I don’t have a car, and that sometimes makes me feel as if I’m not a real American. I don’t have a gun, and that often makes me feel as if I’m looking across a great divide in American society.
This week’s most prominent example of gun violence (there’s always a fierce competition for that title) was the on-air killing of two television journalists in Virginia by a former colleague who later shot himself after being pursued by police. After it happened, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were once again overwhelmed by people expressing frustration that the U.S. doesn’t do anything serious to limit access to guns, followed by other people defending Second Amendment rights and arguing that prohibition won’t stop criminals and madmen from getting guns if they want them badly enough.
The second group is definitely winning in the political arena. According to the Pew Research Center, a small majority of Americans now say that “protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership,” and a growing number believe that having a gun in the house makes a family safer. (See “Gun Ownership Is Becoming the Default Position for Americans.”) The clout of the National Rifle Association, one of the biggest issue-oriented contributors to political campaigns, ensures that Congress and most of the state legislatures will do little to fight the proliferation of guns in America.
Gun control is one of the rare issues that make many “elite” voters—well-educated, financially secure inhabitants of the Northeast Corridor and the West Coast—feel utterly impotent. Carrying a gun for protection seems insane to many people in this group. Who would want to ride a subway train filled with passengers packing heat? (Outside of New York and a handful of other cities, of course, people don’t ride subways at all and are more fearful of carjackings than of arguments on public transit that could escalate into violence.)
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik writes that he has recently learned to drive and is enjoying “the sense of autonomy” behind the wheel. This has made him realize that many Americans value guns as “another powerful symbol of autonomy and independence.” But, he writes, “Guns, however, have an almost entirely symbolic function. No lives are saved, and no intruders are repelled; the dense and hysterical mythology of gun love has been refuted again and again…. The few useful social functions that guns do have—in hunting or in killing varmints, as a rural man such as my father has to do—can be preserved even with tight regulations, as in Canada.”
Gopnik’s piece isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. It’s telling that he feels compelled to deal in absolutes (surely, few intruders are repelled by guns, as opposed to none), as if there’s no point in subtlety in dealing with a subject so deeply divisive.
I can understand that. I’m one of those people who would never consider owning a gun—a group still considerably larger than those who would never own a car. Washington’s refusal to do anything meaningful about gun violence makes me despair and makes me complain about our dysfunctional political system. Gun massacres, like the one earlier this year in Charleston, South Carolina, stir up emotion and a desire for a leader to come along and do something.
Like build a wall? Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has dominated the news this summer by tapping into frustrations of Americans who feel like they are under attack, but by nameless economic forces rather than lone gunmen. Building a giant wall along the Mexican border is, any respectable economist would say, rather beside the point. Scapegoating immigrants is more of a cynical deflection than a serious attempt to address income inequality and the shrinking of the American middle class. But when I hear about another mass shooting, I can certainly understand the desire to do something. Do something quick, and do something simple.
This summer has also seen a debate over Planned Parenthood, and its role in facilitating both abortions and the sale of fetal tissue resulting from abortions. Many abortion opponents have likened Planned Parenthood to the National Rifle Association—it “is the N.R.A. of the progressive movement,” writes John Carr here at America, “demanding support or silence no matter what it says or does.” They despair that revelations about the group have not changed the minds of those on the other side of another deep schism in American politics.
Gun control, immigration, abortion… you can add gay rights, the death penalty, and maybe marijuana legalization in the near future to the list of “hot button” issues that inevitably leave deep ruts in a nation that’s growing bigger and more diverse. The number of Americans who feel “political alienation,” as David Brooks has called it, is only going to grow. It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump is going to go farther than other candidates who have tried to exploit this frustration, or whether we’ll get more candidates like him. But gun control is not like the other polarizing topics. Unlike the others on the list, it makes a lot of people in the ruling class go crazy with frustration. (What other issue has someone as buttoned-up as Michael Bloomberg as chief rabble-rouser?) And maybe it causes voters who usually find government responsive to their demands to understand the constant frustrations of just about everyone else.