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The Unbearable Elasticity of Gun Logic | The Nation

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The Unbearable Elasticity of Gun Logic

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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell thinks it’s “time to have a discussion” about arming school officials. Ohio’s John Kasich says he intends to sign a new concealed-carry law that allows guns into the Statehouse parking garage. Texas’s Rick Perry suggests that local school districts could permit teachers to tote their guns to class. For these Republican governors, as for the gun lobby that’s got their backs, the Newtown massacre is another reason not to limit guns.

About the Author

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology, is chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia. His...

Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, posted just after the shooting: “How many more children have to die before this country realizes that No Gun Zones create perfect locations for violence? You can not stop criminals and mad men with laws, you can only stop violence with the fear of armed victims.” The editor of the group’s website, Dave Workman, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, noted that Connecticut is “a very restrictive state, and this presumably occurred in a gun-free school zone.… It creates a situation where the criminals have guns, and everyone else is defenseless.” These are not marginal views confined to the right-wing websites.

The structure of this line of argument has certain standard features. First, the more-guns-the-better lobby insists that good-guy gunners will always, everywhere, shoot down bad-guy gunners. Gottlieb is apparently certain that Adam Lanza, fresh from murdering his mother and evidently, deeply, unfathomably insane, would have been deterred if, on arriving at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he’d been confronted by “armed victims.” He brought a whole arsenal with him—should a tank be posted at every school door?

The second, related line of argument is that the proposed cure is worse than the disease; that what has disarmed the good guys is tight regulation by bureaucrats. Workman neatly sidesteps the fact that the “very restrictive state” of Connecticut does not ban large-magazine, semiautomatic handguns or the semiautomatic rifle used by Lanza to slaughter twenty children and six adults.

Ideologies are marvelous things; the more paranoid, the more marvelous. Poke them, and they spring right back into shape. Infinitely elastic, they stretch to encompass vast numbers of awkward events. To the 100 percent mind, all square pegs can be squeezed into round holes. Paranoia always knows best. Certainty trumps complication. Has the easing of gun restrictions in recent years stopped mass killings? Hardly. Is America, rich in guns, low in gun violence? To the contrary. But the 100 percent mind always has the same metaphor at hand: the slippery slope. If you despise Norwegian social democracy, then Anders Behring Breivik is your negative poster child for the futility, or worse, of all gun laws except those that mandate guns.

No advocate of gun restrictions should think that the Newtown atrocity will, by itself, tilt the political landscape. Events alone do not destroy the bad theories of absolutists. When December 21 has come and gone, and the world yet goes on spinning, true believers of the Mayan apocalypse theory will surely go back to the drawing boards, reinterpret the signs and emerge refreshed to reimagine the end of the world. Splendidly, former NRA absolutists like Joe Scarborough have reconsidered their dogma, but do not expect the atrocity in Newtown to shake the faith of the truest believers, for their faith is not a hypothesis—it is a pillar of their identity.

The truest believers will not swerve. Such, after all, is the prediction of one of the classic works of social psychology, When Prophecy Fails, published in 1956 by Leon W. Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. A UFO cult in the Midwest expected that on a given date only they, the true believers, would be lifted away from a great flood and carried to safety. When the date arrived but neither the flood nor the spaceship did, the more fervent cultists emerged more energetic than ever, and more doctrinaire. They ingeniously figured out where they had gone wrong—they had missed certain signals from beyond—and plunged onward. Those who had invested more in their beliefs stuck fast to their gospel.

So Mike Huckabee is insulated from evidence when he says on Fox News: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” He is fortified against the objection that if God is so frail as to be capable of banishment from schools, he could not be much of a Deity at all.

The gun control lobby does not lack for strong arguments. It has not lacked them for decades. What it lacks is political power. Never mind that most NRA members support some gun restrictions. Gun control advocates are not widely mobilized, and, at least until now, top politicians have not worked to mobilize them. Against those who are adamant that good gunners always, everywhere, conquer bad gunners, and who tend to vote on that single issue, gun controllers fail to command anything like the equivalent moral force.

Perry, Kasich, Huckabee, Gottlieb, Workman and company will not be defeated by rage or logic. Even satire fails. The gun lobby will prevail until moral passion pours forth against the possession of super lethal, easy-massacre weapons. It’s good news that President Obama has declared an end to business as usual, but now, at town meetings, everywhere, politicians have to confront hosts of fervent citizens coming together, revolted by the sheer indecency of easy-kill firearms and committed to staying the course against them. Where is that pro-life movement?

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