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Fear on both sides makes answers hard to find in gun debate

Semi-automatic rifles in a gun shop in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Semi-automatic rifles in a gun shop in Las Vegas, Nevada.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Nothing muddies clear thinking like fear. And it is fear, more than any other of the primal emotions, that dominates both sides of the American debate about guns.

If only we could meet for a while in a no-man’s land that is free of fear, or at least irrational fear. This would begin with an acknowledgment of some basic facts.

Tens of millions of semi-automatic assault style weapons are in the hands of our friends, neighbors, and countrymen. They are legal. The vast majority of them will never take a human life. Yet these weapons have also made one particular type of crime, mass public shootings, vastly more deadly, as we saw in Las Vegas last weekend and the sites of other well-known massacres.


It’s a fact that most gun deaths are suicides. But it’s also true that places with more gun owners have more gun deaths. And the United States has a truly staggering number of guns: The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly half of its civilian-owned firearms. Little wonder that the country is an extreme outlier in the number of gun deaths compared with other wealthy countries.

To understand who has these guns, it can be helpful to think about them like we think about the distribution of wealth — the top has a whole lot, while the rest have a little or none. About 78 percent of American adults don’t own a firearm, while 3 percent own half of the weapons in circulation.

Members of that 3 percent own an average of 17 guns each. They’re collectors, gunsmiths, hunters, weekend warriors. Then there are those who hoard them out of fear — of societal collapse or some other catastrophe.


Income inequality won’t be remedied without support from the top 1 percent, nor will America’s gun problems be addressed without backing from the top of the gun distribution curve. That might be difficult for some to hear, but it’s true.

Gun enthusiasts have one overriding fear: losing their guns. So any gun regulation is seen, by a passionate minority, as a slippery slope toward gun confiscation. And anyone who suggests — much less votes for — gun control can’t be trusted.

House Speaker Paul Ryan apparently said as much to Representative Seth Moulton in a one-on-one exchange Tuesday. Moulton says that Ryan told him that even modest gun control was impossible “because then everybody wants a lot.” At which point many Globe readers might nod and say, “Damn right.”

If concern over a slippery legislative slope sounds familiar to the left, it should. It’s the stated strategy behind the slew of laws regulating abortion, pushed by people who freely admit that their real goal is to end all abortions outright, one needless restriction at a time. Liberals and conservatives might not always echo, but they often rhyme.

There are echoes, in fact, in the way that liberals and conservatives restrict debates. Gun-literates are always quick to pounce on misusage of their hyper technical vocabulary about firearms. As if someone who doesn’t know the difference between gas impingement or piston-driven semi-automatic rifles has no place wanting to keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill, domestic abusers, or those on the Do Not Fly list.


The left has its own version of the phenomenon in political correctness — the shifting, often arbitrary rules of polite society. And just as it is possible to learn the latest woke vocabulary, it is possible for non-gun-owners to learn to speak Gun. That’s a good start to reaching the 3 percent.

But hiding behind PC gun talk has also blinded average gun rights supporters to the changing nature of the American gun phenomenon. After all, if you’re a legislator who is never going to vote for gun control out of fear from the politically potent 3 percent, why take the time to learn about the latest technology like bump stocks, the devices that — for all practical purposes — turn semi-automatic weapons into full-on machine guns?

These devices have been widely available for years and yet self-described pro-gun lawmakers in Congress, including Paul Ryan, now claim they’d never heard of them until they were used in Las Vegas. Blindness can be both willful and negligent all at the same time and guns have had just that effect on lawmakers for far too long.

It’s going to take some work to coax both sides of the gun debate out of their trenches, into the no-man’s land that separates them, and move the country toward the rest of the developed world when it comes to minimizing gun deaths.

Gun control supporters could do with a dose of empathy toward gun owners who hold the Second Amendment as dearly as others hold the right to a free press. Offering gun owners a safe space may be just what’s needed to get them to admit that we have a serious problem that the do-nothing chorus chanting their “thoughts and prayers” won’t fix.


Gun-literates, meanwhile, need to ratchet back the knee-jerk defensiveness when it comes to honestly talking about guns. Though they are most often used responsibly, guns are also a major public health issue and should be immediately addressed.

People are right to fear guns, especially the ones that make mass killings easier and more deadly. But we need not cling to an irrational fear of everything about them. Speaking a common language and finding some shared ground on this contentious social battlefield is the best way to bring the killing to an end.

Alex Kingsbury can be reached at alex.kingsbury@globe.com.