By Lindsey Painter  |  16 February 2018  |  

I already wrote one entire essay about guns. But this is not it

In my first attempt—because I am tired of the endless arguing, the endless deadlock—I advocated for understanding and reasonable discussion. Like so many political issues, the gun issue is complex and both sides misunderstand one another (largely on purpose, and because it makes us feel better to see the other side as idiots). And strawman arguments are part of what is making the political chasm in this country so yawningly wide. So in my first try at addressing this issue, I advocated for both sides to throw away the strawmen and seek understanding as a path to actual action, rather than this endless deadlock.

While I still think strawman arguments aren’t useful, and I still think our country could benefit from some real soul-searching and listening from both sides—not just on guns, but on many issues—since hearing the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School my thinking changed. If there’s anyone we should be listening to, it’s the actual victims of these shootings, the number of whom mounts higher every day.


We already agree that some restrictions should be placed on some weapons. That’s why it’s such a big deal that North Korea shouldn’t have nuclear weapons. Or, that I, as a private citizen can’t have a hydrogen bomb. Most people don’t want weapons of mass destruction available to private citizens. I don’t know a lot about weapons, but I assume that it would be difficult or impossible for me to get my hands on a grenade launcher. Even if I just tried to buy a certain kind of fertilizer in large quantities I would have the Department of Homeland Security on my front porch in about a minute.

So even without trying to parse the meaning of the second amendment, most of us already agree that it doesn’t guarantee private citizens the right to absolutely all forms of weaponry.

There are many things that are regulated more strongly than guns. Take cars, for example. Cars kill more people than guns. The critical difference between a car and an AR-15 is that cars are designed for uses other than killing. Cars are made to get from point A to point B. AR-15’s are designed for killing. It is possible to use them for other purposes, but that isn’t what they’re made for. This is a critical difference.

Though cars are dangerous, there isn’t a ban on cars. But in order to use a car legally you must be educated in safe driving, and obtain a license. You must register your car with the state, and you must update that registration at regular intervals. You must obtain insurance to drive a car, so that if your car hurts you or others there can be some kind of compensation. You must wear a seatbelt. In many places you cannot use a car and a cell phone simultaneously. You cannot operate a car when you are under the influence of alcohol. You must be a certain age to operate a car. When you are using a car with a small child there are extra seating requirements. The car has to pass smog tests and safety inspections into order to be operated legally on the roads.

“Oh, no! This is unacceptable! The government is taking away my freedom to drive a car however I want! I should be able to operate my car without any kind of training, without registering it, without making sure it’s safe!” You’ll never hear me say that. I do sometimes complain about the high cost of continuing to register my car. (C’mon DMV does it really take hundreds of dollars a year to issue me a new sticker? Ease up a bit on these fees!) But I know that ultimately vehicle and traffic laws make me, my family, and others on the road safer. Laws force car manufacturers to meet safety standards they wouldn’t otherwise bother with. They ensure that people who have proven that they are not competent to operate a car (someone with multiple DUIs, for example) aren’t allowed to operate one.

What would be so terrible about having similar regulations for guns? Guns are very powerful weapons, especially ones like the AR-15. The regulations I hear people proposing aren’t unlike the regulations on cars.

Guns Don’t Kill People

I often hear the “guns are just tools” argument. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”  is often repeated after these tragedies. But nothing is really just a tool. Just like a camera by its mere presence changes the behavior of its subjects (check out the Hawthorne Effect) so any tool we own affects our behavior. Tools are not neutral objects. And guns are anything but neutral.

For example, a study done by Harvard University shows that the number of successful suicides goes up dramatically with possession of a gun. People who are experiencing suicidal depression who have access to a gun are statistically more likely to pick it up and kill themselves with it. Do people commit suicides without guns? Of course they do! But they are less likely to try it, and they are less likely to succeed at it if they do try.

By their presence, guns influence behavior. Sociologically speaking all our tools influence our behavior to some degree. Guns are not special in this regard. But the argument that guns are merely neutral tools wielded by a person good or bad is easily demonstrated to be wrong.

Maybe people will always kill people, and guns won’t stop them. But not having access to guns could slow them down. Like, a lot. We cannot continue to pretend that access is not a problem. If a homicidal maniac went after a group of people with even as reduced a weapon as a handgun, the damage would be dramatically reduced. “Criminals will always find ways to obtain illegal weapons!” Perhaps. But maybe a 15 year old who wants to shoot up his classmates wouldn’t be able to. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to make it just a little harder for criminals to obtain them.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has made its supporters paranoid and angry by telling them that the government (or the Democrats) are coming to take away their guns. I have never heard a lawmaker seriously suggest that option. Though there may be some Democrats who wouldn’t be sad to see a total firearms ban, Democrats are not oblivious to reality: that is simply not a plausible course of action. And yet, the NRA continues to tell its supporters that this is the dichotomy: we must have all the weapons we want, or we will have none of them. There can be no compromise. When any lawmaker even begins to consider discussion of what a reasonable regulation would be for a gun such as the AR-15, the NRA starts with its all-or-nothing fear mongering.

Restrictions or Bans?

When the students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their peers, young people who have lived with terror and violence at their schools, become our lawmakers, what do you think they will decide to do? When they are in charge of making the laws, they may not buy the NRA’s lie that we either have all the weapons we want, or lose all of them. Because the NRA refuses to fight on any other grounds than that one, these lawmakers, sick and tired of the status quo of shooting after shooting after shooting, will stop talking reasonably. They will stop moving incrementally. They will stop proposing restrictions, and background checks, and age limits, and licensed gun sellers.  Will they choose all the weapons—or none of them?

This is not a threat, but a prediction. These young people are angry. They will come into power. Do you want to continue to refuse even the most basic and reasonable gun restrictions? These young people are not having it. Which is why I end with this with a quote from Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:

“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice (and our parents too) call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days, saying that all we are self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS. If you agree, register to vote. Contact your local congresspeople. Give them a piece of your mind.”

Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. 

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