Can ‘baby steps’ keep guns from killing babies?

By Don Holloway via Wikimedia Commons

As y’all know, I seldom write about gun control. That’s because I have long seen the problem as hopeless. We have another mass killing, and we talk about various legislative proposals — background checks, red flag laws, whatever — and the “remedies” seem like nothing compared to what they’re up against.

What they are up against is a number: 400 million. That’s how many guns we have in this country in private hands. We have 329.5 million people, and 400 million guns. As long as that is the case, anybody who is really set on getting his hands on a gun — including the monsters who have the urge to go shoot up a school — will be able to get one. It’s an economic problem: Too many lunatics chasing too many guns.

And of course, reducing the number of guns is just the most extreme, most politically impossible gun control measure of all. It’s the “horrible” thing that the most extreme defenders of the bloody status quo raise to argue against even discussing doing anything about the problem: They want to take our guns!

Of course, sensible people who want to do something always immediately say, Oh no! We don’t want to do that! as they trot out another idea for incremental change. Another idea that, in my view, will do nothing to prevent something like what happened in Uvalde, Texas.

But I’d love it if y’all could convince me I’m wrong, because God knows we’ve got to do something. And it seems the place to start would be at a point that lies somewhere in the vicinity of being politically possible.

Nicholas Kristof has tried to convince me a couple of times lately. Remember how I mentioned running across a column from him in another recent post? Well, that column was headlined “These Gun Reforms Could Save 15,000 Lives. We Can Achieve Them.” A headline like that sort of demands that a pessimist like me listen to what he has to say. Because while we might not save everybody, it would be profoundly worthwhile to save 15,000 lives. Which would be about a third of annual gun deaths.

After I saw that, I listened to a Kara Swisher podcast in which her guests were Kristof and another guy named Frank Smyth. I wasn’t familiar with Smyth — a gun enthusiast who isn’t afraid of gun control, and author of The N.R.A.: the Unauthorized History — but he seemed to be a pessimist along the same lines as me:

There’s no — I don’t see any hope for gun reform now despite this disgusting shooting and these series of shootings and the racist shootings and other shootings by incels and others by different motivations, but the common denominator is easy access to guns….

Kristof disagreed. He thinks taking what Smyth called “baby steps” is worthwhile:

I would say that when you’re already 400 million guns out there, then simply dealing with new guns has limited effect, but you were critiquing baby steps. And I just wanted to speak in favor of baby steps.

I think of a model for — whenever I write about gun policy, then people — I get hostile emails. People say, look, cars kill about as many Americans each year as guns do, and you don’t ban cars. No, but cars are a great example of the public health approach that we should be taking with firearms, and since 1921, we’ve managed to reduce the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven with motor vehicles by more than 90 percent. And it was no one thing. It was a whole series of baby steps. It was — [“seatbelts,” Kara Swisher interrupts to say, before Kristof resumes] — It was airbags. It was padded dashboards. It was divided highways, better lighting. It was roundabouts rather than left turns, and the graduated driver’s license, crackdowns on drunk driving. And I think in the same way that there are baby steps in the world of firearms that they’re not going to be transformative overnight, but I think they are politically feasible. And I think they would save lives and, perhaps, turn the trajectory around…

That makes a great deal of sense to me. Kristof almost always does. Which is why I hope he’ll soon be back at the NYT on a regular basis.

Kristof is very consistently what I strive and too often fail to be.

All my life, I’ve believed in reasoning with people, that’s it’s something that makes a difference. It’s a belief that our system is based upon here in this country. And too few people believe in it now, which is why the system is falling apart.

This belief is what undergirded my newspaper career, and it’s what this blog is about. It’s about having a place where people with different views can discuss issues in a civil and constructive manner. It’s been an uphill battle making that happen since I started blogging 17 years ago, and it’s gotten worse lately.

