On July 1, 1972 The New Yorker Magazine published a book-length article, ‘Fire in the Lake,’ by a 32-year old journalist, Frances Fitzgerald, which set a standard for contemporary reportage, in this case, reportage on Viet Nam. Not only did this work achieve a degree of importance and influence in the annals of non-fiction writing, it also solidified The New Yorker as the prime media venue for content that could define the narrative on any subject for years to come.
I was reminded of Fitzgerald’s work when I read The New Yorker piece about the NRA written by Mike Spies, staff writer for The Trace (where you can also read this piece.) Because it occurs to me that in certain respects, the debate about gun violence bears some resemblance to the disagreements about Viet Nam; i.e., neither side in either argument was able to produce a narrative which was sufficiently cogent enough to convince the other side. In the case of Viet Nam, Fitzgerald’s writing ended that debate. So the question now is: could The Trace produce a narrative that would do the same for the gun violence debate?
It’s one thing to write a kiss-and-tell story about how the NRA is flimflamming money. Big deal. If anyone on the gun-control side thinks that such an article will make gun owners rethink their love of guns, think again. Going after the NRA is a simple and easy way to attract some readership from the gun-control gang, but it won’t do anything to change how gun owners and even non-gun owners think about guns.
When it comes to gun violence, we have a simple problem. It’s not that we have 300 million guns floating around, because at least two hundred million or more of those guns never figure in gun violence events at all. The reason we have gun violence is because Americans have free access to those small, high-powered handguns which are purchased by people who believe that having a Glock on your night table or in your pocket will keep you safe.
And despite incontrovertible evidence proving that guns are more of a risk than a benefit no matter how they are stored, a solid majority of Americans believe the reverse. And since less than 40% of Americans are legal gun owners, obviously there are many non-gun owners who also believe in what scholars like Alan Fiske and Tage Rai call ‘virtuous violence;’ namely, that using a gun to protect yourself is a good thing.
My friends who conduct public health research into gun violence can publish as many articles as they like showing that this reasonable law or that reasonable law may, if enacted, result in fewer gun injuries and gun deaths. But the truth is that the only way to really reduce or eliminate gun violence is to restrict ownership of certain types of extremely-lethal guns. But the more we try to regulate gun ownership, the more we will need buy-in from the folks who own the guns. And the only way that will happen is if someone explains why so many Americans believe that nothing will keep them as safe and secure as owning a gun.
I am still waiting for the first researcher to figure this one out. Because until and unless this issue is explored and understood, the community which wants to reduce gun violence is going to go nowhere fast. Yea, maybe red flag laws will bite off a bit of risk and injury here and there. But in case you didn’t know it, after Colorado passed a comprehensive background check law in 2015, gun violence in that state increased by fifty percent.
So here’s my challenge to Mike Spies and his colleagues at The Trace. Why don’t you sit down and instead of covering yet another case of mismanagement at Fairfax, think about writing a definitive study on the realities of gun ownership which will do for the gun debate what Frances Fitzgerald did for the debate about Viet Nam. You obviously have the talent and The New Yorker has the space.