Opinion | America Is Under the Gun

Gail Collins: Bret, did you hear that what the city billed as “the final New York City public pay telephone” was just whisked away?

Bret Stephens: I had no idea there were any phone booths left to whisk away.

Gail: Brings back memories of when I first moved to New York back in the ’80s. When I got out of the subway after work, I’d leap into a phone booth right there on the corner, slam the door shut and call my husband to come and walk me home. It was just a block! But we were so paranoid about crime back then . …

Bret: I remember that New York well. The names that come to mind are Leona Helmsley, Al Sharpton and Bernie Goetz.

Gail: Just wanted to point that out to demonstrate that even when things seem terrible, sometimes it helps to remember times that were worse.

Bret: Are you suggesting that we are pressing the panic button a little too hard when it comes to the state of the nation right now?

Gail: Sort of. I was looking at the New York crime statistics. There were 488 murders here last year, which is up nearly 50 percent from 2019. But back in 1990 there were 2,262. Robberies: 13,831 last year — up 6 percent from 2020. But the number in 1990 was 100,280.

None of that, of course, is any consolation to the victims of these crimes or their families. But it is a reminder that it’s possible for things to get better instead of continually worse.

Bret: I think the concern isn’t so much the things haven’t been worse before — they have — but that the trend lines have moved so quickly and sharply in the wrong direction. It’s like being on the Titanic a few minutes after it hit the iceberg. Things feel relatively normal above the waterline but the ice shavings on the foredeck and the odd list of the ship are … disconcerting.

Gail: But sometimes an odd list is just an odd list. I say that as a person who has never been on a boat without being sure it was going to sink.

Bret: I fear what we have is a trend, not an outlier of a year, caused by bad policy decisions. The alarm is compounded by the sense that we are helpless in the face of our great national challenges — that we know what needs to be done, but can’t reach the political consensus we need to achieve it. Like banning high-capacity magazines, forbidding the sale of hundreds of rounds of ammunition to the same person, and using all the tools we can to get guns out of the hands of the dangerous and deranged before they commit the sort of atrocities we saw this month in Buffalo and Uvalde and on any given weekend in plenty of American cities.

Gail: You know, I once worked for a newspaper in the town where Sandy Hook Elementary School was. Still remember sitting in my office at The Times when the news about the shooting came over and just staring out the window in disbelief.

Bret: I felt just that way after learning about Uvalde. Sick. The United States seems to have a not-so-secret death cult that believes that the angry god known as the Second Amendment must be periodically propitiated through ritual child sacrifice.

Gail: After the Buffalo mass shooting — and God, that was only a couple of weeks ago — I talked with Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, who I think I first met when he was representing Sandy Hook’s neighborhood in Congress. He was in a dark mood, and said gun issues come into focus only when there’s a terrible mass murder “and then the country only pays attention for 24 to 48 hours.”

That sure does seem to be the case, but I can’t help hoping this will be different. All depends on the Republicans. They’re your responsibility — what are the chances?

Bret: You know, it used to be that Republicans weren’t all bonkers on this subject. I remember George H.W. Bush quitting the National Rifle Association over some outrageous comments it made back in the 1990s — and the N.R.A. actually apologizing to him. I also remember when people could support the general principle of a right to bear arms without thinking it was a limitless principle, just as conservatives used to claim to appreciate the idea that rights had to carry corresponding responsibilities in a sane and civilized society.

Gail: Responsibilities are not generally big vote-getters these days.

Bret: But something changed in the party, along some sort of political-sexual axis. Watch all these Republican candidates filming ads of themselves with long-barrelled pump-action shotguns and snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38s and you don’t need to be Dr. Ruth Westheimer to figure out what’s going on. We need to give them … other toys to play with.

Gail: Thinking about the other toy options ….

Bret: On the other hand, I don’t think Democratic political tactics are at all effective. What did you think of Beto O’Rourke confronting Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas the other day at the news conference after the Uvalde massacre?

Gail: I admit you can’t ignore the fact that O’Rourke is running for Abbott’s job. Some would say he was grandstanding, but I’d say at a moment like this, confronting officials who’ve been longtime opponents of gun legislation is righteous no matter what the motives.

Bret: To paraphrase a line from Dirty Harry, a politician has got to know what state he’s running in. At this point, I suspect Beto is working harder to audition for a show on MSNBC than he is for the governorship of Texas.

Gail: And speaking of motives, what do you think of the Senate standoff? I know Mitch McConnell says he’s pushing for some bipartisan legislation, but kinda hard for me to imagine one without background checks for gun purchasers or red-flag laws that effectively block people with a troubling history on guns from buying weapons.

Bret: Republicans will never go for any of it because too few of them represent states or districts where they have anything to fear from constituents who might be having second thoughts about unrestricted access to firearms. They’ll also point to all the ways in which background checks and red-flag laws have failed to stop these killings, which ought to be a reason to strengthen these potential checks on mass murder, not dismiss them as irrelevant. So the sad truth is that nothing good will come out of this latest horror show, just as nothing good came out of all the past massacres.

Also, can I register a brief note of disgust with the typical Republican fallback line, which is that the real problem here is mental health, not the ready availability of guns? The argument would have us imagine that there aren’t disturbed, emotionally broken young men in Australia, Britain and every other country that somehow manages to avoid these constant atrocities.

Gail: Once again, we are in accord. But let me push a bit. If the real problem is mental health, isn’t it time to produce a big, bipartisan, Senate-ready bill appropriating a serious amount of money for mental-health treatment? Something that would let teachers, counselors, sports coaches and other caring authority figures easily summon up services for troubled kids?

Bret: Sign me up for that. It should be a national priority, especially post-pandemic.

Gail: Also, once again I have to wonder whether there’s an effective way to monitor websites for people who show clear signs of potential violence.

Bret: We live in a world where we consider it perfectly normal for Amazon to know what book or kitchen appliance or lawn accessory we are likely to want next. If you’re spending hours of your time on websites showing you how to build ghost guns and in social media chat rooms extolling Goebbels, maybe it’s time to legislate domestic terrorism legislation that provides the National Security Agency the authorities it needs to monitor this.

Gail: Wow.

Bret: Let me quickly add that I’m not at all sure this is a good idea, given the serious civil-liberties questions at issue. But I don’t think it’s wrong to start a national conversation around the possibility of doing it. The same conservatives who favored warrantless wiretaps when it came to the prospect of Islamist terrorism shouldn’t be averse to it when it comes to domestic terrorism.

Gail: I’ve been haranguing forever about the huge change that’s come over communications — biggest, I really think, since postal service.

Presuming this becomes the equivalent of telephone conversations, or even a chat over coffee at the corner deli, the idea that government has the right or the obligation to oversee it is scary.

Bret: I agree. But societies that tolerate horrific mayhem for the sake of protecting one right tend to put other rights at risk. As Lincoln asked after he suspended the writ of habeas corpus at the outset of the Civil War, “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?”

Gail: Even given what we’ve been through this week, it’s still a big leap. I can’t imagine not arguing about it.

Bret: If Republicans could again find an inner compass on gun sanity, none of us would lose our inner compass on civil liberties.

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