The Disunited States of American Gun Control

As featured on Project Syndicate | October 6, 2017

The Las Vegas massacre and its aftermath are pure Americana. A deranged person lugs nearly two dozen high-tech assault weapons to a 32nd-floor hotel room to spray death upon concertgoers in a mass murder and suicide. In response, the culture wars flare anew, with gun-control advocates in pitched battle against gun enthusiasts. Yet there is consensus on one deep truth: nothing much will change. After a week of televised, heart-wrenching funerals, American life will go on until the next massacre.

Mass violence is deeply rooted in American culture. America’s European settlers committed a two-century-long genocide against the native inhabitants, and established a slave economy so deeply entrenched that only a devastating civil war ended it. In almost all other countries, even Czarist Russia, slavery and serfdom were ended by decree or legislation, without a four-year bloodletting. When it was over, America established and enforced a century-long system of apartheid.

To this day, America’s homicide and imprisonment rates are several times higher than Europe’s. Several large mass shootings occur each year – in a country that is also waging several seemingly endless wars overseas. America is, in short, a country with a past history and current stark reality of racism, ethnic chauvinism, and resort to mass violence.

The Las Vegas shootings make clear once more the need to ban assault weapons. When America had such a ban, from September 1994-September 2004, it helped to limit mass shootings; yet Congress failed to renew the ban, owing to intense lobbying from gun enthusiasts. Nor is the ban about to be reinstated any time soon at the federal level. A prohibition against “bump stocks,” the device used by the Las Vegas killer to enable his semi-automatic rifles to fire like fully automatic weapons, appears possible; but there will be little more federal action than that.

When Australia banned assault weapons in 1996, mass shootings stopped abruptly. America’s gun lovers reject such evidence, and mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas serve only to reinforce their belief that firearms are their only true protection in a dangerous world. According to compelling recent survey data, the attachment to guns is especially intenseamong less-educated white Republican men residing mainly in rural and suburban areas in the South and Midwest – the same demographic that forms the core of support for President Donald Trump.1

Despite the deep ideological divisions in the country, there is a glimmer of hope. Under the US Constitution, states have the authority to ban assault weapons and regulate firearms (though not to ban handguns and rifles outright, given the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms”). My own state, New York, already bans assault weapons, as do a handful of other states. Rather than fighting another ill-fated battle in Washington, it is more promising to encourage many more states to exercise their prerogatives.

States that do will have lower rates of mass shootings, more secure citizens, and more vibrant economies. Las Vegas will suffer not only from the trauma of the recent massacre, but also from a diversion of tourism and conferences, at least until Nevada cracks down on assault weapons and can guarantee visitors’ safety.

America today doesn’t just have red (conservative) states and blue (progressive) states, but de facto red countries and blue countries, that is, distinct regions with distinct cultures, heroes, politics, dialects, economies, and ideas of freedom. In New York City, freedom means not having to fear that the thousands of strangers sharing the city’s sidewalks and parks with you on any given day are carrying deadly weapons. In Texas or Las Vegas, freedom is the comfort of carrying your trusty firearms anywhere you like.

It’s time to let red states and blue states go their own way. We don’t need to fight another civil war to agree on an amicable and limited move to much looser linkages across the states. In this, the conservatives have it right: Let’s reduce the power of the federal government and turn more revenues and regulations back to the states, subject to the constitutional limits on the division of powers and fundamental rights. That way, each side of the culture wars can move closer to its preferred outcomes without impeding the other side from doing the same.

My own state would thrive in such a looser federation, using its increased margin of maneuver to tighten its own regulations and to scale up its social services with the savings in taxes now paid to the federal government. And the weaker federal government would mean fewer US “wars of choice” in the Middle East.

At some point, the US will end up with federal gun control legislation. When more Congressmen come to realize that their own lives are on the line – which, sadly, they are – we will finally see national action. Two members of Congress have already been shot this decade (Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and Steve Scalise earlier this year). For now, however, members of Congress will remain caught in the political crossfire of mad gunmen and pro-gun lobbyists. This is terrifying, but sadly the case.

In Trump’s America, gun violence and instability are being stoked daily. A rapidly implemented, national-scale solution would be ideal. But until that happens, more US states should be encouraged to choose gun sanity for themselves.

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