Brian G. Mattson is CCL’s Senior Scholar of Public Theology. You might not know he is also a Second Amendment champion and firearms aficionado. In light of the Texas tragedy last week, I posed to him three questions about guns and gun control. You can subscribe to Dr. Mattson’s e-newsletter The Square Inch here.
1. The nearly instantaneous response of Leftists to murderous handgun shootings like the recent one in Texas is to call for additional federal gun control laws. Why is this both a bad idea, as well as an unrealistic idea?
Andrew, I mean this when I say I am hesitant to even publicly comment on these matters so quickly in the wake of such a horrific massacre. The impulse to “score one for your political team” is grotesque and you are right to point out that this tends to be the instantaneous response of Leftists. If we are being fair, in the wake of these tragedies gun advocates also try to minimize, rushing to pick apart the story to hopefully find some fact that will help ameliorate their own political cause.
This is all exhausting and disheartening, it is happening all too often, and these matters should not be litigated at the height of national passions. It is time to “mourn with those who mourn,” as the Bible instructs us. But we are a passionate and reckless and shameless people. Alas. That said, I realize that people want to hear some perspective, and if I have any to give, I probably should.
As to your question: first off, we do not know that this was a handgun shooting. Early reports are that there was at least one AR-15 rifle present (which is a semi-automatic rifle—one bullet per trigger pull—that generally fires common military rounds [e.g., 5.56 NATO], and it is the most prevalent and popular rifle in the country). My presumption would be that the perpetrator used both a rifle and a handgun. Both are deadly weapons in close quarters, and it isn’t obvious that in such quarters one is more deadly than another (the Virginia Tech shooter used two handguns to murder 32 people and wound 17). Ironically, in this case the handgun was probably the illegal weapon because he was under 21—such is the state of our patchwork gun laws (some Federal, some state). That is just to say, if the Left had their wish and successfully banned all AR-15s and confiscated all those in circulation, that still doesn’t preclude these kinds of crimes.
While rifles are scary to many people, we should be aware that the vast amount of gun violence in this country, including in mass shootings, involves handguns. Rifles are difficult to conceal, and only useful to the murderer if he plans to simply storm, say, a church (Sutherland Springs) grocery store (Buffalo), or school (Uvalde). Usually a shooter wants to maintain an element of surprise, and that is difficult to do when he walks up to a building with a rifle slung over his shoulder. It is possible there has been in recent years a slight uptick in use of rifles in these kinds of shootings, but to my understanding there is not really enough data yet to say one way or the other. None of that mitigates the tragedy, by any means, but it is relevant to possible legal solutions.
I will add this: in my (unpopular, in the gun world) opinion too much of the gun debate surrounds the use of the term “assault weapons,” with the Left using to the term to describe AR-15s and the Right denying that they are “assault weapons.” I find this useless semantics. Yes, an AR-15 is not “fully automatic,” but it is an “assault rifle,” if by that you mean it is designed to violently punch holes with high-velocity projectiles at long distances. It gains gun advocates nothing to deny this, as they often do when they misdirect to talk about “hunting” or “sport shooting,” or the relatively light caliber of AR-15 rounds (which is true).
The question, rather, is twofold: (1) whether there can ever be a moral and lawful reason for a citizen to violently punch holes with high-velocity projectiles at long distances (Answer: yes—engaging the Uvalde shooter in the midst of his killing spree, for example); and (2) whether America’s laws, particularly the 2nd Amendment, allow the “keeping” and “bearing” of such weapons. And under the Supreme Court’s current analysis of the 2nd Amendment (Heller), the answer to that question is probably yes (Heller only addressed handguns, but its analysis is highly likely to include rifles). AR-15s are ordinary (not strange or unusual) weapons in common use. Whether you agree with that or think it is a good thing or not is another matter, but that’s the state of the law. And that means a ban will probably take a Constitutional Amendment. This is a most unlikely scenario, which is why the singular, monotonous calls from the Left to “ban” these weapons is frustrating. Proposing something doable is a better use of energy—more on that later.
I promise I’m going to get to your question about more Federal gun laws, but the truth is there is so much to unpack that it isn’t all that helpful to prematurely leap to that question.
Two observers of the same incident can draw wildly different conclusions. This is because interpretation of facts is done by persons, and persons have different ways of thinking, different moral priorities, different backgrounds, different worldviews.
One (very typical) person observes the atrocity in Uvalde, Texas, and concludes: “This is a tragedy. We must ban all firearms!”
Another person (say, me) observes the same event and concludes: “This is a tragedy. People and institutions must not wholly outsource their security and protection to law enforcement!”
Same event, very different conclusions. One person sees the most important presenting issue as the weapons. But for the weapons, they think, this wouldn’t have happened. That may well be true, but the sentiment involves an entire worldview about the realities of gun proliferation, the plausibility of eradicating the existence of guns (that is what is embedded in that “but for”), and so forth.
