On Wednesday, March 14, 2018 students across the country walked out of their classes as part of #NationalWalkoutDay to protest gun violence in this country. This past Saturday, March 24, these and other students took part in a March for Our Lives protest advocating for gun control. They called for “common sense gun control/safety” laws that will keep our schools and public places safe. Some converged upon Capitol Hill where teenagers gave impassioned speeches about comprehensive gun control measures and bipartisan solutions. Twitter erupted with effusive praise about the inspiring stand our youth are taking, and about how this is what real change looks like. It is estimated between 1.2-2 million people showed up in Washington, DC, as well as in other coordinated events, making this a significant event.
Although I have no problem with people peaceably assembling to advance a cause or protest an injustice, and I am a robust supporter of the freedom of speech, I’m skeptical this movement will do any good. Here are five reasons why the March for Our Lives probably won’t succeed.
Youth Led Movements Are (Mostly) Foolish & Risky
Try to think of one political or cultural movement in world history led by the youth that was successful, not just in achieving its proximate goal, but in actually advancing human flourishing. I can’t think of any, and I majored in history in college. Certainly there have been youth movements that have been part of large political and cultural shifts, but they were either directed by adults or were one component of a larger adult movement. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement in America the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began with the help of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (although they eventually became independent); the Boy Scouts of America were born out of the larger Progressive Era and were overseen and directed by adults; the Hitler Youth was the youth organization of the larger Nazi Party. Of course, this doesn’t mean it is impossible to have a successful youth-only led movement, but we need to be sober-minded about how rare these are.
There are some advantages to youth-led movements: energy, zeal, single-mindedness of purpose, purity of principle (sometimes), and belief in the impossible. With their entire lives ahead of them, young adults often bring a can-do attitude to solving various cultural ills and have yet to be corrupted or worn done by defeat and the hard nose of reality. This kind of innocence and clarity of belief can inspire—or perhaps intoxicate—others, especially those who are discouraged and jaded. Still, such virtues need to be tempered by the wisdom and experience that come with age and more mature thinking.
How many of us in our own youth had radical ideas, held stubbornly to various policy positions, or dreamily strategized to build a better society only to later in life look back in horror at our ignorance or just plain stupidity? It happens to us all. Given the general immaturity of teens, I wonder why we ever think it’s a good idea to follow them into the brave new world of tomorrow. This is especially concerning with the iGen generation: the generation born since 1995 who entered adolescence with an iPhone in their hands and arthritis in their thumbs. A recent book by Jean M. Twenge, Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, chronicles the dispiriting impact screens have had on teens. As one reviewer of the book put it,
iGen suffers intellectual and moral deficits: they are ill-informed, uninterested in pursuing relevant information, passionate without being active, afraid of debate with those who disagree, and uninterested in learning or exploration… they are the last people you should want as the voice of your cause, for their position is born not of study and argument but of unreasoned sentiment and intellectual torpor.
It is not just youth movements in and of themselves, but the nature and character of the present youth generation that puts us at risk. They are especially ill prepared to lead a social movement to make America safe from gun crime. Yet as troubling as this is perhaps what’s worse is that their ignorance is compounded by the conniving of adults, as the next point reveals.
Adults Manipulating and Brainwashing the Youth
Unfortunately, the leaders of this movement—Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Delaney Tarr, and others—have simply become talking heads for two groups: a leftist media that pushes gun control, and the Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety organization. Extended commentary on the biases of the media is unnecessary; anyone who’s been around a while knows that most major media outlets lean left (except for Fox), while talk radio is dominated by the right.
The real problem is former New York mayor and billionaire Bloomberg. As John R. Lott Jr. has documented in his latest book, The War on Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies (New York: Regnery, 2016), Bloomberg has engaged in churning out false and misleading information, manipulating polls, and sinking millions of dollars into biased research that has only one goal: convince the American people and their representatives that gun control must be passed. Bloomberg works together with the media, as his Everytown group funds multiple-day workshops that “teach” journalists how to cover the gun issue. No wonder every time there is a mass public shooting the media covers it obsessively and proposes gun control as the only “common sense” answer, while being ubiquitously quiet about common defensive gun use; or they smear the NRA with lies and half-truths. Much more could be said on this point, but I’d encourage you to pick up Lott’s book to find the extent to which massive efforts (in time, personnel, and money) are being expended to push a far-left political agenda.
The March for Our Lives teens seem oblivious to all this; they’ve walked into a perfect trap, for Bloomberg and the media are more than happy to use these unsuspecting and foolish teens for their own political gain. Emotional, angry, and impassioned speeches can stir up a people, and the romantic nostalgia of a vibrant, youth directed movement that will finally bring hope and change can cultivate just the right political and cultural milieu that makes gun control legislation possible. Be assured, however, that once these children have been maximally utilized, they will be left behind and forgotten by the very people who are right now their most passionate cheerleaders.
Gun Safety Language and Laws That Won’t Help
The movement right now is being labeled as a movement for “gun safety” or to stop “gun violence in America.” Of course, everyone, no matter their political allegiance, is for gun safety and against gun violence, but it is quite convenient if one side is able to capture these labels and boast that they are the true progenitors and proprietors of them. All this talk about gun violence and gun safety may convince us that gun violence is at a crisis in America. Yet it isn’t. Homicide rates are at a 20 year low from their high in the mid-1990s. And as researchers at Northeastern have recently demonstrated, mass public shootings—including school shootings—are declining. You are more likely to die from a lightning strike, drowning, or a bicycle accident than a school shooting. We must determine to use hard evidence to reshape and reform the kind of language we use, in order to bring rhetoric in line with reality. Yet few seem willing, or even capable, of doing this.
