Bret Stephens, the famous conservative Wall Street Journal turned New York Times columnist, came out in favor of a constitutional repeal of the Second Amendment last week, in response to the slaughter in Las Vegas. I admire him for his pugnacity and countercultural willingness to break with his readership on such an important issue, and generally agree with him and the American left that some degree of gun control, including certain confiscations and certain bans, is good policy. But I remain unconvinced that gun control is the panacea the American left believes it could and will be, or that it is the only way to reduce the rising death tolls from mass shootings.
To be perfectly clear — I don’t oppose gun control. I do support particular gun control policies. I just don’t think it’s the entirety of the solution to the problems of domestic terrorism and mass murder that increasingly plague America.
To begin, few among our generation are aware, but the late 1960s and early 1970s were far, far more violent than the mid-to-late 2010s have been thus far. High-profile assassinations, thousands of small terrorist bombings a year, lynchings by white supremacists and skyjackings in any number of terrorist or criminal groups composed the reality of an America embroiled by urban decay, the Vietnam War and the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s.
Yet by Gerald Ford’s accession to the presidency in 1974, the bombings and skyjackings and lynchings and assassinations had ceased. Americans were as troubled as ever by distrust in government and the looming energy crisis, but they had stopped killing each other in the streets for the time being.
Why is this relevant? Because of the attitude toward resolving that great social and cultural crisis the government took. We couldn’t just ban bomb-making materials — those were illegal already, and in any case the violence took other forms. On top of pushing a campaign of law and order and speaking the language of the “Moral Majority,” then-President Richard Nixon addressed what were perceived to be the root causes of the social unrest sweeping through America — continued involvement in the Vietnam War and the various social problems afflicting the American poor. Over the course of his presidency, the United States drew down its commitment in Vietnam and ended the military draft, and unleashed a flood of domestic legislation — school desegregation, welfare reform, revenue sharing and new regulatory agencies— aimed at improving domestic conditions. And by the time Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, the bombings and skyjackings and even the mass protests and street violence had ceased. The frequent violence of the prior decade was over.
In the late 2010s, again in an era of dramatic divisions, rising tensions and all-too-frequent political and apolitical violence, we face a different situation: There isn’t one or two political factors leading to the cultural breakdown and social isolation whose ultimate manifestations are the mass shootings, the car and truck attacks, the low-level public knifings that no longer surprise anyone when they happen. But despite the lack of a proximate cause to address, the social breakdown is no less real, depicted vividly by writers on the right and left and occasionally addressed by policy wonks intent on crafting policies that build “social capital.” The problem is, as many point out, no one really knows how.
We need to figure out how, and at levels beyond just policy. Every level of American society, from governments to communities to businesses to churches to foundations, needs to be somehow involved in the great work of putting our social fabric back on a course toward order and stability and harmony. And that requires national leadership of a caliber we haven’t had in decades, but that we’ll need again soon.
To reiterate, gun control is just good policy and good management, and really should be done sooner rather than later in the interests of the public, gun owners and everyone else involved. I’m happy my party — the Republican Party — is starting to realize that and is making, at the very least, baby steps toward pragmatism in that regard.
But I remain skeptical that gun control, no matter how comprehensive and well-intentioned and well-enforced, will put a halt to the cycle of social violence that’s begun to envelop the country in recent years. Madmen and terrorists always seem to find a way. America’s gone crazy; in the short run, making America sane again could involve passing new gun laws and bans and regulations. But in the long run, it must involve so much more.
Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.