On Monday, a representative of the National Rifle Association officially blamed “political correctness” for the massacre in Orlando this past weekend. This line of argument—that that the killings were a result of our inability to speak frankly about the dangers this country faces—gathered momentum while the dead bodies still lay in the Pulse nightclub.
It is true that political correctness—the stifling of debate, due to a fear of causing outrage—helped create the slaughter in Orlando. But the NRA’s complaint is that an excess of sensitivity in this country has kept us from being sufficiently hostile toward Islam.
That’s both bigoted and false. There is no political taboo in the United States against denouncing Islam. It is, for example, possible for someone to openlycall for restrictions on Muslims as a class, and for that person to win a major party’s nomination to run for president.
What there is an active political taboo against, in the United States, is speaking honestly about guns. Guns are bad and dangerous, and almost no one in this country needs to have them. No active politician may say this and stay active in politics. Pressure campaigns have shut down research into even basic factual questions about how much harm guns do. Gun companies that try to implement safety regulations face crippling boycotts. In Florida, doctors are now forbidden by law to ask patients about gun ownership. It is safer for a public official to say Islam is an inherently dangerous religion than for one to say that guns are inherently dangerous.
But they are. Guns are for killing. That is their purpose. The more guns there are, the more people will use those guns to kill other people.
The counterargument to this, in the childish prevailing discussion, is that bad guys will always have guns, and it takes one good guy with a gun to stop them. This is the NRA’s circular worldview: If you’re scared of all the guns out there, you should get yourself a gun, too. It took somewhere between eight and 11 good guys with guns, in tactical armor and supported by heavy equipment to stop the Pulse rampage.
Most people, good guys or not, do not need or deserve the power to kill other people. People are confused or bad-tempered or careless or impulsive, especially under stress. They get mad about a stupid, forgettable traffic disputeand shoot somebody. They get scared by a knock at the door and shoot somebody. They get angry at their spouse or partner and decide to shoot them. They get excited about seeing a shoplifter and try to execute the shoplifter by spraying gunfire with innocent bystanders all around on a parking lot. They lose track of where they’ve left their guns until a child finds one and shoots itself, or shoots another child. Or, most often of all, they shoot themselves, making a fleeting impulse into an irrevocable decision.
Here, if not long before this, is where the Second Amendment gets brought up.A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. Very little of the gun violence in this country—from what we now think of as quotidian, to the undeniably catastrophic—has anything to do with a militia, or the security of a free state. But our constitutional rights generally are understood to extend beyond the literal text. (Often enough, our rights protect things that may outrage our fellow citizens.)
Constitutionality is not the same as morality. By Christian or Jewish standards, God’s stance on American gun culture is clear and fundamental: Thou shalt not kill. Every year, the gun industry sells millions of implements made for killing people. The gun industry is deeply and fully immoral.
Responses to Orlando have not, overall, been marked by deference to constitutional law, anyway. The political noise swarming around the massacre has been of the “thoughts and prayers” variety, and when politicians make constitutional arguments they ask nothing more specific than: Shall we cut back on some combination of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth amendments—as both major presidential candidates have suggested, in their own ways—or should we take a look at the Second?
Not that this matters beyond bloviating, since it’s not the Constitution which holds the most power in this debate. The NRA does not have some higher Constitutional purpose, but it wields its message and its power as though it does: Congress, in deference to the delicate sensibilities of the NRA, hasprotected the gun industry from the consequences of its actions. If you sold cyanide in soda bottles, millions of bottles, and you marketed your bottled cyanide by describing how lethal it was and how well-masked the flavor was, you would gain no sympathy from lawmakers if you argued that the majority of your customers merely daydreamed about poisoning people in an emergency. You would be held responsible for the thousands of people who did get poisoned. You would be sued for the deaths you’d caused.
But this country pretends that guns are something other than what they are. It’s true, not every gun exists only to act as a murder weapon. There are guns that are not as well designed for executing people—some hunting rifles, shotguns, target pistols—but then those guns don’t call on the higher purpose of the Second Amendment any more than a nail gun does. They endure as tools for their jobs, which are jobs other than killing humans. The NRA grudgingly admits there are distinctions between some kinds of weapons: explosives versus non-explosives, or automatic guns versus semiautomatics. But it will not admit there’s any meaningful difference between weapons designed to kill humans efficiently and those designed to kill quail.
Meanwhile, too, the weapons industry has shipped millions of small arms to the rest of the world. The ability to form lethal ad hoc militias has not produced stable democracies, it has produced child soldiers and endless civil war.
The fantasy that the NRA sells, and which goes largely unchallenged, is that liberty depends on guns. Guns do not possess some sacred power to produce or sustain freedom. This country has accumulated more guns than anywhere else on the planet at the same time it has the most citizens locked up in prison. The ongoing boom in AR-15 sales has happened alongside the immense expansion of the surveillance state.
The NRA deals in fantasy because it is ashamed of what’s true. Its successes in keeping lawmakers, gun manufacturers, and public health officials from talking about the fact that guns kill human beings have manufactured the greatest taboo in American public life. It’s not enough that guns be widely sold and owned, they must be sold and owned in secrecy. If people were to start speaking the truth about guns, they might hold the gun industry and its apologists accountable for what they’ve done.