When I see and understand what transpired, I see that the murderer stood outside the school firing his weapon for twelve minutes, and no law enforcement showed up. He then walked straight into the building, unobstructed and unmolested, and began carrying out his unspeakable deeds. And then the police arrived, set up a perimeter, gathered around the door of the classroom and … did nothing for an interminably long time.
This is as ironclad a reality as you get: unless they just happen to be there, police are almost always a secondary or last line of defense, not a first. They are, by their very nature, reinforcements. You have to call them. They arrive on the scene. An already existing scene. If you are ever in a crisis situation like a home invasion or a mass shooting, there is always a “first responder,” and that first responder is you. Not the police. They are “second” responders. And, as I see it, people demanding the disarming of the whole population are really demanding that those most likely to find themselves true first responders, the people tasked with protecting the lives of grade schoolers—school staff, security guards, teachers, janitors, individual citizens—be unarmed and helpless in the face of a murderous, determined, 19-year-old psychopath.
One person thinks the presence of guns at a school is obscene and immoral, and that if you disagree you must be indifferent to the murder of children; and I think the exact opposite. Is it any wonder our public discourse is all heat, and no light?
Constrained v. Unconstrained
I believe Thomas Sowell was right when he described the difference between progressivism and conservatism as a worldview clash between two “visions.” The “unconstrained” vision of progressivism believes that there are no limitations to societal progress and perfectibility, no limitations to what we can accomplish. Saying we “can’t” do something is the cardinal sin—saying “can’t” simply reveals a lack of moral imagination and will. As Sowell is fond of saying, the progressive mind does not bother with the question of “what is doable”? It thinks it can, Thanos-like (or Iron Man-like, if you prefer), don a glove with all the Infinity Stones, make a wish, and suddenly poverty vanishes and all wealth is equitably distributed and … guns disappear.
The conservative mind, on the other hand, is constrained by reality—not just creational reality, but fallen-world reality. Wish-casting is not a viable public policy. It would be nice, indeed, if we lived in the eschaton where all of the swords have been beaten into plowshares, but the Christian knows—or ought to know—that we are living in the “not yet.” Evil exists and cannot be wished away. It must be met and restrained—indeed, this is an obligation placed on each of us by the 6th Commandment. You are not simply obliged to “not murder”; you are obliged to care for and protect your own life, the lives of those under your jurisdiction (e.g., your household), and the lives of your neighbor, if threatened. Maybe for you that’s just making sure you have a security system and a dead-bolt on your door; for others, it’s scaling up the defenses with accessible firearms.
I should note here, just for the sake of clarity although you can probably already tell, that I am not a pacifist. Offering yourself up, for example, to a home invader who intends to murder your family as a form of Christian witness (as John Piper once counseled) is, in my estimation, an egregious abdication of responsibility, pious nonsense, and a violation of the 6th Commandment. That is an argument for another day. For now I’ll call in some extra-biblical support and remind all my Christian brothers and sisters who think all violence is unjustified what Meriadoc Brandybuck wisely said to Frodo Baggins:
‘But if there are many of these ruffians,’ said Merry, ‘it will certainly mean fighting. You won’t rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo.’
Shock and sadness is not a plan.
And that brings us, finally, to possible solutions, of which there are distressingly few. As you note, the immediate call is always for more Federal gun laws.
The problem with that, first and foremost, is the law of diminishing returns. People not in or around gun culture do not seem to be aware that firearms are already heavily regulated by the Federal government. I see these Tweets all the time: “I want to live in a country where it is easier to vote than it is to buy a gun!” Such a person has either never voted, or never bought a gun. There is paperwork involved. There is a Federal background check involved. In some states, there are waiting periods (trust me: a mass shooter is perfectly willing to wait). There are restrictions on barrel length: additional scrutiny, time, taxes, and fees, and fingerprinting (!) if you want a rifle with less than a 16-inch barrel. (Which, ironically, makes a rifle less effective at longer ranges, but handguns don’t get additional scrutiny. Go figure). And, yes, all of that is true even if you buy a gun online or at a gun show. And if you don’t want all that hassle, there is always—always, no possible way around it—an underground illegal market from which to obtain weapons, or someone can simply steal weapons. And it’s pretty likely that someone banned from owning a firearm will avail himself of those options.
Moreover, the Federal government already has tried “more Federal gun laws.” It was called the Brady Act of 1993, and it instituted mandatory background checks (which we still have), banned standard-capacity magazines in pistols and rifles (I refuse to call them “high” capacity—they are standard), banned various kinds of “assault rifles,” and a myriad of other purely cosmetic alterations to rifles. And the facts are in: the Brady ban made zero statistical difference in gun violence in America. So undeniably ineffective was it that when the time came to extend the ban Congress simply let it lapse. Now, maybe somebody will say that that is because Brady didn’t go far enough: it should have been an outright ban.
