From a Liberal Gun Nerd

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Whenever we have a spate of news on a highly polarized issue, I usually get at least one lengthy email from a reader who seems to confound the accustomed partisan and ideological alignments behind the issue. (Remember TPM Reader LC, the liberal cop from the greater New York metro region during the height of the Ferguson protests). This time it’s guns and TPM Reader JA, self-identified ‘liberal gun nerd’ from Austin, Texas. As preface, as I told JA privately via email, I disagree with his core premise, which is that gun control advocates are missing or passing up lots of opportunities for constructive compromise with responsible gun owners. As I noted, in my posts last week I think the last two decades have shown this is demonstrably not true.

For starters, there is no group of ‘responsible gun owners’. This doesn’t mean individual responsible gun owners don’t exist. There are millions of them. But they have no institutional or organizational existence in the United States. The politics of the issue are dominated by the NRA and its members who have not only shown (quite accurately) that they believe they have no need to make compromises but clearly see the politics of confrontation as beneficial to them as an organization. Here I think JA is mistaking personal or abstract logic from the actual political dynamics of the question. But see which one of us you think makes the better argument.

Just as importantly, ‘gun rights’ has become an increasingly salient part Republican political identification, which means that compromise or any nominal ‘loss’ on this front gets swept into broader, partisan never cede an inch of ground mentality operative in both parties. As a secondary matter, I’ve never accepted the idea that you can’t enter the gun debate unless you have a substantial technical knowledge or familiarity with guns.

With all that said, let’s hear from TPM Reader JA …

(Apologies in advance for how long this turned out to be. It’s been bouncing around my mind for a while, and I don’t know that I can explain any of it without explaining all of it. But I thought you needed to hear from a liberal gun owner who would love to see more effective gun control regulation enacted.)

I’m a progressive from Austin, TX and am a dual citizen of Germany, where violence, and gun violence in particular, is all but unheard of. Growing up, my family owned no guns in either Germany (of course) or TX (..damn hippies!). But about five years ago, I took the opportunity to go deer and hog hunting with a close Texan friend, on his rural property.

Five years later, I’ve become an avid hunter, preferring to fill my freezer for the year with healthful and ethically harvested meat, rather than continue throwing my carnivore dollars into the factory farmed greenhouse emissions machine. Along the way I learned that I also really enjoy shooting and reloading as a science and hobby in and of itself, one that allows me to take ethical hunting shots, experience three-pointer-esque satisfaction when hitting a ringing steel gong a long way away, and – let’s not kid ourselves – just plain have fun turning money into noise. Ask any guitar player in Austin what that’s like. Ultimately, as my comfort level grew, I went so far afield from my progressive self as to purchase a handgun for protection at home, during a spate of daytime home invasions in my modest town home community.

I underwent this evolution, or devolution if you prefer, very seriously and deliberatively. I familiarized myself with all of the laws, history, controversies, and practical safety issues. I couldn’t simply show up for the family reunion at Christmas with venison backstrap, and not be able to square how it got there with my entire system of political and moral beliefs. I further had to be able to cogently rationalize why, in our particular circumstance, we decided that it made sense that my partially disabled girlfriend at home alone was better off with the option of defending herself, even if that meant accepting the aggregate statistical risk of suicide by gun, crimes of passion, and accidents.

At the end of this process I’ve now come to reluctantly accept that both “sides,” such as they are, in the “gun debate,” such as it is, are both more or less correct in their hostile assumptions about each other. I can confirm that the aggravated derp in the pro-gun set is indeed strong, very strong. A former college friend, who I hadn’t seen in over a decade, randomly invited me to a housewarming via Facebutt. Like a lot of other Texan nerds he ended up somewhere between libertarian and anarchic, and has lent his law degree toward the cause of open carry in Texas. At that party I was treated to the earnest thoughts of a preppy black kid from oil country, explaining to me why he sometimes felt like he was being persecuted like the Jews were under Hitler, for being a gun owner. In Texas. The derp is real, folks.

