If a National Tragedy Shouldn't Inform Our Politics, What Should?

Frankly, I don't care whether Virginia's lax gun laws were entirely, partly, somewhat or not at all responsible for the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech. I wanted much stricter gun control before that catastrophe happened, I wanted much stricter gun control during the whole media circus that went to Blacksburg after it happened, and I want much stricter gun control now that we are all on our customary way to forgetting, till the next time, that it happened.

Granted, as a person who just about throws up whenever somebody pulls out a pistol on Law and Order, I am not exactly Nixon-to-China on this issue. I don't like guns on TV or as toys for little boys or girls, let alone anywhere in my house, where I would not be able to use a gun with any judgment because I'd never get a wink of sleep for the fact of having it around. I don't even like guns for hunting -- which I square with my rapturous love of meat simply by pretending that my meat was born on my plate, complete with its sauce Béarnaise. So trust me, if the National Rifle Association is looking for a gun-control weenie to shoot down, pardon the pun, on the grounds of just not getting the whole personal-armament thing, I'm their girl.

I do get their argument, though; at least the logical parts of it. So I'm happy to concede: As a number of distinctly non-N.R.A. commentators have pointed out, Seung-Hui Cho may well have been able to do even greater harm even more quickly had he, say, built a bomb. That goes for all kinds of crazy people hell-bent on doing all kinds of crazy things, from the 9/11 attacks to the Oklahoma City bombing to, for that matter, the teenager here in Ireland who just got manslaughter for hammering his sister to death. It is true that it takes all kinds of other factors, such as serious mental illness, to transform a gun from a neutral piece of metal to a lethal weapon. It is true -- or at least it seems true to my admittedly non-expert eye -- that worldwide, there is no infallible corollary between high rates of gun regulation and low rates of gun murder; many independent sources note that in Britain, for instance, the 1997 imposition of a total handgun ban has done nothing to curb that country's long-term acceleration in the rate of gun-related crimes. It is true that, without benefit of anything like the gun control measures that I'd like to see, violent crime in America began a marked and sustained decline in the mid-1990's. Finally, if tomorrow all guns were banned from the United States of America, it is true that all guns would probably be available on the black market throughout the United States of America -- where, in fact, the vast majority of firearms used in crimes are already acquired.

So game, set and match to the N.R.A., yes? No -- although I must say, the gun lobby does deserve major points for turning this debate upside down. Politically, they have taken a landscape bloodied by the deaths of some 30,000 Americans a year, and made that landscape unsafe for their opponents, to the point where Republicans have to play up their affection for all things trigger-pulling, Democrats have to play down their aversion to it, and everyone is terrified of connecting the dots between a Virginia Tech and a freely armed America for fear of being accused of "playing politics" with a national tragedy. (Which reminds me: if national tragedy shouldn't inform our politics, what should? But I digress.) And rhetorically, they've set gun-control advocates a completely impossible standard. Hear enough arguments like those I've just cited, and you start to go along with the idea that unless and until gun control has proven itself a panacea, it should be discounted as a possibility. That's ridiculous.

Then again, gun control advocates have to do a much better job of treating this issue as an issue, not as an episode; or rather, series of episodes in the sickening, sporadic reality show that has been playing out in schools across the country. When people like me give in to our urge to believe -- and basically state, a la Rosie O'Donnell post-Columbine -- that if only we had serious gun control in America, the flowers would bloom and the birds would sing and all the students we have buried would have "lived to comb gray hair," then all it takes is one compromising but clearly true statistic to destroy our argument.

That's a shame, because we have an awfully good argument -- not only intellectually, but, in the long run, politically. Remember, if and when the average, chronically uninterested, middle-of-the-road American masses wake up and take notice of any debate, it is they, and not any lobby, that win the debate. Thus, the key is not to get our special interest to out-maneuver their special interest. It's to engage the people who currently have no interest.

So now that Virginia Tech has faded from our screens, let us take a deep breath, and an honest, long-lensed look at gun control. As with every other sane approach to making real-world, long-term policy, the gun debate should not be a discussion about achieving nirvana. It should be about attempting improvement. Thus, the gun-control advocate's task is not to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that strong legislation, seriously enforced, is the answer. It is to establish with a reasonable degree of confidence that strong legislation, seriously enforced, could be part of the answer.

Let's pull a number out of the air. In 2004, there were 29,569 gun-related deaths in the United States. For practical purposes, there are only two questions that flow from this figure: One, is that number acceptable or unacceptable to most Americans? And two, if it is unacceptable, would stricter gun control most likely cause that number to go up, to go down, or to stay the same?

