In response to the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, President Biden fell into the cynical habit indulged by many people grasping for a morally and intellectually coherent response to a uniquely American atrocity. “Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” he asked. “Why do we keep letting this happen?”
Whatever the prevailing progressive wisdom, it’s not at all clear that preventing such nihilistic violence in the United States is merely a matter of will. If Americans really knew how to “fix” this venomous problem, one might think it would have been fixed by now. In reality, the causes of mass shootings are manifold and vexing. The howl of rage behind these eruptions implicates so much in American society—including our media ecosystem, education, religion, technology, fatherhood, and relations between the sexes. Underneath the frequent gun violence lies what Ross Douthat has called a “tangle of roots in poisoned soil.” The pervasive notion that this malady is amenable to readily available remedies is so preposterous as to defy belief.
For years, viable solutions to eradicate the scourge of gun violence—whether in the form of mass shootings or the more mundane instances of ritual murder—have been noticeable by their absence. Instead, public attention and government action have fixated on measures that are unfeasible or futile or both. A torrent of mawkish emotionalism and counterproductive demagogy fills the resulting void in public life.
A recent intervention on this subject by Paul Auster, the bestselling author of The New York Trilogy novels, conforms to this dismal pattern. Bloodbath Nation is a memoir about firearms—though Auster concedes to never owning a gun—as well as an extended essay about their lurid role in American life. It will be greeted with wide acclaim on account of its vague but certain hostility to guns—the handmaidens, as we are often told, of American misery. But untutored emotion is a poor starting point for making sense of this inordinately complex crisis, and Auster’s account will fail to impress those who have grappled seriously with the paradox of the gun.
Bloodbath Nation is concerned with the havoc wreaked by mass shootings (which, Auster neglects to mention, comprise an infinitesimal fraction of gun-related homicides in this country). The narrative is punctuated by spare black-and-white photographs of locations where massacres have marred the American landscape, from Geneva County, Alabama to Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. These “images of silence” are provided courtesy of Spencer Ostrander, a New York–based photographer, and together with Auster’s written text, they form an aesthetically solemn presentation of America’s ongoing calamity.
Although this slim volume intends to be a polemic against the primacy and ubiquity of firearms in American culture, it occasionally undercuts its own case and strays from progressive orthodoxy. In one example, Auster renders a subtle portrait of the 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church in the small farming community of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The gunman, described as “a brutal, hot-headed, and out-of-control fuckup,” sought to exact revenge on the mother of his estranged second wife, and carried a fully loaded AR-556 semi-automatic rifle into her church to accomplish the deed. Unbeknownst to him, his intended target was not in the house of worship that day, but he slaughtered more than two dozen congregants anyway—a shockingly senseless act even by the standards of this wicked and irrational realm. The slaughter continued apace until a vigilant neighbor, awakened by the sound of gunfire, reached into his safe and pulled out an AR-15. He rapidly loaded his gun and approached the “stuttering din of rifle fire” in the church. A shoot-out ensued in which, as Auster notes, “a bad man with a gun was stopped by a good man with a gun.”
Unfortunately, the power of granular storytelling and sepia-toned photography documenting the gun epidemic isn’t matched by sound analysis of it. By conflating the numerous outbursts of nihilistic terrorism with a larger phenomenon of “gun violence” that is essentially a crime problem, Auster echoes the fiction perpetrated by many Democrats (who often hail from urban congressional districts bereft of many law-abiding gunowners) and well-meaning naïfs that overcoming this mayhem is well within our power. He writes, “It’s not that we lack the intelligence or the wherewithal to relieve this threat to the safety and well-being of society… we have lacked the will.” Perhaps Auster is auditioning to be Biden’s gun-control czar.
The United States, as everyone knows, is saturated with firearms. To grasp the extent of this fact, some numbers are in order. Auster flags up a recent estimate by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, which indicates that there are 393 million guns currently owned by residents of the United States. Each year, approximately 40,000 Americans are killed by gunshot wounds, more than half of which are suicides. The daily toll is gruesome: “More than one hundred Americans are killed by bullets every day.”
