Mass Shootings, America’s Gun Culture and the Way Forward: A Conversation with Paul Barrett
By Shaun RandolJanuary 15, 2013
WHEN I FIRST INTERVIEWED Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, for this publication (“Happiness Is A Warm Glock”), the mass shootings in Aurora, CO and Oak Creek, WI were recent events. This time, Barrett and I met under the long shadow of the Newtown, CT massacre, where, on December 14, Adam Lanza fatally shot his own mother, 20 children and six school employees before taking his own life. The world mourned for the losses at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the wake of the country’s second deadliest mass shooting, the United States is once again forced to confront its aggrandized gun culture. The question is: will anything be different this time?
With 300 million-plus weapons in private hands, the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the OECD countries, and the second highest number of homicides (second only to Mexico, which has a lot related to drug trafficking. See here for some interesting analysis of OECD and non-OECD gun ownership and deaths).
According to political scientist Patrick Egan, gun ownership, as measured by percentage of households with guns, is declining in the U.S. So are violent crime and murder rates. Mass shooting incidents, in contrast, are on the rise. Clearly this is not solely a “gun issue.” And yet the conversation over gun regulation and ownership continues to spin in place. What is to be done?
Paul Barrett and I met in the world headquarters of Bloomberg, LP, parent company of Bloomberg Businessweek, where he serves as assistant managing editor and senior writer. Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, comes out in paperback today.
Shaun Randol: Can we take the “mass” out of “mass shootings”?
Paul Barrett: The frequency of mass, random shootings has increased in recent decades, and I don’t think any serious social analysts or psychologists have a good explanation for that. Short of true police state security in public spaces, which we’re not likely to move toward outside of airports and federal government buildings, I don’t see how anyone can say we’ll never have another one of these events.
We have a large country with hundreds of millions of firearms in private hands and disturbed people in the population. With that combination you’re going to see these events.
SR: What defines a mass shooting?
PB: There’s a technical definition of it, which involves four or more victims, and the key variable is that it be random, rather than purposeful in some way. Random, meaning that the killer doesn’t know the individuals, hasn’t set out to rob a store and, in the course of committing that crime, kills people. Instead he goes to someplace where he knows there will be a lot of people and kills a lot of people. The randomness is the key variable.
I personally think of these things as random-killing-suicides, because these incidents, and all of the most egregious of them, with very few exceptions, end in suicide. And that’s another reason that makes these events so hard to stop once a disturbed person has decided to pull one off. The whole point is for the killer to end up dead, so that makes it much more difficult to figure out steps to deter the killer, just like it’s very difficult to deter a suicide bomber. They don’t want to be caught. They don’t want to be stopped. There’s no compromise point. The whole point is to destroy themselves.
SR: You mention how we’re not going to have policing in public spaces anytime soon —
PB: I said a “police state.” We, of course, have plenty of policing of public spaces. We have public spaces that are basically locked down. You can’t get into a federal courthouse without getting thoroughly searched. It would be very, very difficult to get in there with a firearm. You can’t get past security in an American airport without being pretty thoroughly searched. We have lots of security in lots of situations.
I think that security does deter crime in general and mass killings in particular. With this debate about what we do about schools, the proposal [by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre] that has been lampooned by a lot of people, I personally think is a very reasonable proposal.
SR: Please elaborate.
PB: I’ve written about this for Businessweek. We have grown accustomed, in this country, to having a fair amount of security in many kinds of public and private venues where a lot of people gather. There is security in the building that you and I are sitting in right now. Not just anyone can walk in.
When you go to Yankee Stadium to see a baseball game, you can’t just walk into Yankee Stadium. They channel you through certain entranceways and, if you’re carrying a bag, they’re going to search your bag. The guys who take your tickets are there to also look you over, and there’s both uniformed and plainclothes security throughout the stadium.
I think all of those steps are rational steps. I don’t think they’re perfect, but I do think they do deter crime and they would deter a mass suicide-killing episode in those venues. Therefore, if you are truly anxious about securing schools, I can’t see the serious argument against having armed security at schools. It doesn’t seem to me to be a distraction. It doesn’t seem to me to be a panacea, either. It’s not perfect, but few social policies are perfect.
