In This Episode
A bipartisan bill in Congress is one step forward for gun safety, but the Supreme Court just pushed us two steps back. As the legislative path to reducing gun violence has closed, we might have more success if we can influence the way people think about guns in America. How can we change hearts and minds rather than laws, and, in doing so, make gun culture anathema instead of something we celebrate or just roll our eyes at?
Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me, your host, Brian Beutler. There’s no way around the fact that it’s been a very bad few weeks and even few years for gun violence and the proliferation of firearms in America. Most recently, there were the massacres at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, and at the grocery store in Buffalo, New York’s Black community. Those events overshadowed a bunch of smaller mass shootings, like the one in Highland Park, Illinois, on the 4th of July. And you can think of all of them as outgrows of a pandemic era surge in gun sales, which was in turn facilitated by the radical jurisprudence of the Supreme Court over many, many years. So those are just the background conditions for the movement against gun violence. It’s that even when there’s good news on the gun front, it’s usually in a broader context of serious setbacks. Taking just one example, President Biden recently signed a modest but perfectly fine gun regulation bill into law. It’s the first such bill in decades. No poison pills, really, just a kind of one foot in front of the other, improvement of federal law. But Congress passed that bill in the immediate, immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court, literally just inventing a constitutional right to carry concealed weapons. Like, I think I think literally on the same day and I know it feels like the sporting thing to do is celebrate the passage of that bill as the kind of cracking of the dam of GOP opposition to gun control. But honestly, if you gave me a choice between the new status quo or just going back to where things were in early June before the Supreme Court decision, I’d go back in a heartbeat. If you want me to get really game theory-ish on you. I think I can make a pretty decent case that the bipartisan gun law is actually kind of counterproductive. You can tell one story about it where these horrible killings made it impossible for Republicans to continue blocking all reforms. And this is the sort of turning of the tide. But another version of the same story is the GOP has finally seized control of the courts. And so it’s now sort of free to play reasonable by voting for incremental gun measures, knowing that their judges and their justices will do their dirty work for them from the bench and assure that guns keep proliferating through society. So that’s all fairly discouraging. Ever since the early part of the last decade, starting around the Gabby Giffords shooting and then the massacre in Newtown, the anti-gun violence movement has organized itself around the end goal of legislating our way to a safer, freer country, basically by capturing the high ground. Common sense gun reforms. Universal background checks. Which poll at 90%. But that whole approach has been hobbled by the filibuster and now by a Supreme Court that would almost certainly just throw out any meaningful partisan new gun laws. Someday, hopefully, Democrats will eliminate those obstacles. But today is not that day. So what do you do if the legislative path is for the time being at least a dead end? One approach is to just keep pushing against the closed door. Keep voting on more bills. Keep pressuring candidates to support this or that policy idea. The sort of definition of insanity. Another which I want to tease out a bit in this conversation is to try to influence the way people think about guns as a staple of American life. That would mean making people who love guns maybe love them a bit less, but it would also mean reaching people who already think gun violence in the U.S. is out of control and radicalizing them. Basically can we change hearts and minds rather than laws? And in doing so, make gun culture anathema instead of something we celebrate or something we just roll our eyes at and then forget. How would that even work? Well, at the most basic level, it would require changing how we marshal facts about guns and the toll they take. Everyone already knows about gun crime in America. They know all about mass shootings, particularly the most wrenching ones like Columbine and Parkland. And so I figured I should talk to the person who wrote the book on those. Dave Cullen is a journalist and author with immersive knowledge of the American gun crisis. And I can’t think of a better brain to pick on this topic than his. So, Dave Cullen, welcome to Positively Dreadful.
Dave Cullen: Hey, Brian, thanks for having me.
Brian Beutler: So first question before we get into all that heavy stuff, how did you end up on the on the sort of deep dive into mass school shootings beat?
Dave Cullen: Very unintentionally and gradually just completely chance. I lived in Denver and the day Columbine started. I didn’t even think it was anything. I saw it in the local news. There was no reports of injuries. And but just in case, it was something I got in my car and drove out there. You know, as journalists do. I didn’t even know where it was. You know, my boyfriend at the time had grown up there and gave me some possible exits, head out you know, highway six. And while driving out toward the mountains, trying to, you know, figure it out outside my window, I saw a helicopter circling and it was like, holy shit. And that’s the first moment I knew something really horrible was happening. And I literally just drove toward the helicopters, got off of the exit, trying to line them up and drove till I hit a police barricade. And then I got out and said, Which way is Columbine, is it that way? And I ran that way. And that was a start. I had no idea if my life was changing as I drove out there. And, you know, I kept thinking, you know, I got off the story so many times in those first ten or 12 or 15 years, about five or six or ten times, I retired from this subject. But it keeps, you know, driving back like like in The Godfather, I was like, seriously, I kept thinking I was done with it. And after Columbine, you know, it was later that I really got involved in the gun debate because I stayed completely out of that with the book. And I wanted to just be like a history and what happened and not get into any of the politics of it. And as I see a Brazilian friend of mine years after who continually got on my case after these mass shootings, you know, I would do the gantlet of like, you know, Anderson Cooper and all the different cable news shows afterward. And he said, you know, you never talk about the gun control. You never, you know, take a side on this. And I’m like, I can’t I have to be objective. And he’s like, he’s like, you know, you have a voice. This is really important. You’ve a platform. You have a position to talk about it. You have a chance, and you’re you’re you’re, you know, you’re shirking it. And I was like, you don’t understand American, you know, journalism. It doesn’t work that way. But gradually that sunk in. I felt like, you know, I can’t stay on the sidelines where, you know, kids are dying. People are dying, you know, huge numbers of people. And I gradually felt like, you know, I have to do something about this and started writing more about that, researching about it and then diving into it. And then, you know, I did the Parkland book, then I did a big piece for Vanity Fair on Gabby Giffords. I spent like a year and a half on and really got into deep. And I’m working on another big magazine story now about the history and how we got here and what’s happening. So, you know, it’s one of those things I just can’t you know, once I’m like, I’m in deep and there’s just never no getting out. I’ve been trying to do this book on two gay soldiers for, you know, 20 some years. And I am. But it keeps pulling me back.
Brian Beutler: The the interlude about your friend who intervened with you and and encourage you to to be a little voice here. Actually, answers is one of the questions I had because I noticed that Columbine is really what happened at Columbine. And that’s the book. And Parkland actually follows the children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas past the massacre and through the formation of the March for Our Lives movement. And I wonder if at a general level, if you’re thinking about the gun control movement in the U.S. and how it approaches its objectives, has changed since you wrote Parkland.
Dave Cullen: Oh, drastically. Well, first of all, you know, I don’t know why the media hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s called Gun Safety Now, or a couple different names. [laughter]
Brian Beutler: That’s me, too.