Unfortunately, it’s also true that the ignorance on the gun control side can also be overwhelmingly frustrating. It’s not just the ignorance about firearms themselves, their actual capabilities and differences, and so on. Most of all, anti-gun people simply don’t appreciate the staggering implications of the real ubiquity, visceral desirability, inherent durability, and relevant jurisprudence surrounding guns. Anti-gunners too often wear this ignorance like a badge of honor, preferring instead to rely solely on a self-righteous belief in guns as evil talismans, satisfied that this will speak for itself. In the long run. Someday.

The drug war is a helpful analogy for this. Ever met someone who’s never so much as seen pot in person, but is convinced that it is evil in and of itself? Convinced that the drug market can be readily criminalized out of existence? That drug desirability can be effectively mitigated with enough public moralizing? Unaware that those good intentions have in fact culminated in a massive exacerbation of the problem in the form of a black market, the problem itself being narrowly defined as proliferation in and of itself?

It’s a lot like that, except with supremely durable goods whose possession is, yes, constitutionally protected. The dream of Australian-style confiscation in America – the only logical conclusion of real counter-proliferation – is political masturbation at best, an impossible goal akin to deporting all Mexicans, which serves as an emotional surrogate for a lack of expertise and imagination in defining, much less dealing, with the problem at hand. It’s as useful as a drug warrior saying: “Just give it a few more decades of attrition and shaming, and you’ll see, the worm will turn.”

I find this to be supremely frustrating, because of the plethora of bargaining chips available to gun-control proponents in existing gun laws, gun laws which date back to Al Capone and whose relevance often began and ended there. If you think such horse-trading incrementalism can’t work, then it’s because a) you’ve dismissed gun owners as a bunch of irreconcilable dead-enders, and b) you don’t understand that you have chips to bargain with. These are your problems, not theirs, as they are for drug warriors.

To sketch out one possible horse-trading scenario: Currently, when you purchase a firearm at a federally licensed dealer (FFL), you must pass a simple criminal background check in the FBI’s NICS system. For example, people purchasing guns through the mail must have the guns delivered to FFLs, then must show up at that FFL and pass a background check before the gun is relinquished to them (and pay a fee to the FFL for the privilege). One really simple way to extend NICS to potentially cover more private party sales, would be to make the entire NICS system free and public facing. If I’m going to sell a gun to a random person in a parking lot, I should be able to pull out my phone and ask him to demonstrate to me that he can pass a background check. But I can’t, even on a purely voluntary basis, even though the ATF/FBI-managed NICS is a purely executive function.

Making NICS publicly available would be great, and facilitate the gun control goal of making NICS mandatory for every transaction. Why not think about what might be offered to gun owners in return, in order to avoid another Manchin-Toomey outcome? For example, the Al Capone era “NFA” regulations around silencers could be lifted. NFA regulations require silencer purchasers to complete tons of paperwork, pay a $200 tax, spend months waiting for ATF approval, and often approval from their chief local law enforcement officer as well.

But silencers are just like car mufflers. They don’t make cars/guns Tesla/Hollywood-silent, they only reduce the decibel levels closer to being hearing safe. Think OSHA, not Goldfinger. For that reason, in many western European locales their sale is not only largely unregulated, their use is literally mandatory. They are highly desirable for hunters, especially those that go out after dark. In TX we must cull 50% of the feral hog population (particularly active at night) year after year, just to keep that population stable and prevent it from further rolling up the rest of the ecosystem. Legal hunting with silencers is a boon for the safety that comes with additional situational awareness when hunting this potentially dangerous game, and it prevents disturbing the neighbors. Put simply, it’s civilized. I dare say that it is “common sense.” So, why not trade silencers and free NICS checks, in exchange for mandatory NICS checks?

I would love to see many such trades be made in favor of common sense gun control. First and foremost, what’s missing the most is a training and licensing regime that expands upon already existing hunter safety and concealed carry requirements, and forces the mentally ill to go interact with fellow humans without anyone having to run afoul of medical privacy laws. The problem is that I’ve seen no evidence of anyone on the gun control side familiar enough with the desires of real, actual responsible gun owners to begin to understand how to make such horse-trades with them.

I’ve blathered on long enough. If you ever want to run questions or concerns by a real life liberal gun nerd, please don’t hesitate to reach out.