It’s two immovable forces that have to share the same country. Both sides are sincere and have reasons for where they stand.
But this is a promising moment. Some give looks possible.
What is needed to prepare the ground for progress? Squelch your own smugness. Stop needling, patronizing, misstating the other side’s position. Lay down your rhetorical arms. Deweaponize your mouth. It’s not enough to argue in good faith; you have to will yourself to see the good faith on the other side.
And don’t be maximalist.
Something changed with Parkland. In part it is that the young survivors presented themselves not as victims but as warriors. Some flooded the airwaves. They were media-savvy, had no shyness, were full of themselves in the way closely raised children encouraged in a hearty self-esteem can be full of themselves.
But the boy who broke it open was not smooth. In the president’s White House meeting with survivors he spoke with no assumption. He said, “My name is Justin Gruber, and I was at the school at the time of the massacre. I’m only 15 years old. I’m a sophomore. Nineteen years ago, the first school shooting, Columbine—at Columbine High School, happened. And I was born into a world where I never got to experience safety and peace.”
This was a powerfully reorienting statement. We are now in the second generation of public school terror.
And parents throughout the country are saying: We cannot have this anymore.
We can’t have another generation of children who fear going to school, who jump whenever there’s a loud noise in the hall. We can’t have another generation of parents afraid when they drop the kids off in the morning. You can’t ask the parents of a great nation to “get used to this.” You can’t tell them to accept that this is the way it is now. “I have my rights.” Everybody has rights. Children have rights. And they are right to be afraid.
We don’t need to rehearse why Americans have guns. Protection (my urban store, my rural home), hunting, sport. History—from the Pilgrims to the Wild West the gun was a tool of survival. Tradition—my grandfather gave me his Remington and it is, truly, a thing of beauty. Orneriness—when fancy people tell you you’re not allowed to have something, you better get it.
And something else, an aspect in which gun-owning Americans are more imaginative, more alive to history and sensitive to its trends, than affluent city and suburban liberals. They know how precarious everything is, how complex and provisional, how if you lose this piece (the electrical grid), that piece (civilized behavior) will give way. The poet James Dickey captured this in his novel “Deliverance,” published in 1970. The character Lewis: “I think the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the hills and start over.” He kept his body fit and his weapons oiled.
Or, more recently, a masterpiece, Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 novel, “The Road.” A man and his young son are alone at the end of the world. There was a terrible event—“a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” They trek south through a ruined landscape—“everything dead to the root”—in hopes of seeing the sun. The man has a revolver with two bullets. He is surrounded by marauders, and worse than marauders, with guns.
“The frailty of everything revealed at last.”
Those who own big guns often hope to survive—and help you survive—dark possibilities. Keep that in mind when you put them down. They may be grim, but only the grim saw 9/11 coming. The giddy censors who run around my beloved city were shocked.
Older gun owners fear the government, it’s true. But those who are not old don’t primarily fear it’s too powerful. They fear it is incapable of protecting them.
I want to go to the promise of this moment. It is that our president is making sense. Donald Trump is jumbling categories as a “right-winger” for tighter gun laws. In meetings with the nation’s governors and with congressional leaders, he said he isn’t afraid of the National Rifle Association and they shouldn’t be either. He would harden the schools, raise to 21 the age limit to buy assault weapons. He would enhance and broaden background checks so “sickos” can’t get guns. He is convincingly alive to the mental-health crisis and its part in the story. He wants cops to have the authority to confiscate temporarily the guns of the dangerous, such as those who go around threatening to shoot up schools.
Importantly, he treated the mass shootings like a crisis, not a tragedy. This country is tired of tragedy, of the weeping president and the high-toned speech. Mr. Trump doesn’t do that because he can’t, and doesn’t know how to mourn. Just as well: We’re all tired of moist and empty vows. Do something. President Obama had a sense of tragedy about the NRA and congressional blocs and those poor, sad Americans who cling to guns. In effect he gave his own party a pass when it stepped away from gun control after Sandy Hook.
Mr. Trump, God bless him, doesn’t know enough about the facts to be fatalistic about them. But he got the big picture right—at least the larger context of voters frozen along battle lines.
His presentations were stream-of-consciousness—undisciplined, scatty. And as always the question is whether he meant any of it. His opinions rest on impulses. He likes to say words. You never know which you can believe, which makes deal-making hard.
But of all recent presidents he is the one who can give cover to congressional conservatives, work with Democrats, and get something done.
As for me, I am where Ralph Peters is. The retired military man wrote a stinging, striking piece in the New York Post last week. He fired his first gun as a child when he was handed an illegal sawed-off shotgun “kept handy for woodchucks and rattlesnakes.” He served in the U.S. Army infantry, has fired automatic weapons, and owns guns: “As I write these lines, there’s an 1858 Tower musket behind me and a Colt on my desk,” he wrote.
“But I believe, on moral, practical and constitutional grounds, that no private citizen should own an automatic weapon or a semi-automatic weapon that can easily be modified for automatic effects. These are military weapons. Their purpose is to kill human beings. They’re not used for hunting (unless you want to destroy the animal’s meat). They’re lousy for target shooting. But they’re excellent tools for mass murder.”
No one has the right to “a personal arsenal of weapons designed for mass murder.”
We have an estimated 300 million guns in America. An estimated 50 million of our households keep them.
For now that is enough, even for whatever terrible day comes.
Stop selling military-style weapons now. Just stop. See what happens in America. Revisit the issue in five years. Don’t be maximalist.
The parents are right. We can’t have this anymore.
And we can’t have the world, which is watching, saying, “They kill their own children in the schoolrooms. They have lost their souls.”