If 29,569 were deemed to be an unacceptably high number, and we were taking a rational approach to reducing it, there would be absolutely no payoff to sticking with the status quo. All the momentum would be with change. Thus, the burden would not be on the anti-gun people who are attacking the way things are. The burden would be on the pro-gun people defending it.

In other words, the burden would not be on the gun control lobby to prove that there absolutely, positively would be fewer violent deaths if it were harder to get guns. The burden would be on the gun lobby to prove that there absolutely, positively would not be fewer gun deaths if it were harder to get guns. That is, no bar brawls or domestic-violence disputes that end in death because there is a gun, rather than a knife or a fist, around. No guns that go off by accident in a way that hammers and baseball bats just don't. No groups of schoolchildren held hostage in a building surrounded by police who are hesitant to storm the place for fear that the captor will then shoot everyone up in seconds. No police officers who lose their lives because they are confronting someone who is at least as well-armed as they are. No suicide attempts that wouldn't succeed because of the time lag between taking a pill or slitting a wrist and dying, versus that between pulling a trigger and dying.

The burden wouldn't be on the anti-gun people to prove that the world would be safer if fewer people were armed. The burden would be on the pro-gun people to clarify their oft-stated belief that the world would be safer if more people were armed, the better to disarm the bad guys when necessary. So, to put it in terms of Virginia Tech, the gun lobby should be obliged to spell out to average, apolitical American parents which is supposed to be more comforting: sending one's college freshman off with a laptop and a handgun, or sending one's college freshman off to live with a total stranger of a roommate who has a laptop and a handgun?

The burden wouldn't be on the anti-gun lobby to prove that gun control would succeed. The burden would be on the pro-gun lobby to prove that it would fail -- and more than that, fail so miserably that it's not worth trying. It's perfectly fair to wonder how gun-control laws would be enforced. But on what grounds should one assume, out of the gate, that they couldn't possibly be enforced at all? (And don't give me the illegal-but-rampant-drugs parallel, unless you consider a terrible enforcement track-record to be grounds for overturning the ban outright, and are therefore in favor of legalizing all illicit substances now.)

The burden would not be on the anti-gun people to prove that guns, in and of themselves, are the only factor involved in violent deaths. The burden would be on the pro-gun lobby to prove that guns are not, in and of themselves, a factor. After all, no gun-control advocate should argue that mental illness, social alienation, family breakdown, gang culture and so on shouldn't be viewed as part of America's violence problem. Why should the gun lobby get away with arguing that guns are absolutely not a part of the problem?

Ah, but what about those European statistics: the fact that that 1997 British handgun ban, adopted in the tearful wake of the massacre of the pre-schoolers at Dunblane, succeeded in confiscating thousands of weapons from lawful gun owners without even slowing the flow to crooks? No question, such facts are uncomfortable for the anti-gun side. But why should it obscure all the other facts which are uncomfortable for the pro-gun side? Even before that ban was introduced, Britain had a much higher degree of gun control -- and a much lower rate of gun deaths -- than the U.S. It still does. If that's got nothing to do with gun control, what, pray tell, can it be? General intrinsic moral superiority? A more edifying media? A more stable demographic or economic outlook? A comparative lack of screwed-up families or stressed-out kids? As a resident of Europe, I can tell you: nope, nope, nope, nope and nope. And anyway, since when is "Europeans are just somehow better than we are" a winning political argument in America?

I know, I know: for many gun lobbyists, this whole issue is not about the literal need to curb deaths. It's about the philosophical right to bear arms. Lord knows we could spend our lives in the quicksand of fighting over the meaning of the Second Amendment: does it apply only to the "well-regulated militia" or to the barely-regulated individual, blah blah blah?

We're never going to get anywhere on that one. So why not chip away at the corollary thinking? According to this thinking, which was very authoritatively voiced on talk radio in the wake of Virginia Tech, a big reason that Americans need the right to bear arms is so that we can defend ourselves, should the need arise, from the American government, just as our colonial forbears did against their British overlords.

Huh? I truly hate to be dismissive of those with whom I disagree, but this just strikes me as straitjacket wackola. But maybe I'm the crazy one. I shall keep an open mind. Could someone please explain how, in the event that the U.S. government turns on us, we will be able to fight back with our handguns - or even arsenal of handguns, and rifles, and machine guns, and whatever else we may have stockpiled in the garage? I mean, don't they have tanks and rockets and stuff? Or does the Constitution enshrine a right to bear nuclear arms? In which case, can I get those online?