But I’m going to keep trying. Nicholas Kristof keeps trying, even after he was barred from running for office after he gave up a spectacularly successful career in order to do so. He’s a guy who says things like this:

This will be painful for many of my fellow liberals, but I suggest that we work harder to engage centrists, talk about “gun safety” rather than “gun control,” and jump into the weeds. Social scientists suggest “complexifying” an issue to reduce polarization, and, sure enough, I find that I can (sometimes) have productive conversations with gun enthusiasts if we focus on technocratic details….

A guy like that is worth listening to, worth engaging with. And thanks to him, I’m going to try to be more optimistic on gun control. Saving a third of the people who die unnecessarily due to guns in this country is a worthwhile objective. Saving just one of those children who were murdered the other day would absolutely have been worthwhile.

So I’m willing to try. How about you? As Kristof says in his column:

The truth is that we’re not going to ban guns in the United States any more than we ban alcohol, motorcycles, hunting knives, cigarettes or other products that can be deadly. Screaming, maximalist fights about “gun control” versus the “Second Amendment” have created a political stalemate as we continue to lose 45,000 lives a year to guns. That’s 123 lives lost a day.

This does not happen in other countries. Japan typically loses a single-digit number of people to gun murders in a year; we lost twice that in a single school on Tuesday…

So let’s do something…

34 thoughts on “Can ‘baby steps’ keep guns from killing babies?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    As hugely as that 400 million number looms over the issue, Kristof mentioned another that we need to keep in mind: 380,000. That’s how many guns are stolen each year from private hands.

    One of the favorite protests of those who want to do nothing goes like this: “We don’t want to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

    That one always knocks me over. It is astounding to me that anyone could ever, possibly believe that when there are 400 million guns in the country, the ones that are in the hands of “law-abiding citizens” are all going to stay in such hands. (Or that “law-abiding citizens” always remain “law-abiding citizens,” for that matter.)

    Now I will share a personal anecdote that I think I’ve shared before. Being a personal anecdote, it neither proves nor disproves anything. But I feel like sharing it.

    About 14 years ago, my Dad decided to go ahead and pass on some things that he had lying around the house in closets. One of them he gave me was a Smith & Wesson .38 cal. revolver that he had brought home from Vietnam in 1968. It had been captured from a Viet Cong who I imagine had in turn captured it, or obtained it from someone else who had captured it, from a Westerner — maybe an American, but this weapon has always looked so old to me that it could easily have been a Frenchman. Who knows? Anyway, that’s what guns tend to do — move around from hand to hand.

    The revolver was in a holster hanging from a cowboy-style gunbelt (made by one of his men in Vietnam) that Dad had kept all these years in a yellow flannel bag tied with a drawstring. When he gave it to me, I took it out to my truck and stuck it behind the driver’s seat. I did not take it into the house when I got home. Why? Because I don’t have a gun safe, and because I do have grandchildren. And I knew from personal experience how easy it was for a kid to find the gun someone had “hidden,” and take it out and fool around with it. I had done so many times after 1968 with this very weapon. Kids do that.

    So I just left it in the truck.

    Then came election night, 2008. I told you what happened that night. I stupidly left my laptop in my truck overnight. And burglars chose that night to break into a bunch of vehicles in my neighborhood.

    When the sheriff’s deputy came by to interview me about it, I was standing there next to the truck telling him what happened, when an unbelievably horrible thought occurred to me: The gun.

    I thought I had just become one of those idiots who supply crooks with firearms.

    But I looked behind my seat, and there was the flannel bag. I pulled it out and felt the weight of it with great relied. Then I carefully explained to the deputy what was in the bag before startling him by pulling it out. It was there, which amazed me.

    The deputy was not surprised. He said these thieves were professionals. They saw my laptop on the floor on the passenger side, quickly smashed that window and grabbed it, then moved on to the next victim. They did not foolishly risk being caught by hanging around searching my vehicle after making all that noise.