SR: Would policing schools be easier to implement than a typical piece of gun regulation?
PB: Absolutely. Congress doesn’t have anything to do with it. Congress doesn’t control how municipalities control their streets. Congress doesn’t control who gets hired for the staff of an elementary, junior, or senior high school. Those are all purely local issues, and rightly so. I think communities should control and shape how their communities are policed and that would go for their schools, too.
I don’t see any need for Congressional involvement or big-time politics. It seems like something that can and ought to be handled very directly. In fact, in thousands of communities it already is. This is not a radical suggestion. Many schools are patrolled by armed, local police. There are schools where there are metal detectors before you get in.
None of these things are ideal. The schools I went to didn’t have those things; I’m glad they didn’t. I’m not saying this adds to the educational atmosphere or makes the place feel homey — it doesn’t. But I think that it seems self-evident that a skilled, armed, law enforcement person might deter the type of crime that most horrifies us, these mass killings.
SR: Are we conflating the mass shooting issue with the general gun debate?
PB: The short answer is yes, we tend to be sloppy in how we think about this. We tend to be sloppy in thinking about how to respond to it. Far too often we are — on all sides of this debate — waving our hands and giving expression to emotions and cultural and ideological concerns that we express through these arguments, but which don’t necessarily lead to rational policies or anything productive at all.
SR: Dianne Feinstein is once again bringing up the Assault Weapons Ban. In our previous conversation, you mentioned that one saving factor out of the original law was the magazine capacity limitation.
PB: I wouldn’t call it a “saving factor,” but it certainly is the aspect of the original legislation that had some basis in rationality, even though — as it was implemented in the 1994 act — it was entirely ineffective, because the law was so porous. It had exceptions that made it not just ineffective, but actually counterproductive.
Specifically, it banned the manufacture and sale of new magazines greater than 10 round capacity, but the legislation was debated for years before it was actually passed and enacted. During that time, the gun industry went into overdrive manufacturing the very equipment that was about to be banned, and then once the ban came into effect, all of the so-called pre-ban equipment was grandfathered in. Through that loophole flowed literally millions of large capacity magazines.
Moreover, there were all the magazines already in private hands. This was called a ban, but it wasn’t a ban. It was a restriction on the manufacture and sale of new equipment. It didn’t ban the possession of the equipment. I think gun control proponents are kidding themselves if they think tinkering with the laws in that fashion is going to have a significant effect, because there is already so much that is problematic.
SR: Is there any legislation floating around that has any potential to have a mitigating effect on these mass shootings?
PB: Not in a simple, direct way. I don’t think there is a bill you can pass that will stop the next schizophrenic, self-hating, evil, 20-year-old misfit who has access to guns today and will have access to guns tomorrow, no matter what’s enacted in Washington.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t gun control proposals that wouldn’t be worth considering or enacting. There are some proposals that I personally favor that could have some effect at the margins, but probably not in any direct way on mass shootings.
SR: Can you share one example?
PB: We already have a system in place right now for which there is broad support, restricting not particular kinds of guns, but who’s allowed to buy and possess them. That should be our focus when it comes to new legislation: not on guns, but on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and mentally unstable people. We already have laws on the books that do that, but they are not as effective as they could be, because they too have loopholes. I would be in favor of closing those loopholes.
Specifically, I’m in favor of there being a requirement for a federal background check on all sales of all firearms at all times, not just the sales by federally licensed firearms dealers. That would capture many, many thousands and thousands of transactions that today happen basically off the books.
SR: Is this the so-called “gun show loophole”?
PB: Just as some people are obsessed with — to their own detriment — assault weapons, people are obsessed with gun shows. Gun shows are not the problem. It’s not gun shows, it’s private sales of firearms. Forget about gun shows.
At gun shows you have both federally licensed dealers who do background checks, and you have so-called private collectors who don’t do the background checks. The problem is not the federally licensed firearm dealers, who are actually at most gun shows selling the majority of guns, it’s those other guys.
