[content warning: graphic descriptions of violence]
I. Most Of Us Will Never See Even 1% of The True Horror
No matter how horrific you imagine the Uvalde elementary school shooting to have been, it was much, much worse than that. The local justice of the peace and de facto coroner, Eulalio Díaz, Jr., who was in charge of entering the crime scene and identifying the children’s bodies, said that he tried to prepare himself for the worst sight imaginable, but that nothing he could have envisaged was remotely as horrifying as what he saw once he went inside. Seeing the body of any 10-year-old child would be disturbing enough, even if they died peacefully. But the children of Uvalde died in the most traumatic and gruesome manner imaginable. When police finally breached the classroom, they found dead children in “piles,” their bodies destroyed beyond recognition. Díaz, Jr., tried to identify the children by what they had been wearing to school that day, but even that was impossible, and DNA samples had to be used to confirm their identities.
An AR-15 is “designed to blow targets apart. It’s a weapon built for war.” An ER doctor who treated victims of a previous mass shooting has said that the carnage inflicted by an AR-15 shocks even those who are used to dealing with blood:
“It’s not just the bullet going through the body like it is with a simple handgun, they have these shockwaves that they send through the organs that destroy the tissue. And so I had patients that night that came in with their intestines hanging out, with half of their heads shot off. It was such a graphic scene that I had never, ever seen in my career as an ER doctor.”
The U.S. news media heavily censors violence, never showing us the up-close reality of gore and death, so that while the public will be horrified and outraged by a crime like the Uvalde shooting, we will be kept safe from having to confront the full truth. We will not have to know what Eulalio Díaz, Jr., knows—in other words, what “piles of dead children” look like.
One might think this is for the best. Díaz, Jr., himself said that “he has no intention of ever sharing exactly what he saw.” But can we have an honest public conversation about gun policy if we don’t get too close to the darkest truths about what guns do, because we have deemed these truths too gruesome for us to look at? We are a violent society squeamish about violence, and as a result we allow powerful corporations to spend massive amounts of money to lobby politicians so that we can purchase and use weapons of war, but keep ourselves from having to think too hard about the suffering and deaths that the use of these weapons causes.
I have written before, using the National World War II Museum as an example, about how our national aversion to graphic depictions of violence can actually make us worryingly naive about it, and insufficiently committed to stopping it. The museum avoids showing anything that could make you lose your lunch, which means it hides most of the war, and thus it depicts a strange Hollywood-ized war that seems sad but not especially disturbing, and therefore makes a “world war” seem like something that could be kind of fun.
When Republican legislators argue that the right to an AR-15 is so important that even “piles of dead children” cannot justify curtailing that right, they are aided by the fact that to most of us, the children remain an abstraction rather than physical beings, and the full reality of the violence they suffered is kept from penetrating our consciousness.
Not publishing graphic images of mass shooting scenes has been justified on the grounds that it is would be “exploitative,” “disrespectful,” or “provocative” to show victims of murder. In Uvalde, photojournalists were not permitted to enter the school, law enforcement declined to release crime scene pictures, and “media outlets had no access to images of the shooting’s aftermath.” Even if this is the correct decision, we must understand that it makes the shooting seem slightly less real to the public. One can speculate that the decision to conceal the sights from the public may even have contributed to the kinds of conspiracy theories that emerged after the Sandy Hook shooting—it is much easier to convince people that there were no bodies in the first place when the public isn’t allowed to see them. I do worry that keeping the public from seeing gun violence, letting people imagine that the children sort of faded away, with clean wounds, may soften our anger and give a gift to the gun lobby.
