Why the Left Lost the Gun Control Debate

There is an open conspiracy among the all-heat-no-light gun control zealots to suppress a simple truth that neither side wants to hear: America experiences more mass shootings than other developed nations because there are enough guns in this country to arm every man, and woman, and child, which means that anyone who really wants to get his -- it's usually a 'he' -- hands on a gun can get his hands on a gun. This is unwelcome news on the right because it implicates America's gun culture in the frequency of mass shootings, and on the left because it suggests that, as in the case of the failed and tyrannical Drug War, there is no way to simply legislate our way out of this problem.

Of course, the fanatics, including those on the right, can all agree that 'mentally ill' people -- by which they mean 'crazy people' -- should not have access to guns. The major practical consequence of the failed crusade for gun control has been to scapegoat the mentally ill. Once again we find ourselves speaking of the problems faced by the mentally ill only in the context of crime and violence. We expect this kind of indifference to society's marginalized from the right. But the left is so wedded to its gun control dogma -- the empty sentiment that some kind of legislation can make mass shootings disappear, if only we would summon enough collective will -- that it cannot muster a unified voice to reject this panic. It is true that America needs to focus on improving access to mental health care. But it should not pursue these goals in the name of, say, protecting us from crazy people. That's not why we ought to care about enabling pathways to recovery for the mentally ill.

It is perplexing that progressives can usually perceive that the failed and tyrannical Drug War is bad for the country, and acknowledge that anyone who really wants to get their hands on drugs can get their hands on them -- that we cannot legislate away the problems of drug abusers, and that the lock-'em-up approach is both cruel and counterproductive -- and yet fail to see that this same logic applies to guns. We are not Japan. We are not Sweden. We are not the United Kingdom. America's unique gun culture has resulted in the mass proliferation of guns. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, obtained his gun from a family member. What use would it have been to prevent him from personally buying a gun? (Not to mention Connecticut already has an 'assault weapons ban'!) The fact that the Lanzas' situation is not unique suggests that only mass confiscation would actually meaningfully reduce the number of annual gun deaths. And there is certainly not majority support for Australia-style confiscation.

Gun control is the right's gay marriage: their key culture war victory. Aside from the Heller ruling, itself a landmark for gun rights advocates, the overwhelming legislative trend for gun rights in recent years has been toward expansion, not restriction, as concealed-carry laws spread and red states roll back restrictions on ownership. There is zero political will for confiscation. Meanwhile, the left can do nothing but protest, sounding its anger and fury -- but it is as futile as the Religious Right's cries over gay marriage. 

And they deserved to lose. The left cannot answer the question: What legislation would have prevented recent school shootings? The difficult truth is that, on the whole, a profile has emerged of a 'typical' school shooter: a socially isolated white male under the age of 30. As with the opioid crisis, we cannot legislate our way out of this problem: the increase in frequency of these incidents -- which is not as sharp as news coverage would have us believe -- speaks to a larger crisis of broken communities, a social ethic of casual cruelty, and a breakdown in the American 'life script' for the middle class. And neither side wants to talk about that.

Alex Knepper