America’s frozen gun debate - Vox

America’s frozen gun debate – Vox

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America’s gun debate has been frozen for decades. We keep having the same arguments with the same talking points over and over again — and Americans continue to die from gun violence at hugely disproportionate numbers relative to the rest of the world.

There’s a massive cultural divide here that is very hard to reconcile. If you live in a big city or a major metropolitan area, you very likely think about guns differently than someone who grew up in a rural area. To the extent that guns are part of your world, it’s typically associated with crime and violence. But if you grew up in the South, for instance, guns are much more woven into everyday culture, and the associations are mostly positive.

So how do we bridge that gap? And is anything like a sane national equilibrium possible on guns?

I reached out to Stephen Gutowski, the founder of TheReload.com and a longtime reporter on the gun beat, for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. Gutowski is pro-gun, but he’s also a good-faith voice in this space, and I was looking for someone who could make his side of the argument intelligible to people who don’t understand it.

We talk about my own ambivalence on this issue, the blind spots on the left and right, how he makes sense of America’s obsession with guns, and if he thinks we can ever find a way out of the scorched-earth debate we seem to be stuck in.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Sean Illing

I’m not sure you’d want to be called an “activist,” but you’re definitely a gun-rights advocate. Why is this issue so important to you?

Stephen Gutowski

My goal personally is to try and inform people as best I can on the issue and the culture around guns and why people own guns. But certainly I’m not shy about being who I am, and that I own firearms, that I’m a certified instructor, that I enjoy building guns. I enjoy a lot of aspects of firearms — the competition side of it, the precision shooting.

Then there’s also a philosophical aspect to it that I think you’ll find with a lot of gun owners as well, and it comes out of this American tradition of arms and this perspective of rugged individualism and how firearms ownership plays into that. Being able to protect yourself or your loved ones — that’s a big part of it and it’s why a lot of people own guns, and it’s certainly something that resonates with me.

Sean Illing

That rugged individualism thing, and the deep fascination with guns and gun culture, that’s uniquely American, isn’t it?

Stephen Gutowski

Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. Obviously, we’re not the only place where people like to think of themselves as self-reliant, but we are a nation that has a very unique relationship with firearms, especially civilian-owned firearms. We actually have the most civilian-owned firearms of any country in the world — and it’s really not close.

Sean Illing

I’m actually curious if you’d rather live in a country where that wasn’t the case, where there weren’t more guns than people?

Stephen Gutowski

That’s a good question. I think guns are an equalizer, personally. Obviously, there are terrible things that people can do with guns. They’re a tool. What happens with a gun depends on who’s using the gun. But guns are the great equalizer. If you don’t want a world where just the physically dominant can lord over people weaker than them, then I think guns, on the whole, are a net positive. And I think that’s true even when you consider all of the negative things that come from the existence of firearms.

Sean Illing

That may be where we disagree, but we’ll get there. Let me first ask what you think the biggest blind spots on the left are when it comes to this issue? I ask because I suspect there are millions of Americans who probably can’t even imagine how guns might play a positive role in someone’s life, especially if they’ve never lived in a place that really values this kind of thing. For a lot of people, guns are associated only with crime and violence.

Stephen Gutowski

That’s a great point, and I think it’s very true. People should do their best to try and understand each other and try to understand where they’re coming from, especially with firearms, because there are a lot of reasons why people own guns.

There’s a stereotype about who owns guns in America, where it’s Elmer Fudd-type people, the older white guys who like to hunt. And so you get a lot of arguments about why you don’t need an AR-15 to hunt, or you don’t need more than three rounds. These sorts of arguments completely disregard the myriad reasons that people own firearms in the very different communities that own them.

There’s not just one tradition of firearms in America — there are dozens. Different groups of people own guns for far different reasons. Hunting is certainly one of them, but it is not the only one. It’s not even the primary one anymore. People now own guns primarily for personal protection. That is the biggest reason that people will give for owning firearms.

And there’s probably a lot of sub-reasons within that as well. Obviously, the reason that an African American might have bought a gun in the wake of the George Floyd killing is different than why someone else might have bought a gun in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack or something like that.

Sean Illing

And what do you think the pro-gun crowd misses or overlooks the most?

Stephen Gutowski

I think that there’s often a lack of focus on trying to come up with real solutions for gun violence. [The gun-control movement is] often looked at instinctively as attempts to restrict gun ownership or gun rights. But restricting gun ownership is not the only thing you can do to address gun violence. So there’s just not enough focus from the right on all the potential solutions that might make a difference without necessarily impacting individual gun rights.

Sean Illing

One complaint I’ve had for a long time has to do with that intransigence you’re talking about. As far as I can tell, there isn’t much space on the pro-gun side for self-criticism and there’s an unwillingness to own some of the very real and very difficult trade-offs here.