Even if pictures were released, though, and a victim’s parent acted as Emmett Till’s mother did, trying to shock the public into action through putting the reality of violence in front of our eyes, it would be difficult for any of us to begin to contemplate what happened without breaking down. It is unbearable to think about sweet little children watching Lilo & Stitch one minute and then seeing their friends physically destroyed the next minute, and nobody wants to engage for long in trying to picture the scene or vividly imagine what it was like for the victims. Those children experienced a literal Hell on earth, a world of pain and injustice and trauma that nobody can conceive of unless they have been through it themselves. Let us at the very least begin the policy conversation with an understanding of just how insufficiently we are able to be horrified or even to describe what we are talking about.
II. We Have Decided That The Right To Have Fun With A Gun Is Worth More Than The Lives of Children
American lawmakers have decided that it should be extremely easy for any person without a criminal background to obtain a high-powered semi-automatic rifle and begin murdering children and adults in large numbers. The Republican Party in particular is overwhelmingly committed to making sure that no changes whatsoever are legislated that could make it even slightly harder to obtain weapons of war.
Some on the right are refreshingly honest about their stance: they believe that the government simply has no right to restrict them from being just as heavily armed as the military, even if in practice the universal guarantee of this freedom results in large numbers of children being gruesomely killed. Popular right-wing YouTuber Tim Pool, who believes that the Second Amendment confers the unrestricted right to own a nuclear weapon, has said openly that “No amount of children dying should justify someone having their rights taken away. … You do not get to strip someone of their human rights because of harm to children.”
For those like Pool, the human right of children to remain alive is not a compelling justification for restricting the “human right” to possess the means of easily killing large numbers of people. As he has said elsewhere: “I like owning guns. Why should I lose my guns?” To some of us, the answer would appear obvious: because if reducing access to guns for all would keep guns out of the hands of maniacs, the benefits (children remaining alive) would vastly outweigh the costs (Tim Pool having to adopt a different hobby, like shooting paintball guns instead of military-grade weaponry).
It is not really possible to have an argument with gun rights fundamentalists like Pool, who do not believe there is even a public policy debate to be had about banning certain kinds of destructive weapons. For them, their freedom is absolute. It isn’t clear why it’s absolute, but they seem to believe God and George Washington handed the public the right to possess any kind weapon they like, and if that means massacres are regularly committed in schools, grocery stores, and churches, well, that’s a shame, but such is the price of freedom. (Again, the freedom of gun-owners, not the freedom of those who wish to be free to go about their daily lives without fear of being shot.)
Conservatives have a hard time justifying why there needs to be an absolute right to own an AR-15. Instead, they often lean heavily on the argument that restrictions on gun ownership, regardless of whether they are justified, are futile. The case made is that when you ban guns, “outlaws” will have guns, and all you will have done is take guns away from Law-Abiding Citizens. Reinstating the assault weapons ban, then, by this logic, would be counterproductive.
We should always be suspicious of this kind of argument, because conservatives make it on nearly every issue. “The proposed reform will do nothing or will backfire” is a classic right-wing argument made regardless of the actual facts. It’s effective in part because it tells a plausible story—it’s easy to be pessimistic about the power of government to solve problems. But that doesn’t mean the argument is correct.
In fact, we can see from the Uvalde shooting itself that the law is a powerful instrument for determining whether shootings will happen. In September 2021, the shooter tried to get his sister to buy him a rifle, because he was 17 and couldn’t legally buy one. She refused, and so he had to wait until his 18th birthday. In other words, until the day the shooter turned 18, a gun control law effectively kept assault weapons out of the shooter’s hands. The day after his birthday, however, he bought a rifle. We have crystal clear evidence here that gun control laws work: the shooter would have liked to be armed when he was 17, but the law stopped him. However, when he turned 18 the law ceased to prevent him, and he immediately bought a gun and went on a murder spree.
