Here’s a summary of what happened, as far as I can gather, at last week’s meeting of the Swampscott Board of Selectmen:
Selectman A: Hey, there’s a state law that requires guns to be locked in safes. But how can we enforce it? Is there any way to do legal home inspections?
Selectman B: Hmm, that would probably violate the Constitution. We’d better ask our lawyer.
Selectman A: OK, let’s have him get back to us.
(Several hours pass)
Internet: LIBERAL MASSACHUSETTS POLITICIANS ARE GOING TO KNOCK DOWN OUR DOORS AND TAKE AWAY ALL OF OUR GUNS!
Thus the full weight of the Internet Instant Outrage Machine rained down on Barry Greenfield, the selectman who dared to ask a question about the limits of gun laws, in the context of seeking ways to prevent school violence. And here, in a nutshell, is the reason why, nearly a year after Newtown, our country has made precisely zero progress on gun safety.
It’s not that we don’t have public interest, ideas, and legal boundaries. It’s that we can’t broach the subject without people going insane. “Massachusetts” is a dog whistle to right-wingers. “Gun control” is another one. So before long, Greenfield’s photo was all over Breitbart.com and Bearingarms.com and Infowars.com — where some commenters called for him to be “sent to Syria,” among other niceties.
A far more benign statement of opposition came from Jim Wallace, executive director of Massachusetts’ Gun Owners Action League, who usually does a good job of leading reasoned conversation. But even Wallace defended the paranoia.
“This selectman doesn’t understand the amount of persecution that gun owners have gone through in Massachusetts in the last 15 years,” Wallace told me. “It’s a very touchy subject.”
To some degree, he has a point. Massachusetts has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and some of the provisions should give everybody pause: If you got arrested for a bar fight as a teenager, you’re barred from getting a gun license when you’re 70. The gun licensing system is riddled with inefficiencies and technological problems. And yes, you can find people who want to ban guns outright.
But the notion that the Board of Selectmen of Swampscott was secretly plotting to overturn the Constitution would seem hilarious, if people on the Internet didn’t seem to believe it. Greenfield was posing questions in a public forum, not making master plans in a back room while smoking kale. And those questions have answers. Ryan Calo, a law professor who studies privacy at the University of Washington, said regular home inspections would never hold up. But there might be a way to add gun safes to the list of things checked during legal inspections, such as when people apply to be foster parents. An interesting idea — except that, after the firestorm, Swampscott dropped the issue completely.
Ideally, small towns could be a test lab for some of these incremental changes. They could also be a test lab for a reasoned debate. I’ve just about given up hope of a constructive conversation about guns on the national level. In small towns, though, we should be able to do better: Discuss issues like reasonable human beings, face to face, without assuming that everyone on the other side is either a liberty-hating pinko or a tinfoil-hat-wearing nut.
In fact, we’ve even done it. After state Representative David Linsky of Newton proposed expanded gun laws last year, he and Wallace went on a traveling roadshow of sorts, speaking to dozens of civil community forums.
Linsky has been down this road enough to be able to handle occasional hate, such as the bumper sticker someone printed, with a gun pointing to the words “David Linsky Sucks.” He’s also seen enough to know that common ground is hard to reach. When it comes to gun safety, there are two mindsets, he says: People who think the answer is gun control, and people who think the answer is more guns.
“It’s as deep a fault line as I’ve ever seen,” he told me. “It may be deeper than gay marriage was.”
Still, Wallace says the forums were a constructive way to get his message across. Some gun-control advocates, he said, were surprised to learn that laws they were demanding are already on the books.
“What we need are people who are going to take time to educate themselves,” Wallace said. “In a sound-byte society, that’s a very difficult thing to have happen.”
Just ask the people in Swampscott.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.