What do we mean by ‘gun control’?


Did that get your attention?  I bet it did.  I bet you’re either thinking of all the innocent lives these killing machines have taken and the existential threat that those lobbyists-disguised-as-patriots of the NRA pose to our democracy, or you’re thinking about the good ol’ Second Amendment and how the liberal fear-mongering elitists want to take away your guns faster than you can say “Australia.”

And now you’re thinking about something else, too.  You’re wondering whether this is going to be a blog post that you can agree with or not.  Where do I stand?  Which side am I on?  When you post this to your Twitter or Facebook feed (or both — thanks in advance, by the way), which Emoji will accompany it — clapping hands or pile of poop?  Well, I’m hoping it will be neither.  In fact, I’m hoping this post will inspire thoughts so complex, so unique to you as an individual, that your views on the topic will not be capable of expression through a single stock cartoon image.  Wouldn’t that be something?

When it comes to the gun control debate in America, we’ve skipped a step.  It may be the most critical step to having any sort of reasoned debate whatsoever, and by skipping it we’ve hindered our ability to engage in productive discourse.  So at this point we need to step back and answer an important question: what do we mean by gun control?

You may have rolled your eyes at that.  “Hey genius,” you might be thinking, “of course I know what gun control means.  It means…”

That’s as far as I can get.  Because I’m not sure that you and I — or you or I and anybody in particular — are on the same page about what we’re talking about when we talk about gun control.  And my belief is that this failure to define the parameters of the discussion ends up fueling a passionate yet futile debate.  It’s the reason that the NRA and it’s paid spokespersons (i.e. elected members of Congress) can so easily shout that anyone who uses a phrase like “sensible gun control measures” wants to abolish the Second Amendment and take all the guns away.  I presume that most people who propose gun control don’t want to do either of those things, but in most cases I can’t say so for sure because they haven’t told me what particular measures they’re talking about — if they won’t tell me what they mean, they’re political opponents are more than willing to jump in and insist that we should presume the most extreme proposal possible.

Now if you’re in the pro-gun control crowd you might think I’m being nit-picky.  “Alright bro,” you might be thinking, “you’ve made your point.  But let’s be real about this, there are a few gun control measures that everybody’s been talking about, so you know what I mean when I say I support gun control.”  First of all, I’m not your bro, bro.  Second, I know there are a few gun control measures that are being widely discussed: background checks, raising the age to purchase a rifle to 21, banning bump stocks.  But there are also some commenters who have stated we should seriously consider a repeal of the Second Amendment.  If you don’t get specific about what measures you support, you leave it open to those on the other side of the debate to use their imaginations about what you believe.

But I’m forgetting something, right?  Ah yes, the all-powerful, all-encompassing Assault Weapons Ban.  That’s the ticket, isn’t it?  What sensible, law abiding citizen needs a military-style rifle of such sheer killing capability?  Surely we can all agree on that.  Well once again, we’ve got a problem here.  I’m no gun expert (no, no, it’s true), but one comment I hear over and over again from people with actual gun expertise is that there is no such thing as an “assault rifle.”  It’s just a vague term that pundits and politicians like to use, but it doesn’t have a specific meaning.  Of course, we once had a federal assault weapons ban, but it had more loopholes than a block of swiss cheese stuffed with Fruit Loops (or whatever, you know what I’m saying).  So if you just tell me we need to ban assault weapons, I’m going to need you to tell me what you mean by “assault weapon.”  I would assume you mean the AR-15 and other rifles like it, but beyond that you’ve got to get more specific.

As with most political discourse, we can make the terrible mistake of using our President’s statements as an example.  So far our Fearless Leader has discussed, among other things, arming teachers, re-instituting state-run mental asylums, raising the minimum age for gun purchases, universal background checks, and a ban on bump stocks.  He also floated an extreme-even-by-ultra-pro-gun-control-standards proposal of preemptively taking guns away from some individuals without due process; by my count that would infringe on at least three Constitutional Amendments (for those keeping score, those would be the Second, Fifth, and Fourteenth).  That was, of course, all before he took a private meeting with NRA representatives.

I bring up the President’s comments not to make this yet another discussion that’s all about Trump.  As much as he would love that, I suspect he will ultimately defer to Congress on this issue.  The point is that among Trump’s proposals, which are all over the place, there are some ideas I agree with and some I disagree with — some that I think would be Second Amendment violations, some that wouldn’t.  So if Trump just says “gun control” I’m not sure what he means and I can’t say whether I agree with him.  And the same is true of anybody else.  I might already agree with you, but I won’t know unless you tell me what you mean.

What do you mean by ‘gun control’?  If you haven’t answered that question, you can’t blame anyone for refusing to agree with you.

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