Interrogation

A Conservative Writer on Why Gun Control Activists Should Be Nicer to Gun Owners

Side-by-side images of a protester wearing a pistol in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and activists and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the Florida State Capitol building on Wednesday.
Side-by-side images of a gun-wielding protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and activists and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the Florida State Capitol building on Wednesday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images; Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

In the wake of the Parkland massacre, as the school’s politically active students have been appearing at state capitols and humbling politicians on CNN, there has been a debate over just how understanding and careful advocates of gun control should be with gun owners. In a New York Times column this week, “Respect First, Then Gun Control,” David Brooks wrote that “If you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points.” Meanwhile, David French, a senior writer for National Review, stated that “The demonization of gun rights advocates is not going to have the intended effect. The gun-owners I know aspire to be the kind of people who would lay down their lives for others. The jeering and screaming slanders their character and strengthens their resolve.”

French is not entirely against gun restrictions. For instance, he proposes “gun violence restraining orders,” which would allow “a spouse, parent, sibling, or person living with a troubled individual to petition a court for an order enabling law enforcement to temporarily take that individual’s guns right away.” (This is something Republican Sen. Marco Rubio recently said he would support.) At the same time, however, French is concerned about what he calls the “collective punishment” of gun owners, and this week wrote in defense of assault weapons, which he views as a safeguard against “state tyranny.” I spoke recently by phone with French, who is a senior writer at National Review. A condensed and edited version of our conversation is below.

Isaac Chotiner: You seem set on this idea that what the left is doing now is going to backfire, because it will turn off gun rights people, but it isn’t as if what the left and Democrats have been doing was working. What do you think the left should be doing differently?

David French: Well, there are a couple things. One—and this is a problem on both sides, because we have people who live in bubbles on both sides—is the sense that if we just mobilize enough of our people, we’ll win. And there is a degree of truth to that, but of course the nation is so evenly divided that the mobilization model is one that I think is going to result in countermobilization, and the best you can hope for will be narrow victories. And if you are someone who is seeking meaningful reform, as opposed to some minor, cosmetic change, very slight shifts from one side to the other are not the way that is going to happen. Mobilization leads to counter-mobilization, and if you are on the left, that pretty much means continued gridlock, and on the right, in the gun control instance, it will be continued victory.

It seems that the right has indeed been enjoying continued victories on guns, with the left not taking the aggressive attitude it has taken after Parkland. So, again, what is the alternative?

I would contest the idea that the left is behaving differently after Parkland. A conservative would say this is exactly what happens after almost every significant mass shooting, which is that you have the same rhetoric and the same argument. Everything is the same. I think there are some distinctions here along the edges because of the activism of the teenagers, but I think that is something that inspires people on the left far more than it changes minds on the right.

The way that gun rights have advanced in this country, at least in my view, is that they have advanced through a long process of culture change. The gun rights movement in this country has been very good at winning hearts and minds at a grass-roots level. If you are someone with the slightest interest in owning a gun, and you go to a gun shop for example, and you start talking to people there, invariably they are going to be people who talk to you with real enthusiasm about what it means to protect yourself, what it means to be an armed citizen. If you get a concealed carry permit, you are generally going to go through a class taught by a person who is extremely enthusiastic about the empowering effect of being an armed citizen—somebody who can protect yourself, protect your family, and your neighbors in public settings. This is multiplied by millions of people, so each person who has a concealed carry permit in general becomes an ambassador for that way of life. Each person with an AR-15 becomes an ambassador for that way of life.

When you are talking about real life changes happening with real people and then comparing them with, you know, a really angry town hall, or really angry tweets and public rhetoric, all of that pales in comparison to the lived experience of these folks.

I want to respect people’s cultures, but it is important to take cultural pathologies and look at them from some remove. And if there was a society halfway around the world that worshipped guns, we might look at it and find it weird, and view it with more of a jaundiced eye. Whatever you think about how much we respect gun culture, do you ever just think it’s just really weird?

I think it feels distinctive, and it is distinctive in part because of our nation’s history. This was a nation born in a violent revolution and expanded in a frontier where there were many situations in which frontier families were forced to fend for themselves in the most dangerous of circumstances.

It is absolutely distinctive, but let me put it this way: The fact that there is such a sharp disagreement in this country means that it feels as if we care more about guns than we really do. If you are living in rural Tennessee, like I do, we are not talking about guns. [Laughs.] We are talking way more about college football. But that’s not a contingent political issue. So when you have a sharp division, and that division is over an issue, and you don’t agree with me, you are probably going to end up arguing more about guns than other issues. And it starts to look like, “Oh all of these people in Tennessee, they are gun fetishists.” But a conservative would say: Why are those folks in the Bay Area obsessed with guns?