    Which made sense. I appreciated the thieves’ “professionalism,” because it kept me from being one of those 380,000…

    Anyway, after that I “hid” the gun somewhere else. And no, I’m not in any way going to hint where it is now…

  2. Philip M. Cheney

    What type of “Damascus Road” event would it take to convince a 2nd amendment supporters to change their minds?

  3. bud

    And two few people believe in it now, which is why the system is falling apart.

    I’m sure the “two” is a typo but perhaps it’s an illustration of how limited our ability to communicate across the vast political divide has become. It’s interesting that Kristof illustrates his point using motor vehicle crashes, my chosen vocation for over 30 years. I well remember the fights over seat belts and DUI laws. I think guns are different. I don’t ever remember a time when a terrible crash resulted in weaker safety rules. Progress was slow at times but we mostly moved in the right direction. Even so 35,000+ people die in motor vehicle crashes every year. But that is exactly what is happening with guns. Hopefully Kristof is right but I’m not an optimist.

  4. bud

    This will be painful for many of my fellow liberals, but I suggest that we work harder to engage centrists, talk about “gun safety” rather than “gun control,” and jump into the weeds. Social scientists suggest “complexifying” an issue to reduce polarization, and, sure enough, I find that I can (sometimes) have productive conversations with gun enthusiasts if we focus on technocratic details….

    I find it fascinating that Brad finds this type of writing useful. Complexifying? Technocratic details? The article in question is behind a pay wall so I can’t read it. But really these types of weasel words are not helpful. The ONLY thing that really has any real chance to help is to elect more Democrats. We should focus our attention on addressing the real problem. That is, why does the Republican party have such a stranglehold on effective messaging? Things like “the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” seem to resonate for some reason. Ovalde shows just how ridiculous that bromide is other than to garner votes. Democrats need to do a better job of messaging rather than trying (in vain) to get along with Republicans. Lucy and the football? Obama and Biden have certainly tried that approach nationally to no effect. But hey, if complexifying actually is a useful tool then lets complexify til the cows come home. I’d love to be proven wrong on this.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I hate to be the one to tell you, Bud, but you’ve been proved wrong on this on a daily basis for some years now.

      The “all you have to do is elect more of MY people, and make those idiots on the other side shut up” approach has been thoroughly tested by the millions of people on both sides who have enthusiastically embraced it. And it’s tearing the country apart while solving nothing.

      We need to try something else…

      1. bud

        Hmm. Not sure I follow. My solution clearly does work when Democrats do get elected. Roosevelt pushed through Social Security when Democrats controlled Congress. Johnson got Medicare passed. Obama passed the ACA 60 Democrats in the Senate. Sadly Biden couldn’t budge moderates on Build Back Better. The country moves forward with liberals, not by appeasing Republicans.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “My solution clearly does work when Democrats do get elected.”

          And then what do you do two years later, when Republicans get control?

          We have to find a way to live together. And as long as we think of it as simply, “My side wins and yours loses,” then we all lose…

          1. bud

            Ok, you’re getting close to seeing the solution. If the Republicans lose elections, as they should based on how voters view issues, then progress will be made. The ACA has survived because it has become popular with the American people. Ditto social security and Medicare. That’s why Republicans MUST be opposed in ALL elections. Rather reluctantly accepting terrible politicians like Tom Rice because he did the obvious right thing one time wouldn’t it be more constructive to work diligently to get decent Democrats elected?

            1. Doug Ross

              ACA – just another insurance plan for private companies that has done nothing to control costs or make healthcare more accessible. On a grading scale, it’s a C-.

              Medicare – hundreds of billions in fraud, exists only because private insurers cover the actual costs of care

              Social Security – close to collapse because it was designed for a workforce that had 15 workers per recipient, not 2 or 3. It’s a Ponzi scheme that would be better replaced by private investment accounts that people OWN instead.

              With so much excellence, I don’t see how Democrats ever lose.