And even more to the point, it’s the guys who don’t even go to gun shows, because those guys publically set up their product, essentially saying, “Here I am selling guns out in public, where the police can see me, and the ATF can see me,” and so forth. It’s the guys who do that from their kitchen table or the trunk of their car who are selling, all too often, to criminals or to other people who shouldn’t be getting guns.
I would make all sales that are sneaky, where no one knows who is actually buying the gun, illegal. That would keep guns out of the hands of some number of people who right now are very purposefully avoiding the background checks. Those are people we should be very suspicious about.
That would be a huge achievement if we did that, and I think that gun control proponents would be much smarter if they focused on that, because they could say, “This is not about particular weapons, this is not even actually about new laws. This is about making effective laws that we have had on the books for more than 20 years. It’s the idea that felons shouldn’t be able to buy guns. Let’s just do that, which we all agree we want to do. Let’s do it more efficiently.”
SR: On “Meet the Press,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the National Rifle Association is “vastly overrated.” Do you agree?
PB: I would respectfully disagree with the mayor on that point. I disagree with him and many other people who see the NRA as having some diabolical way of manipulating the system. I would just come at it from a different point of view. I would just say that the NRA is very effective in what it does.
There’s a reason they’re very effective. They are much more popular in the rest of America than they appear to be in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. When Gallup does polling, a majority of Americans view the NRA favorably. What percentage of Republicans do you think view the NRA favorably?
SR: Near 100 percent.
PB: More than 80 percent. So, think that through. Is the NRA overrated? Is the NRA some possessor of some strange voodoo power? Or does the NRA have the backing of 80 percent of Republicans, meaning that anyone who is a Republican is likely to do what the NRA wants them to do? To me this is simple, democratic math, not a mystery.
The NRA strikes some people as abhorrent, but those people are in the minority in this country. Is it a mystery that the NRA has a lot of influence on Capitol Hill, where the Republican Party controls one of the two houses of Congress? What’s the mystery?
SR: Do guns rights advocates see the Newtown tragedy differently than previous mass shootings, because children were involved?
PB: I think every person, whatever their view on gun rights, is aghast. How can you think of something more awful than little children being killed? I don’t think gun rights people view the event differently. I think the difference crops up when you say, “What should we do in response to that?”
SR: What do you think of the gun buyback programs in place in New York? Los Angeles had a pretty popular one recently after Newtown. Are those effective in getting guns, legal or illegal, off the streets? Or is it a drop in the bucket?
PB: Statistically there’s no argument: it’s a drop in the bucket. If we have an estimated 300 million firearms in private hands and you run buyback programs each year that collect some tens of thousands of guns, then it’s a drop in the bucket.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I don’t oppose doing it. I don’t think suicidal psychopaths gather up guns and take them to gun buybacks for gift cards to The Gap. I don’t think you have any effect on them. Do you think Adam Lanza was thinking, before he died: “Hm. Do I turn my mother’s guns into a buyback or do I go and shoot up a school?” I don’t think that was part of his calculation.
I don’t think it’s a very effective anticrime gesture, and I think policy should be aimed at crime and not at limiting the amount of guns in the first instance. You want to prevent criminals and crazy people who have guns, not just prevent people from having guns.
SR: Are there lessons that the U.S. can learn from other countries about gun regulation?
PB: There are observations and comparisons that are interesting. I am not sure there are direct practical lessons that are all that valid. The relevant comparison is that we have much greater firearm ownership in this country than exists in any other advanced, industrialized, democratic society, and we also have a vastly higher rate of gun homicides. Smart people who have thought about this have pretty much agreed there is a correlation between the two things. They’ve also agreed that if you could, somehow, drastically bring down the prevalence of guns, you’d probably effect — marginally — the gun homicide rate. There are studies that are done using all kinds of very fancy regression analysis, and that’s all interesting to think about. That if we had 50 percent fewer guns per capita, maybe our gun homicide rate would drop by some percentage. Maybe not 50 percent, but by something.