My answer would be that kids are getting killed.

Right but that’s when you immediately get into the notion of, “OK, yes, and that’s why we defend ourselves. There are evil people or disturbed people.” And so you recycle the whole question. This notion that people around here are obsessed with guns: Yes, there is a gun culture, and yes there is a community of gun owners. But that is not the same thing as obsession or a fetishistic stereotype.

OK but again, people here would say, “We aren’t obsessed with it, or we are because kids are getting killed.” And the reason we think other people are obsessed with it is that people are getting killed and you don’t want to do anything about it, so it must be an obsession or a fetish.

Our answer is that one of the things we want to do about it is to have greater access to self-defense in the face of evil people. But because you are obsessed with no guns and don’t even want to consider that, because the idea of having another gun is seen to be absurd and ludicrous, there is a particular kind of obsession there. So to say: “Give me options for protecting kids that don’t involve more guns,” sounds to someone like me a little odd.

Wayne LaPierre said Thursday at CPAC that the right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” It feels to me like gun ownership has come to represent what Trump does—a Christian, often white, often rural America, which sees itself as under threat.

I think that the best way to describe the gun debate in this country is not as a policy battle but as a culture war. When you are thinking through this debate and talking to people on both sides, what you often see are two competing visions of a way of life, two competing visions of what it means to be a citizen in a constitutional republic, two competing visions of the kind of society and culture you want to live in. These policy proposals are just the prism through which this larger cultural war is fought. One of the things that is foundational and fundamental from the standpoint of somebody like me who supports the Second Amendment is that the right protected in the Second Amendment has two linked purposes: the inherent right of self-defense, an unalienable right, and a last line bulwark against tyranny. So when you talk about that, when you talk to the gun-owning community, this is an unalienable right in the same way free speech or religious liberty is. It’s worth having a conversation about whether it should be viewed like that, but it is just a simple fact that that is the way in which millions and millions of people view the Second Amendment.

I would even go a step further and say I think it represents not just your views about your rights, but also about racial issues in this country. You had a tweet about state tyranny, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the people most concerned with state tyranny, like the NRA, seem the least concerned about policy brutality. I remember someone making a joke, I can’t remember who, about how white people say they feel safer if everyone in a crowd has a gun. But if you asked them if they felt safer if everyone at a rap concert had a gun, they might not say yes.

A couple things: One, I think it’s a mistake to equate the NRA and gun owners. There are a lot of gun owners who are very distressed about what happened to Philando Castile in Minnesota, and saw that police interaction as extraordinarily irresponsible and extraordinarily dangerous to gun rights. We often take a shortcut and say NRA equals gun owners. The NRA is the most potent organization that represents a portion of the gun-owning public, but to look at the NRA’s actions and say that it equals gun owners is a mistake.

The second thing is that when you are talking about gun owners, I have noticed, personally, a change in the last 20 years: a real effort to reach out to the African American community, and to communicate with and link with the African American community. In fact, some of the more significant constitutional cases brought under the Second Amendment have been brought by African American litigants seeking the opportunity to protect themselves in dangerous neighborhoods. For someone who is living in the middle of gun country, to the extent I have seen any racial angle to it, it has been more about attempted outreach.

But it’s very, very difficult because there is something else that has happened, and that is the increased partisanship. So, if the NRA has done what it has done, which is take sort of a hard turn toward Trumpism, then it is not just a gun rights organization, it also comes across as a very Republican gun rights organization, and just that by itself is going to make it extraordinarily difficult to reach the African American community, which is very Democratic.

I feel like I go online every day and someone is complaining about a college kid who says he was spoken to in the wrong tone of voice and was offended, and everyone laughs at him. But it feels like we are constantly being asked by the people who mock those kids to tiptoe around gun owners or the white majority. “Don’t say it in that tone of voice or you will upset them.” Are we all snowflakes?

[Laughs.] Everyone is a hypocrite on the snowflake issue. That’s the first thing you have to realize. Everyone’s a hypocrite on snowflakery. The question is: Is the model mobilization or is the model persuasion? And I think we are reaching a point in this country where the default political model is mobilization, not persuasion. And then things like respectability politics or an even tone, moderate discourse, can sometimes be seen as counterproductive. Rather, you want to turn it up to 11. It applies to every issue, and this one is that much more poignant because it is an actual issue of life and death, as opposed to say net neutrality. When you turn that up to 11, it is so much more potent.