          2. Randle

            Bud is correct. Democrats get the job done. And Democrats have the most ineffective messaging I could imagine.
            But more important, the Democratic Party still upholds the principles of democracy our country was founded on. This is the overriding reason to vote for them. The GOP does not. They tried to overturn an election when they didn’t like the results. This is what authoritarians do. Their still-beloved leader, who led this attempted coup, is still supported by an extensive collection of party leaders and the majority of the rank and file. He is not repudiated, and the lies about a stolen election are now an article of faith with the Republican Party.
            They didn’t miss a beat after their failed coup and continue their efforts to subvert the democratic process by whatever means available. See the article in Politico today about their latest plans to disrupt elections at local polling places. Trumpists are claiming the primary results in Georgia are invalid, even though Kemp won with 70% of the vote.

            And the party encourages division because that is an effective means to their cherished end — holding onto power at any cost. They aren’t going to work with Democrats, and their Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, has said this repeatedly ever since Obama took office. McConnell and Bill Barr, the former attorney general, have both said they would vote for Trump again if he were the party nominee in 2024, despite acknowledging that Trump tried to overturn an election, led a coup and and is intellectually unfit to be entrusted with the presidency. They are telling us what they are about.
            At some point, we need to believe them.

            And regarding Brad’s concern that Democratic- enacted reforms will quickly be ash-canned when Republicans take over: Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare are among the Democratic initiatives that are still around and firmly entrenched, despite
            GOP opposition since their inception and popular support.
            But put the GOP in power again, and they are promising to sunset them. If you want to keep this republic of ours, you have to vote for people who support the concept of a republic.
            Good times.

  5. Doug Ross

    Baby steps are not useful if there are equal steps in the opposite direction. For every new law created, there will be manufacturers and criminals who will circumvent the laws. This isn’t a law issue, it’s an issue of morality and mental health. Normal, sane people (even those who own MANY guns) don’t kill people. Those who commit these crimes are not normal, not sane. They are typically enabled by parents or guardians who refuse to take steps to control their kids.

    It’s naïve to think that new laws about background checks or waiting periods or bump stocks will make any significant difference. I have yet to see anyone on the left make a valid case for a new law that will actually be a measurable improvement. They also focus on the sensational mass killings while turning a bling eye to the DAILY shootings that occur in the cities around the country. Imagine thinking some new background check law would have any impact on that.. ludicrous. What we need is a return to stable, family units. That is a lost cause for the current generation of children… one of the baby steps we actually need are for poor people to stop having babies.

    1. Doug Ross

      It’s also a mistake to compare gun control laws to laws/regulations that made cars safer. Car safety laws like air bags and seat belts were passive – nobody was forced to install them in their cars. It just happened over time. Can you imagine the pushback if the government forced people to pay to install them in their cars back in the day? That would be the equivalent of any attempts to confiscate guns.

      Speed limit laws are generally ignored… the average speed on I77 from Charlotte to Columbia is about 80 mph… there aren’t enough cops to catch more than a tiny percentage of them. The number of people who drive drunk compared to the actual number of people who are arrested for driving drunk is a factor of what, 10? 100? Same for texting while driving. A much larger number of people are on their phones than ever are ticketed for it. So if you think new laws are going to accomplish anything, you better go for something big, not baby steps. It’s time to have a real showdown that will require political fortitude.. something our current and previous Presidents lacked. Joe Biden isn’t going to do anything that costs him re-election (or, more likely, a new Democrat president) in 2024. He should. But he won’t. He’ll push for the baby steps approach and make them seem like giant steps.

      Here’s what I would do:

      Ban automatic weapons
      Tax the hell out of new gun purchases, resales and ammo
      Mandatory sentences for illegal gun possession, crimes committed with a gun
      Kill killers with the death penalty swiftly
      Pay poor women to not have children until they are 25 to reduce the gun deaths 15 years from now
      Gun buybacks and destroy the guns that are purchased (lowers supply, creates higher prices for existing guns)

      Those aren’t baby steps.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Those are some big-gummint steps there, Doug.