We can see similar evidence of the law standing in the way of shooters in the extremely disturbing manifesto of the Buffalo grocery store shooter. The shooter discusses in detail all of the military equipment he has bought for his rampage. He also mentions, however, that the law has kept him from getting certain things he wanted. “Most newer magazines work great,” he says. “Unfortunately I live in a ban state and can’t legally buy newer magazines.” He adds: “In all honesty this is probably the worst AR-15 I could’ve bought for this mission. … Since I live in cucked New York I can’t legally buy a lower or a standard ‘assault rifle’ online.” He issues a plea to his fellow white supremacists to resist gun control laws at all costs: “After my attack, I suspect that gun control policies will be brought forth to the state and federal government. Calls to ban high-capacity magazines, assault weapons including AR-15s, and even items such as body armor. … You must not let them pass these laws.” This is because he knows that the racists’ capacity to inflict violence depends entirely on the government refraining from interfering in their purchase of the necessary weapons. If the government cracks down, their plans are toast. The Buffalo shooter was hindered by the few legal restrictions that do exist, and he knew full well that further legal restrictions would be effective at stopping violence. “We must actively fight for our rights of gun ownership,” he wrote. If gun control laws were ineffective and useless, he wouldn’t have been so insistent. But he knew that even the laws that we already have had thrown obstacles in his way.
So let’s not hear that gun control won’t prevent these events. If the same laws that applied to the Uvalde shooter at age 17 still applied to him at age 18, he would have still been unable to buy an AR-15. In the recent Tulsa shooting, the gunman went to a gun shop and bought an AR-15 an hour before the attack. That was possible because it was legal. Change the law, change the outcome.
Those who doubt the effectiveness of gun control will argue that people will still have ways to get guns illegally. They say that trying to eliminate guns in a country awash in them is impossible. “No law could make the 400 million firearms in America disappear,” says Ilya Shapiro in the Washington Examiner. But this misunderstands the expected effect of banning assault weapons. Nobody thinks such a ban would make it literally impossible to get ahold of these weapons, or would make them disappear, but what it can do is add the kind of barriers that make it less likely that a disturbed homicidal teenager will find their way to one. In Australia, obtaining a semi-automatic handgun on the black market will cost $15,000. In the United States, the company that sold the Uvalde shooter his AR-15 offers a “buy now, pay later” plan. The difference in cost and difficulty can be the difference in whether a disturbed teenager succeeds or fails.
“How passing more gun regulations, or taking guns away from the law-abiding, will deter criminals is a question [gun control advocates] can’t answer,” says Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal. But that’s not true. When an Australian man with an AR-15 killed dozens of people at a tourist spot in Tasmania in 1996, the country outlawed semi-automatic rifles. The result: in the quarter-century since, while the United States had Columbine, Aurora, Buffalo, Orlando, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, the Pittsburgh synagogue, and Virginia Tech (an incomplete list of only the deadliest shootings), these incidents have become unknown in Australia. Anyone with a minimally functioning conscience should agree that the benefits are worth the cost.
III. The Gun Rights Advocates’ Endless Parade of Terrible Talking Points
All my life the gun lobby has repeated the same talking points and slogans. If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. The way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Don’t you know how many people drown or die in car accidents, why single out guns? Armed teachers would mean safer schools. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
These pithy retorts have long been effective. But they are also uniformly complete bullshit. They are catchy rhetoric used to prevent us from thinking clearly. Let us think about some of the common right-wing excuses for doing nothing to clamp down on weapons of war:
- The Second Amendment & “Rights” Rhetoric – “Call me a ‘Constitution nut,’ but I’m crazy about allowing people to live their lives with the maximum freedom possible,” says Ilya Shapiro in his argument for not restricting firearms after Uvalde. But this kind of “rights” and “freedom” rhetoric is selective. One person’s right should not come at the expense of another person’s right, and the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is more important than the right to have the means of taking away other people’s lives and liberty. I do call Shapiro a “Constitution nut,” because his take on the Constitution is nuts. The Constitution is not a suicide pact.1 It is necessarily silent on the question of whether a person should be able to have an AR-15, because the people who drafted the Second Amendment had no idea that kind of firepower could exist, so they were unable to write a document that considered whether people should have access to it. The Constitution tells us nothing here. People who cite their “rights” are, furthermore, begging the question: the entire debate is about whether people ought to possess such a right. To answer by saying that they do possess the right avoids the entire issue. What is needed is a persuasive justification for why the government should allow you to own weapons of war. Usually, if gun rights advocates do give such a justification, it is some rhetoric about how the citizens need to protect themselves against the government’s tyranny. This is an odd explanation, however, because “protecting themselves against government tyranny” with semi-automatic weapons would appear to mean, in practice, killing cops and soldiers. And yet strangely, the right never says openly “We need these weapons in case we need to start killing cops and soldiers.” But if that is the justification, they should be willing to state it.
