Image via Flickr user Big Ashb
Not long before he killed himself, David Foster Wallace wrote a short piece for the Atlantic about the War on Terror, called "Just Asking." It detailed a disturbing thought experiment about whether maybe occasional terrorism in our country is, for lack of a better term, worth it:
"What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?"
It's an uncomfortable notion, but if you chew on it for a second, you'll pick up what he's putting down. We all want A) Freedom, whatever that is, and B) to not be suddenly blown up by a stranger. But maybe we can't have both, and if you have to pick the better one, between freedom and 100-percent never being suddenly blown up by a stranger, maybe it's freedom.
There are already plenty of think pieces on America not being free anymore, because of the patriot act, and the NSA, and all that. I won't dwell on that part of Wallace's argument.
Instead, think about how Wallace's thought experiment would play out if it were, hypothetically, put to a vote. After all, America occasionally does use its shambles of a democracy to make a change because an attitude has shifted.
Look at pot legalization for instance. We aren't a country of pot users. Only 7.6 percent of American adults use marijuana habitually, but the issue has amassed enough support to bring us to the brink of nationwide legalization. This happened thanks to the tiny sliver of Americans who legitimately need it for medicine, in addition to a much larger, passionate group of habitual users who just think it's a fun thing to smoke, and are supported by lobby groups like NORML.
These are the kinds of passionate people who make weed part of their identity, and they're slowly winning:
But the surprising power of that 7.6 percent of the population is nothing. Last time Gallup ran a poll, the percentage of Americans who owned guns was about 47 percent, or 147 million people. And are those 147 million people maybe a little bit ardent? Gun control advocates don't, I think, stop and consider that when gun owners say they love their guns, they really, passionately, deeply love them with a zeal that makes the biggest stoner you know look, well, apathetic.
Just look at this guy:
Listen to how he talks about going to the range and firing thousand of bullets. Did you notice he said he had made an Excel spreadsheet of all his guns? Are we to believe he's personally shot someone with his Sig Sauer with rainbow finish? Probably not. It's just a pretty thing he really likes having around.
And have you ever been to the Internet Movie Firearms Database, the site that catalogs every gun in literally every movie ever? I'm sure it doesn't surprise you to learn that there's a page there for Commando that's longer and more elaborate than the same movie's IMDB page. But they've also got comprehensive pages for everything from Bruce Almighty to Purple Rain. Imagine how excited they are when a Rambo movie comes out on Blu-Ray, and they have the chance to freeze-frame, and figure out which brand of silencer someone is using.
That kind of love is almost cute. Almost.
So while the NRA may be a bloated, possibly corrupt, excessively powerful lobbying force, partly staffed by horrible racists, it's also the mouthpiece of a fandom more widespread than Bronies, Trekkies and Furries combined and multiplied by a hundred. Gun ownership is almost inarguably the single most popular hobby in America, and the NRA is a consequence of that.
Even popular gun control efforts that failed like the 2013 bill would have been nothing more than tiny, symbolic changes, such as making background checks more ubiquitous, or eliminating high capacity magazines. Elliot Rodger passed his background check, and didn't use high capacity magazines. The presence of the NRA makes real reform so farfetched, nothing has even been proposed, let alone voted on, that will get us anywhere close to Richard Martinez's "Not One More" promised land.
And meanwhile, there's shooting after shooting. When these things happened, the president used to fly out to the grieving town and give a speech. Now we don't even fly our flags at half mast. They've become an ongoing problem we can't take the time out of our day to be individually upset about, like Adam Sandler movies.
Everyone would prefer that these school shootings stop, even Wayne LaPierre. The NRA's solution to the problem, arming teachers, is the only answer that anyone's made any progress on. But that's a joke of a solution. Even if a school shooting happened to start in the classroom of a teacher who happened to be packing heat, the shooter would still be able to put a bullet in another student, or for that matter the teacher, while she's writing an equation on the blackboard. But most school shootings seem to happen in the hallways anyway, and even armed and trained campus police will never be such eagle-eyed Clint Eastwoods that they can stop the initial few shots from happening.
Matching shooters gun-for-gun isn't a solution anyone takes seriously, not even the NRA. The real answer is that we, the American people, see that there are school shootings, and we all agree that they're tragic, but then we've done the David Foster Wallace thought experiment in our heads: gun control would mean an America with fewer school shootings, but we would lose some of our gun freedom.
And apparently we don't want to live in a place like that.
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