Dave Cullen: Really, you know, the the movie, they’ve stopped using that name since 2012. And you will never you’ve never heard, I assure you, you’ve never heard Gabby Giffords use it or Shannon Watts or any of the Parkland kids. You will never hear any of them use the phrase gun control. But, you know, and this is part of the context I want to talk about, but about ten years ago, the movement fundamentally changed the last gasp of the sort of dying, terrible gun control movement that is arguably the worst, you know, political movement, least successful in American history. Justice was finally laid to rest around the time of Sandy Hook and a new movement arose. You know, Shannon and Gabby Giffords are the two, you know, big forces right now. They both got involved in response to Sandy Hook. Shannon started Moms Demand Action the very next day as a Facebook group in response. And Gabby started her first group about two and a half weeks later, which they later merged into different things. Shannon’s merged with Bloomberg’s and is now Everytown for Gun Safety, and Giffords merged with the Law Center’s and is now Giffords Courage. Anyway, so the whole landscape has changed since then. And, you know, when I was writing Parkland, I didn’t know all this and I didn’t know the impact of it. And I didn’t really know until, like earlier this year talking to like the lead pollster for both of them. You know, I get a very different context. We’ll get to it about like why the Republicans buckled. But but that has been coming for a lot for a while now. And there’s really systemic reasons why and why the game has really changed. And I didn’t really understand when I was writing Parkland how much it had changed because I hadn’t gotten to deeply, you know, I really got immersed in it with those kids.
Brian Beutler: That’s interesting because my my intuition on this stuff, you know, for a lot of reasons and they’re not all about the relative success or failure of of any particular bill is that the general approach of the gun safety movement, whatever you call it, has been to try to capture the broad center, find ways to talk about this issue, ideas to propose around it that are super popular, that I mean, you can’t really object to them because there’s there’s there’s no coercion involved. The background checks, it’s like driver’s licenses or whatever. Right. You know, and this sort of mass trying to seize the high ground approach has not worked because the ultimate goal of what they’re what they’re proposing is new legislation. And with the with the sort of exception that almost proves the rule of this new gun bill that became law recently, they can’t actually elect members of Congress in a in great enough numbers to legislate. And if they could, they’d still have to contend with the court. And so the the whole notion of a of a of a gun safety faction of progressive politics that is aimed at trying to, you know, pressure members of Congress to do things differently is maybe barking up the wrong tree.
Dave Cullen: Yeah, I disagree. So there is a very big things going on. I mean, what you’re saying is a good characterization of it, but a part of it. But the NRA and the Republican Party joined forces pretty much with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, and they have been as one. And so, you know, with with our system that, you know, is highly in favor of the status quo, you need 60 votes in the Senate as long as the filibuster exists. You know, the Republican Party, if it stands its ground and the Republicans do of, you know, stick together with one party against you blocking everything, you’re toast. You can’t do anything. So we had to break off some chunks of the Republican Party. Now, you know, talking to the pollsters, it’s really been interesting that a couple of things have changed over the last several years that, you know, I describe it in this piece I’m working on as a really slow motion tsunami that started with Columbine really slowly. But as these, you know, taking decades that we went further and further down into hopelessness and despair as a country on any kind of like gun reform or gun safety and really bottomed out at Sandy Hook. And a lot of people think of that as the death of, you know, gun control. That was the birth of this movement, which is approaching it very differently. Different message, different way of talking about it, different faces. Moms, different people that they’re aiming for at keeping. A couple of key things have changed is, you know, the polling and polling and focus groups have shown that, like, there was a sense of hopelessness until about the past three or four years and which has been changed into to really anger. And if people who are like fed up and distraught and who are getting pissed off at the legislatures, legislators, including Republicans, and another key that has been coupled with and so anyway, so despair, hopelessness that’s incredibly demotivating and anger, rage, wanting to do something that is motivating. So that has been changing at the same time that who the public is seeing, the villain has changed. And that has really been crucial. And the pollster and this is the main person, both the organizations here, she’s really brilliant talking about it. Really, in the past 2 to 3 years, most of the public had seen the NRA as the force standing in the way of all this stuff and frustrating most people who wanted this, even gun owners, want most of this stuff. I mean, obviously, when you’re 80 or 90%, you know, that’s most of the gun owners, too, right. So everyone has seen the NRA is standing in the way and kind of the enemy stopping this the last couple of years that’s been widening out and people are seeing members of Congress as the villain. Like, why aren’t you doing something and why? And it’s becoming becoming very unpopular to take money from the NRA. And people are starting to see as Congress members as being bought and sold. Now, that’s really not exactly what was going on, but fine. But they’re seeing that as bought and paid for. So when Republicans, what shocked me, but not completely, was like, you know, they needed ten votes, right. To to get this passed in the Senate. They got 15 from so many of them, from southern states, from both Carolinas, from Texas, from I think Tennessee, West Virginia. Is it Shelley de Capito? The ah the senator from female Republican senator from West Virginia told The New York Times.
Brian Beutler: Shelley Moore Capito.
Dave Cullen: Yeah, yeah yeah that. Sorry I’m terrible with names. [laugh] That she was getting called 6 to 1 in favor of passing the bills and angrily and aggressively that’s Republicans in West Virginia. Can you even imagine something that was unthinkable a few years ago? And she said that’s a dramatic change. So the Republicans are starting to peel off and vote for this because it’s fun, because their people are finally seeing them as the villain and getting picked off too. And Mitch McConnell was very telling when he talked about the fact that, like, he voted for it and supported it because the party’s losing the suburbs and needs to do something about it. So that party has been trying for a while to peel off and their members, you know, the dirty little secret, just as it was sort of like on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and a lot of other things. A lot of people in that party wanted to vote for this stuff but would be politically taken out and shot if they did so. So one thing is, sorry to mix the metaphors, but like one thing is like when you get 15 people to vote for it, it’s much safer. No one is the final one. When, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in Congress. In the Senate, they went down to the last minute after the Democrats had lost the majority. They had one chance in the lame duck session. It came down to the last day they lost the vote. I think they got 58 votes or something. They needed 60. Susan Collins, bless her heart, although she pisses me off a lot. Went on the Senate floor and was really pissed off and demanded, you know, they try this again the next day even that was supposed to be the last day and sort of like shamed them and then behind the scenes didn’t get 60 votes the next day I think it was 62 or 63. The reason is no one wanted to be the 60th vote or even the 61st vote because they could get killed in primaries, get slammed for it. She had to go back behind the scenes and tell them all, like, look, several of you want to do it. If I get enough of you together, basically we can all jump together. It’s safe. That’s kind of what happened here. You got 65 votes, 15 of them, nearly a third of the Republican Congress voted for it. So no single person is now on the hook for this. That tells you what’s been happening behind the scenes with the Republicans peeling off and wanting to do some of this. So if you’re seeing this, is this one off? Oh, we got this one thing, but all this other stuff. Now there’s this tide that has been changing, coming for a long time. And with the Republicans, a lot of them wanting to do something and afraid of the NRA finally as a group getting the courage and it’s the first step. So, you know, I see it very differently and I’ve seen this coming as the game changing with the NRA really losing its strength with Republican members of Congress. Now we’ll see how far they go, but that’s a game changer with the Republicans not blocking everything. And, you know, this has been reported as the you know, the first in the last 30 years. That’s a true statement. This is the first ever federal legislation for this movement, which is completely gone about it completely differently for the last ten years and never had anything like this before. So they finally have a win.