- Don’t “Politicize” A Tragedy — One of the right’s favorite ways to shut down discussion about gun policy is to get indignant on behalf of the victims, claiming that gun control “politicizes” the tragedy. Tucker Carlson went so far as to accuse Democratic legislators advocating a policy response of “narcissism”: “When someone dies, you pause and observe a moment of silence, because it is not about you. You don’t immediately start talking about yourself, you narcissist. ‘Well, I have a law that I could pass.’ No, stop.” Laura Ingraham called Joe Biden “despicable,” saying he was “exploiting” the Uvalde massacre after Biden gave a heartfelt speech about what it feels like to lose a child and implored legislators to stop the violence. This usually assumes Democrats are insincere in their desire to stop gun violence, adopting the kind of conspiratorial right-wing position that Democrats advocate gun control because they want to increase the power of the state over the lives of citizens, not because they are genuinely alarmed by violent deaths and want to use the state to try to stop them. The fact is when laws affect the likelihood of a tragedy occurring, then a tragedy is political. We discuss politics because we are upset by the tragedy. This talking point is a way to avoid having the public policy conversation, because conservatives know that if they did have a public policy conversation, it would become clear how woefully inadequate their “thoughts and prayers” and vague plans to improve “mental health” are as a means of preventing future deaths.
- Children Also Die In Swimming Pools — In an amusing clip from the recent NRA convention, an attendee tells an interviewer that more people are killed with hammers than from firearms, and encourages the interviewer to Google this fact. The interviewer does, in fact, Google it, and finds out that it’s nonsense. The convention attendee then pivots to babbling about rights. Gun rights advocates like to suggest that there is an inconsistency in their opponents, because we are supposedly unconcerned by deaths in automobile accidents or swimming pools and seem to single out firearms. But there is no inconsistency. First, guns are now the leading cause of death among children, having overtaken auto accidents, meaning it makes sense for them to be a priority. Second, some of us do also talk about auto deaths—see this recent Current Affairs discussion on pedestrian deaths and the way that large trucks and SUVs, along with unsafe street design, are causing needless horror. It’s possible to care about more than one thing, and if there were easy ways of preventing auto deaths, they should also be a policy priority.
- Chicago & Los Angeles — Governor Greg Abbott of Texas wasted no time in responding to calls for gun control by pointing to gun deaths in Chicago and Los Angeles. Conservatives love to use “murders in Chicago” the way the Soviet Union used to use American lynchings. Police killing citizens? “What about the murders in Chicago?” It is easy to respond to this, though, with the “Both of Those Things Are Bad” principle. Murders in Chicago show that gun control in a single state cannot prevent murder, but it remains the case that of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in the U.S., seven have been in Texas and zero in Illinois. We must distinguish between mass shootings and other kinds of killings, and it may be that while taking away high-powered semi-automatic rifles will not stop people on the streets from killing their enemies with pistols, it will reduce the frequency of the particularly traumatizing, if rarer, incidents in which dozens of people are mowed down in seconds.
- Fear of “Cosmetic” Gun Features — This is a talking point gun rights activists love because it makes them seem smart and allows them to chuckle about how ignorant their opponents are about guns. The NRA board member interviewed by CNN deployed it, saying that the expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban singled out guns for prohibition that looked scary, rather than focusing on the factors that actually make guns particularly deadly. But there is a simple answer to this: when we ban assault weapons again, we must write a better policy that targets deadliness rather than appearance. This is effective as a criticism of a particular policy but not as a criticism of a principle.
