There has been another horrific mass shooting, once again in Texas. Senator Ted Cruz has generously offered his prayers (no word yet on his thoughts) to those affected. There is a debate over whether pictures of the victims should have been permitted on Twitter. (Were they gratuitous and offensive to the families or a necessary confrontation with the reality of gun violence?) But there is little sign that we will see a major policy response, especially not in Texas. Unlike in Serbia, where two recent mass shootings caused the president of the country to consider disarming the whole country, in the U.S. these killings are becoming a sickeningly “normal” part of the culture.
The major political obstacle is, of course, the Republican Party, which is staunchly committed to guaranteeing every citizen the right to possess heavy weaponry. Not only do Republicans consistently refuse to consider even the most basic and sensible gun policies (Maybe require people to be trained to use guns? Maybe keep them out of the hands of those who appear homicidal?), but, in fact, after these mass shootings, they tend to argue that we need even more guns. They’d rather loosen than tighten gun restrictions, in total defiance of both public opinion and the available evidence showing that states with tighter gun controls have fewer gun deaths.
I’m sure a few obvious questions have crossed more than one person’s mind: Why? Why are they like this? Why does the right’s commitment to flooding America with guns seem downright pathological? Why won’t they support even the most modest measures, or simple safety regulations like making guns more difficult for children to fire? Why do they do nothing after these mass shootings except lament them and pray? Do they want us all to live in a dystopia where our kids could be massacred at the mall any day? Why can’t we have a normal country where this hardly ever happens?
The answer conservatives will give, of course, is that they are committed constitutionalists, and the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, and that’s that. But that can’t explain the pathology. After all, speaking of the Second Amendment, Ryan Cooper notes that “James Madison himself, who wrote the dang thing, thought it was compatible with a ban on carrying firearms outside of your own property.” The Founding Fathers could not, of course, have anticipated the invention of the AR-15, and so the Second Amendment cannot possibly have anything to say about whether we ought to allow them on the streets. The right doesn’t appear to be making a good faith attempt at constitutional interpretation. There has to be something else going on that’s causing them to adopt the most extreme possible interpretation of the Constitution.
For some gun control proponents, the answer is that people who enjoy playing with guns don’t care about dead children, or care about their own right to do whatever they want much more than they care about saving other people’s lives. Comedian Jim Jefferies, in a classic viral rant about guns in America, said the argument against gun restrictions ultimately boiled down to “I like guns.” Thus you’re not going to persuade them to change their minds by showing a bunch of statistics on how countries and states with more gun restrictions have fewer gun deaths. There’s no way to refute “I like guns.”
I think Jefferies was onto something, but there’s more to it. To understand the level of intransigence, it helps to think about the ideology that conservatives subscribe to. Fear and a sense of futility are central to right-wing thinking. For the right, the world is a dangerous and terrifying place in which Evil is lurking around every corner. Such Evil could be in the form of “groomers” coming for your children (by reading to them while wearing makeup) or it could be the “China threat.” Paranoia about globalists, communists, immigrants, criminals, and other Big Scary Others is ubiquitous on the right.
If your mental world is already one of extreme (and delusional) fear, mass shooters do not seem like an aberration. They are just another threat among many. The natural state of life, in much conservative literature, is “nasty, brutish, and short,” and the forces of order and civilization only just barely keep the forces of evil chaos at bay. Conservatism is characterized by an extreme pessimism about our ability to improve the world; the standard argument is that progressives are naive and hubristic in their desire to effect change through social policy and whatever they do will “hurt the very people they are trying to help.” The view of human nature that underpins right-wing thought is false, but it’s a compelling story.
If you view the world as a place full of virtually uncontrollable menacing evil, it’s easy to see why gun control doesn’t make sense. Under a conservative framework, it’s hard to understand why gun control would ever work. After all, we’re up against the forces of Pure Evil. Surely Pure Evil would not let mere laws stand in its way. If it was determined to kill, it would find a way to get a gun. As Arjun Byju noted for this magazine in a piece on the normalization of “active shooter drills” in schools, “we cannot legislate away evil” is a common GOP refrain, with shootings treated “like the fates and furies of Greek mythology, something horrible that may strike us from without, and to which we are all but consigned.” But as Ryan Cooper notes, in reality, it turns out that a lot of gun violence is spur of the moment, and can be disrupted just by putting inconvenient obstacles between would-be perpetrators and access to a gun: “If you can get a gun in a day or even a few minutes, then it’s easy for a stupid argument or moment of despair to end in a shooting death…But if you make it an expensive, annoying, and time-consuming process to get a gun, then this process is disrupted.”
This view sees perpetrators as fundamentally human, and reduces the distinction between the Bad People and the Good People. Gun control cannot work in the conservative view because, to use a favorite NRA slogan, “if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.” The idea being that “outlaws” are a class of people to whom the law will be no obstacle. But as the U.K. and Australia show, it turns out that many would-be “outlaws” can in fact be deterred by extreme inconvenience.
For many people on the right, I don’t think it’s possible to change their position on gun control without changing their entire ideological worldview. Their fear and pessimism are not grounded in reality. To support gun control, they would have to believe in a very different kind of world, one where many of our problems were solvable through policy, perpetrators were human beings subject to ordinary human incentives rather than just Forces Of Evil, and where it is conceivable to not be afraid all the time. But for the American right, the world is teeming with antifa terrorists and BLM rioters, and there’s no choice but to arm yourself to the teeth (and possibly shoot anyone who rings your doorbell).
I am generally a proponent of trying to have constructive political conversations with people and find common ground. I believe in trying to argue and persuade. (I have previously been called “the left’s debate bro.”) I’m actually teaching a class this weekend (come join us!) on how to effectively respond to right-wing arguments and change minds. But one of the things I’ll be emphasizing is that often, dialogue is in fact quite hopeless, because a person’s ideology is very deep rooted, and you’re not going to change their mind on one issue without getting them to radically alter their entire worldview. I think gun control is an issue like that for many on the right. They don’t think mass shootings can be stopped, and it’s not because they are misreading the statistics, it’s because they don’t see how the forces of evil could be kept at bay by something as trivial as a regulation. Just as they’re skeptical of diplomacy with China and rehabilitation in the criminal punishment system (How can you negotiate with evil? How can you reform it?), they think that the only thing you can do to stop violence is kill the perpetrators. The right’s world is a world of menace, where all we can rely on is Good Guys using violence to stop the violence of the Bad Guys. (This is why many on the right see the murder of Jordan Neely as the act of a Good Samaritan. For them, Neely was, in part for racist reasons, coded as one of the Bad Guys, and white ex-Marine Daniel Penny is coded as a Good Guy.)
In situations where it’s hopeless to persuade people, and they’re doing harm, the only choice you have is to restrain their power. This is why the only hope for ending mass shootings involves reducing Republican political power. They are never going to change. If they changed, they would cease to be Republicans. They must be thrown out of office if we are ever going to build a country where we can feel safe going about our daily lives.