How Gunsplaining Could Lead to Better Gun Laws
Probably you shouldn’t talk about guns. Yes, 58 people are dead and scores more injured because a sniper with enough big guns to arm an infantry squad unloaded on an outdoor concert. But if you don’t already know what a “bump stock” is, can’t identify the difference between “fully automatic” and “modified semiautomatic” from the sound of the gunshots alone, or think “assault rifle” is actually a thing, well, maybe you should leave this argument to the experts.
Or: don’t. Because that kind of conversational hijacking—call it gunsplaining—is a big part of the reason a country with all the freedom and all the weapons can’t seem to solve its death problem.
So, yeah, if you want to engage, you better know what you’re talking about. Automatic weapons—which keep firing as long as the trigger is depressed—are illegal for civilians to own. Semiautomatic weapons, which require a trigger pull for each shot, are not. Stephen Paddock, the killer in Las Vegas, used a “bump stock,” a sort of spring mechanism that let his semiautomatic guns approximate the firing speed of automatic ones. Neither descriptor affects whether something is an assault rifle, necessarily. Get any of the words wrong—as I almost certainly have, in some detail or other—and you are deemed unqualified for the tense, overdue conversation about guns and death in America.
This linguistic in-grouping signifies more than just policy-speak. That love of detail, the in-grouping of like-minded people based on the ability to recognize specific brands and modifications, the argumentation by means of hypercorrect vocabulary, the collector’s impulse to buy more guns: These are hallmarks of nerds.
Now, a few trips to a firing range does not make me a gun nerd. But I’m close with a few, and I know a nerd subculture when I see one. I’m the guy who can tell you what technology Klingon starships use to achieve warp speed and can argue whether Isaac Asimov’s retconned Zeroth law of robotics makes any sense in the context of the initial Three Laws. Nobody ever died arguing about that stuff. The Constitution does not guarantee my right to bear Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. (Actually I guess it does, but you get what I mean—it doesn’t guarantee my right to brain you with it. That thing is a brick.)
I don’t mean to make light of guns, the people who insist on their right to bear them, and the deaths of so many—in Las Vegas and elsewhere. But I do think that the fundamental nerdiness of gun owners may be one of the things bollixing the argument. The gun question in this country embodies some fundamental tensions. The Constitution enshrines a right to keep and bear them—a right increasingly honored in its most extreme form after the National Rifle Association went hard in that direction in the 1980s.
Yet it’s also true that guns kill way too many people. Americans of good conscience could probably agree that we should find a way to fix the latter without breaking the former. But that’s where the nerdcloud obscures things—it further silos people into expert and nonexpert categories. Nerding out makes it as hard for a non–gun fan to talk to gun owners as for a non-Trekkie to talk about dilithium.
This is in part by design. NRA lobbying induced Congress to ban the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from letting public health experts loose on the problem. Last month, the National Institutes of Health abandoned an $18 million program to study gun violence that President Obama instituted after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The facts on the table—who owns guns, what kinds of injuries they cause, who’s most likely to be dangerous versus responsible—disappeared. Absent that information, the NRA’s lobbying becomes that much more potent. You can’t regulate something you don’t understand. Which is exactly what the NRA wants.
How else to explain the lack of movement on gun control laws in a country where 90 percent of people support, for example, background checks for all gun purchases? Most Americans don’t own a gun. Most support more stringent regulation. But to get there, they have to climb through an Overton window, a shifting of what people think is politically achievable that in turn constrains conversations about an issue. The conversation has been reframed to be about persnickety details over what constitutes a dangerous, person-killing gun versus one with a somehow nonlethal use.
To be clear: I am not saying that ignorance is acceptable when it comes to talking about guns and the laws that govern them. As in all matters of policy—health care, taxes, defense—knowledge and an understanding of history make the difference between good rules and bad. But policymaking progressives fall for Overton window shifts all the time, because at first they seem like a rational argument. The progressives ask for some vast societal shift, and its opponents say no—and spin up a rhetorical whirling blade to administer the thousand cuts necessary to explain why whatever that shift is can never work.
Meanwhile the progressives figure if they can just put a Band-Aid on every one of those cuts, they’re making progress. They’re bargaining, you see. But pretty soon all the concessions aggregate into a shifting of the Overton window. Instead of talking about how the government can work with insurers to give everyone health care, we’re talking about Medicare block grants. Instead of figuring out how to reduce gun deaths, we’re finding regulatory definitions for “assault rifle.”
That’s too bad. I think gun nerds might actually be the most receptive audience for real, useful research, because guns are fundamentally gadgets, the quintessential example of the American fixation that Reyner Banham in 1965 called “the great gizmo.” It is, he wrote, “a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires.” Not unlike cars and iPhones, guns are almost immeasurably powerful distillations of human engineering and ingenuity.
So someone has to figure out a way to talk about guns that appeals to the people who know the most about them. Here’s my pitch: Cut through NRA lobbying and gun industry profit-mongering by inducing the people who want to nerd out about firearms to nerd even harder.
Right now they think research is a stealth approach to give, well, ammunition to anti-gun activists. It doesn’t have to be. As FiveThirtyEight science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker pointed out on Twitter, accidental gun deaths have declined by half since 1980. Doesn’t anyone want to know why? That could be cool. And useful.
I suspect that there’s now a difference between the NRA—the powerful, industry-associated lobbying organization—and gun owners, just as there was before extremists took over the organization from moderates in the 1980s. The NRA may not want anyone to know more about guns and who uses them, but if those users are as nerdy as I suspect, they’re hungry for knowledge. All nerds are. It’s power, and it lets you construct a deeper narrative about the thing you love, whether that’s Klingons or Kalashnikovs. There’s more to know about guns than make, model, and year. It’s knowledge that researchers would like to get and the NRA would like to hide.
Gun owners could be a primary audience for this knowledge—it is, as the internet says, relevant to their interests. Maybe gunsplainers can be gunsplained, an exchange of information that acknowledges guns’ greatness as gizmos but also builds laws and regulations that prevent not only mass murders but the suicides, accidental deaths, and assaults that are the real cost of widespread gun ownership in America.