Stephen Gutowski

A lot of it boils down to distrust. From the gun-rights perspective, when you look across the aisle at gun-control activists, you don’t really trust what you’re being told and sometimes for good reason, right? Gun owners have been told for years that nobody wanted to take their guns away, and then you have Beto O’Rourke come along and say exactly that, which is something that people on the gun-rights side of the issue had suspected many more gun-control activists really believe.

There’s been a lot of distrust built up over the years and it’s hard to break through that. And I’m sure there are similar feelings on the other side as well. If you’re on the gun-control side, you probably feel like the gun-rights side doesn’t want to compromise at all. And then the gun-rights side feels like they’ve been compromising for a hundred years. And you see these conflicting points of view all the time in the gun debate.

Sean Illing

To be clear, I’m not opposed to the Second Amendment, and the reality is that we do live in a country with more guns than people, and that makes self-defense a legitimate concern. But the Second Amendment was intended to reinforce a well-regulated militia. It was about defending against state tyranny. Where do you think the limits are in the world of 2022? Should basically anyone without a criminal record be able to strap a gun to their hip and call it self-defense?

Stephen Gutowski

The president likes to say that no amendment is unlimited, and, frankly, he’s right there. Now he goes off the rails in other ways when he talks about the Second Amendment in particular, but certainly we’re always trying to figure out what exactly it protects. I don’t think that we’re anywhere near the end of working out what the Second Amendment allows and doesn’t allow. We already have more restrictions than what you alluded to there.

Obviously, if you’re a felon or you’ve been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, then you’re prohibited from owning guns under federal law forever. You could have your rights restored, but that’s another process.

And you also have people who have been adjudicated mentally ill. So somebody who’s been committed, they can’t own firearms. And those things involve due process. They involve having someone go through the proper court process before their rights are stripped away from them because the Second Amendment is the guarantee of this right.

Now, how far should we go in terms of allowing people to carry a firearm without a permit? That’s still a very thorny subject that the court is only just barely scratching the surface.

Sean Illing

How much training is enough? I’m a veteran; I was trained to use a pistol and a rifle, but that was 20 years ago. I’ve barely fired any guns since I left the service. I don’t think I’m prepared to walk around town with a gun on my hip. And that’s not because I can’t shoot, it’s because possessing a gun can change the dynamics of an otherwise trivial confrontation and not being prepared for that responsibility is dangerous, and I worry that most people have even less training than I do.

Stephen Gutowski

This is where I think we get into a question of rights versus responsibilities.

Lots of important things involve responsibilities but the question of how government should play into that is separate. Because you’re right, you shouldn’t be carrying around a gun unless you get training to be competent at doing so, unless you know the laws and your responsibilities.

But does a government mandate that you get a hunter safety course before you obtain a permit to carry a gun make a practical difference in the violent crime rate in a state? I’m much less convinced of that because I think permit requirements for carrying do, ultimately in practice, allow police to search and arrest people based on possession of guns rather than proving they’ve intended to commit any sort of serious crime with them.

Sean Illing

I guess I’m not so sure about that, but what I was getting at was a little different. My worry is that having a gun increases the likelihood that a bad interaction will escalate needlessly. There are a lot of people who think they’ll be safer with a gun, and in some cases, they surely will be, but often pulling a gun in order to neutralize a situation only intensifies it.

Stephen Gutowski

Oh, certainly. I think this is another aspect of responsibilities. You have to be emotionally competent in order to carry a gun. And that’s why people who train others to carry guns focus a ton on their mentality.

You don’t carry a gun in order to be able to go to a dangerous place you wouldn’t go without your gun. That’s the exact opposite of the mentality you need to have as somebody who carries a gun, as I do. Your mentality should be the exact opposite; you should be avoiding places where you could end up in a confrontation with someone.

Sean Illing

Something I’m trying to do in this conversation is make the pro-gun side of the argument more intelligible to people who don’t understand it. I think most people can understand the general self-defense argument. I think they can intuitively understand why someone may want a secured gun in their home.

But what they may not understand, what I don’t understand, is the everyday citizen who isn’t in any real danger, who doesn’t work in law enforcement, who feels the need to not just own a gun, but to flaunt it, to signal to everyone that they have it. That’s not really about self-defense, and I don’t think it’s about freedom.

To give you an example, I was in the grocery store a few weeks ago in southern Mississippi, and there was a guy in line in front of me with a 9-millimeter on his hip. I’ll be charitable and say he didn’t look trained. But the point is that I don’t get what’s going on there. Carrying a concealed gun is one thing, but this guy wanted everyone to see it. To me that’s inviting aggression or it’s just dumb posturing. I don’t buy that he’s seriously scared of being assaulted in the produce aisle.

What am I missing here?

Stephen Gutowski

Well, first, I would say there’s obviously disagreements inside of the gun-rights community about things like open carry and how some people choose to go about it in confrontational ways. I think a lot of people don’t understand the mentality of it because they look at it like, “Why do you think the grocery store is some kind of super dangerous place?” And I can only speak for myself, but that’s not how I think about it, carrying a gun. I don’t carry my gun specifically to the grocery store because I think the grocery store is going to be a place that I’m vulnerable to attack.

