I don’t re-blog much on this site, and I definitely try to stay out of politics (though sometimes I can’t help myself). Lately more than ever.

To be perfectly honest, I have grown weary of the culture war rhetoric on both major sides of the debate over guns in American society. I don’t want to see John Oliver making fun of gun owners or NRA videos of John Oliver on a TV getting smashed by a sledge hammer. I don’t want to see the mainstream media stigmatizing gun owners or Dana Loesch burning newspapers. I don’t want the Democratic Party to be anti-gun or the NRA to be a wing of the Republican Party.

I understand that culture warriors are going to be culture warriors, but I’m looking for a way forward, a via media, a third path. I don’t know if this is the right one, but I was contacted recently by Kareem Shaya about a web site he has put together called “The Path Forward on Guns.”

I can’t say that I have seen anything quite like it, so I told Kareem I would re-post it here and encourage readers to have a look.

The Path Forward on Guns

The gun debate: 5% gun nuts, 5% gun controllers, and 300 million people who just want to move forward.

But we can’t move forward. Really can’t. Metaphysical can’t. Unstoppable-force-versus-immovable-object can’t. We’re stuck and that’s that.

The way we got here is simple: each side is trying to destroy the other. You win wars by force. And culture wars are no different. Each side fires their volleys, back and forth.

The NRA allied itself to all kinds of unrelated hot-button issues. New York State passed a 2013 gun ban that achieved 4% compliance and had effects like a father of three facing 15 years in prison for a pistol grip. The NRA made ads that alienated millions of people and ranted absurdly about “the clenched fist of truth”. Massachusetts banned bump stocks and sent a letter to every gun owner in the state saying, “Turn in your bump stocks by February 1, 2018 or face life in prison.”

Round it goes. The gun controllers feel like the gun rights crowd will never give an inch. The gun rights crowd feels personally threatened — “If that father of three is facing 15 years for a pistol grip, I could be next.” And both sides just dig in deeper.

Then we try rational arguments and fire off statistics, but the truth is nobody cares. Each side has their arguments, each side has their stats, and none of it ever moves the needle. You convince a few people, they convince a few people. It’s a wash.

So then each side gives up on persuasion and tries to ram their laws through. But no matter which side you’re on, the other side is strong enough to block your laws. Sure, you win some state-level battles here and there. But that only hardens the opposition, and they win their share of state-level battles too.

Both sides sell their donors the same pipe dream: “We’re going to slowly change minds. Raise money, pass state-level laws, run PR campaigns, support good politicians. And one day, finally, we’ll get 60 votes in the Senate to pass our dream federal gun law.” If you understand only one thing about American gun politics, understand this: that will never happen.

For decades we’ve pretended not to know that. But these scorched earth tactics aren’t working, and worse, they’re tearing the country apart. Kids get murdered and we’re too busy grabbing each other by the throat to even grieve, let alone to show the grace and love that the greatest among us model. It’s nauseating.

It is high time for a fresh approach.

The other side isn’t powerful enough to pass their laws, but they are powerful enough to stop you from passing yours. So if we accept the truth, that we will never agree, we have to ask a new question: how can we move forward even while everybody still disagrees? How can we write a law that neither side wants to block? The answer is going to test whether you’re honestly willing to do what it takes to fix this stalemate.

People in this debate often use the word “compromise”. But what they usually mean is, “Fine, let’s compromise: we’ll do none of what you want and only half of what I want.” Neither side is dumb enough to fall for that. An honest path forward means something very different: each side gives some things, and each side gets some things.

So let’s take the honest path, which is the only one that has any chance of happening. A path that advances gun rights and addresses people’s concerns about guns in the wrong hands. I’ve talked to dozens of people about this in person, and hundreds online. They ranged from people who would literally join a civil war against gun control, to people who want a flat-out ban on gun ownership, to people at every point in between. Almost every last one of them said they’d support this proposal in a heartbeat. The entire political spectrum is up for this.

Now it’s time to see if the politicians and each side’s big lobbying groups are up for it. It’s fun to bluster and preach to your side. But when the time comes to actually do something, when there is a real path forward on the table, that’s the true test. Your pressure on the politicians and lobbying groups will determine what they do next.