Brian Beutler: I hear what you’re saying about, A, the safety numbers that that often make members of Congress find their courage. And I do think that the fact that that members themselves are are hearing from their constituents in a different way now than they were a decade ago is revealing. And I think it ties into the question of how you change culture that I want to get to in a minute. But for an issue like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You know, when you repeal it, that specific goal is achieved, right? Like once, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed. Then serving openly in the military is legal. And you know, the people who preferred the previous way they lost. Right.
Dave Cullen: The metaphor only goes so far.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. With with the bill like this one, the gun bill that just became law, you know, there will be and probably has already been more mass shootings after. Like it will manifestly not work to stop mass shootings in the U.S., let alone, you know, street homicide or anything like that. And so people are going to come back and they’re going to be mad at their legislators again and Republicans are going to feel that pressure. But, are they going to be willing to go any further than this? It seems like they made their peace with this sort of very incremental bill as a sort of way to wash their hands of their responsibility for everything that came before and everything that might come, come after and won’t don’t really seem to have an appetite for the kinds of things that might actually reduce the number of these kinds of incidents that happen. And, you know, if they if they feel like they need to give a little more, they can always sort of count on Sam Alito and the gang [laugh] to to kind of undo it for them or just make sure that the the actual tide keeps moving in the pro-gun direction. So that’s sort of why I feel like if you make passing bills, the sort of lodestar for that movement, you’re eventually going to you’re going to hit a wall.
Dave Cullen: Well, yeah. I mean, you also have to, you know, appoint, you know, Supreme Court justic— I mean, that’s why Democrats have to win the White House and, you know, and, you know, not get like one of the justices stolen by Mitch McConnell and like all those kinds of. Yeah, I mean, you know, they also need a majority back on the court.
Brian Beutler: So given that that’s a long, [laugh] long term project, let’s talk about what changing gun culture would mean sort of for the interim period. How would you how you would even go about it? The Uvalde killings in particular have rekindled a debate over the power of images. Jeh Johnson, the former Homeland Security Secretary, among others, actually has weighed in to encourage parents from Uvalde to release crime scene photos of their children. Jelani Cobb, who’s a great writer for The New Yorker, wrote probably the best piece arguing against that approach. And before I tip my hand about what I think about that debate, I’m curious if you have strong thoughts on the wisdom of that kind of lurid tactic.
Dave Cullen: Well, at this point, I’m willing to try anything, so I don’t want to shoot anything down. But I kind of think it won’t work. And particularly because, you know, I think a lot about and watch a lot about how these things affect people. And in the wake of these horror hits about, you know, hits a ten and, you know, on the horror scale, right?
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Dave Cullen: America is horrified. I don’t think that showing like the lurid images or whatever you want to call them, making that, like, you know, a ten plus adding more horror, I don’t think any more horror changes the equation. I think we’re already hitting we’ve already topped out horror and making something slightly more horrific. We’ve already maxed out there. I don’t think that does anything. I think it’s more like what I talked about before. It’s it’s horror. It’s it’s changing the hopelessness when people feel like horror again, we have to do something but have have been trained to feel like like, well, because we always lose because nothing does happen. They lose hope and don’t want to do something. So I don’t think adding to the horror helps. I do think, you know, something did strike me, though, this week that was a little different version of that because, I mean, I think maybe you’re going to remember. So I went to Biden’s signing ceremony last Monday at the White House. I’ve never been to one and sort of thought, oh, maybe, this might, [unclear]. But some Columbine survivors invited me, so I went with them. And, you know, its you meet all sorts of people there. And I did. But I was a little surprised to hear Biden talking about it. And by the way, during the campaign, I thought he talked about it so ineptly that while working on the Gabby Giffords big profile for Vanity Fair at the gun forums she hosted, you know, I was with her the whole day and all the Democratic candidates, this was during the primaries, spoke there. I wasn’t planning to do a piece on the event, but because he spoke about it so ineptly, I actually called my editor at Vanity Fair and we did a piece on how inept Biden was talking about it, that that’s how bad he was. Like, I’m like. So, you know, you can see that on the web, like, but so that’s how bad he was sort of starting on this. And so I was kind of shocked that he sort of like talked really movingly and eloquently, which I attribute to like it was, you know, three years or so, you know, working with the gun safety squad. But one thing in particular that he did, I don’t know if people have done this before. I hadn’t heard it this way. He talked about automatic weapons in a really visceral way. He talked about, you know, how the ammo and the high powered thing tears through human flesh in such a way that handguns don’t, to the point where families are asked for DNA to supply DNA samples for their kids because they’re unrecognizable. And where, you know, surgeons are trained for years for, you know, these key moments where they have to act so fast because when you’re shot with these weapons that tear apart flesh, you aren’t likely to even make the hospital ride. And they have like just a few minutes. I never heard anybody talk about it in these ways. Those ways that really is getting pretty graphic and horrific.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Dave Cullen: But I thought like, this is the time to do in between the shootings. Like, nobody wants to hear that. The day after Uvalde day or after Parkland or something, when we’re seeing images of little girls on television. Right. And you hear about that and like picture a specific little girl, right? Or a little boy or what have you. No one wants to hear it and think about individual kids. That’s horrible and disgusting. But in between later, when the passion and the horror has subsided, then to talk in very graphic terms of like what these things really are. Theres weapons, weapons of war, being used against civilians that are just such horrific and make us think about it in a picture. That type of graphic horror is useful, but used in it, employed in a different way than, say, open caskets. So I think, you know, the idea of expressing the horror is the right idea. The open caskets for verite is the wrong approach, and it’s really the wrong timing.
Brian Beutler: So I, I mean, in the same vein as you, I think that. It’s worth trying just because why not try everything that might work? I mean, as a journalist, I sort of think we should set a very high bar for for sanitizing depictions of what guns do to human bodies and particularly to the most defenseless ones. Right. And I also think that there are reasons why news media should use discretion if if a convincing case is made, that their inclination towards full disclosure is is creating big social harms. Right. Like it. The media has gotten much better about not glorifying the shooters and not repeating their names over and over again. But that was in response to, I think, like hard data suggesting that they were encouraging copycat killers. And so they they pulled back on on that part of what would normally be just workaday journalism, who did what, when, where, how and why without hard data like that, suggesting that there’d be something counterproductive socially about about not editing video footage, not, you know, not withholding photographic evidence. It seems to me like the main thing we’re doing is making it easier for people to forget. And you can sort of see it in in polling data. Right. Like in the immediate aftermath, like you suggested, maybe the timing’s wrong because in the immediate aftermath of these shootings, public opinion swings dramatically against Republicans. It swings in a pro gun safety direction, but only for like a few weeks. And then it reverts back to the status quo ante.
Dave Cullen: I don’t know if the opinion changes actually, I think the impetus to do something about it fades, comes back down.
