Fighting Firearms with Firearms

Flickr/Marcin Wichary

On Saturday, just a few days after President Obama put forth 23 executive actions to curb gun violence, approximately 1,000 gun-rights activists gathered at the Texas state Capitol to show their opposition. The protest was one of 49 organized around the country by pro-gun group Guns Across America, but the one in Texas was among the biggest. Signs pronounced assault weapons “the modern musket” and quoted the Second Amendment. Speakers including Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Representative Steve Toth argued that gun control had no place in America. “The Second Amendment was an enumeration of a right that I already had received from God,” speaker Ralph Patterson, the McLennan County Republican Party chair, told the crowd. “God gave me the right to defend myself.”

Three days after the rally, on Tuesday, Texas was in the national headlines when a shooting occurred at a Houston community college. After the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado, and Oak Creek, Wisconsin, some feared the worst. Instead, it turned out the case was a dispute between two men, at least one of whom was armed. Three people were wounded; fortunately, none died.

To gun-control advocates, the incident in Houston was yet another reason why federal and state governments need to tamp down on gun availability. But in Texas, lawmakers were arguing just the opposite. For many of them, there's only one answer to gun violence: more guns. That night, after the shooting, state Senator Dan Patrick, a powerful figure on the state's far right, went on Anderson Cooper 360 and pushed for a proposed bill to let those 21 and older get concealed handgun licenses to carry guns on campuses. I don’t think a lot of people in the mainstream media and maybe back east understand Texas," he said. According to Patrick, the shooting "only re-emphasizes the issue that people must have a right to defend themselves."

Nationally, the mass shootings in 2012, ending with the particularly horrifying death toll at Sandy Hook Elementary School, sparked a renewed push for gun control. The president's proposals include beefing up requirements for buying guns, reinstating a federal assault weapons ban, and banning certain types of ammunition. Meanwhile, lawmakers in a number of states are proposing their own measures; New York has already passed a law expanding a ban on assault weapons and reducing the allowable size of gun magazines to seven rounds.

In the other America, however, the mass shootings have only exacerbated an ongoing effort to make guns more prevalent and accessible—particularly in schools. Texas lawmakers have been among the most visible, staking out a position far to the right of the national conversation. For the third session in a row, pro-gun lawmakers like Patrick will push a measure to allow concealed handguns on college campuses, a measure Texas Governor Rick Perry has also supported. Another proposal would designate school employees with special training to be armed; it's modeled on the federal air-marshal program, in which a plain-clothed air marshal may be riding a plane armed. The lieutenant governor is pushing for the state to fund gun-training sessions for teachers and school employees. There's also a bill that bars state officials from enforcing federal gun-control laws. The law may not carry much practical weight—federal laws trump state ones—but it gets the point across.

Texas has a legendary affinity for guns. But it's hardly unique. Eight states already allow concealed handguns on college campuses and, like Texas, Indiana and Arkansas are considering similar legislation this year. Arkansas and North Dakota have proposals to allow people to carry concealed handguns into churches. Seven states—Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, and even Arizona, the same state where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot along with 18 others two years ago—have proposals similar to Texas’s to ban enforcement of federal gun laws. Arizona is also one of six states where lawmakers have proposed measures to exempt guns produced in-state from federal restrictions.

In most of these gun-crazy states, there’s little to no discussion of measures that would regulate gun ownership or restrict the types of guns and ammunition available. That, the logic goes, would only leave the “good guys” defenseless and vulnerable since criminals will access weapons regardless of the law. Instead, the answer to gun violence is almost always more guns. That way, individuals can take charge of the situation, protect themselves and maybe even take down the shooter. People are considered less likely to attack someone if that someone might be carrying a concealed weapon. Among those further on the fringe, the “protection” rhetoric gets even more intense: Without unfettered access to guns, they say (or yell), people cannot protect themselves from evil forces, including the government. 

If you want to see evidence of polarization in the country, just look at gun laws. In one America, mass shootings lead to new restrictions; in the other America, the same shootings lead to fewer restrictions. After years of gun policy drifting further to the right, any move to move the law back toward the center (or further left) is immediately branded as extreme, if not unthinkable.

Ronald Reagan championed the assault-weapons ban that Obama is proposing to reinstate and expand. But these days, the pro-gun lobby is far more absolutist. For those who believe gun violence will decrease as the number of guns decreases, the situation is bleak unless there's a federal action. So long as states like Texas and Arizona continue to make automatic weapons and military-grade ammunition available, those firearms being manufactured can easily find their way to states like New York, in spite of their stricter gun laws.

The striking number of mass shootings in 2012—coupled with concerns about the general level of gun violence in the country—has left many open to more gun restrictions. But while the number of true NRA believers may have dwindled (it’s hard to say for sure), those that remain are just as hardcore as ever. In Illinois and Wisconsin, where legislators were considering some limits to gun ownership, the NRA flexed its muscle, as members flooded the state capitols with calls and emails opposing the measures. In both cases, the lawmakers backed off.

On Tuesday—the same day of the shooting in Houston—three Texas lawmakers announced a different kind of proposal to make schools safer. The Texas School District Safety Act would create special taxing districts to pay for additional security, including guards and metal detectors. This might pass for middle ground; it allows school districts to make the decisions and would at least offer money to pay for armed professionals, rather than the cheaper option of  arming teachers. But don’t think for a minute that metal detectors will automatically keep out guns.

After all, when the Texas Capitol building put metal detectors at entryways in 2011, there was one caveat: Those with a concealed handgun permits could skip the security line and the search and enter armed. In this America, guns are the only guarantee of safefy; it's only the lack of guns that make people unsafe.