The Specifics of the Path

For the gun control side

1. Swiss-style universal background checks

Yup, the big enchilada. Gun rights people often worry that UBCs will turn into the government tracking (and later confiscating) everybody’s guns, so this system staves off those fears while still making absolutely sure that every gun buyer is checked. It’s modeled closely on Switzerland’s system. Here’s how it works:

  • Any gun buyer can log into the NICS background check system and enter their personal information. The system gives them an ID number that expires in 1 week. (For reference here is ATF Form 4473, the background check form.)
  • The buyer can then buy firearms from any legal seller. They have to meet face-to-face, and the buyer shows the ID number. The seller checks that number in the NICS system, and the system returns just one word: “approved” or “denied”. In the former case, the seller then confirms the buyer’s identity using a government-issued ID, and they can proceed with the sale.
  • The system doesn’t collect any information at all on the items being sold/transferred (type, make, model, quantity, etc.) — its only job is to run a comprehensive check on whether the buyer is legally allowed to purchase firearms. After one week, when the one-time-use ID number expires, the system doesn’t retain any records. (That information is already archived for 20 years on the Form 4473 for all gun shop sales, and that would stay the same.) The system collects no information about the seller, as it’s designed to work perfectly without knowing the seller’s identity.
  • Transfers between family members are exempt. Non-commercial firearm loans of up to 14 days are also exempt — this is just to accommodate a situation where, say, two people are on a backcountry hunting trip and one needs to lend the other a gun during the trip. They need some way to do that without committing a felony.
2. Extreme risk protection orders

These laws allow a government to temporarily seize weapons from people who a court finds are plotting a violent act. They can be prone to abuse if written in an overly broad way, but well-written ERPOs would likely have prevented many of the horrible mass shootings we’ve seen. Congress doesn’t have the power to create federal ERPOs, but it can and should pass a law that incentivizes states to create their own ERPOs. The columnist David French wrote an excellent outline of what a good ERPO law looks like:

  • It should limit those who have standing to seek the order to a narrowly defined class of people (close relatives, those living with the respondent);
  • It should require petitioners to come forward with clear, convincing, admissible evidence that the respondent is a significant danger to himself or others;
  • It should grant the respondent an opportunity to contest the claims against him;
  • In the event of an emergency, ex parte order (an order granted before the respondent can contest the claims), a full hearing should be scheduled quickly — preferably within 72 hours; and
  • The order should lapse after a defined period of time unless petitioners can come forward with clear and convincing evidence that it should remain in place.
ERPOs cover a gap that our mental health system does not. The reality is that our focus on “mental health” does two catastrophic things:
  • It shames and stigmatizes people with psychiatric diseases, which makes them less likely to seek the very treatment they need.
  • It doesn’t even address the problem. Very few people with mental illness will ever become violent, and most mass shooters don’t actually have any diagnosable mental illness. But most would-be killers do throw up exactly the kinds of red flags that an ERPO system will catch.
3. Classify bump stocks as machine guns

The purchase of new machine guns has been banned in the US since May 1986. The way the law defines “machine gun” is very specific, and it doesn’t cover bump stocks. Therefore bump stocks can’t legally be banned by executive action or by the ATF. Congress will have to pass a law that classifies bump stocks as machine guns.

For the gun rights side

1. Put silencers in the same legal category as handguns, not grenade launchers

Because of an 84-year-old law (the National Firearms Act, or NFA), silencers (also called suppressors or mufflers) are currently in the same legal category as grenade launchers. To buy one, you pay a $200 tax to the ATF, and then you wait. Currently the average wait time is 7 months. Many people incorrectly believe that the long wait is for some kind of extra-thorough background check. It’s not; silencers are subject to the exact same background check as all firearms are. The 7-month wait is literally just for the ATF to work through its paperwork backlog. Also, if you loan your silencer to a family member who’s going on a hunting trip, that loan is a felony punishable by 10 years in federal prison. To stay out of jail, you’d have to do the $200 tax + 7-month wait again just to loan the silencer to your dad. Then when he gives it back to you? $200 tax + 7-month wait again.

So what do silencers do? Well, apart from an explosion or a rocket launch, a gunshot is quite simply the loudest sound in the human world. It is deafeningly, dangerously loud, around 165 debicels. Decibels are a logarithmic scale, so every 10 dB is 2x as loud. A jackhammer is 115 dB. A jet airplane taking off 25 yards away is 130 dB. The OSHA standard for sound that will instantly damage your hearing is 140 dB. Guns are another 4-6x louder than that OSHA cutoff.

A silencer lowers a gunshot to about 130 dB. Contrary to what you see in movies, that’s still 3x louder than a jackhammer. Extremely loud, but just quiet enough to not instantly damage your hearing. That’s why in countries like Norway and New Zealand, silencers are completely unregulated and it’s considered rude and unsafe to hunt without one.

This proposal is much more modest than that: simply change silencers from a Title II firearm to a Title I firearm. Instead of putting them in the same legal category as grenade launchers, put them in the same category as handguns — available to adults who pass a NICS background check, denied to those who don’t.