- “Law-Abiding Citizens” — Tim Pool asks the question: why should the wrongdoing of people who break the law cause us to take away the rights of “law-abiding citizens”? But the answer to this is obvious: because it is impossible to know before the fact who will exercise their legal rights responsibly. If we had a magical way of knowing, before someone opens fire, which of the people standing in line to buy AR-15s have benign intentions and which do not, we could indeed have a system where Law Abiding Citizens were given freedoms that others weren’t. This is the fantasy behind the gun rights’ advocates focus on “mental health”: they want to have a way of detecting who will commit crimes before the crimes are committed. But while it’s obviously true that there are cases in which giant red flags are ignored (see the Parkland shooter), it is not possible for even the most invasive state to know what someone plans to do with their weaponry. “Law-abiding citizens” must surrender their heavy weaponry because we cannot devise a test to distinguish good people from bad ones, and we frequently find out who the bad ones are when they kill a dozen people in 15 seconds, by which time nothing can be done. And while this may seem unfair to those who like to have big pointless collections of guns such as the charming family below, well, sometimes there are trade-offs in life.
- This Doesn’t Happen Very Much — Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal takes the rather remarkable stance that we care too much about mass shootings, since they are actually rarer than “saturation media coverage” would have us believe. There have been only about a dozen mass school shootings, he says, and this should “inform any public policy response,” meaning don’t overreact to the horrific mutilation of dozens of children. But Riley is simply wrong to believe that the low probability of a mass shooting killing any given student means that media coverage of such shootings is excessive. Whether we should care about a risk is not just a function of how probable it is, but also how bad it is, and mass shootings are uniquely traumatizing events for reasons that have nothing to do with how much they are covered by the media. These kinds of killings are qualitatively different from drug-related killings or killings based on interpersonal grievances because they are so meaningless and so contravene our sense of what is fair. A low-probability event can be worth a lot of investment in avoiding (see, e.g., nuclear war) if the event is particularly bad. It’s also the case that because mass shootings are so random, i.e. you can’t avoid them by staying out of high-crime areas or avoiding interactions with the drug trade, and they affect the seemingly most sacred and safe places, they create a kind of neverending background terror, just as having a serial killer on the loose in one’s town might, even if the individual probability of being the killer’s victim is small.
When you get past the rhetoric and actually confront gun rights advocates on the simple questions of (1) why we should permit 18-year-olds to have weapons of war, and (2) how they intend to keep these massacres from happening in a world where 18-year-olds can have weapons of war, it’s obvious that they have no answers. Question 1 is usually just deflected—asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta why anyone needs an AR-15, an NRA board member replied “It’s just a semi-automatic rifle,” which is not an answer. Question 2 is usually met with some mumbling about how “mental health” is the real problem, although it’s never coupled with an identification of which mental health condition is the problem (“mental health” is not a diagnosis) or with any kind of proposal for universal free mental health services. (Nor do those who see mental health as the area of concern reckon with the serious problems that arise from having the state make more aggressive determinations about who is or is not mentally healthy; anyone concerned about “government overreach” should be much more worried about the risks of aggressive policing of mental states than taking away assault rifles.) When a British journalist pinned Ted Cruz on the question of why the U.S. has a mass shooting problem that other countries don’t have, Cruz clearly could not answer the question (because the answer involves guns), and so simply accused the journalist of being an America-hater. “I’m sorry you think American exceptionalism is so awful,” Cruz said, before calling America the “safest” country in the world. (Hah.)
