"In other words, yes, we really do want to take your guns. Maybe not all of them. But a lot of them."
—Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo
Okay. All I've got's an antique rifle that would likely explode if fired, so no big deal to me. I would love to live in a country with far, far fewer guns. One of the reasons I think the NRA should be considered complicit with murder is their careful collusion over the last few decades with gun manufacturers to keep a flooded market profitable by using every scare tactic they could imagine to encourage people to keep buying. (I've written about all this, and other aspects of gun culture, plenty of times before.) I'm quite comfortable around guns, since I grew up with them as an everyday object (everything from .22 pistols to fully-automatic machine guns), and I have many friends who are gun owners, even gun nuts. But though I sometimes find guns attractive, even fascinating, I don't like them and I wish there were vastly fewer. The Oregon shooting happened at a place I'm familiar with, half an hour from the home of one of my best, most beloved friends. The present reality of mass shootings in the US is grotesque, and the easy availability of guns is a major part of the problem.
But I think Josh Marshall is delusional. No matter how much you wish for it, the guns in the United States are not going to be confiscated, and not just because of a lack of political will. The NRA sells the fear of confiscation to gun nuts all the time, but it is not just unlikely and not just politically difficult — given the amount of guns in the US, it is as close to impossible to achieve as any such thing could be. The horse left the barn at least forty years ago.
Certainly, it's valuable for activists to come out and say what they want rather than to lie or, at best, hedge their commentary to appear less radical. I like radicals, especially nonviolent ones, so I'm all for being openly radical. Own your radicalism!
And the idealism in Marshall's blog post is nice. I understand the feeling. But it's fairy-tale utopian. You want to think big, to be honest about your ultimate goals, and so you want to stop talking about things like universal background checks and maybe some restrictions on certain sizes of magazines and certain styles of rifles, things that might be possible to accomplish but are clearly small measures. I get it. I would like to stop talking about how I'll pay next month's bills and instead dream about winning the lottery.
But at a certain point you have to explain how you want to go about achieving your dream. What are the actual mechanics? What are the mechanisms that would bring your dream to reality? The fact is, I have a vastly better chance of winning the lottery than the US has any chance of significant gun confiscation.
Let's pretend we live in a fairy land where somehow the government would pass laws like the ones Australia famously passed. For basic background on that and how it worked, here's an overview from Vox. There are a bunch of things in there that are pretty much politically inconceivable in the US, even if they would likely survive challenge in the courts. But we're playing Let's Pretend.
So let's pretend those laws pass. We can't, though, forget the fundamental, awful, maddening, bizzaro truth: including both legal and illegal weapons, by even conservative estimates, there are somewhere around as many guns as people in the U.S. Numbers are notoriously difficult to get, but let's say 300 million, just to have a nice even number to play with. (It could be 250 million, it could be 350 million. What's fifty million here or there when counting deadly weapons?)
Let's pretend Australian-style laws pass, which would mean the goal is to get to 20% of guns bought back, as Australia apparently did. We're talking, then, somewhere around 60 million guns. (Router and Mouzos in their study of Australia say it would be 40 million, but, again, estimates always differ, and a lot depends on whether you're also including the black market, antique guns [some of which, unlike mine, shoot quite well], etc.)
How do you collect and destroy between 40 and 60 million guns?
If it's a buyback, how do you pay for the guns you're buying back? In 1996 in Australia, the average price paid was US$359. For 60 million guns, that would be $21,540,000,000. Not an impossible amount, given that we casually spent at least that per month of war in Iraq, but still. Twenty-one-and-a-half billion dollars is not small change, and that's 1996 dollars.
What do you do with people who won't turn their guns in? I could be wrong, but I doubt most American gun owners would turn in their guns, at least not the guns they cared about. Sure, they might turn in stuff that was in bad shape, or that they didn't especially want anymore. You want to give me good market value for a gun I don't care about? Great! Here it is. Enjoy. Thanks for the cash.
What about the rest? The guns you want to confiscate are not the ones most gun owners are likely to turn in for even a mandatory buyback. And what does mandatory mean? How do you make it mandatory? Who enforces it? How?
You'd need a registry, but how would you create a registry? You could mandate a registry of all new sales of guns, but that doesn't do anything about the 300 million, give or take 50 million, already out there. You could try using data from Form 4473, but by the time all the laws get passed and Federal Firearms License holders are notified that they have to turn all of their 4473 info over to the ATF, most of those forms, I expect, will have somehow mysteriously gotten destroyed in floods and fires, have been misplaced, etc. You could say, "All gun owners are now required to register their weapons!" and the laughter would be cacophonous.
So what will you do about civil disobedience?
Send the police!
Great idea. The police. The nice (white) liberal's fallback answer to every problem. Tut tut occasionally about the cops' embarrassing habit of killing black men every day, then turn around and advocate for giving the police even more power.
The fact is, to collect even a small percentage of the guns currently in circulation in the US, you would have to institute highly authoritarian laws, strongly empower the police and military to take action against otherwise law-abiding citizens, punish any disobedient police and military members strongly (and there would be a lot of disobedience within the ranks, I expect), and violate a bunch of civil liberties so you could find out who owned what weapons. And imprison lots of people. (Yay, prisons!)
If you're going to be honest about what you want, then you have to be honest about how you would like to get what you want. The complete statement Josh Marshall and others should make is this one: "We really do want to take your guns, and we are willing to empower the state to do so via the police and, if necessary, the military. If you resist, we will imprison you."
Not quite so rosy a fairy tale now, is it?
Do I have a better fairy tale? Not really. I have no solution, certainly nothing short term. Various small, achievable regulations might do a little bit of good. The best I can imagine is a change in culture, a change in attitudes where gun ownership is viewed the way smoking is today, as an unfortunate, smelly, lethal vice/addiction, that, despite whatever momentary pleasures it may offer, is harmful to individuals and society.
Start pitying gun nuts. Listen to their macho power fantasies and nod your head sadly and say, "I'm truly sorry you feel so terrified all the time, so inadequate. I'm so sorry that you feel the only way to get through your days is to keep the power of life or death over other people with you at all times. If you ever want help, please ask. I know the withdrawal will be incredibly hard and painful, but the results will be worth it. We'll all get to live a little longer."
Imagine encouraging doctors to talk to people about the statistics on guns and public health. (Imagine better funding for research on guns and public health!)
Imagine interventions for people with NRA Derangement Syndrome (the mental disorder that results in a person believing NRA propaganda, needing to stockpile tens of thousands of rounds, needing to own dozens and hundreds of guns just in case one day the gun grabbers succeed with their nefarious plans and/or the zombie apocalypse occurs).
Imagine cognitive behavioral therapy for hoarders of deadly weapons.
Imagine alternatives to toxic masculinity and warrior dreams.
Imagine movies and TV shows and video games where guns are portrayed not as sexy and awesome, but as the last refuge of the weak and deranged.
Imagine— Well, go ahead, we're talking fairy tales, so imagine whatever you want. But think, too, about how we get to fairyland.