Brian Beutler: Yes. Yes. I mean, over time, as I read the data, it sort of you get a huge swing and then and then it reverts and then a huge swing again. Then it reverts. But the trend is slowly overall toward action against sort of gun libertarianism or whatever you want to call it. But if that’s your backdrop, then we’ve just I think, okay, we just lived through watching the the right wing in the U.S. win a 50 year fight against the right to abortion. And how did they do that? Well, they didn’t really follow the strategy that I think the modern gun regulation movement did of sort of appealing to the center and trying to amass overwhelming public support. I think they did it by capturing the courts, but they did that by constantly reminding their own supporters what it is they hate about abortion. You know, they picket outside of abortion clinics with these graphic, visceral signs. And and they make sure that no part of their movement gets lulled into complacency about the issue. And or I guess that the hope would be that at some point. These images, like the image of the the poor migrant child who drowned in the Rio Grande River, or the case of Emmett Till, which is a sort of classic one from the civil rights era, would help galvanize and radicalize people who under current conditions, will sort of content themselves with incremental progress, or they’ll be really upset for a couple of weeks and then just kind of forget and. To the extent that we can collectively make that harder for the public to do, I think the likelihood is we’ll get to a point and it may be ten or 20 years down the line where you don’t just pass the next incremental bill, but you actually win.
Dave Cullen: Well, you know, the other thing that I you know, I forgot about this, but like that I think was really different about those are particularly the Emmett Till moment, the Rio Grande. I also think with Matthew Shepard, with the, you know, the gay rights thing and like when people saw him, you know, tied up to the fence, and described like a scarecrow. I think of those as eye opening moments and people who were in disbelief and didn’t really believe the horror. And I know from being very closer to the, the gay thing, like like I know a lot of straight people thought like, oh, gay bashing or whatever, like that. I’m sure that happens. One in a million. They didn’t really think it was a real thing until confronted with it. And obviously, I didn’t, you know that when I lived there, I didn’t live through the Emmett Till. But I think my perception is a lot of white people thought like, oh, you know, that’s not really you know, that’s one in a million not really going on and really confronted like, oh, this is real, this is really happening. Whereas with mass shootings, I just like I don’t think there’s any eyes to be opened. I think everybody frickin, like, knows, like it’s, you know, it’s very clear, like kids go to school, you know, from the time they’re six and have to go through like lockdown drills. Like everybody in America knows this problem. There’s no eyes to be open on that. So I think you’re you know, you’re not getting that. But I think you’re right that the you know, the right and the abortion is like like they, you know, went into the courts and they spent like 30 years, you know, electing people and then, you know, having the federalist society pick these people are, you know, very, very right wing activist political judges and of course, sort of like arguing the opposite, right on left wing activist judges. Well, just like as a stealth move to hide the fact that they were doing that. You know, so that’s that’s probably that’s probably something that gun safety movement should have been doing. But, you know, if you want I mean, I think you brought up something really, really interesting, though, about the gun culture. And early on in the intro that I do want to talk about, too, is like, you know, whether we make gun lovers love their guns less or what we do on that front.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm, yeah.
Dave Cullen: Yeah. You know, I would put a slightly different spin on it because well, first of all, I don’t think you’re going to get them to love it less. I think it’s barking up the wrong tree. But I also think there’s a different way of doing it. And I would really this isn’t my idea, but I’ve heard a lot of people in the gun safety movement talk about the difference between, you know, auto safety and gun safety. And both gun control and auto safety movement started pretty much at the same time in the sixties with Ralph Nader, you know, pushing. And they were both very, very controversial. In fact, the auto safety was much more controversial. I’ll throw one stat at you just to tell you, show you how far badly the gun control bungled this. The Gallup poll in 1959 asked Americans if they wanted to ban all handguns except by cops. Nearly two to one Americans did. 60% to I think 34. So that’s sort of like your baseline when they were getting started or most of the country wanted to get rid of all the handguns. That’s unthinkable now. Right. And we, you know, assault was, you know, barely existed in civilian hands. So we’ve gone backwards so far. But at the same time, you know, gun control or auto, you know, there were two big concerns in America of people dying on the highways and dying, you know, in the cities, you know, handguns and so forth. They called them Saturday night specials then. The gun controllers went in one mode and thinking about in terms of controlling them, doing something to stamp down on these objects and the weapons that completely turned off the half of America that owned them and more importantly, love them and identify with that. Nader and the gun safety people were very unpopular for a while. What was safety have been wildly successful. You know, since then we’ve had, you know, seatbelts weren’t even required in cars back at that time, much less, you know, forced to wear them seatbelts, you know, airbags, anti-lock brakes, you know, those things, side impact, things like now it’s a feature that people demand. The other huge thing that these two things have in common is the people have them so much, their identity is wrapped up in them, just as you would never want to make cars less popular for the planet. You might not like like, [laugh] you know, whether they have a Camaro or like, like wherever they’re driving or like I’m dating myself. They’re like, you know, whatever. People love their cars and identify with them or, you know, their trucks and their guns. This is part of their identity. And you’re never going to win that game that way. You can win the game by saying like, this thing that you love, we can make it better, we can make it safer, make you enjoy it more. The other reason that safety really resonates with their crowd. You know, if only there was an organization on their side on the gun onwner side for gun safety. Right. Pushing for that. Well, there is there was an organization, a very large organization started the wake of the Civil War. Their whole reason for existence for the first hundred and some years was gun safety. They named it the NRA, the National Rifle Association. That is such a core value. When you think about any dad or mom, but particularly dad who buys the first rifle for his son or daughter the same way they don’t just toss them the car keys when you’re 16 and they’re like, okay, have fun with it. [laugh] It’s like you’re going to you learn to use this thing safely right now. That is a core value that they actually believe in. Like, they don’t just hand the kid the thing and like, you know, everybody would be dead if you’re just handing little kids guns. They teach them to use them. That’s very important to them. And the other thing, talking about the pollsters, the thing that resonates with those kinds of people is like they do like gun safety. They do like the idea of closing loopholes. They don’t like the idea of like a whole bunch of more laws and people controlling us or, you know, making our lives shitty or harder to live with with our guns. They do like the idea when you talk about like like you have the laws we have. They’re always talking about like we need to enforce the ones we have. When you talk about like, yes, they’ve got shitty loopholes in them, we need to make making them better. So the people who are irresponsible have, you know, that kind of argument appeals to them. So you have to think about it in terms of like not making something they love and consider a part of themselves. Take it away. I don’t think you’re ever going to win the game by taking away things they love, making it more attractive, understanding of them and how it works. Their psychology. That’s how you win the game. [music break]
Brian Beutler: I agree. That is like the most direct coercive form of anti-gun activism, for instance, would be, these guns are legal. There’s a new law now we’re going to take those guns away. This is what always inspires people who are like celebrate guns and take pictures of their whole family with guns. This is when they all rise up and say, like, you know, come and take them. Right. Like, they they they basically adopt a rhetoric of menace and threat that if you ever try to take these weapons away, we’ll use them against you. Right. So that seems like a dangerous and counterproductive path to go down. I I’m taken with your point about how if you if you talk about the alternative measures that you could use as sort of making guns safer and better, that you could change the way people think about about the proliferation of guns, the way we distinguish between like safe drivers and drunk drivers or something like that. And there’s I think, you know, no doubt in my mind that if you pulled it, you’d find that that people don’t want government to, you know, set a limiter on how fast their car can go. Right. But they support the strict enforcement of drunk driving laws. I’m thinking less along the lines of how can a movement that’s already sort of working out which legislative proposals they’d prefer, like which ones they choose, and how they talk about them, and more like what could the people who have influence over mass culture do to make it so that guns aren’t so widely celebrated in the first place, or to or to to change the window of thinking so that there’s—
Dave Cullen: De-glamorize.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, glamorize them. Stop making the people who own the guns stop portraying them as the tough people and the people who want to take them away as the sort of scolds and and weak people and cowards, but actually as the people who who are, you know, have a brave, better vision for the country. And I don’t know how you do that, but, you know, movies and TV and social media, they must contribute to gun culture in some way. I’m wondering how you think that that lever works and what could change to make those things a less sort of baleful influence?
