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Ben Peterson (MPP candidate '16) on Fear and Gun Debate | The New York Times

The Gun Debate, Now Amplified by Terrorist Threats

Ben Peterson is a graduate student at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. He is on Twitter.

Updated December 15, 2015, 3:22 AM | The New York Times

It’s a time of fear in the home of the brave, as the shooting in San Bernardino fused the danger of mass gun violence with that of jihadist terrorism. But the task before us is to respond to specific dangers with reasonable policies, and not to worsen the already rampant tendency of Americans to view those who disagree with them as enemies.

The chasm between reality and the public imagination on gun violence suggests a pathology of fear is in play. Except for an uptick this year in several major cities, gun crimes have steadily declined since the 1990s, yet more gun-owners today own them for personal protection than in 1999.

Politicians, monied interest groups, and advocates still fear monger like it’s 1999. The N.R.A.'s recent ad campaign, for example, brazenly plays up fears of “demons at our door” in this “age of terror.” On the other side, gun-control advocates and the Obama administration counterproductively stoke fears of a “gun epidemic.”

The indiscriminate outcry against gun ownership in turn only provokes excessive fears of gun control. A friend visiting a gun store in the Bay Area after the San Bernardino attack found it full of fearful people — fearful not of radical Islamists, but of being stripped of their Second Amendment rights. This fear is also unfounded, and can be added to the list of improbable threats distracting attention from real dangers and the potential means of addressing them.

Americans’ fears about gun violence are not baseless. The spectacle of mass shootings at vulnerable places like schools, workplaces and churches is fearsome indeed. But Charles C.W. Cooke, a staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights, is onto something about what each side needs to concede if we are to transcend the culture of fear that permeates both sides:

If we are to have an honest debate in this country, conservatives will need to accept that the vast number of firearms in circulation contribute America’s relatively higher rate of shootings, and progressives will need to accept that, beyond that obvious point, the relationship between the raw number of weapons, the laws under which they are regulated, and the incidence of crime is a lot more complex than is typically conceded.

Gun ownership is not scary, if supported by a healthy gun culture that instills responsibility and a deep respect for human life. By the same token, neither should arguments for reasonable provisions aimed at keeping guns out of the wrong hands inspire fear.

Faced with serious threats, a free people should respond soberly, not succumb to panic. A culture of calm is likely too much to expect of politicians and advocacy and interest groups, so it’s up to “we the people.” After all, this is still the home of the brave. A culture of fear compromises that.