        But to be clear, when I say baby steps, I’m comparing it to the thing that I have long thought is the only thing that would work (and which has been politically unthinkable, which is why I haven’t argued we should try to do it): Round up most of the 400 million guns, and destroy them.

        Oh, back on cars. You should check on what you say about them. We have seatbelts because the government required them. You might not be old enough to remember when that happened: “Seat belts have been mandatory equipment since the 1968 model year per Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208.

        The big fights came later, when folks started resisting laws to make them USE the seatbelts…

        1. Doug Ross

          But they didn’t force car owners to install them, right? As I said, it happened passively. Any attempt to take existing guns will be met with resistance.

          Please explain how you would get rid of 400 million guns, especially the ones in the hands of criminals. Give us a plan.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Did you read anything I said, or anything I have ever said on this subject? It goes like this:

            1. Up to now, I have assumed nothing will be solved until we no longer have 400 million guns in private hands.
            2. I see absolutely no way to accomplish that in this country. This is why, over the years, you haven’t seen me write much about guns.

            I’ve said it very clearly.

            The point of this post was to say that Kristof has convinced me that lesser approaches — hence “baby steps” — can be helpful…

            1. Doug Ross

              Name one of those baby steps that you think should be prioritized and give us an estimate of how long it will take to see the effects. It can’t happen because there are other steps being taken by gun manufacturers and gun proponents concurrently that will offset it.

              Instead of focusing on mass shooters, what would you do to reduce the DAILY shootings that occur in big cities… mostly by young people?

                1. Doug Ross

                  So, no actual measurable actions. We’re a week past Uvalde and I haven’t seen anything from Joe Biden but a photo op.

                  If you want to take the baby steps approach, why doesn’t Joe start walking? One thing. And yet this is what we get from the Commander in Chief :

                  “President Biden said Monday that it’s up to Congress to outlaw assault weapons and strengthen background checks for gun sales, telling reporters: “I can’t dictate this stuff. I can do the things I’ve done and any executive action I can take, I’ll continue to take. But I can’t outlaw a weapon. I can’t change a background check. I can’t do that,” Biden said after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House.

                  Asked if he is optimistic for getting a deal to address gun violence after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that he had tapped Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to negotiate with Democrats, Biden replied: “I don’t know.”

                  He’s a politician, not a leader. Useless.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    “He’s a politician, not a leader.”

                    Do you actually think those are different things?

                    If you’re dissatisfied with someone as a leader, a fair assessment will tell you he’s no good at politics.

                    Meanwhile, great leaders are unusually gifted at politics — my favorite example being Abraham Lincoln. We never had a better president, and we never had a better politician in the White House…

                    1. Doug Ross

                      They are absolutely different things unless you want to look back 160 years.

                      There are no leaders in politics in 2022. Only self-serving characters who now what to say to dupe the idiots in both parties.

                      Nancy Pelosi isn’t a leader. Neither is Mitch McConnell. And Joe Biden is just a figurehead reading off a teleprompter. At least Obama had some level of awareness, introspection, intelligence. Biden is a shell of a husk of a empty vessel.

                    2. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Yep, we know that’s what you think.

                      You’re wrong. Joe’s a good guy. Is he the best politician I’ve ever seen? Nope. But he’s above average.

                      And in terms of qualifications, especially an understanding of what the job entails, he towers above everyone who was willing to run for president in 2020.

                      I am very glad he ran, and I’m very glad he is our president right now. Even though I know the chances of him or any other decent human being occupying that job well into the future is dim. You know why? Because of the loonies in the GOP who hate him for being a Democrat, the Democrats who hate him for being an actual Democrat instead of a socialist, and cynics such as yourself who don’t like anybody — or at least, anybody I would spend more than five seconds actually considering as a candidate for president. There ARE people you like, I know. Just not that many of them…

                    3. Brad Warthen Post author

                      As I say, Joe doesn’t have the political skills of an FDR or LBJ. But who does?