Dave Cullen: Yeah, it’s really interesting, you know, I mean, I think pop culture is really powerful on so many factors. So I was just seeing it on like, you know, cigarettes in films or, you know, cigarette smoking, drinking a lot, glamorizing a lot of behavior. Even like, you know, I mean, what used to be called womanizing right back in like the fifties. But, you know, it used to be like like, you know, you know, film, you know, heroes were, you know, kind of like, you know, like shitty to women, you know, and like, just like, yeah. And over time, that, yeah, that was like a cool thing to me. And anyway, yeah, I think pop culture is like extremely influential in these kinds of things. Now, changing that, I think that those things are frickin hard to do. I mean, you know, I mean certain things like cigarettes it was a simpler thing. Like, like, you know, we just took them out and like made it very like you rarely see people smoking on TV or film. God, you know, I don’t know with guns. I mean, I’ve always felt like, yeah, glamorizing the people, sort of the vigilante thing. I always felt like that was like, you know, whether it’s like, you know, oh, you know, most of the people Arnold Schwarzenegger plays or Bruce Willis or, again I’m dating myself with some of the references. But like, you know, people who act heroic heroically by like or, you know, Liam Neeson movies like I’m going to go after like [laughter] give back my daughter—
Brian Beutler: I have a very particular set of skills—
Dave Cullen: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I don’t think that helps, but God.
Brian Beutler: I don’t want to I don’t want to come off here as like as like being scolded in, like Hollywood shouldn’t have action movies because I love Liam Neeson movies, even the really bad ones, I guess I’m thinking more like, you know, the subtle difference between how movies portrayed chauvinism in the fifties as sort of like these were are are almost like role model figures and how they portray them in like Mad Men or something like that where you’re literally depicting the same culture, but from a modern perspective, where you’re not really glamorizing Don Draper. I mean, I know some people probably took the show to be glamorizing them just because good looking guy who’s dressed well or whatever. But, but really, like that’s a depiction of a of a broken man. Right. And, you know, that’s a that’s a subtle artistic choice. But I think that it you know, it. It has a big reach. And, you know, the sort of proof is in the pudding that, you know, things are better today than they were on that score, at least in the in the 1950s. You know, because it’s such a big question, what can mass culture do differently or how can people have influence over it? Use that influence to push things in a better direction because there’s so many movies and so many books and so many TV shows and stuff. But I think if you look at just the sort of subgenre of movies, TV shows, other forms of media that have kind of grown up around Columbine and around the mass shootings, since that, you could sort of reimagine how. We make that kind of media right? Like off the top of my head, there’s a Gus Van Sant movie called Elephant. That’s basically Columbine, the story of Columbine, rendered from an almost like behind the camera perspective, from I’m going to mess this up, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Or did I?
Dave Cullen: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: And there’s another movie which is kind of a remarkable movie of it in its own right called We Need to Talk About Kevin. But there are really movies about the toxin of gun culture, right? Like, I think even in We Need to Talk About Kevin, here’s a spoiler. The kid doesn’t actually even use a gun in the in the sort of climactic scene. So it’s sort of like its own little advertisement for the idea that, you know, if we banned guns, then people would just use other weapons to do their mass killing or whatever. Anyway, I’m I’m kind of rambling about this, but I guess I could imagine just in that small subset of cultural creative product that we’ve not seen movies, TV shows along those lines that are less character stories about troubled young people and are more sort of allegories about America’s gun sickness.
Dave Cullen: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, I we unfortunately I don’t think many people want to watch that. I don’t think they’re heavily watched. I also, by the way, with Elephant, I, I don’t know. I didn’t not like I did not like that film for a lot of reasons. But one of the things is like I felt it climaxed with violence porn. I mean, I think, you know, sort of like violence porn as a concept is is something that is a problem where when you use violence as the climax of your movie, really the emotional payoff of it when you’re leading toward it and the whole audience is waiting the whole time and then gets a big shoot em up. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think that’s working in the right direction, but I think sort of like a wider net is more useful. You know, I don’t know where those were going. I did see like where this will go or might go. I saw sort of like a frustrated open letter from somebody in Hollywood that got a lot of coverage. Right after Uvalde day, you know, in the trade magazines, of somebody talking about that, we in the industry need to start thinking about this and doing something about it. And even though that frustrated me in the short run, I’m like, okay, whatever. But you know what I mean? Maybe that is the kind of thing that sometimes takes a while to percolate—
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Dave Cullen: —and you and I probably can’t figure out the hows of doing that, but people making these films starting to have that conversation. You know, creative people doing it, you know, talking, may start to figure some things out like, well, what if we did this? Or like trying certain things out, you know, a lot of things in any kind of art, you know, somebody does it well and then everybody else copies it like, Oh, that really works. So yeah, I don’t, I like the idea. I don’t know that you and I are like in a position to figure it out, but anyone really but really seriously, I mean, that’s the kind of thing that’s such a tough nut to crack. [both speaking] But over time, getting the conversation going with, you know, people who are creating this stuff might be like, oh, well, you know.
Brian Beutler: I think this I think this podcast is actually going to be the thing that fixes it. I think that you and I have solved it now. No, I look like I. I agree that that, you know, any any one movie, particularly a niche film about mass killings is going to work only on the thinnest of margins. And also, you know, the whole idea that that I’m interested in here is a little ancillary, right? Like they have violent movies and video games in countries that don’t have guns. And obviously the countries that don’t have tons of guns everywhere don’t have our violence problem with them. So obviously, like the quantity of guns and is is like the main thing that ideally you’d want to be able to to modulate, but with that option sort of unavailable, creating a different kind of stigma around them through whatever cultural means you have, seems like at least worth experimenting with. And I think that, you know, this is sort of a very loose analogy, but like the movie Belfast that came out last year, like, I loved it. I saw it a couple of times. It it touched me like a very unexpected way. And I was raving about it to somebody who, for whatever reason, was annoyed by the fact that there apparently aren’t smokers in that movie like it. It doesn’t depict anyone on the streets of Belfast in whatever year it was supposed to be, the 1950s or sixties smoking cigarettes, which, if it were trying to be photo realistic about life during the troubles, half the people would be smoking. And I mean, I just didn’t notice. And even sitting here, I’m not even certain it’s true. It’s true. But that is the sort of thing that has changed over time where the, you know, the the people who make the art have stopped, just sort of mindlessly putting cigarettes in everyone’s mouth and it like corresponds with a trend towards people smoking less. And I mean, obviously there’s a lot more that went into that than just what happens on TV or in movies. But I think that they are connected in some way and that you can imagine a cultural milieu in a very short time from now. Just kind of making the baseline assumption among the population about guns, one that’s more like revulsion than one that’s sort of like like a different manifestation of the flag.