Senator Josh Hawley gave a useful summation of the conservative stance when he said that rather than thinking in terms of gun control, “maybe it’s a personal responsibility not to shoot people with guns, and maybe people who don’t live up to that responsibility ought to be in prison for a very, very long time—like forever.” So, disturbed 18-year-olds have a responsibility not to commit massacres, and if they don’t live up to that responsibility, they will be punished with long prison sentences. (Not very effective if they kill themselves at the end, as many do.) But we can see here the core problem with the right’s stance: they are more interested in finding someone to blame than in solving the problem. They attribute these shootings to the presence of evil in the world. (One Christian meme says “we don’t have a gun problem, we have a sin problem.”) But saying it’s the shooter’s fault resigns us to living in a world in which these killings continue to happen, and we simply lament them. Senator Tommy Tuberville’s response to Uvalde was similar: “I’m willing to say that I’m very sorry it happened.” (Willing to say?) “But guns are not the problem, okay? People are the problem.” But people are the problem in the sense that people have moral responsibility. Guns are the problem in that guns are the thing that allow those who have the moral responsibility to carry out mass homicides.
The NRA has long tried to convince Americans that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This should be a heavy lift, because it’s a strange way of using language. Guns kill people in the same way that “saws cut wood” or “trains carry passengers,” and someone who said “saws don’t cut wood, people with saws cut wood” or “people who drive trains carry passengers” would sound pedantic. A saw cuts wood because it is a tool for cutting, just as a weapon kills because it is a weapon. “People kill people” correctly locates the moral responsibility for killing with the person using the tool. But it incorrectly suggests that tools do not have functions or play a critical role in allowing people to do certain things. Hollow-point bullets, for instance, are designed to maximize the destruction of flesh. High-velocity rifles are high-velocity because this makes them deadlier. Guns kill people because guns are designed to inflict harm, just as landmines blow off legs and saws cut wood.
IV. The Misplaced Focus on Police and School Security
After the Uvalde shooting, much analysis has focused on the abysmally poor reaction of the local police. For well over an hour, police were standing around uselessly outside the classroom where the shooter was killing children, even as children themselves were calling 911 and begging the police to come and save them and their friends. Instead of storming the classroom and saving the kids, police were handcuffing and tasing agitated parents and preventing them from trying to save their own kids. It’s hard to overstate how appalling this is; it appears the police ended up protecting the shooter for an hour, keeping anyone from disrupting his massacre. The police then lied about their conduct and the local cops are now refusing to cooperate with an investigation.
To those of us already cynical about police, the conduct of the Uvalde cops is unsurprising, if extreme. Police have a tendency to care more about saving their own skin than protecting the public, which is why they are so quick to shoot people if they perceive a threat to themselves. (A police officer who hid during the Parkland shooting was similarly vilified for his conduct.) Certainly, we need to make sure that those responsible for the cowardly abandonment of the Uvalde children are held responsible and that police forces are staffed with people willing to take risks to save lives.
But while police responses need to be better than they were in Uvalde, we should be under no illusion that having brave “good guys with guns” is the solution. In the Buffalo shooting, the shooter was immediately engaged by an armed security guard from the grocery store. But, since he was wearing military-grade body armor, the shooter simply killed the security guard. Before police had time to stop him, he had killed 10 people. There was no suggestion that police could have done anything better in Buffalo. The fact is that it is very easy, if you have an AR-15, to kill a lot of people before the police can stop you. In Australia’s Port Arthur Massacre, the gunman killed twelve people in fifteen seconds. The best-trained and most responsive police in the world would not have been able to prevent that.