It’s more of a mindset of preparedness that anything could happen. Certainly, you’ve seen attacks go down anywhere in broad daylight — you can find plenty of examples. It’s not that I think it’s likely to happen to me or that I’m likely to be attacked while I’m buying eggs at the market.

It’s just the mentality of wanting to be prepared for whatever happens when I’m out in public. It’s similar to the idea of having a fire extinguisher in your home. You’re not expecting to have a fire. You have it in case that happens because you want to be prepared for it.

Sean Illing

There’s a logic to the preparedness mindset that I understand. I’m a gun owner, I have a gun in my home. Maybe I’ll need it, maybe I won’t. I probably won’t. I’ve never felt the need to carry a gun outside my home, though. I guess the question I’m driving at it is, do you think that there’s a level of fear and maybe even hysteria that doesn’t map onto reality?

Stephen Gutowski

Yeah, probably. And then I think there’s probably also a segment of the population that’s doing the exact opposite. In fact, maybe more people believe that if they’re in a situation where their life is threatened, they’ll be able to call the police and the police will be able to show up in time to protect them. And I think that’s much less realistic given police response times than someone who thinks they might have to defend themselves, whether they’re at the grocery store or anywhere else.

There are all kinds of rabbit-hole arguments in the concealed carry universe, and you can go down a rabbit hole of preparedness arguments, too. There are all these scenarios you can imagine happening, but most of them are extremely unlikely to happen. At a certain point, it comes down to what I’m comfortable with in terms of being prepared for life in my daily routine.

Sean Illing

My main problem with a group like the NRA — and this is related to the conversation about fear — is that I think it’s invested in tribalizing American politics. I think they’re invested in scaring people and playing to various tropes on the right, because it drives the demand for guns and by extension their own membership base. And in the end, I think that feeds into a lot of dangerous political trends.

Do you think I’m wrong about that?

Stephen Gutowski

I certainly see them playing into the tribalist aspect of our polarized politics. That’s clearly happening. Whether or not the NRA is getting people to buy more guns or how realistic the fears they’re capitalizing on happen to be, that’s an open debate. Like I said, there are people who really do want to round up guns in the United States. That’s not a fantasy.

Sean Illing

The Democratic Party does not want to do that. No one believes that. I realize Beto O’Rourke said a very stupid thing, but Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi don’t have any plans to confiscate anyone’s guns. I just want to be clear about that.

Stephen Gutowski

Not in the sense that it’s going to happen tomorrow or that black helicopters are going to come down and take your guns over the weekend. That’s clearly not happening.

But we have seen even Kamala Harris, the vice president, agree with Eric Swalwell during the primary that at least some guns — the AR-15s, in particular — ought to be part of a mandatory buyback, which is in effect gun confiscation. It’s hard to say that the Democratic Party hasn’t moved closer to gun confiscation in the last five years. It’s not going to happen anytime soon in reality. But there are non-fringe people pushing for that.

Sean Illing

Do you think it’s totally implausible that we might evolve to see gun ownership not as some inalienable right but as a truly profound privilege, which might transform how we think about regulation and control?

Stephen Gutowski

I think a large percentage of gun owners wholeheartedly agree with the idea that owning guns is an inalienable right, that it’s inherent to your humanity that you have something to be able to defend yourself with. Now, it’s not the only reason to own guns, like I mentioned earlier, but that is the core of it and I don’t think people are going to give that up.

Sean Illing

That’s probably right and I also think it’s very likely true that our cultural attitudes on guns are just never going to converge, but is there a policy equilibrium we could reach at some point that would maybe depolarize the issue while addressing enough concerns on all sides?

Stephen Gutowski

I think the majority of people likely already agree with what our current gun laws are. [Editor’s note: According to a 2021 Pew Research poll, 53 percent of Americans support stronger gun laws, though that’s a decline from 60 percent in 2019.] Those restrictions we talked about earlier — people who are felons or domestic violence misdemeanor convictions, or people with mental health issues — a lot of people support that basic premise. There’s probably a lot of support for requiring more training for gun permits. But I do think there’s broad support for a lot of policies that are already in place. The disagreement comes over the expansion or the loosening of those restrictions.

But one area where I think there’s real potential to have an effect on day-to-day gun crimes without causing political deadlock is community violence intervention programs, because those tend to focus on trying to intervene with people who are most likely to be involved in violent crimes. They’ve seen a good bit of success with these programs in places like Oakland and Boston, and they don’t focus on trying to restrict the ownership of certain guns, which creates a lot of controversy on the gun-rights side. And they also don’t emphasize judicial punishment as a way of deterring crime, something I think a lot of people on the left find less objectionable.

So those sorts of programs that focus on trying to get at the root causes of violence and trying to prevent it at that level combined with stricter enforcement of current laws — that’s where you could see the most potential for agreement and real impact.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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