Dave Cullen: Yeah, I mean, that is interesting. Maybe. I mean, yeah, I mean, it’s definitely worth a shot and like especially with a certain part of the public, but to me like a big trouble with the movement and getting a thing passed over for many years and the gun controllers didn’t figure out for several decades is that there’s sort of like two groups of people in America concerning guns. People who have them, love them central to their lives and people who like basically never think about them. And I’ve, mostly been in that second category. And the reason we had this asymmetrical voting for decades and the people, you know, who wanted so-called gun rights kept voting for them and the other people, you know, didn’t vote for gun control was like, if you’re a gun guy and it’s really important to your life, it’s there in your house. It’s like you think about it all the day. And I encourage people to think about it, like the way you might think about your beard. Like, I don’t know how much it matters to you, but like, but that’s the kind of identity, like, you know, or people like in the sixties and seventies asking them to cut their hair. Right. It was like, like, I will soon or die, then cut my hair or like some people about their beards. Like it takes on that way, you know, or like, you know, my truck or, you know, the brand of beer I drank, like, you know, I’m a Budweiser man or whatever or like, you know, or, you know, I only drink, you know, scotch or whatever it has those kinds of overturns that I never really understood until like the last couple of years. And really talking to Ryan Busse, who like wrote a great book from the inside, who was a gun executive, who’s like, you know, sort of like now part of the gun safety movement talking about like, that’s what people on our side never get is how central it is to their life. So those people, I don’t know how much you can change that. Meanwhile, the other people, it’s not like, you know, I don’t know how much you can get them to like like love or hate guns or hate them. It’s just like, don’t give a shit. Like, most people like me. Like, like, yeah, you know, I was in the army, like, decades ago and, you know, you know, M-16. I know how to dissemble, you know? But in the decades since that, I don’t, you know, maybe one or two times I picked up a gun. They’re just not part of my life. They’re invisible. And so I don’t know how much you can get. So what would I think about these two different groups of people, the gun lovers and holders, it’s going to be very hard to change their opinion on it or their take on it. And the other side, I don’t know that revulsion will really help, but likely it’s just not a part of life. It just doesn’t even exist in my life. It only exists when like the news comes out and there’s mass shootings. But in my own personal life, they literally don’t exist. And so it’s harder to get a feeling about something that’s not even there. So, I mean, I think that’s why it’s like a little something different, like cigarettes and drinking, like it’s everywhere or it used to be like it’s people smoking everywhere, but so I don’t know, I, I think it’s a weird animal.
Brian Beutler: I do wonder how sustainable this sort of indifference among people who just don’t own guns and don’t think, you know, not sustainable. I just mean that like the the Supreme Court is trying to basically shove as many guns into public spaces as will fit. Right? Like eventually that’s going to have it’s going to change the way people think about how safe they are in places where they assumed that there was no risk to them. Right. Because because soon everywhere in the country, probably you’re in downtown walking around having a sort of normal afternoon. And now you have to start wondering whether all the strangers around you are packing heat. Right. And you you never thought about that before. And and this is sort of why I think that the sort of politics of visceral imagery are compelling, because you want them to stop being you know, I don’t want to you know, there’s research about how these mass shooting drills in schools basically traumatize kids. And I have serious misgivings about how wise they are, even even though it’s clear that that children know how to handle these situations better than their parents in most cases. But but so I don’t I don’t you know, I don’t think that we ought to be out there, like, traumatizing the half of the country that manages to sort of be blissfully indifferent to the proliferation of guns, but to make them think about it the way they think about hopefully start thinking about climate change or about the economy or whatever that this is. This is now ambient. It’s not something that those guys do. It’s not something that happens in inner cities and in rural America and then occasionally in a school somewhere, it’s everywhere. And it’s creating unacceptably high levels of risk for me, for my family, for my community. And I think that, you know, like well-meaning people, activists and people who make art and stuff have some influence over that level of consciousness for that group of people. And then for the people who think about it like they’re, you know, they’re their favorite brand of beer or whatever, you know, at the risk of sort of going all Hillbilly Elegy here, I think that like the real cultural, it’s a shame that it’s like it’s a it’s a question for the, you know, sort of leadership figures of the overwhelming majority of Americans to try to come up with solutions because, you know, 25% refused to budge. But I think that like the most effective single thing that could happen would be for somebody, you know, somebody like Ryan Busse but with a higher profile to to sort of engage in a form of respectability politics, but for but for like right wing men, like like if Charlton Heston were still alive and was like, hey, you know, I know what I said for all those years about from my cold, dead hands. But actually, you know, I’ve given it some more thought, and I don’t think that this is good for us and we shouldn’t do that anymore. Even if, like, Trump were like, I’m still all MAGA, but I don’t think that we’re in a good place with guns, that these sort of influencers, people who have influence over right wing American psychology, could do more with just a few resources, some earned media, and like a modicum of good conscience to make people think, you know what? Like we could really use to trade in nine of our ten rifles and just reduce the likelihood that any one of those ends up in the hands of somebody who’s going to kill a dozen people. But, you know.
Dave Cullen: Yeah, I mean, I think the closest thing you say, and God its terrible. Like it was a basketball coach? I think where after Uvalde, who was the coach who like came out very angry a day or two after Uvalde? But I think we know we’d like, you know, country music people, NASCAR drivers, you know, football players, military, Giffords has been very big on, you know, getting generals to do videos and stuff. But, you know, I don’t know how profile they are, but like, you know, working that angle to of like and there are some groups they have like helped germinate of gun owners for gun safety. There’s one in Colorado there’s four or five states now I think that have them. Yeah they’re getting yeah. Gun owners but yeah I mean I don’t know what the reducing the number I mean that’s possible but you know for me I think the more likely route is trying to make them safer whether, you know, one of the big things that the movement’s been pushing now was safe storage laws and people like because, you know, most of the school shootings, so many of the mass shootings, I forget the latest numbers, but like, you know, they get the gun from somebody in their family or somebody close to them that, you know, should be locked up, you know, or domestic abusers or other people within the family. You know, the other thing that we haven’t talked about here either is and I think a big part of the movement is working towards is that, you know, mass shootings are really tiny percentage of the guns in America.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Dave Cullen: I had my research, ah, it’s something like 0.017% or something. I mean, it’s, you know, it’s kind of a rounding error. But, you know, we also need to be talking about some of the other big categories of gun deaths. The biggest category by far is suicides. It’s not just the biggest one. It’s two thirds. So all the murders, all the deaths put up together, the suicides are twice as much as that. And we never talk about them. And, you know, the biggest single thing you could do for suicides is just delay the access, because most, you know, gun suicides are spontaneous acts. And if you can just delay it easily, solve it. And, you know, you can get on to all the other reasons because like, you know, well, first of all, I’ll give you a few. It’s like gun suicides are almost always successful. It’s something like more than 90% success rate. And most forms of suicides are incredibly unsuccessful. Like poisoning is like in the single digits, you know, because you put a gun in your mouth and you pulled the trigger, you’re going to freakin die. Right.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Dave Cullen: Anyway, so suicides is a big one. You know, inner city violence is a gigantic one. Like most of the murders happen in cities, people of color in specific neighborhoods and even in specific, specific street corners. So the other thing the movement is working on is like like what do we do about that? Which is often very different. And they’ve actually come up with some very successful things, violence, interrupter programs. And it’s basically stopping, you know, the escalation of gang on gang violence.
