Jurisprudence

The Right Found a New Way to Not Talk About a School Shooting

A rack of AR-style rifles displayed at a gun show
Only 50 times more powerful than a musket, Kevin Williamson wants you to know. Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

The grim logic of modern gun rights culture and the relentless assault on gun regulation has made America an outlier among industrial democracies when it comes to gun violence. This was again illustrated by Tuesday’s horrific massacre in Uvalde, Texas, during which 19 elementary school children and two adults were murdered by a killer using high-powered weaponry. Instead of debating the issue head-on—the fact that we live in the only country where something like Tuesday’s mass murder of school-age children can happen with such regularity and that our libertine attitude toward guns plays a major role—gun rights activists would rather point to distractions instead of dealing with the issue before us. Despite being handed one legal and political victory after another, they continue to vent outrage and venom, eschewing reasoned debate and carrying forward the grievance culture that animates so much right-wing thought in America. This is readily demonstrated by Kevin Williamson of National Review, responding to Tuesday’s massacre by writing a nearly 700-word article about a minor factual error I made in a recent article, which Slate has since corrected.

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The mistake was in an extrapolation that I made from an academic study to determine how much more powerful modern weapons were than Revolutionary War–era muskets. The study I briefly referenced did not discuss the AR-15, so I hypothesized based on this research that these guns were 200 times more lethal than the muskets used in the founding era. It turns out that the number is more likely closer to 50 times as deadly. This—this—was what prompted Williamson’s anger in the aftermath of the country’s most horrific shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School gun massacre and just days after a white supremacist gun massacre at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. An email noting the error and asking for a correction from me would have sufficed, and I wrote to Williamson to say that I would happily correct the error and asked him for an alternative figure for the comparison, but he declined. (Nowhere in Williamson’s piece does he mention that same day’s mass murder of fourth graders.)

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Williamson took issue with an illustrative figure I offered in a recent Slate article comparing the lethality of today’s semi-automatic high-velocity weapons with Revolutionary era muskets. In that article I suggested that today’s weapons were 200 times more deadly, a claim that would be hard to document in a rigorously scientific fashion and that I offered as a guesstimate based on an extrapolation from an influential 1960s-era study. That study suggested that World War II–era weapons were more than 200 times deadlier than 17th century muskets. However, as Williamson and others rightly noted, the AR-15 cannot be said to be more deadly than fully automatic machine guns used in WWII, and in any event Revolutionary soldiers used 18th century flintlocks that still took much longer to load and were far less accurate than the WWII weapons. Working out of the lethality index developed early in the Vietnam War era, a better comparison would have been to suggest that modern weapons are more like 20 to 50 times as deadly as what founding-era soldiers would use, rather than 200. For Williamson, this is the pressing issue that demands public attention, not the bodies of 19 massacred children being claimed by their parents in Uvalde.

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After reviewing these criticisms and reading Williamson’s article, I wrote to him and conceded that this claim, which had nothing to do with the substance of my argument, needed to be corrected. What is astonishing to me is that Williamson clearly seems far more immediately interested in taking me to task for this error than in dealing with the horrific shootings in the news. His response is morally obtuse. His macabre focus on the relative power of guns, and apparent disregard of the gut-wrenching loss of human life caused by gun violence in America, is sadly common among people who share his worldview. The lethality index was devised by military historians and policymakers to evaluate and compare weapons on a battlefield, not an elementary school. If the shooter in Uvalde or Buffalo had used a musket, most likely all of the victims would be alive today, so in some sense the number 200 that I offered does not even begin to quantify the magnitude of the potential carnage that modern weapons can cause in a school setting.

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Williamson’s myopic response highlights the moral bankruptcy of his distorted and supersized vision of the Second Amendment. With more guns in America than people, and more gun violence than any other industrial democracy, one wonders why these are the sort of things that gun rights advocates choose to focus on. Of course, the answer is obvious: If you address the madness of gun violence in America, then you have to acknowledge the intellectual and moral shallowness of the gun rights position adopted by Williamson and others of his ilk.

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Once upon a time in America, sensible gun regulation was a bipartisan issue. Comparing Richard Nixon’s views of gun control with Barack Obama’s, one would be hard-pressed not to prefer the former to the latter. The fact that Republicans in 1968 were more sound on the need for sensible gun regulation than many in today’s Democratic Party only underscores how far American culture has drifted on this issue toward extremism.

Many journalists and scholars ask why so few individuals come forward to participate in this fractious, contentious, and nasty debate. I think Kevin Williamson has given us a brief tutorial about why gun rights culture, a radical but vocal fringe element of gun owners, has effectively poisoned the well of public discourse on this issue.

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