This is roughly equivalent to the annual rate of traffic deaths on American roads and highways, and Auster makes much of this comparison. He invites us to consider the progress America has made with the cars we drive and how conscientiously we have pushed down the death and injury rates caused by automobile accidents over the years. Although there has been a recent spike in deaths on American roadways, the overall fatality rate remains well below its peak a half-century ago due to the adoption of speed limits, driver’s licenses and insurance requirements, as well as seatbelts, airbags, and improved vehicle designs. All this leads Auster to ask: If we could use our “brains and sense of common purpose” to combat the dangers of cars, “why haven’t we been able to do the same thing with guns”?
But the analogy here is misplaced. For one thing, gun violence has also experienced a steep reduction from its peak—even if it, too, has shot up in recent years. For another, the background-check system regulates the vast majority of gun sales in the United States, and a bevy of criminal and civil laws are on the books to prohibit deranged Americans from owning guns. Auster’s comparison between guns and cars after the well-known decrease in highway deaths shows that the baleful effect of guns can be exaggerated. (Consider the discrepancy in media coverage between the “gun lobby” and the health-care industry, despite the fact that each year an estimated 100,000 Americans die because of unhygienic conditions and medical errors in hospitals.)
Though Auster envisions “a compromise solution” between the gun-control and anti-gun-control forces, he doesn’t bother proposing one. Perhaps a writer so at ease in the fictional realm can be forgiven this omission. But his failure to re-cognize the essence of the problem is harder to pardon. In his telling, “America’s relationship to the gun is anything but rational… and there-fore we have done little or nothing to fix the problem.” With extravagantly partisan putdowns such as this, Auster will find few intelligent observers on this issue satisfied by his book.
In reality, the correlation between guns and violence is murkier than he lets on. This is laid bare by the fact that cities tend to be cauldrons of violence while rates of gun ownership multiply outside city limits. Traditionally, the gun is the practical expression of Americans’ constitutional right to self-defense. For millions of law-abiding citizens in this vast continental republic—an “empire wilderness,” to borrow Robert Kaplan’s coinage—there is nothing at all irrational about keeping a revolver handy on the off chance that one crosses paths with a dangerous lunatic or faces home invasion from an armed brigand. “When seconds count, the police are minutes away,” as the saying goes, and self-reliance is hardly an unreasonable response to this stark fact.
It’s true that possessing a firearm increases the chances, in aggregate, that the owner will use it against others or even himself. But this doesn’t make the acquisition of a firearm a foolish act for a morally and mentally sound person who wishes to be prepared in the event that a life-and-death situation erupts on his or her doorstep. The lethal force of a gun creates an ethical imperative to know how to use it and, no less important, how not to use it. But this is an argument for keeping and, if necessary, brandishing a weapon with a commensurate sense of responsibility, not for refusing to keep and bear arms at all.
To his credit, Auster doesn’t seek a legislative panacea to the gun epidemic, though this doesn’t stop him from lamenting the intransigence of the “gun lobby” and the obstructionism of “Republican filibusters.” (The naive and fantastic proposals of the left receive a pass, despite presenting obstacles of their own to age-based impediments and red-flag laws, which would enable interventions that temporarily strip outwardly unstable people of their guns.) An outright ban is justly ruled out on the grounds of both practicality and principle: A confiscation scheme would be impossible short of the intrusive hand of a police-state, both of which would be flagrantly unconstitutional. Auster notes that a ban on firearms would fare no better—and probably worse—than the banning of alcohol during prohibition, which created a flourishing black market for a substance no less dangerous for individuals and society than guns.
The alternative Auster posits, however, is nothing short of fatuous. “Peace will break out,” he writes, “only when both sides want it, and in order for that to happen, we would first have to conduct an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward into the future, which necessarily would have to begin with an honest gut-wrenching examination of who we have been in the past.” It’s hard to avoid interpreting this as a counsel of futility, but even so readers will look in vain in Bloodbath Nation for such a candid and arduous conversation about our relationship with the gun.
If Americans turn to other sources, they may find that the twisted societal web of lethal violence has little to do with what Auster calls the “spell” cast by Americans’ “passion for guns.” It has appreciably more to do with history and human nature, and the distinctive imprint of modernity, which have given Americans a keen education in the dynamic of human violence, and a fierce determination to defend life and liberty as they see fit. Those who propose banning guns are fooling themselves while those who indulge fantasies of stopping gun violence any other way are trying to fool others.
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