Commentary Magazine

On Guns, the American System Is Working Just Fine

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

In April of 1999, when two Colorado teenagers tried to kill as many of their classmates as they could, I was a junior in high school. The following school year, my senior year, the new post-Columbine reality became apparent.

My school system’s response to these events, however justified, felt excessive. Lockdowns, “code blue” drills simulating an intruder on the premises, locker searches, and mandatory, random drug testing—these efforts, many of us believed, were violations of our rights not as students but Americans. When we held school-wide walkouts, it wasn’t to protest the accessibility of firearms but the disregard for our individual freedoms, which we more or less defined as conveniences to which we had become accustomed.

Today, I am told, times have changed. The next generation is more aware of the threat posed by firearms because there have been so many more Columbine-style massacres in the intervening years. But this new generation is not unrecognizable to me. I see myself in people like Marjory Stoneman Douglas student and gun-control activist David Hogg. Not so much his activism in defense of stricter gun laws or his penchant for smearing his political adversaries, but his aversion to even modest infringements on his sense of liberty. When the superintendent of the Broward County public-schools system informed students they would henceforth have to wear clear plastic backpacks to prevent contraband from being smuggled into schools, for example, he objected. “It’s unnecessary,” Hogg said. “[T]hey’re having essentially their First Amendment rights infringed upon.”

This dynamic—the balance of liberty, security, and convenience for all parties—is one that Hogg and the adults who find him useful have undersold. As a result, they are blinded to the successes their movement has achieved.

Galvanized by students like Hogg, hundreds of thousands of Americans registered their rage in the streets this weekend. Their demand was, on its face, reasonable. The nation seems in crisis; mass shootings are on the rise, even if gun violence is down. Polls suggest that the public is more amenable to gun control, both philosophically and on specifics. Even GOP-led states are passing new gun laws, and private firms are announcing new policies that would restrict the sale of firearms to minors. Given this seismic shift, why is the federal government so unresponsive? The answer is simple: it’s not.

It is demagogic and unfair to suggest that government has responded to shifting political dynamics on guns with anything other than unusual alacrity. Last week, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, “Fix NICS,” a measure that strengthened information-sharing across federal agencies. This is intended to ensure that firearms purchasers submit to a robust and comprehensive background check. The omnibus spending bill also clarified that the Centers for Disease Control are, in fact, not prohibited by the 1996 Dickey Amendment from researching gun violence.

The STOP School Violence Act, which augments funding for schools to enhance their own security, is now also law. It provides for the development of physical infrastructure, like metal detectors, locks, and “other deterrent measures.” It also mandates the “development and operation of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence.”

Also last week, Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida introduced a bill that would encourage states to pass “red-flag” laws, or the so-called “gun-violence restraining orders.” These have been championed by conservatives since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglass high school. If the bill passes, it would compel states to allow police officers and family members to seek a risk-protection order when a court finds probable cause to believe that a person is a threat. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley will soon introduce the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Memorial Act of 2018, which will provide training to help school districts and teachers identify and intervene early to prevent a threat from materializing.

For those who demand action now—the legislative process be damned—President Donald Trump has intervened. In the wake of this latest atrocity, Trump announced that he was overriding nearly a decade of opinions issued by the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and banning so-called “bump stocks” by fiat. Whether the president can do this is a matter of some debate, and this rule is vulnerable to a challenge in the courts. For those who want to see stricter gun laws by any means possible, including presidential edict, this represents a win.

All these developments are oriented in one direction—and they’re attributable to the GOP. They speak to the truth of these student activists’ claims that their movement has shaken loose reforms that were previously out of reach. The banning of “bump stocks” is a response to the 2017 massacre of concert-goers in Las Vegas. “Fix NICS” is a response to a bureaucratic failure that allowed an Air Force veteran with a history of abuse to purchase the firearms he used to gun down churchgoers in Texas last year. The students are right; this is what change looks like.

And yet, to hear gun control activists tell it, Congress—the GOP, specifically—has responded to their petitions callously and dismissively. The opposite is the case; the lethargy that usually typifies the Republican response to demands for stricter gun laws has faded. What Republicans will not do, and what the country is disinclined to support, are measures that ignore the will of tens of millions of lawful gun owners who are among the governing party’s constituents. Advocates for gun restriction can blame lobbyists, politicians, and advocacy organizations all they want, but their real complaint is with voters and the system that was designed to respond to their concerns proportionately. This is how the republic functions; slowly, laboriously, and with the consent of stakeholders.

These young gun control activists might not care if gun owners are fitted with clear backpacks, but they should. There are many indications that this young generation has turned away from the GOP in staggering numbers, but that does not mean they have surrendered fully to the nanny state. For this generation, balancing privacy and security is an ever-present concern. These kids have come of age aware that only their most guarded communications evade monitoring by privately owned corporations or the federal government. They matured amid a national public debate over the threat to civil liberties posed by over-policing, and not everyone who observed events in Ferguson came away convinced that only law enforcement should have access to guns.

Liberty is a relative, often a theoretical concept right up until the moment that infringements on individual autonomy become tangible. For me, tangibility was achieved in the fall of 1999. The balance between privacy and security always needs tending to. Some just encounter it later than others.

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