Every time a senseless shooting happens, as it did yet again this week in Roanoke, Virginia, liberals ask the question Bob Dylan posed more than 50 years ago: “How many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?”
The answer, however, to preventing attacks like the one that killed reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward is not blowing in the wind. In fact, the Republicans in control of Congress are well aware of the epidemic of gun violence in America. But they have a different account of its origins, and a different remedy to address it.
Until the liberal and conservative narratives of gun violence are debated, reconciled, or otherwise resolved, nothing will be done to address it. So let’s stop the rhetorical questions and righteous hand-waving, and look at the facts from multiple perspectives, each of which has some truth to it, and look inward as well.
According to liberals, America leads the world in gun violence because it also leads the world in gun ownership. Indeed, the United States is an outlier in both.
Between twenty and thirty thousand Americans die from gun violence every year, and Americans are 20 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries. American children, in particular, are 14 times as likely to die from gun accidents or violence than are children in other developed countries.
The U.S. is also an outlier when it comes to gun ownership. Unbelievably, there is now a firearm sales/ownership rate of one gun per person: over 300 million guns are either owned or for sale at this moment in America. That is double the rate of 1968, and a frankly terrifying statistic. Here is one more. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the United States is home to 35-50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns.
This correlation strongly suggests that there are too many guns, and those guns are too available to disturbed people, like the shooters in Roanoke and Charleston. America is weirdly, fetishistically attached to its weapons, liberals say, and the National Rifle Association (often funded by weapons manufacturers) blocks even the most moderate of reforms.
Conservatives, though, have at least three ready responses to these claim.
First is their core argument that guns are not the problem; people are. Rather than guns, conservatives point to a culture that praises violence in films, video games and movies. They note, for example, that Williams’ chilling recording of his murderous rampage resembles a first-person-shooter game. And, more generally, they point to the decay in public morality that has led to a breakdown in the social order.
The second conservative response is that liberals’ usual gun control proposals – background checks, childproof guns, bans on online sales, storage requirements, purchase limits, waiting periods, bans on some weapons, serial numbers – would probably not have stopped the attacks that make headlines anyway. Dylann Roof and Bryce Williams would each have gotten their guns.
So, conservatives say, would dangerous criminals who know how to circumvent gun regulations. Meanwhile, law abiding citizens would be at a disadvantage, since they don’t or won’t do so.
Third, as it happens, gun violence has actually been declining for three decades after peaking in the early 1990s – the same pattern as robberies. (Suicides now account for roughly 60% of gun deaths.) This strongly suggests that gun violence rates are a function of crime rates – themselves primarily dictated by demographics and economics – not of gun regulations.
(One argument that smacks of hypocrisy is when conservatives blame gun violence on mental illness but slash funding for and access to mental health care. I’ll leave that out for now.)
Who is right? Everyone and no one.
First, while gun regulations wouldn’t prevent every death, they would prevent many. Remember, the majority of gun deaths aren’t headline news – mass shootings (i.e. of three or more people) represent less than 1% of gun deaths since 1980. Most gun deaths are suicides, accidents, domestic violence, and other incidents that surely would be reduced if sensible gun regulations were implemented.
It’s a red herring for conservatives to say “Bryce Williams got his gun legally” when so many accidents (and other murders, like the Newtown massacre) could be prevented. And it’s a red herring for liberals to say “Bryce Williams’ rampage highlights the need for gun control.” Horrifying incidents like this are outliers. They capture our attention, but the real plague of gun violence is quiet and insidious.
Second, you’ve heard the cliché that “guns don’t kill people; people do.” This is exactly half right. In fact, people with guns kill people. There is no epidemic of crossbow violence, for example, and many have noted that recent stabbing attacks (such as the April, 2014, knife attack at Franklin Regional High School in Pennsylvania) would have been far, far bloodier had the perpetrators been armed with guns.
But the cliché is half right – although conservatives’ usual culprits (Hollywood, in particular) are not the ones to blame.
When people chant “white power” at Donald Trump rallies, when racist hate is regularly broadcast online and on the radio, when white supremacists wave confederate flags, and when even the mainstream Republican party espouses xenophobic messages and myths, someone will inevitably lash out. Of course, even most hard-rightists don’t shoot up black churches. But someone will.
And when “black lives matter” turns into blanket condemnation of all police, all white people, all of mainstream America, then tragedy is likewise inevitable. Said the Roanoke murderer in his fax to ABC News, “I’ve been a human powder keg for a while… just waiting to go BOOM!!!!” That is true for extremists on right and left alike.
