Whenever America has one of its periodic mass shootings, you can count on seeing this particular exchange played out on cable news and in conversations across the country. The advocate for guns will say to the promoter of restrictions, "You just want to ban all guns!" to which it is replied, "No, I don't! I just want some common-sense regulation!" In anticipation of this criticism, Democratic politicians will regularly begin their remarks on gun control by saying, "I support the Second Amendment, and I'm not trying to ban guns. I just believe…"
So since no one else wants to say it, I will: Yes, I'd like to ban guns. Almost all of them, at least the ones in private hands.
Now before you begin penning your angry, threatening email to me (and so you know, you won't be the first or even the hundredth to communicate your friendly sentiments), let me be completely clear about what I'm not saying. First and most important, I know that guns are not going to be banned. And I know that with around 300 million of them already in circulation, collecting them would be an impossible task even if we tried (which we won't). I am fully aware of the Second Amendment, and of how the Supreme Court decided for the first time in 2008 that it confers an individual right to own a gun. This isn't a realistic proposal for legislation.
At times, however, it's worthwhile to step back from the concrete debates we're having, as important as those are, and spend a moment contemplating what kind of society we'd prefer if there were no practical impediments to radical change. If we could snap our fingers and create any situation we wanted, to start over, what would we do?
I'd suggest that if we were able to do that, we'd be much better off if we abandoned the absurd fetishism around guns that leaves us awash in so much blood and gore. America would simply be safer if we constructed our gun laws like one of our peer countries in Europe or Asia, in which private gun ownership is relatively rare and strictly regulated.
To gun owners, let me make something else clear: I get it. I get that the hunting rifle your grandfather passed down to you gives you a strong and meaningful connection to him. I get that guns are fun, and that just holding one, let alone firing it, can give you an intoxicating feeling of power and potency. I get that tricking out your guns with all kinds of cool accessories and reading about them and talking about them and thinking about them is hugely enjoyable for you. I'm a gearhead too, just about different hobbies. I'll even grant that you're one of the responsible ones, that you take safety seriously and that it burns you up that people who are less careful than you give gun owners a bad name.
But no matter how trustworthy you might be, you have to reckon with the price we all pay for the thing you enjoy: Over 30,000 Americans dead every year, and tens of thousands more maimed and paralyzed. Can you imagine how many restrictions on our rights we'd welcome if terrorists were killing 30,000 of us a year?
Oh, but you say, society has to pay that price, because this isn't just a hobby, it's my family's safety. Would you deprive people of the ability to defend themselves, even in their own homes? Well, if we're imagining what it would be like to start over, then yes, I would. You wouldn't be able to shoot an intruder, but he probably wouldn't have a gun either.
We don't have to imagine the horror such a society would produce, because we have examples all over the world. Do you think defenseless homeowners in England or Japan or Singapore have to fend off a daily stream of home invaders breaking down their doors with homicide in mind? No, they don't. They have crime, and even murders. What they don't have is the kind of body count that we do. It's not because Americans are an inherently violent people, it's because guns are so easily available here.
Yet many on the political right continue to make the ludicrous argument that even if you took away everyone's guns, people would still have evil in their hearts, and if they really wanted to kill they'd find a way. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) recently suggested that instead of passing restrictions on guns, "people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions," and if you find yourself in a mass shooting, you should "get small" to make yourself less of a target. It's like the weather — it's not like you can do anything about it, right?
But the fact is that the easier it is to get guns, the easier it is to kill many, many people. To take just one vivid example, on December 14, 2012, the very same day that Adam Lanza murdered 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a man named Min Yingjun entered the Chenpeng Village Primary School in China with equally murderous intent. He attacked 23 children. But since he was wielding a knife instead of a gun, every one of those children survived.
Imagine if we could save all those lives, the 11,000-12,000 gun homicide victims and the 20,000 gun suicides we have every year, a number that researchers tell us would be far smaller if the means to so surely and easily complete a suicide attempt weren't available. Imagine if we didn't have to pay the billions of dollars we spend every year treating gunshot victims. Imagine if police didn't kill 1,000 or so Americans every year, which they do in large part because they're trained to believe that anyone who looks at them funny might be about to shoot them. Imagine if our country could have that much less fear, that much less misery, that much less grief.
We may not often think about it in these terms, but if you're a gun advocate (or a member of the party that supports unfettered gun rights), you're saying that all this is just the price we have to pay for the joy some people take in their guns. No other developed country pays it, but we must.
So yes, if I had my way, there would be little private ownership of guns, and what there was would be highly regulated, with strict requirements on licensing, training, and record-keeping. You might be able to get an instrument whose very purpose is to kill, but you'd have to jump through some pretty serious hoops, and there would be lots of things that could disqualify you from that privilege. You could keep a small number of bolt-action hunting rifles, but anything else you'd have to go to a range to use, unless there were some extraordinary circumstance that absolutely demanded you keep a different kind of gun in your home. I realize that to some people that sounds like a nightmare.
No matter what legislation we might pass, even in liberal states that have increased restrictions in recent years, we won't get anywhere near banning guns. In particular, we won't address the biggest gun problem we have, which is not mass shootings but the daily carnage that claims around 90 Americans lives every day — and that means handguns, not military-style rifles or accessories like bump stocks. Precisely because we can't start from scratch, all we can do is trim around the edges, try to find ways to reduce the unending slaughter a little bit here and a little bit there.
Those things are absolutely worth doing — if there's a compelling reason why we shouldn't have universal background checks or why someone has a constitutional right to a magazine that holds 30 rounds or a device that turns their semiautomatic rifle into an automatic one, I've yet to hear it. Those are the questions we're actually going to debate, and we should.
But when you talk to people from other countries about America and guns, you always get the same incredulous questions. Are you people crazy? How can you tolerate this? And the answer is that while we might not be crazy, our gun reality is.
We may not be able to change the two centuries that brought us to where we are. But it wouldn't hurt to imagine something less awful.