Then the question is: is that going to happen? It’s fine to wish for that, but by the same token, if we cut highway driving by 50 percent, deaths on the highway would come down, not 50 percent, but come down some. Of the tens of thousands of people on the road, fewer would die. Can we do that? Do we want to do that?
The reason why we can’t learn much in a practical sense from other countries is that we’re not other countries, and we’re not going to become other countries. We’re not going to have Australia’s society with Australia’s values and Australia’s attitudes toward firearms.
If your desire is to have a society that is more like that, it would be much easier for you to move to that society than to transpose that society onto this 300 million-person, 3,000 mile wide, incredibly complex, culture-of-many-cultures country.
SR: I’ll end on this: What can we talk about in this gun debate that is new, that is imaginative? It seems like, after every mass shooting, we go through the same questions, ifs, and buts. You’re an expert in this field — what are we not talking about?
PB: We’re not sorting things out and studying them rigorously. We’re not sorting out what steps might have effects on mass shootings versus what steps might have effects on ordinary street crime. With mass shootings, people demand gun control, but it’s not clear that any of the proposals would lead in any direct way to making schools safer tomorrow, the next day, the next week, the next month. Pass all the gun control you want short of gun confiscation, and it’s a very, very indirect route to securing this particular elementary school on this corner in this town.
Personally I’m perplexed why we don’t have a very earnest, serious, calm debate about the pros and cons of policing that school better. Want to protect something? Police it. We do it all the time. But because this comes up in the context of guns, the perfectly pedestrian notion of discussing policing becomes radioactive. Many public schools are already policed. Many other places are already policed. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing I would do is observe that we are not going to change certain aspects of American culture. We’re not going to become anything other than a gun culture.
Third, I would reframe the debate as one about crime control, not about gun control. To try to find areas where we can get consensus, if not uniform consensus. If you can at least get solid majorities of people and politicians to agree on things, then you can take some small steps. It’s like sorting out the Israeli-[Palestinian] crisis: if you demand absolutes, you’ll never make any progress. The only way to make progress is to find small areas of mutual rationality and try to accomplish those things.
The same with guns: focus on crime control. It’s very difficult for gun rights people to get too hot and bothered and ideological when you’re saying, “All I want to do is keep the guns out of the hands of the wrong people. I don’t care how many guns you have in your house, sir. You’re a law-abiding person; I only care about the criminals and the insane. Do you want to talk to me about the criminals and the insane?” It’s very hard for that gun rights absolutist to say, “No, I don’t want to talk to you about that.”
Suddenly you’re having a conversation and you’re talking about what policies have actually worked to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. There are things to talk about there. Gun crime levels have come down in big cities, including this big city [New York City]. Why? What policies happened? Did they implicate the Second Amendment? Not particularly. Are they perfect? No. Do they have downsides? Yes. But in New York City, just as one example, by changing our policing methods we have reduced violent street crime. In 2012, we had 414 homicides, most of them gun homicides. Twenty years ago, we had in excess of 2,000 gun homicides per year. That’s a huge change in the atmosphere of violence in this city. And by the way, gun control rules didn’t change one way or the other during that period. So it wasn’t the gun control per se that was made tougher. Other things were happening.
What other things were happening? Let’s study those. Let’s replicate them. To me, that’s where I would go, but people don’t like to go there. People actually want to argue about guns because it’s a symbolic thing. They want to argue about other things that are bothering them and they project that on guns in the same way that.
SR: So you argue for more specificity and a scientific approach to the gun debate?
PB: Specificity, modesty in your ambitions, and trying to drain the subject of its ideological radioactivity. Try to deal in a world of rational policy choices, rather than in a world of symbolism.
Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Books Critics Circle.
LARB Staff Recommendations
IN HER BRILLIANT NEW NOVEL and American debut, The Gun Dealers’ Daughter, Filipino writer Gina Apostol creates one of the most compelling characters...
WHAT TO DO? It seems as if the human race is ready to throw itself over a cliff. Or, rather, get thrown by the technology it has itself created...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!