With regard to that, something that far too many people do not honestly grapple with is that there are estimated to be over 400 million firearms privately owned in America. Those estimates are conservative. I happen to believe it quite possibly double that number. We are gun nation, from before the existence of our “nation.” We live in a Constitutional Republic that has enshrined an individual citizen’s right to “keep and bear arms” since before the beginning. It is something that makes us, for better or worse, exceptional among the nations of the world. As a matter of the “constrained” vision, there is no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. Confiscation of 400+ million firearms is simply a non-starter. No, that is not just because I lack “the moral will” or am indifferent to the murder of children, as so many politicians would claim. It is because I live in the real world.There is no proposal from gun control advocates that stands any chance of reversing or altering the reality that guns are a fact of American life and here to stay. None.
So what can we do?
I am all ears when it comes to new ideas on how to stop murderers from shooting up schools. I just never hear any from the Left. They are monotonous and monotone: ban assault rifles. “Expand” background checks—by the way, that just means requiring background checks on private sales. That is enforceable how, exactly? When Marco hands his cousin Vinnie a Glock and accepts $500 in exchange, they are somehow going to take the time to call the FBI and run a background check? And if they don’t, then what? (Hint: they don’t, and there is no “then what.”) When people point out the things I’ve been pointing out, the Left just responds that we must hate children. So we need soberly to understand that in terms of laws, the options are extremely limited and their effects likely to be on the very margins.
But there are things that can be done. I am cautiously open to proposed “red flag” laws that allow law enforcement to engage a situation where somebody is showing signs of instability or mental health problems. In other words, it may be possible to get involved before such a person carries out atrocities like we’ve seen in Uvalde. But I say “cautiously” because it is a system ripe for egregious abuse. If all someone has to do is “drop a dime” and the police go barreling into someone’s house to confiscate his guns and cause untold legal headaches, that’s going to be a very big due process of law problem. I can’t imagine how that would affect the domestic relations courts (imagine bitter divorces, custody battles, etc.) So craft the law carefully and count the costs and tradeoffs.
The more effective thing to do, in my opinion, is to stop focusing laser-like on the firearm supply problem as though it alone will result in on-the-ground change. There is no stopping the supply, and even if we did, there is, as I have noted, a sizable surplus. And that brings me, at long last, to your second question:
2. One of the prominent advertising slogans for public schools these days is they are “gun-free zones,” yet this pronouncement and policy doesn’t seem to have deescalated the gun violence. Is the problem precisely that they are “gun-free zones”?
It is beyond past time to stop presenting murderous maniacs with soft targets. They do not go to a bank or Federal building for their shooting sprees. They go to places that advertise, “This is a gun-free zone.” It is advertising that they will not meet with armed resistance. And worse, we place these signs outside of buildings filled with helpless, innocent children. That sign is the absolute worst example of virtue signaling imaginable. It is un-virtue signaling. It has to stop. Much better is my proposed sign: “Security in This Building is Staffed by Retired U.S. Army Special Forces Operators Ready and Willing to End Your Life.” I am dead serious.
No, a single “school resource” officer is not enough. A 9mm Glock is not enough. If a shooter is coming in with a rifle, he’d better meet one—or better, several—in return. It’s common these days to hear complaints that that would make our schools look like war zones and might be scary for the kids. Nonsense. A retired military guy whose sole job is to walk the halls, high-five the kids (heck, even pass out candy), meanwhile alertly scanning the environment and carrying his concealed pistol and having his short-barreled AR-15 stashed in his innocuous looking backpack (trust me, these things exist) is not going to scare anybody, and it certainly isn’t going to look like a war zone. Now it’s my turn. Do not tell me “it can’t be done.”
Next, the entire Federal protocol for active shooter incidents needs to be scrapped or revised. The current protocol mandates that teachers barricade themselves and their students into classrooms. This is the worst possible plan. There are a lot of experts with a lot to say about this, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, telling teachers and kids to huddle up and hide is setting them up for failure. Moreover, it should be against Federal regulations to have a school classroom anywhere in this country that does not have egress windows and, if on upper floors, fire escape routes down to the ground. If you can do it in an old high-rise apartment in the Bronx, you can do it anywhere. Students must be able to evacuate the building, not holing up as a shooting gallery. Active shooters are generally inside, and we need the potential victims outside. Period. Do not tell me “it can’t be done.”
3. Brian, you and I and CCL are committed to cultural solutions more than political solutions. If there is to be a cultural solution to this murderous gun violence, what would that solution be?
And then, after that, fathers.
Even better, and I know I am stretching here, fathers and mothers together. Intact, healthy families. Show me the mass shooter, and I will show you someone with a dysfunctional or entirely broken family life.
The breakdown of the American family, the alienation and isolation experienced by so many, is made worse by a larger cultural breakdown of civil society. The impotence of the church, the lack of basic community, the erosion of values—moral chaos erupts when the structures no longer hold. The family by its very nature is the basic structure—the place for moral formation—and as that has fractured there are fewer and fewer cultural backstops. I cannot write here a further dissertation on the state of the American family, but if you’re looking for explanations and reasons for murderous gun violence, that is a place to start looking.