2. Repeal Depression-era barrel length laws

Because of the same 1934 law that affects silencers (the National Firearms Act, or NFA), rifles and shotguns in the US must have a minimum barrel length (16″ and 18″, respectively). So you can go to the store, pass a background check, and buy a rifle with a 16″ barrel. But possessing that same exact rifle with a 15″ barrel is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison.

As an illustration of how arbitrary that is, the well-meaning gun owner who recently went on Facebook and cut his gun in half unknowingly broke this law — his video shows him red-handed doing what the NFA describes as “illegally manufacturing a short-barreled rifle”. For the harmless act in that video, he can be jailed for 10 years. It’s only legal to cut your barrel below NFA length if you go through the $200 tax + 7-month wait process described in the silencer section above. Same process for all NFA items.

Contrary to popular belief, the barrel length law has nothing to do with dangerousness; the shorter the barrel on a rifle or shotgun, the less powerful and less accurate it is. The law is actually an interesting relic of how the NFA came to be. The first draft of the NFA included all handguns — in 1934 the $200 tax was equivalent to $3700 today, and it was designed to effectively ban all concealable weapons.

The bill’s writers added the barrel length rules to stop people from buying a rifle, cutting down the barrel and the stock to make it almost as short as a handgun, and then saying, “It’s a rifle, not a handgun.” There was only one problem: there was no political support to include handguns in the NFA. The law wouldn’t pass in that form. So the writers removed handguns from the NFA, but they never removed the barrel length rules that were only there to close the handgun loophole. That is why today a 16” barrel is fine while a 15” barrel is 10 years in federal prison.

This is a proposal to remove the barrel length rules from the NFA, moving those guns from Title II to Title I. Instead of putting them in the same category as grenade launchers, common sense dictates treating them like handguns (which are far more concealable) — available to adults who pass the NICS background check, denied to those who don’t.

3. Concealed carry permit reciprocity
Carry permit laws vary wildly from state to state. What’s perfectly legal in one state might be a felony just over the border. That’s how we get cases like that of Shaneen Allen, a single mother from Pennsylvania who was pulled over while driving in New Jersey. She was carrying a gun with her Pennsylvania permit, which New Jersey does not recognize. As a result, the New Jersey police arrested her and she was charged with a felony that carries a three-year mandatory minimum sentence. Only a pardon from the governor saved her. Hundreds like her across the country aren’t lucky enough to get a pardon.

State-level and local-level carry laws can be so complicated, and interact in such unpredictable ways, that there are lawyers who base their entire practice on advising people on these issues. A narrowly-tailored reciprocity law will protect well-intentioned people from being accidentally ensnared by those laws as they travel out of their home state.

For everybody

1. Mass shootings are a media contagion. The press can help stop it with the same anti-copycat guidelines they already use for suicides.

Even amidst the fractal squabbling that poisons this whole debate, there is one idea that nearly everybody agrees on: mass shootings are a media contagion. There’s a large body of research on the subject, and it indicates that saturation media coverage of these horrors likely causes additional mass shootings.

Let’s begin with the evidence on suicide reporting, which is subject to similar contagion effcts. (All bold emphasis below is mine.)

This paper reports a field experiment concerning mass-media and suicide. After the implementation of the subway system in Vienna in 1978, it became increasingly acceptable as means to commit suicide, with the suicide rates showing a sharp increase. This and the fact that the mass-media reported about these events in a very dramatic way, lead to the formation of a study-group of the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention (ÖVSKK), which developed media guidelines and launched a media campaign in mid-1987. Subsequently, the media reports changed markedly and the number of subway-suicides and -attempts dropped more than 80% from the first to the second half of 1987, remaining at a rather low level since.
Avoiding sensational coverage of suicides can prevent copycat suicides, a new federally endorsed guide for the media says. US Surgeon General David Satcher, along with academics and suicide experts today issued recommendations calling on the media not to give graphic details about suicides, and not to portray them as heroic or romantic or present them as inexplicable acts of healthy people.

Given those very compelling results, researchers have applied the same analytical techniques to the study of mass shootings.

If the mass media and social media enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce, or re-tweet the names, faces, detailed histories, or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in the span of one to two years. Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a one third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed. Given the profile of mass shooters, we believe levels of mass murder could return to a pre-1970s rate, where it becomes a truly aberrant event that although not eradicated, is no longer a common option that goes through the mind of every bullied, depressed, isolated, somewhat narcissistic man.

We need to be thinking ahead to the mass-shooters-in-waiting — the copycats who will use the Las Vegas murders as a template for their own horrific schemes. And we have good reason to believe that the more publicity the Las Vegas shooter garners, the greater the motivation of copycats to “dethrone” him with the next mass shooting. (The reader will note that I do not use the Las Vegas shooter’s name in this piece).

