In the effort to reduce gun violence, or gun massacres, should we go big or go small? Should we concentrate on steps that have a consensus behind them, at the risk of not making much difference? Or should we seek to transform American law and culture, even if success looks pitifully unlikely?
The movement to regulate gun ownership has pursued both strategies at once, fighting for incremental progress toward the goal of much tighter restrictions. But the tensions between these strategies are inescapable.
The people who advocate a ban on handguns are a useful foil for the people who don't want any restrictions at all. Yet centering the debate on small changes can demoralize advocates who want to end a bloody status quo.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has been arguing that we should be ambitious, and set our sights on the Second Amendment. Working within the constraints of the amendment leads to policies such as banning assault weapons and instituting background checks for private gun sales. These regulations will, he thinks, have "negligible" effects on homicide rates. He urges us to "do something more than tinker at the margins of a legal regime that most of the developed world rightly considers nuts."
Only after repealing the Second Amendment, Stephens says, will we be able to have rational gun laws. What those laws would be, he is consistently evasive in describing.
He acknowledges that a repeal campaign looks quixotic today, but cites the struggle for same-sex marriage as an example of an unlikely triumph. It is a terrible analogy, for two main reasons. First, same-sex marriage never went through a five-decade period of sharply declining popularity. A ban on the civilian ownership of handguns has.
Second, same-sex marriage was able to prevail even though a large minority of Americans opposed it. Even now about a third of the country opposes it. What Stephens is proposing is a constitutional amendment, and the normal amendment process requires the support of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress and three-quarters of the states.
The first step of the Stephens plan is, in other words, to get nearly everyone in the country to agree that the Constitution should not protect gun rights. He offers no explanation of how this would be accomplished. His columns amount to wishing away the disagreement he seeks to overcome. And he has the gall to say that conservatives who reject his idea are the ones who don't "offer anything except false bromides and empty prayers."
I'm tempted to respond that offering thoughtless clickbait is no great service. But the impulse to go big is understandable, especially when you consider the tinkering alternatives that are usually suggested. A ban on assault weapons looks like the worst of both worlds. It would be very hard to achieve a Democratic Senate mustered only 40 votes for it after the Sandy Hook massacre and have almost no effect even if it succeeded. Stephens is right about that.
That doesn't mean we should just accept current levels of gun violence and mass murder. The fact that gun violence has been declining for decades should counsel against fatalism. John Cornyn of Texas, the number-two Republican in the Senate, and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, the chamber's leading proponent of gun regulation, have a bill to address deficiencies in the background-check system.
Several states have considered gun violence restraining orders that would enable the disarming of people who give evidence of posing a danger to others. Governments could also create duties to report such dangers, and impose liability on people who give others they know pose a danger access to guns (or bombs).
These ideas are consistent with the Second Amendment. They can earn support from people who favor gun rights. And they might save some lives. None of them, it is true, would "solve" the problem of gun violence or eliminate the incidence of massacres.
They acknowledge the reality that our country has hundreds of millions of guns and deep divisions over them. They are small, practical steps, useless for providing inspiration or generating invective. But we should not miss the opportunity for modest improvements because we prefer the comforts of fantasy.