Brian Beutler: Hmm.
Dave Cullen: So, I mean, some of the areas that we’re talking about is like saving lots and lots of lives that have nothing to do with mass shootings. Are there are other ways of skinning this cat of like like saving millions of people beyond the ones that we’re all, you know, seeing about. And frankly, the ones where, like, you know, cute suburban white kids aren’t killed in the mass shootings when like, you know, millions of people are dying of this, you know, tens of thousands of people in the cities for different reasons. And they need different kinds of solutions.
Brian Beutler: I hear you and I have like very sort of personal feelings about street level gun violence. You know, I do think—
Dave Cullen: Are some of the feelings that it’s intractable, that it’s unsolvable?
Brian Beutler: Oh, no, I was I was referring to the I, I got I got caught up in a street gun violence situation several years ago. [laughter] But no, I mean, you know, I totally hear the point about the sort of overfocus on these, you know, horrific. Terrifying mass shooting scenes. Part of the reason why I think it’s it’s still appropriate to focus on them is that I think in the realms of suicide and like street crime, there are productive, well-meaning people kind of trying to sort it out as best they can. Against the backdrop of federal law and these sort of perverse readings of the Constitution and make it really difficult to make headway. But I think I think people have the incentive and just the sort of decency to want to try to get those things under control through various means. Right. Policing and and early intervention and mental health and so on.
Dave Cullen: But also a lot of these same gun laws impact these but—
Brian Beutler: But yeah, yeah. The mass shooting thing is sort of like, you know, you could probably deregulate sort of air travel safety a bit and save some money and you’d still have air travel be by far the safest way to travel. But but plane crashes are so horrific just thinking about them, let alone witnessing them. Nobody—
Dave Cullen: By the way, I’m not. Yeah, and I’m not against you know, my head was turned around actually, when talking again to, you know, this great pollster several weeks ago and frustration of why the focus on these like, you know, why is there more focus on these other things? And she said, because no one cares about them. There’s one thing that motivates people to do something on gun safety. It’s mass shootings.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Dave Cullen: And the reason once you tick through them makes all make sense, like they don’t think those apply to them. You know, you get on the list of like like suicides. I’m never going to do that. And, you know, basically, people are very judgmental, like I’m being hyperbolic here. But basically, like, you know, my family and friends aren’t such losers. They’re not pathetic people. They’re never going to do that, which of course, is silly. But everybody thinks like like, oh, the people I know that’s never going to happen to me or my friends or family. Right. Yeah, totally. Right. True. But that’s what they think. You know, inner cities, like like I don’t live there. Like, sucks for those people, but doesn’t affect me. Even people of color in cities, most of them don’t live in those micro areas where most of the people are dying. So we get most people like not my problem. You know, you can go down people’s lives or, you know, like somebody like stolen weapons is like like, oh, but I’m careful. And people are like, you know, it’s not going to happen to me. All those things on the list, like they think it’s not going to happen to them. But we’re mass shootings. Everybody does feel like it happens to them. So the fact I’m like, like, okay, this motivates everybody to change these laws, which will affect all those other things too. You know, I’ve come around to like, okay, I, I guess I’m okay with us talking about this and using this like this can change, you know, get legislation or changes made which then helps all those other ones. Although, you know, the inner city ones, you know, you know, I cannot stress enough like so here’s one good piece of good news that’s like like that has just happened completely under the radar. They got huge funding this year for these violence interrupter programs. The gist of the programs that make a massive difference in the pilot programs in a shitload of hospitals always have been working spectacularly more than anybody thought, but they don’t have enough funding and to be expanded. But the gist of it is when you know, when somebody shot in a gang, the other gang had and I’m simplifying. But, you know, here’s the simple version. The other gang has to respond. And usually they have to up the ante or they’ve seen it, they’re seen as weak and they have to. And then they do. And then there’s a counter strike and you have these cycles of violence. The thing is, the gangs don’t want to. They understand they’re not stupid. They understand the cycle of violence and they understand that their retribution is going to make their life hell. And they don’t want to do it, but they don’t really have a way out of this. So they come up with, like right in the ERs, in Cook County Hospital and Oakland and Baltimore, all these places like luckily specific frickin hospitals. They have teams of people with, you know, community members, pastors, you know, people who are respected in the community. They’re all white. I’m sitting there waiting for this. You know, the guy going to be wheeled into the ambulance and you have a small window of opportunity to de-escalate, to find out, like, what gang are you and what’s going on. And luckily their friends are, you know, come with them. I go and meet with both sides and de-escalate it. And, you know, this might seem like one of those things like pie in the sky, they actually work, and they’ve been, you know, been trying for five or ten years, but they didn’t have enough money. So they got 200 million just for this year. And one of the reasons that they could never get this passed is the NRA was constantly against it and fighting it. So the Republicans didn’t vote for it. And I finally, you’d ask the Giffords people like, why didn’t they, you know, they didn’t fight it this year. And, you know, they said like, well, we don’t really know why the NRA does what, you know, they’re not telling us. But we think because they’re picking their battles, because they’re having trouble, like, you know, they’re on their back legs. So they they. They stopped fighting it and the Republicans voted for it and they didn’t give a shit. Nobody talked about it like the Republicans didn’t want to be against it. But they weren’t allowed to vote for it until the NRA decided like like what the fuck do we care? And they dropped it and all this money got passed. This is a huge thing that is happening that will save massive numbers of lives that no one has even heard about or knows what’s happening. But that’s quietly happening behind the scenes. And I always think the like, it’s better for the politicians to look like, just let’s not talk about it. Let’s just do it like nobody. You know, we’re not going to get in trouble with it because nobody does. But there are other things that are happening, you know, in Chicago that’s going to have a huge fucking difference.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. And this is sort of why I think that, you know, in a world where everyone was rowing in the same direction, like everyone agreed that actually the the price of freedom isn’t 40,000 people who die from gunshot wounds every year. It would be like just a much different conversation. And you can sort of approximate that conversation in communities where people have more influence over different facets of community life. The mass shooting culture is really just a it’s almost like Republican politics, like expressed and, you know, conservative leaders, the NRA, Republican elected officials, they end up having to basically say, we’re not really interested in stopping this because it’s it’s just a sort of outgrowth of the America we want. And so naturally, politics happens around that, you know, conflictual, partizan politics. And I guess it’s a good way to, like, lead me to my my final provocation for you is, is that since that’s like where the sort of fight is, and for whatever it’s worth, like mass shootings are the sort of epicenter around which the the the gun debate happens. Is there something to say for a sort of like focus on the gun culture side of things as opposed to the legislative side of things? Insofar as when you lose a legislative fight, it is demoralizing in the ways that you earlier mentioned are sort of poison for for an activist movement. Whereas if you’re trying to change people’s minds and hearts and you’re trying to change media and you’re trying to change these other things that comprise the culture, you can kind of always be on the offense. Like you’re always like push pushing in a positive direction and there’s no veto point, right? There’s no filibuster or Supreme Court majority. That’s going to say, at least for now anyway. [laugh] You know, you can’t you can’t do that. Like you can always try new things. You can always push the envelope in different ways. And that presumably is sort of sort of creates the momentum that that you risk losing if you put all of your chips in the in the gun safety law basket.
