Up until now, Barack Obama's record on guns has been one of the biggest disappointments for his liberal supporters. In his first term he signed two laws on guns, one allowing people to take their guns into national parks, and one allowing people to take their guns on Amtrak trains. But now there are some hints that the administration may be open to some modest measures to reduce the easy availability of some of the deadliest means of killing large numbers of people at one time. In particular, we could see a renewal of some version of the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. That law used a somewhat complicated flow chart of features to define an assault weapon, and also banned magazines that held more than ten rounds. A ban on high-capacity magazines may be the easiest thing to pass today, because it's not hard to define and they are almost impossible to justify for any purpose other than killing people.
The easy argument against any new law, and one we'll certainly be hearing, is "That wouldn't have stopped Adam Lanza." And that's probably true. If someone is determined enough and takes enough time to plan, they can kill lots and lots of people. But the point of our policy shouldn't be solely to make sure that nobody ever shoots up a school again, it should be to reduce the appalling death toll that guns bring to our society. If the horror of 20 murdered children in Connecticut is the thing that leads us to finally attempt to do something about the 30,000 Americans who are killed with guns every year, then it will be fine if the next set of policies isn't focused on preventing precisely that kind of massacre.
We'll only do something meaningful if we think in the broadest of terms. In other countries, events like the one we just had have led to far-reaching policy changes (for instance, here is an account of what happened after a 1996 mass shooting in Australia). But that's in large part because a mass shooting in those places was a once-in-a-generation event, so shocking that politicians couldn't avoid action. Here in America, we have a mass shooting every few weeks.
But this is the best opportunity we've had in a long time to address the pathology of our gun culture, which grows more pathological all the time. As I've noted before, the number of people owning guns is on a steady long-term decline, yet gun sales haven't gone down at all. Gun culture has become increasingly paranoid and hostile to the majority of Americans who don't own guns, and the amassing of larger and more deadly arsenals is now the gun industry's business plan and marketing strategy. When the rest of us look at gun owners we see not the responsible adults who have a hunting rifle they treat with the gravity a deadly weapon deserves, but a different kind of person. We see the middle-aged fantasist, as consumed with an imaginary world as any sci-fi fan dressed in a Star Fleet uniform at Comic-Con. He's gleeful at getting his concealed-carry permit, and can't wait to bring his gun into the supermarket just in case a robbery goes down and he finally gets the chance to become the hero he so desperately wants to be. When he goes to the range, every round he fires is like a shot of testosterone, assuring him that no matter what happened at work that day, he's a man, and a man with power. He gets his NRA magazine and reads about how jackbooted government thugs are coming for him any day now, and he buys another gun, then another, then a few more. He thinks the people stockpiling canned food for the apocalypse are a little extreme, but he knows where they're coming from, and he's done some thinking about what he'd do if the government collapsed and he had to defend his home. He's ready.
It is this man, gripped by his fantasies both personal and political, who has come to define America's gun culture and our government's policies, even if he isn't what most gun owners are like. A couple of modest policy changes won't rein in his fevered imagination, but perhaps as part of this debate we can ask why he's the one who gets to define our culture and our laws.
So no, something like a ban on high-capacity magazines won't make us all safe. But it's a start, and if nothing else we can begin to pull back from the place we've come to, where it's easier to get yourself a dozen military-style assault rifles than to get a license to drive a car. We don't have to accept that there are just too many guns, and the way things are is the way things will always be. The gun advocates certainly didn't; they remade the laws to be the way they wanted them to be. Those who want a saner culture and a saner set of laws can work to bring the country to that place. It won't be easy, but maybe the awful event in Newtown will be the spur to start us down that road.