The goal of building a safer America is said to require so called “common sense” gun control laws. Now, the political language we use is important as it helps us conceive and articulate common pursuits; but it can also be dangerously deceptive (Newspeak anyone?). If we are told that gun safety can only be achieved through certain gun control laws, and everyone is for gun safety, then everyone should be for those gun laws—because, who, in their right mind, is against something that’s “common sense”? (Not even Thomas Paine was against that!).
Notice how this kind of language plays right into the political divisiveness that is racking our country and battering down the walls of unity and solidarity: if X is a “common sense” law, then anyone against X must be irrational; and irrational people can’t be reasoned with or trusted; instead they are to be ignored, shunned, or possibly even locked away as they are a danger to society. So, the language we use, while seemingly innocent or perhaps even empowering, can also be destructive to public discourse, and ultimately, to finding a workable solution that doesn’t require censoring, bullying, or overriding the will of people.
What are the gun control laws being offered? Here’s a short list:
- Banning Bump Stocks
- Universal Background Checks
- Raising the Age Restriction to 21
- Banning Assault Weapons
- Banning Large Capacity Magazine and Silencers
- Preventing the Mentally Ill from Acquiring Guns
I happen to believe that all of these are mistaken and none would actually do anything to reduce gun violence and death in America. One of my goals in future articles will be to investigate each of these proposals in more detail and explain the fallacy of each of them in turn.
Misrepresenting and Scapegoating the NRA
The NRA is the gun control lobby’s favorite scapegoat. The most common slogan scratched on protest signs has something to do with how the NRA has “blood on its hands.” I highly doubt that those blaming the NRA actually know much of anything about what the NRA does. Yes, they do have a lobbying arm that works in Washington, but the absolute amount of money they give to politicians is pitiable compared to what other interests groups shell out (e.g., medical insurance companies). As the Washington Post reported, since 1998 the NRA has donated a little over $4 million to members of Congress. Only $4 million in a twenty year period?! That comes out to about $200,000 a year. Of course the NRA has spent more on campaigns nationwide and ads and so forth, but that’s not lobbying.
The idea that the NRA is buying Washington is nonsense, but it’s a fairytale the anti-gun lobby has to sell you because their worldview is drenched in a crude neo-Marxism: there are good guys and there are bad guys, and the bad guys oppress the good guys; so all we have to do is identify the bad guys, uproot, and overthrow them, and all our problems will be solved. Well, the NRA isn’t the “bad guy”; their power is not in their purse, but precisely because they have the majority of the American people behind them. It doesn’t take much effort to find out that the NRA does so much more than just influence Washington: they teach gun safety classes, responsible ownership and accurate marksmanship; they hold town hall events, talks and debates on campuses, sponsor conferences, and the like. They are pro-gun to be sure, but they care deeply about responsible and safe ownership of firearms.
The idea that simply because the NRA is pro-gun, and criminals use guns to commit heinous crimes, therefore the NRA has the blood of those criminals’ victims on their hands is the most bizarre and mindless argument ever. Or perhaps the argument is that the NRA is blocking gun legislation that otherwise would save lives—a statement that depends upon the legislation being proposed, and which, according to my research, is false, since none of the laws currently being bantered about would have stopped any mass shooting (or even common handgun crime). We don’t blame the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because some people decide to misuse their automobiles and drive drunk or recklessly that kills thousands (and injures millions). Car ownership can be used responsibly or not, and the abuse by the irresponsible should neither impugned the government authority nor eclipse the rights of law abiding citizens. The saame goes for gun ownership. Discourse that descends into defamation and calumny of the NRA is despicable no matter how much you dislike the group.
(Disclaimer: I’m not a member of the NRA nor do I know anyone who is. I am generally favorable toward the group, although there are some things I dislike about them.)
A Political Solution to a Cultural Problem
In his book Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One (New York: Basic Books, 2004), the American economist and celebrated conservative intellectual Thomas Sowell, makes a distinction between what he calls categorical and incremental thinking. The former is almost exclusively the domain of politics and law, and it consist of binaries: legal or illegal, vote yes or no, do it now or never, etc. On the other hand, incremental thinking is the hallmark of economics: I’ll buy only so much fabric, but not all of it; I’ll purchase half a tank of gas or a full tank at a lower price, etc. We can make choices on a scale that is more fine-tuned to the needs of the moment and still leaves room for adjustment in the future.
Notice what kind of thinking the March for Our Lives movement has adopted: we must pass gun control laws now, to save people from dying, because never again will we let this happen. This is classic categorical thinking: it’s all or nothing, right now or never, or else people will die. Ironically, not only is this not true, but this approach actually condemns the movement to failure. Gun control is already a tough enough sell to the American people; infusing the debate with this kind of harsh, totalizing, take-it-or-leave-it rhetoric shuts down the possibility of the two sides coming together in productive dialogue to find common ground.
I know that the tragic and terrifying Parkland shooting has created a palpable urge to do something now to stop this kind of thing. Politics tempts us with quick, categorical solutions that will cauterize the bleeding and heal the patient. I’m afraid this is not possible. Even if we were to pass sweeping gun control legislation—or in our wildest dreams successfully ban all guns—this wouldn’t prevent everyday gun violence or mass public shootings. Instead, we must dig deeper to understand the root of the problem, and we must adopt incremental, localized, and diverse solutions.
More needs to be said about the gun debate, and since I’ve invested a considerable amount of time reading the literature on the topic, I’d like to share what I’ve learned. In the coming weeks, I’m going to cover each of the above gun control legislative proposals in more depth and demonstrate why they won’t work. In addition, I will lay out some possible legal and political regulations that might help. However, I mainly want to demonstrate the saliency of the last point above: that we are unwisely seeking a quick, political fix to a deep and corrosive cultural problem. I will explain what that cultural problem is, and why confronting and healing it is going to be so very difficult. Stay tuned.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.