Even if we can’t realistically expect small-town police to be as effective as Navy SEALS, Uvalde had, in fact, already invested an absolute fortune in policing and school safety:
The city of Uvalde spent 40% of its municipal budget on its police department in the 2019–20 fiscal year, and Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District (UCISD)… had multiple security measures in place at the time of the shooting. ….[UCISD] had also more than doubled its expenditures on security measures in the four years preceding the shooting, and in 2021, it expanded its police force from four officers to six officers. The state of Texas had given UCISD a $69,141 grant to improve security measures as part of a $100 million statewide allocation made after the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting, in which ten people were slain. The district also had a security staff that patrolled door entrances and parking lots at secondary campuses. … The school and school district had extensive security measures in place. The school used Social Sentinel, a software service that monitored the social media accounts of students and other Uvalde-affiliated people to identify threats made against students or staff. The district’s written security plan noted the use of the “Raptor Visitor Management System” in schools to scan visitor IDs and check them against watch-lists, as well as the use of two-way radios, fence enclosures around campus, school threat-assessment teams, and a policy of locking the doors of classrooms. UCISD held joint security training exercises in August 2020 along with the Uvalde Police Department, the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Department, and other local law enforcement agencies. UCISD also hosted an active shooter scenario training exercise in March 2022, which covered a range of topics, such as solo responses to active shooters, first aid and evacuation, and scenarios enacted through role-playing. The exercise also covered the ability to compare and contrast an active shooter situation versus a barricaded subject or hostage crisis where an armed person isolates themselves with limited to no ability to harm others.
Conservatives will now, predictably, call for even more money to be spent on police. But because these shooting events are rare, it means that every school around the country is going to have to be on constant alert for an event unlikely to happen, with most police officers spending almost all of their time standing around doing nothing, but needing to be ready to immediately spring into action and make zero mistakes if a shooting happens.
Even if schools are turned into fortresses, at enormous expense and with an enormous waste of human labor, the simplest of mistakes can cost lives. In Uvalde, a door that was supposed to be locked was unlocked, and Ted Cruz has suggested we should focus on the door. Indeed, we can say that someone was irresponsible in leaving the door open, but it’s not realistically possible to create schools that are impenetrable. Fences can be scaled. Doors will be open sometimes. A student might exit through one, allowing the shooter to grab the door and enter. We cannot expect perfect vigilance. Conservatives think the solution here is to further “harden” schools—at which point they will resemble prisons even more than they already do. But the whole project is futile: if schools could be made perfectly impenetrable, which they can’t, shooters could simply target playgrounds, movie theaters, malls, and grocery stores instead. How would “hardened” schools prevent another Buffalo shooting? Or another Aurora? This colossally expensive project to make every school even more dystopian will, even if it succeeds, just move the site of violence elsewhere. If we “harden” those places, too, we will destroy what is left of our public spaces as places where people can enjoy themselves and feel at ease. Hardening public places, especially those rare publicly-owned places like schools, ought to be thought of as another unacceptable layer of enclosure in an already overly-privatized society—although “hardening” it does embody the right-wing approach to society more generally: create the meanest, harshest society possible, and let everyone fend for themselves.
The correct conclusion here is: we have tried focusing on securing the schools as the way to prevent the violence, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even work at the schools themselves, as shown by the immense amount of investment and training that did nothing for Uvalde. (As Ryan Cooper notes, “this school had done everything that conservatives and experts from the school safety consulting industry recommend.”) But it also leaves totally unaddressed the mass shootings that occur in places other than schools, which apparently we are simply to accept. The Uvalde police should be held accountable for their failures, but it’s also unrealistic to expect every Mayberry cop to be able to prevent an AR-15 from quickly dispatching dozens of people. We have to ask: how would “hardening” schools have stopped the Las Vegas concert massacre or the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting? Can you harden every place? One thing you can do is stop the common denominator in all of these shootings: private citizens having semi-automatic weapons.
V. We Can Make This Time Different
Let us imagine that someone develops an app that you can install on your phone that will kill anyone around you. It shows you the photos of all the people within 40 feet of you. Swipe right on any of them and they die. Swipe left and they live. It’s a “death button,” a magic wand that destroys life.
I don’t think any sane person would believe this app should be legal. It’s too dangerous. It makes killing too easy. We could construe the Second Amendment to mean that the app is a “constitutional right,” but it’s obvious the Founding Fathers had no idea such a thing would ever exist. The social consequences of allowing such a thing to exist in the world would simply be too terrible for “rights” to be a consideration. Your freedom to have whatever you want does not trump the right of others to live free of the fear that they could be instantly killed by any stranger standing in their vicinity.
