Is it possible to have private gun ownership and prevent mass shootings?

Another horrific mass shooting in the US, and yet again, the American public seems aghast that this could happen. All of the usual proposals will be floated by gun control advocates, and despite these being generally supported by the American public, gun advocates will wield their seemingly unassailable power over Republican politicians and prevent anything from being done. That script is now familiar.

So, given that nothing will change, I’m going to step back for a moment and ask a big picture question that keeps coming back to me whenever these shootings occur:

Is it even possible to have private gun ownership and prevent mass shootings?

My conclusion: No. It’s not.

If we really want to end mass shootings, then I believe we have no choice but to bar civilians from owning any guns whatsoever and confiscate all of the weapons that are currently in circulation.


Simple human nature.

Some people have always and always will do bad things to their fellow human beings. No amount of cultural change or teaching virtues will ever stop that altogether. And the reasons tend not to change over time, either – religion and ideology, hurt feelings and isolation, mental illness. These aren’t going away anytime soon, either.

The only thing that changes is what tools are used to cause the harm. If all that’s available are fists, fists will be used. If it’s swords, it will be swords. And if it’s guns, well, you get it. Of course, in the past, individual personal weapons were limited in their ability to kill masses of people. But technological changes with guns have put enormous power in the hands of a single person to wreak havoc, as was macabrely mocked in this ad by the gun control group States United to Prevent Gun Violence:

I should point out that the banning and confiscation of private guns would have to be total and comprehensive within a given nation or multi-nation region. Otherwise, the ban would be ineffective. For example, in the US, strict gun laws in Illinois and Chicago designed to contain the violence in the city are undermined by lax laws in neighboring Indiana. Strict gun laws in France designed to combat terrorist attacks were undermined by lax laws in Eastern Europe. The crackdown might even have to be worldwide. The killer in the 2011 attack in Norway that killed dozens of people purchased his ammunition from the US, despite Norway’s strict gun laws. (Plus, the world is awash in guns, thanks to the legacy of the Cold War.)

Now, this is one point where I can say that gun advocates are right: If all private gun ownership is made criminal, then only criminals will have guns. Yep. That’s exactly the point. And police and security forces would have to aggressively enforce these laws and bring criminals to justice. We don’t allow private individuals to have shoulder-fired missiles or nuclear weapons, and we count on law enforcement, broadly defined, to prevent people from acquiring them.

So, again, the only way to prevent mass shootings is a complete disarming of the civilian population.

Now, of course, this supposedly is the nightmare scenario for gun advocates, at least in the US: that the civilian population would be stripped of the weapons necessary to fight back against a tyrannical government. Well, I guess I have to admit again that they’d be right. Up until now I haven’t mentioned military weapons. It’s absolutely true that, if the civilian population has no weapons, it is easy cannon fodder for a ruthless military. Now, like many people I know, I’ve been tempted to argue at this point that it’s ridiculous for gun advocates to think they could oppose a modern military. Seriously, how is the most powerful fully automatic personal gun going to defeat an F-16 fighter jet? But I think this argument ignores the history of successful insurgencies that relied heavily on small arms. Vietnam defeated the US. The mujahideen eventually drove out the Soviets from Afghanistan. And of course, Afghan insurgents continue to resist the Afghan government, despite deep and continued US involvement there. The fact is that passionate, well-armed insurgencies can sometimes wear down even powerful militaries (especially when they get financial support from that military’s strategic opponents).

So, is this fear of tyrannical government real enough to justify private civilian ownership of guns that enable mass shootings?

We can debate this, but my answer is no. In fact, I call bullshit on the paranoid, anti-government fantasies of some gun advocates. Somehow these faux patriots get away with comparing our liberal democratic republic to the most brutal authoritarian regimes. Yes, it’s true; America could go horribly off track. (As terrible as Pres. Trump is, it really could get a lot worse.) And the military has at times been used against our own population (including fellow soldiers, not to mention Native Americans). But if things got so bad as to require an armed insurrection, well, it seems to me that either it’s only paranoids who are resisting or the country has self-destructed to the point where whatever would emerge out of the conflict would be unrecognizable as the US. (Just look at how the neo-Confederates among us still can’t accept what the US became after the Civil War. And I say Civil war, not War Between the States, thank you very much.)

So, if you want to attack me for advocating for a complete ban on private gun ownership, well, fine. Have at it.

Now, believe it or not – in proper American fashion – I’m prepared to compromise.

I have no problem with hunting and could easily be persuaded to allow guns for that purpose.

I might be persuaded to allow the private ownership of handguns in homes for personal protection. (Although, in general, I would find this quite misguided, given that guns in homes seem to contribute more to suicides and domestic violence than protection.) Carrying the gun outside of the home would be a crime.

I might be persuaded to allow for the private ownership of more powerful guns, but they would have to be stored at federally licensed ranges and could not be removed from the premises.

Before I would agree to any of this, I would put severe limits on the amount of ammunition that could be purchased.

But of course, all of these laws are pure fantasy – divorced from the actual politics of guns in the US. As I said at the beginning, nothing will change in the current climate at the federal level, which in this strange way, has created space to make out-of-this-world proposals.

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