Both-and: both the rage and the guns, the culture and the weaponry.
While conservatives are right that culture is part of the problem, they are often incorrect about which parts of culture are. Notwithstanding some popular notions, scientists studying the link between video games and actual violence have found no such link. The most damning evidence is that violent video games can decrease empathy to violence.
Nor is today actually that much more violent, in terms of the number of attacks, than previous eras in American history; 1850s Philadelphia was more crime-ridden, per capita, than the same city in 2015. We have not actually fallen from some . Rather, what has changed is the severity of the attacks, and that, again, is traceable to changes in gun technology.
Remember, when the Founding Fathers talked about guns, they were thinking about muskets.
What about the Founders, though? Doesn’t the Second Amendment enshrine gun ownership in the constitution? True, automobiles are much more regulated than firearms, but firearms are right there in the Second Amendment.
To engage with this argument would require a whole new column Jeffrey Toobin’s from 2012 is still the standard), but the short response is: No. Until the late 1970s, no one believed the Second Amendment conveyed a private right to gun ownership, and until 2008, the Supreme Court hadn’t either.
On the contrary, the Second Amendment is unique in the Bill of Rights in providing a specific reason for the right to bear arms. The constitution doesn’t say anything about why Congress can’t abridge freedom of speech or freedom of the press – but it qualifies the right to bear arms by stating that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” exists because “a well regulated militia [is] necessary to the security of a free state.” That and nothing more. And note the right is born by “the people” – interpreted for over 150 years as referring to organized civilian militias, not individuals.
Alas, however, this conceptual train has already left the station. Among a significant number of Americans, the right to bear arms is as American as apple pie – and they are not about to be persuaded otherwise. Indeed, they become paranoid if anyone even suggests otherwise.
Which brings me to my final point: American gun violence is part of American gun idolatry. It’s one thing to venerate a family heirloom like grandpa’s rifle – rarely part of American Jewish life, but a central part of many Americans’ lives. It’s another to pose, jihadi-style, with semi-automatic weapons; to regard the gun as a phallic extension of one’s very person; to stoke fears of violence and then quell them with instruments of yet more violence.
This is where the Jewish community might play a role in restoring sanity to American gun culture, though we have so far failed to do so.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the editor of “Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence”, told me that “Jewish tradition has long viewed weapons as ugly, utilized only as a response to threat. The fetishizing of guns in American culture means that America’s battle over the Second Amendment is also a battle to maintain the Second Commandment: to not create idols out of guns.” This is, in other words, a spiritual issue.
Yet the Jewish community is AWOL on this issue, at a time when moral, spiritual voices are sorely needed.
Our institutions seem obsessed with specifically “Jewish” issues (read: Israel), and have ceded the moral high ground on this crisis to other, less parochial voices.
Which is a shame, since there is work to be done on right and left.
On the Right, Jewish Republicans could challenge their party’s fear of the NRA by supporting those who break from its orthodoxy. Self-described moderates could stake out the middle ground, balancing the right to bear arms against the sanctity of human life and the Jewish ideal of pikuach nefesh (saving a life).
And Jewish Democrats could take the conservative argument more seriously, and start talking morally about our culture of violence, and how violent speech begets violent actions. We could challenge ratings systems to take violence as seriously as sex. And we could insist that gun violence be a top priority of a progressive American Jewish politics
And let’s look inward as well – fittingly for this period of the Days of Awe. How well are we Jews doing on addressing incitement in our own community? To put it simply: Not well.
Ours is a community infested with extremist language, demonizing of the other, and stoking fears and baseless hatred – the same kinds of speech which inspired the demented minds of Roof and Williams. Imagine if we could do the inner tshuvah (repentance) work to see that calling my opponent a Nazi, or a terrorist, or a “pathetic excuse for a Jew” (as I was just recently called on social media) is the same kind of incitement that leads to senseless acts of violence.
So far, we are failing. We are uncivil, rash, quick to anger. We watch Fox News or follow extremist blogs (Truthers, Birthers, conspiracy theorists), we attack on social media, we are sure that the other side is not just wrong but actually evil – including, of course, on the issue of gun violence.
And more. My approval of violence, my stereotyping (of Haredim, of Muslims, of liberals, of conservatives), my callousness toward the suffering of the “other” (black lives here, Palestinian lives there) is part of the problem. My rage, my so-called righteous indignation, my reactive responses, my triggers, my unwashed psychological laundry – all of these, and all of ours, are all part of the problem.
Try saying it in first person: I am part of the problem.
Now what will you do to help?
_Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. _