Semi-automatic firearms are almost indistinguishable from the “death button” app. They, too, make killing too easy. It happens at the touch of a button. In Australia, it was 12 people in 15 seconds. The Las Vegas killer murdered 60 people in 10 minutes. The technology here is simply too dangerous to allow unrestricted access to it.
Perhaps there are certain kinds of firearms that should be permitted, if regulated. I have written before about my conflicted feelings on this—people do successfully defend themselves against intruders using guns2, and taking all guns out of the hands of “law-abiding citizens” would indeed result in only “outlaws” having guns. But there needs to be a cutoff for the level of lethality that is permissible. The right is correct that banning guns for “cosmetic” reasons is arbitrary. But that’s why a sensible assault weapons ban needs to focus on the capacity of magazines and the rate/velocity of firepower. Whatever guns we allow should be less deadly than what we presently allow. This takes away little from hobbyists—surely it’s not much less fun to shoot a somewhat less deadly weapon. But it does mean that we are less likely to have 18-year-olds be able to quickly produce a “pile” of unrecognizable remnants of former children.
Gun rights proponents are right on one point: they often say that measures proposed by Democrats will do nothing. Indeed, I don’t really see the point of “background checks.” The Uvalde shooter would have passed a background check. Checking to see whether a potential murderer has murdered before is silly. We need to have a clear message here: it’s the guns, stupid. Take the guns, stop the killing. No guns, no gun deaths. You can’t kill people with an AR-15 if you don’t have one. Democrats need to focus on banning weapons of war from the street. There can be debate over what falls into that category. But let’s at least be clear what we have to do.
One of the scariest things about the gun debate is that there is a certain numb acceptance of massacres in the United States. When gun control went nowhere after Sandy Hook, many became resigned. If something that horrible did not spur action or make the right a little less absolutist about protecting their deadly “rights,” what would work? As I say, I do think the abstraction of these killings softens the outrage, and that people perhaps ought to see the full gruesome truth. But we also shouldn’t assume that we are doomed on this issue.
The NRA is in shambles right now, and I get the sense that many gun nuts are a little less confident in their tired talking points than they once were. Ted Cruz, who usually loves a debate, simply ran away from the conversation when he realized he had no answers. The NRA board member interviewed on CNN was left with nothing to say when he couldn’t answer incredibly simple questions. The gun lobby has succeeded in part because it has been confident and uncompromising and created the impression that it is invulnerable. But it isn’t. We should be just as aggressive in demanding that weapons of war be taken off the street. Marty Daniel, the head of the company that aggressively marketed the gun that the Uvalde killer bought, has gone into hiding but should be confronted with the carnage his product caused. People should put photos of the children who died outside his house. He should have to answer for the harm caused by the hideous product he sells.
We live in bleak times, but we actually have evidence from recent years that what look like “consensus” positions in politics can be shattered. A few years back, Democrats embraced neoliberal “education reform” and were shy about embracing unions. Now, a renewed labor movement has turned around the pro-charter school and anti-union consensus. American gun culture has been out of control for a very long time, but the rational majority who do not want their children to live in fear that they could be killed by a rifle-toting maniac can stand up and change the political dynamics here. We can shame the GOP for its sickening resignation to these atrocities, and its prioritization of the rights of hobbyists over the lives of kids. If we could truly grasp what it felt like, looked like, and sounded like to be a child in that classroom in Uvalde, I do not believe it would be possible to treat mass shootings as the kind of tragic inevitability that the GOP insists we accept them as.
It also has no democratic legitimacy and there is no reason to respect its authority, but let us leave that aside for now. ↩
However, it should be noted that a household gun is more likely to be used against or to intimidate someone rather than in self-defense. ↩