRA and other gun rights groups and it died in the Senate. While there’s been some talk about reviving it before the election, it’s clear that the outcome would be the same. As someone who considers himself a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and generally opposed to some of the other regulations proposed after Sandy Hook, this outcome was inconceivable to me. How could anyone rationally disagree with the idea that people with violent criminal records or a history of mental illness should be prevented as much as possible from buying firearms? And yet, largely because they believe that conceding even an inch on the gun debate means defeat, that’s exactly the position that many “gun rights” advocates take. Instead of that hard line position, though, why couldn’t we agree with that general principle?
The answer to those questions, I think, lies largely in the fact that the gun debate has become just one part of the larger political and cultural schism in the nation, a schism that has seemingly gotten more severe in recent decades. For many gun rights advocates, guns aren’t just about the Second Amendment they are a part of culture and, indeed, guns have played an important role in American history from the very beginning. That’s the reason why gun laws like those they have in Europe and Japan are largely inconceivable here. Even if we didn’t have a Second Amendment, there would be significant political opposition to even the suggestion of such laws. More importantly, though, the two sides of the gun debate don’t even seem to see anything reasonable about their opponents position. To advocates of gun control, talk about gun rights inevitably leads to someone denouncing people as “gun nuts.” To gun rights advocates, even the suggestion that firearms have a negative influence in some situations is seen as the first step on the road to tyranny. Consider, for example. the fact that the NRA has successfully blocked the nomination of Harvard Medical Sch0ol faculty member Vivek Murphy to be Surgeon General solely due to her past discussions about the health impact of gun violence. The mere suggestion that the issue should be studied is seen as a threat.
Compromise is only possible in politics if you recognize that there is something reasonable in the positions that your opponents take, even if you disagree with them. As with many of the issues that divide the left and right today, that simply isn’t the case. As long as that’s true, the compromise that DeGrew talks about simply won’t be possible.