                      But he’s pretty good, and way better than what you normally see on the political stage today.

                      But there’s another thing that for me rides over all such considerations: He is a decent human being, who actually cares about the country and what it stands for. That makes him somebody very special indeed…

                    4. Brad Warthen Post author

                      And I don’t write those words to change Doug’s mind. I write them for others among you, in case you wonder why — being so pessimistic after years of interactions with Doug — I don’t bother to answer the constant, unending drip, drip, drip of Doug expressing just how much he despises Joe.

                      But you won’t see me do it often. Although you may see fewer such comments from Doug, and others, because I’m just not approving nearly as many comments, especially when they say something new and seem to arise from a compulsion to make this blog a miserable, depressing place.

                      Sure, say “Joe Biden sucks,” if that’s what you think, and you have a case you want to make. But when you do it over and over, don’t expect all your comments, or even most of them, to be posted. It’s monotonous. You want to spend your time on a blog that just pumps out such negativity without end, go out and start yourself one…

      2. Barry

        “Mandatory sentences for illegal gun possession”

        South Carolina refuses to punish people that are arrested for illegal gun possession and no one cares.

        1) Federal Law prohibits anyone with a felony conviction from possessing a firearm, but in South Carolina, only convictions from a list of specified crimes would act as a bar to possession of weapon. For instance, if a person is convicted of Strong Arm Robbery, that person may legally possess a firearm under South Carolina law but be prohibited under federal law. South Carolina law enforcement officers cannot arrest a person for a violation of federal law.

        2) In South Carolina, a person’s potential sentence for his first conviction of
        unlawful possession of a handgun is exactly the same as the fifth conviction of that crime. There is no increased penalty. Criminals know this and several police chiefs have said that the people they arrest know this fact about SC law.

        (This is an issue that has frustrated South Carolina law enforcement for years and the GOP legislature doesn’t care).

        The above points have been raised by folks like Leon Lott and Skip Holbrook (and others) for years now with no action.

        1. Doug Ross

          Too bad Leon is busy making sure our streets are safe from young black kids with a joint in their car…

          Maybe stop criminalizing marijuana so law enforcement can focus on actual crimes? I know it’s easier to pull over a black kid in a car due to a “faulty” taillight…

      3. bud

        Fully automatic weapons have been illegal for decades
        The death penalty? Please. Most of these killers want to die.
        Pay women not to have children. The birth rate is lowest in history and yet mass shootings are at a record high.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      How’s that plan working?

      Of course, the U.S. birth rate has been down, but it’s bumped back up a bit… Of course, I don’t know whether those who are reproducing are the ones you want to do so or not.

      That point aside, I continue to wonder at numbers such as this: “The birthrate dropped to record lows for teenagers and declined 2 percent for women 20 to 24.”

      How is that happening? I’ve seen theories, but I just don’t know.

      Some of y’all don’t subscribe to the Rabbit Hole thing, but when a new technology actually makes people in their teens and 20s less interested in sex, it’s kinda freaky.

      Humans experienced what Yuval Noah Harari terms the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago. They started figuring out how to write down those big thoughts about 5,000 years ago.

      In all that time, could any human civilization have accurately written the words, “Kids are having less sex because they’d rather stare at these objects they carry around with them?”

      It’s rather hard to imagine…

      1. Doug Ross

        The proliferation of apps like tindr would suggest that young adults are still very interested in sex but probably lack the money or interest in raising a kid that would make them want to procreate. There’s plenty of sexual activity going on.. but birth control and abortion play a big role in keeping birth rates down.

        I would like to see the birth rate be zero for young women in poverty. It would benefit everyone for that to happen.


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