In general, I am against gun control laws. On most days, this is an easy position to take. When I’m not confronted with the threat of a gun, it’s easy to side with more liberty as opposed to less. I’m not a gun person—I’ve never fired or even held a gun—and I don’t think most people should own them, but I don’t want the government taking away a person’s ability to defend himself if he feels it’s necessary.
But then, of course, something like what happened Thursday night in an Aurora, CO movie theater happens. Then it becomes very hard to justify opposition to strict gun control. It is utterly sickening that this keeps happening and nothing changes. Two days before a gunman in Colorado shot 71 people—killing at least 12—at the movies, a gunman in Alabama shot 17 people outside a bar in Tuscaloosa. Six days before that, four kids in Chicago were shot in a park on the South Side. Two days before that, three people, including a 16-year-old kid, were killed in a shooting at a Delaware soccer tournament. One of the victims of the Aurora tragedy narrowly avoided a similar shooting in a Toronto mall only six weeks earlier. The quaint settings of these tragedies—parks, malls, movie theaters—only add to the horror.
It’s hard to even imagine the outcry if the shooters in these crimes had simply chosen a different weapon, like anthrax or a small bomb. People would fear going out in public. But somehow violence is just accepted as part of life if the perpetrator uses a gun. For some reason we endure countless sacrifices of our freedom (including illegal and unconstitutional ones) in the name of protecting us from imaginary terrorist threats—we don’t prosecute illegal wiretapping or torture, we allow the government to anonymously kill its own citizens, we don’t take liquid on airplanes, we submit to full body scans at airports, we wage wars without declarations, etc.—but when it comes to gun violence, we cling desperately to the most radical notions of liberty.
I don’t really know why this is, and I’m not qualified to speculate. But it’s certainly puzzling. As Adam Gopnik wrote for The New Yorker, “The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country—Canada, Norway, Britain—has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do—as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue.”
With that said, these gun tragedies don’t completely eliminate my reservations about gun control and, frankly, I am troubled by those who think it should. Many people have pointed to the Aurora shooting as evidence that America needs tougher gun laws, but I’m not sure what type of laws these people are suggesting. It’s easy to say that the government should do something about it, but it’s hard to be specific. The efficacy of gun laws in combating gun violence is not clear; what is clear is that there are reasons to be wary of giving the government this power.
People eager for government intervention in this area should remember that there are segments of the population that, for good reason, don’t have that type of faith in the American government. Should Muslim Americans have complete faith that stricter gun control laws won’t ultimately target them? What about immigrants? Illegal immigrants are already prohibited from buying guns, and many states are passing stricter laws targeting citizens for whom “there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is an illegal immigrant.” It’s easy to imagine those same states restricting the gun rights of legal immigrants, or using gun laws as tools to harass them. When gun control supporters think of gun control, they tend to think of taking guns away from the James Holmeses and Jared Loughners of the world. This is a totally reasonable and admirable goal, but they should also think of things like New York City’s stop-and-frisk program.
What I find most troubling about the people who insist that these tragedies make the need for stricter gun laws obvious is that, for the most part, they are the same people who recoil in horror at the suggestion that Batman might be to blame. Within hours of the shooting, people were rushing to absolve popular culture of all responsibility for it. The fact that it occurred at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises was nothing more than a “superficial detail.” We could “clearly” see that the movie wasn’t at fault before we could clearly identify almost anything else: “The shooter…may or may not be a Batman fan, but if it wasn’t Batman it could be something else.”
This is disingenuous to the point of delusion. Of course it “could” be something else, but it was Batman. The fact that Holmes identified himself as The Joker to police is not just a “superficial detail”—given the setting of the crime, it sounds like a crucial one. The antihero of The Dark Knight is someone who glorifies violence for its own sake and is identified as someone to whom troubled minds gravitate. Before the shooting began, Holmes evidently set off gas cans that some people thought were part of the movie. These do not seem like superficial details.
Anyone who has seen the films in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy ought to understand how a sick mind could see it as a motive for senseless violence. (One of my very first entries on this blog was about just that.) The problem, of course, is that we love these movies. Personally, I loved The Dark Knight. Defenders of pop culture say things like, “It’s just a movie,” as if movies are just mindless entertainment and have no effect at all on their audience. But this is insulting to movies and it’s insulting to viewers. Of course movies affect us—that’s what a good one is supposed to do. And if they can affect a healthy mind, they can affect a sick one.
Just a few days before the Aurora tragedy, I was reading the new Afterword in the paperback edition of Bill James’ Popular Crime. In discussing a book about sex crimes in Soviet Russia, James discusses the theory that a more open society defuses deviant urges: “Except, of course, Southern California has more serial murderers per capita than anyplace else on the plant, except possibly Florida. Openness about sexuality doesn’t protect us from sexual deviance; it exposes us to sexual deviance. The idea that the emancipation of our sexuality will free society of the unfortunate side effects of perverse desires is fifty years behind the curve—and yet we cling to it, as a society, because it was the liberal notion of our youth, and we are afraid to admit that the progressive ideas which we adopted in the best of faith did not turn out to be good investments.”
These lines came back to me in the wake of the Aurora shooting because they also apply to violence in the media. If you are like me, then reading the words “violence in the media” in that order makes your eyes gloss over and you mind check out, but bear with me. It would be foolish to pretend that seeing thousands of images of people getting killed with a firearm over the course of my life has had no effect on me. And yet I don’t think I’ve been exposed to more violence than the average American.
We like to think that being exposed to all kinds of images and ideas on TV and in movies makes us more open and tolerant—that it provides us with a safe outlet for negative emotions, as well as exposure to new ideas. In the best-case scenario, this is probably true. But such exposure can also make us more violent. It can subvert morality or inure us to truly evil behavior. These are the kinds of things that may make shootings more likely.
I do have a slight problem with James’ logic: I don’t think we cling to the ideal “because it was the liberal notion of our youth.”* I think we cling to it because the alternative—that openness about sex and violence exposes us to more deviance and real violence—seems like a defense of censorship. I would not by any means suggest that the government ought to censor movies or television. But an idea shouldn’t be rejected just because we are uncomfortable with the implications.
*James grew up in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, there seems to be nothing but uncomfortable implications with this issue. These gun violence tragedies present us with difficult choices. They present us with hard political choices, like how important the freedom to own a gun is, and they present us with hard personal choices, like how do we respond to a media full of violence. I’m not really sure what the answers to these difficult questions are, but I know that we’ll never get a real answer if we keep dismissing the questions so easily.