On Wednesday, after listening to the heart-rending stories of those who lost children and friends in the Parkland school shooting – while holding a cue card with empathetic-sounding phrases – Donald Trump proposed his answer: arming schoolteachers.
It says something about the state of our national discourse that this wasn’t even among the vilest, stupidest reactions to the atrocity. No, those honors go to the assertions by many conservative figures that bereaved students were being manipulated by sinister forces, or even that they were paid actors.
Still, Trump’s horrible idea, taken straight from the NRA playbook, was deeply revealing – and the revelation goes beyond issues of gun control. What’s going on in America right now isn’t just a culture war. It is, on the part of much of today’s right, a war on the very concept of community, of a society that uses the institution we call government to offer certain basic protections to all its members.
Before I get there, let me remind you of the obvious: We know very well how to limit gun violence, and arming civilians isn’t part of the answer.
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No other advanced nation experiences frequent massacres the way we do. Why? Because they impose background checks for prospective gun owners, limit the prevalence of guns in general and ban assault weapons that allow a killer to shoot dozens of people before he (it’s always a he) can be taken down. And yes, these regulations work.
Take the case of Australia, which used to experience occasional American-style gun massacres. After a particularly horrific example in 1996, the government banned assault weapons and bought such weapons back from those who already had them. There have been no massacres since.
Meanwhile, anyone who imagines that amateurs packing heat can be counted on to save everyone from a crazed killer with a semi-automatic weapon – as opposed to shooting one another or third parties in the confusion – has seen too many bad action movies.
But as I said, this isn’t just about guns. To see why, consider the very case often used to illustrate how bizarrely we treat guns: how we treat car ownership and operation.
It’s true that it’s much harder to get a driver’s license than it is to buy a lethal weapon, and that we impose many safety standards on our vehicles. And traffic deaths – which used to be far more common than gun deaths – have declined a lot over time.
Yet traffic deaths could and should have fallen a lot more. We know this because, as my colleague David Leonhardt points out, traffic deaths have fallen much more in other advanced countries, which have used evidence-based policies like lower speed limits and tightened standards for drunken driving to improve their outcomes. Think the French are crazy drivers? Well, they used to be – but now they’re significantly safer in their cars than we are.
Oh, and there’s a lot of variation in car safety among states within the U.S., just as there’s a lot of variation in gun violence. America has a “car death belt” in the Deep South and the Great Plains; it corresponds quite closely to the firearms death belt defined by age-adjusted gun death rates. It also corresponds pretty closely to the Trump vote – and also to the states that have refused to expand Medicaid, gratuitously denying health care to millions of their citizens.
What I’d argue is that our lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.
This paranoia strikes both deep and wide. Does anyone remember George Will declaring that liberals like trains, not because they make sense for urban transport, but because they serve the “goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism”? And it goes along with basically infantile fantasies about individual action – the “good guy with a gun” – taking the place of such fundamentally public functions as policing.
Anyway, this political faction is doing all it can to push us toward becoming a society in which individuals can’t count on the community to provide them with even the most basic guarantees of security – security from crazed gunmen, security from drunken drivers, security from exorbitant medical bills (which every other advanced country treats as a right, and does in fact manage to provide).
In short, you might want to think of our madness over guns as just one aspect of the drive to turn us into what Thomas Hobbes described long ago: a society “wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them.” And Hobbes famously told us what life in such a society is like: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Yep, that sounds like Trump’s America.