It seems to be necessary to begin every discussion in America today with a reminder to show a little charity. If you oppose gun control, don’t assume that those proposing restrictions on gun purchases are merely using the latest atrocity as an excuse for confiscation. Likewise, gun opponents should rid themselves of the notion that, but for the evil machinations of the NRA, commonsense gun control would have been enacted long since and would have prevented the loss of many lives. Show some good faith. Both gun controllers and gun advocates grieve at mass murders and wish there were a simple solution.
Though I am a lifelong conservative, I have always been open to the idea of (constitutional) gun control. But some of the proposals that surface after each mass shooting seem not so much unconstitutional as ineffectual. Consider universal background checks.
Background checks are already required for purchases from licensed gun dealers, and those represent four out of five sales. The Annals of Internal Medicine reported in 2017 that only 22 percent of gun owners who had purchased a weapon in the previous two years had done so without a background check. Nor does it seem that background checks would have made a big dent in mass shootings. Mother Jones calculates that of 114 mass shooters since 1982, 74 percent obtained their weapons legally. In another eight cases, shooters took guns belonging to family members. In four cases, the guns were purchased illegally. In three cases, the weapons were stolen. At least one killer used guns purchased by a straw buyer, another built his own gun, and yet another should have turned in his gun when he lost his state firearms license but failed to do so.
And what does the background check really check? Only those who have been convicted of certain crimes, are fugitives from justice, have a restraining order against them, have been involuntarily committed for mental illness, or meet certain other criteria are prevented from buying guns. The background check cannot detect depravity. It cannot predict who will become violent.
But here’s a problem with the pro-gun case. The frequent objection you hear from opponents of gun control is that efforts to ban certain kinds of guns are merely “cosmetic.” National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke, who knows a lot about guns (and other things), notes that the AR-15 and the AK-47 — frequent targets of gun controllers’ interest — do not differ in “rate of fire” or “muzzle velocity” from the vast majority of guns owned by Americans. Efforts to ban them are therefore purely cosmetic, he argues.
Okay, but isn’t it possible that cosmetics matter? Certainly gun manufacturers act as if they do. They’ve designed guns to look more and more like weapons of war. They are advertised with images of heavily armored soldiers. Some gun ads use language exquisitely attuned to men’s desire for respect and even dominance. “Forces of opposition, bow down,” said one. The AR-15 Bushmaster was marketed with the slogan “Consider your man card reissued.”
These kinds of appeals to the masculine ego are more irresponsible today than in the past because we have more borderline young men. While it’s true that violent crime has been declining for decades, mass shootings have become more common and more deadly. The Internet incubates inhumanity, and the soulless cretins who pull the triggers are overwhelmingly young men from unstable families who are disconnected from the institutions that mold character and provide meaning. It is these casualties of family and community dissolution who are making shopping malls, movie theaters, churches, synagogues, and high schools into free-fire zones.
Our culture has a masculinity problem — but not in the sense the feminists mean. We suffer not from too much masculinity, but from too little. Or too little of the wholesome kind. More and more children are growing up without fathers, and we know that fatherlessness is more damaging to growing boys than to developing girls. Feminists who want society to build better men should be staunch advocates for marriage and involved fatherhood. The very best way to tame male aggression is to surround the growing boy first with two parents, and second with a community that offers positive outlets for his energy and drive — churches, sports, music, clubs — any activity in which young males learn from adults how to behave, how to excel, and to thrive. Even if the boy goes to a shooting range with his dad, he is likely to grow into a responsible adult. It’s the relationships that are critical.
Pending renewal of our family life, it might not be crazy to place limits on some guns for cosmetic reasons.
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.