After the tragedy in Newtown, CT, America struggled with a series of definitions. We still do. What, exactly, constitutes an assault rifle? How many people actually die from gun violence? Should the discussion surrounding incidents of gun violence be framed in terms of mental health or unmitigated to weapons?
In this new episode of the culture wars, information-averse political actors battle against data. One relatively simple measure — a comprehensive national database of gun fatalities — received condemnation from the NRA and gun rights advocates more broadly. This is like Toyota or Ford arguing that traffic deaths should not be tallied. But gun makers don’t do recalls, and generally aren’t oriented around numbers.
The basic realities surrounding the premise against any form of regulation of firearms rests in the idea that guns provide safety. Available research indicates that the chances of successfully committing suicide are five times as high for the owner of a handgun and people who have a gun in their home are about twice as likely to die in an act of homicide by firearm.
The argument for guns defies information. Like many other aspects of America’s so-called culture war, one side of the debate argues against a sweeping consensus of empirical evidence. Instead of relying upon facts, the argument must then be transformed into a series of moral judgments. It is not about safety; it is about freedom, and remaining true to vaguely defined American ideals.
Pro-gun advocates embrace an essentially libertarian position in support of that particular argument in the culture war but not in its other aspects. Abortion and gay rights are again sweeping moral decisions not about freedom but about religious beliefs. Forget the olive branch, but remember Leviticus.
So amongst all these cherry-picked verses from the Bible or the Constitution (ignore that first clause of the Second Amendment; it’s un-American), we drown in a sea of data that could help inform our judgment if only we had a raft on which to navigate it. We don’t know, really, how many people are killed by guns in this country, in part because the pro-gun lobby has, in the past, prevented that very kind of accounting, fearful of the reckoning of that knowledge.
Recently, many high-profile Republicans in the Senate promised to vote to block debate on the floor of a law that would expand background checks for the provision of guns. These senators wanted no debate at all. Thankfully, there is one set of numbers here that we now know: 68-31. This is the tally of votes to simply debate a bill about universal background checks, but it’s a small piece of math that we can count on.
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