Findings indicate that the mass killers received approximately $75 million in media coverage value, and that for extended periods following their attacks they received more coverage than professional athletes and only slightly less than television and film stars. In addition, during their attack months, some mass killers received more highly valued coverage than some of the most famous American celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Aniston. Finally, most mass killers received more coverage from newspapers and broadcast/cable news than the public interest they generated through online searches and Twitter seems to warrant. Unfortunately, this media attention constitutes free advertising for mass killers that may increase the likelihood of copycats.
Researchers at Arizona State University analyzed news reports of gun-related incidents from 1997 to 2013. They hypothesized that the rampages did not occur randomly over time but instead were clustered in patterns. The investigators applied a mathematical model and found that shootings that resulted in at least four deaths launched a period of contagion, marked by a heightened likelihood of more bloodshed, lasting an average of 13 days. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of all such violence took place in these windows.

What [Columbine killers’ names] are doing is laying out a script so precise that it makes it possible for kids with really really high thresholds to join in …. They’re making this particular “riot” more accessible.

[Name of a thwarted school shooter] is not a psychpath. He’s a nerd. And 40 years ago he’d be playing with his chemistry set in the basement and dreaming of being an astronaut. Because that was the available cultural narrative of that moment…. Now he’s dreaming of blowing up schools. He did not come up with that himself. He got it from the society of which he’s a part, and we’re responsible for that.

The perverse truth is that this senselessness is just the point of mass shootings: It is the means by which the perpetrator seeks to make us feel his hatred. Like terrorists, mass shooters can be seen, in a limited sense, as rational actors, who know that if they follow the right steps they will produce the desired effect in the public consciousness.

Part of this calculus of evil is competition. [Dr. Paul Mullen] spoke to a perpetrator who “gleefully admitted that he was ‘going for the record’”.

Aside from the wealth of qualitative evidence for imitation in massacre killings, there are also some hard numbers. A 1999 study by Dr. Mullen and others in the Archives of Suicide Research suggested that a 10-year outbreak of mass homicides had occurred in clusters rather than randomly. This effect was also found in a 2002 study by a group of German psychiatrists who examined 132 attempted rampage killings world-wide. There is a growing consensus among researchers that, whether or not the perpetrators are fully aware of it, they are following what has become a ready-made, free-floating template for young men to resolve their rage and express their sense of personal grandiosity.

My aim here is not to blame the media: such events have undeniable news value, and there is intense public interest in uncovering their details. But it’s important to recognize that such incidents are not mono-causal, and sensational news coverage is, increasingly, part of the mix of events that contributes to these rampages.

Playing right into the memetic contagion, CNN has been heavily promoting a “fact sheet” it made, which is literally a grotesque mass murder scoreboard. Fox News, the New York Times, Breitbart, MSNBC, take your pick, nearly every big news organization feeds this contagion.

All responsible press organizations should adopt the following set of guidelines by professor Adam Lankford, variations of which are echoed, according to a report from Vox, by the FBI, researchers at Texas State University, The I Love U Guys Foundation, and other groups across the country.

  1. Don’t name the perpetrator.
  2. Don’t use photos or likenesses of the perpetrator.
  3. Stop using the names, photos, or likenesses of past perpetrators.
  4. Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.
2. Penalize agencies that fail to update the NICS background check system

This is a simple one. A number of state and federal agencies are failing to consistently report prohibited possessors into the NICS background check system. That system won’t work properly if its records aren’t up-to-date, and Congress should fix these inconsistencies.

Your Action Plan

1. Contact the lobbying groups that you donate to

These groups follow their donors’ wishes. If they hear from you on a topic, they’ll think about it. If they hear from enough of you on a topic, they’ll act. Contact every gun-related group you donate to, and tell them to support America’s first honest path forward on guns. Commit to a specific dollar amount that you’ll donate once they endorse the path forward.

Here are a couple of the biggest groups on each side:

2. Blow up Twitter about this

Tweet tactically. Anybody can tweet @realDonaldTrump and call it a day, but that accomplishes nothing. You need the person you’re tweeting at to actually read what you wrote, and to share it with a lot of people.

Find your favorite medium-size Twitter accounts that talk about gun issues. The sweet spot is the 10,000-30,000 follower range. Enough followers that they have a powerful audience, but cozy enough that they’ll personally read your tweet. Engage with lots of those folks. If your tweets are worth reading, those medium-size accounts will quickly start replying and retweeting you. Then you’re off to the races.

3. Contact your House rep and your Senators

Tell them you’re done with the zero-sum scorched earth gun debate, and that you want a real path forward. Phone calls are much more effective than emails. Use callyourrep.co to instantly find phone numbers for all of your members of Congress. Create a call script and share it on Twitter so that other people can use the most effective script when they call their reps.

Excellent content provided by GunCulture2.0