I think the much circulated David Roberts article is right about this much:
It’s not even clear that opinions on guns and gun violence remain amenable to argument. Over the past few decades, gun ownership in the US has evolved from a practical issue for rural homeowners and hunters to a kind of gesture of tribal solidarity, an act of defiance toward Obama, the left, and all the changes they represent.
But I think he gives liberals too easy a pass, in several ways. It’s easy to think that you’re on the right side, politically, when your opposition are those as vile as Ted Nugent and Wayne LaPierre. Just having the right enemies doesn’t make your own politics right.
1) Far from facing some epidemic of gun crime, we still are enjoying a multi-decade decline in gun violence. Though the US long has been an outlier in violent crime vis-a-vis other developed nations, it continues along a shared and beneficial path.
2) The media focus on mass shootings obscures the fact that they, like terrorist acts, account for a very small slice of violent deaths in the US. Liberals who base their calls for gun control on mass shootings make no more sense than conservatives who want to shape all sorts of US policy around terrorist acts.
3) More, such calls beg for a line to be drawn between specific gun control proposals and how they would prevent the shootings that motivate the proposed policy. The common failure to do so gives conservatives a legitimate point of criticism.
4) The Heller and McDonald decisions are the Constitutional law of the land. Those urging gun control should work with that. I still see writers urging laws that mandate trigger locks, ignoring the fact that Heller explicitly rejects that.
5) Someone’s use of guns, whether for sport or defense or some combination, is a lifetime habit. Guns themselves may have the longest useful lifespan of any modern consumer good I know. When we legislate a change in the next generation of cellphone, we know every current phone is obsolete in five years, and every phone owner shifts their use with the technology. In contrast, in most hunting camps, you will find someone using the same rifle they used forty years past.
None of that argues against gun control per se. It just means that its rational proponents will recognize that practical policies will have quite incremental and limited effect, that significant shifts in America’s gun culture takes generations, and that arguments should draw from data on crime trends and reflect cultural realities, as this article tries to do, rather than what the media hypes.
Granted, rational discussion of gun laws today is theoretical. In practical politics, a faction on the right has turned guns into a totem. The first step in any rational approach is research into what the problem is and what might work to alleviate it. The NRA twenty years ago persuaded the GOP congress to ban funding such research. It is quite appropriate for liberal politicians to acknowledge the political impasse and to criticize the extremism that sees even research as a threat.
Liberal politicians who go too far risk turning gun control into a wedge issue of their own. In some of the recent hype for gun control, I see some of the same tribal politics from liberals that Roberts criticizes on the right. They are happy to parade under the myth that there is some unprecedented crisis (there isn’t), that they know how to solve it (they don’t), and that legal and cultural impediments are small (they aren’t).