Dave Cullen: Well, I like the idea a lot of changing the public perception of them. What I kind of like what might help but like I get I’m getting a little stuck on is like what are you trying to change it to? Like, I’ll throw out a couple of things, but like feel free to like, like, like, you know that guns are intrinsically dangerous or bad or harmful or like, or that we have too much of them. Or like, like what is it? The emotion? Like, what do you want people to feel about them that you’re trying to change?
Brian Beutler: I guess I’d say I’d want a, you know, some margin, some number of people who are gun owners. You know, I think you’re probably not going to reach the like like actual gun nuts, but a lot of people who aren’t gun nuts on guns to start thinking that seeing guns is sort of an expression of of toughness or independence or whatever is actually just kind of a form of weakness. Right. You know, without without, you know, saying and doing the counterproductive things like like when Barack Obama talked about people clinging to their guns and their religion, like you don’t want to condescend to them. But but but give them a new framework for thinking about what their ownership of guns says about them. Does it say that they’re awesome or does it say that they’re not? I think you can change that. And and there’s, you know, some number of millions of people who you you might be able to reach and make them, you know, sort of decide guns aren’t for them or they don’t really need this many. They shouldn’t celebrate guns as a as like a as a piece of machinery and then separately to keep the other half of the country that, you know, you mentioned before, most of the time they don’t think about guns at all. To for them to to be sort of. More permanently mobilized against the status quo on guns because they don’t think it’s acceptable even when, you know, they feel like they’re safe and at home and there’s no guns in the house. And so, you know, that’s somebody else’s problem. You know, I think that those like those are the things we could change. It’s it’s it’s like in in, you know, politics. People talk about the Overton Window shifting and they’re usually talking about it in the policy space. And I’m talking about it here in the sort of cultural space, right. In the same way that that the way people thought about everything from cigarettes to drunk driving to homophobia to, you know, to. Shifted rapidly over the last 30, 40, 50 years. The guns seem to have gone in the other direction. And I think that it’s feasible, at least that the pendulum could swing back and you could have sort of—
Dave Cullen: Like, yeah, we have fewer and fewer people owning them, but we have more guns because like the people who do it are owning more. I will tell you like one example of like what you’re up against there of like so I’ll give you an example of a gun and this I read this how it changed my thinking or helped me like understand the depths of like what we’re dealing with. So here’s an example of a gun, nut, a like who really loves her guns. Gabby Giffords owns a Glock. She was shot in the head with a Glock, but like she still has one at her house because she had one. She had it before she was shot because she just loves them, she thinks are kind of cool and fun she grew up on a ranch. She was like a little cowgirl, right? And so she’s always had them and like the fact that, like, somebody shot me in the head with one, is it going to make me get rid of them with the one I have? I still like it. I’m always going to like it. [laugh] So, like so I mean, that’s the example. You can get shot in the head [laughter] with the one you have and still like, but I still like it. You know, it’s also sort of like trying to get rid of like your cowboy hat or cowboy boots, you know? You know what I mean? It’s like well anyway, the identity [?] but but I do get but I do like the other side. I think you’re definitely onto something. And but I think it has been changing of the other side of like even though for people like me who like never see a gun, they’re not a part of my life, but gun violence is part of my life and the horrors of guns are like. So, I mean, I think that is also what we’re having to work toward is getting people who are I guess is using some of your words, like permanently mobilized that like, yeah, this does matter to me. But I’ve always felt too I always felt less over the years that like you need to give people some hope that there is something that they could actually ever vote for because they win sometimes. That’s why I also think this bill was crucial. They needed a fucking win. After 30 years of always losing. Who the hell is going to vote for this stuff, when its like like, yeah but they always lose, why you know, what difference does it make? They need to start fucking winning.
Brian Beutler: I should say, you know, the reason I wanted to have this conversation mostly be about the about gun culture and changing gun culture in the U.S. is is to the end that, you know, if you change enough not so it’s like, oh, 90-10 on background checks but like 70% of people think, you know, get back to the glory days when 70% of people thought you should just get all handguns off the street, like really change public opinion so that eventually, you know, when the when the right political wave comes, you can do something more meaningful than the bill that just passed to make America like just fundamentally safer and freer. It’s it’s not to just wage endless culture war forever. It’s to sort of begin setting the table now the way Republicans did on abortion and many other things. You know, they have this expression that politics is downstream of culture. They this is, you know, was, I think, Andrew Breitbart’s phrasing. And I you know, I don’t always think that that’s correct. But I do think that there’s something to it that if you can polarize and accentuate and, you know, not just more people side with you, but make them feel really strongly about things through ambient means and not through just who you vote for and what you expect them to do in office, that you can really dramatically change what the what the realm of the politically possible is, more so than fielding candidates, asking them to make certain promises, contesting elections, and trying to use those majorities to pass bills. Because as we’ve seen, you know, took 30 years, there has been one victory. And it it’s you know, it’s it’s not the bill that’s going to fix the problem.
Dave Cullen: But I just see I actually just see so much more opportunity on the other side. I mean, when, you know, we talk about these things, we said like, okay, you know, these think this item is 80, 90%. If you look at the top six or eight items on the Everytown agenda, they all poll in the 80s to 90% are like, you know, even. You know, assault weapons, I think is in the seventies. But so, you know, that’s just really frustrating. How come this big majorities. But the part I think we’re overlooking that like that means gun owners are also wanting to do that. Here’s what I think is the opportunity. You know, background checks are polling it like 95%, I think. I haven’t looked like it’s something like a third of Americans have guns. Well, that means if you’re in the nineties, that means you’ve got most of the gun owners wanting to do it. Here’s the reason it’s not happening is because most of these things most gun owners want to do, they don’t trust is like their mantra. The NRA’s mantra for the last since the seventies has been. Never give an inch because they say, you know, we’re over here and here. Like we want sensible stuff, you know, in the middle. And the NRA says they’re not going to meet you in the middle. All they’re going to do is push you all the way to the other side. And if you just hold the line, never give an inch on anything. So they have been having their people have been voting against their own interests for decades, saying like, yeah, I actually would like that to happen but can’t trust the, you know, the liberal people to do it. They’re going to take away all our guns. They’re going to do, you know, it’s confiscation. Confiscation. We can’t trust that. So you’ve got this like huge half of the country talking about red America who actually wants to meet us on most of these things. Most of the things on the Everytown agenda, most of their side wants to do, too, but doesn’t trust us to do it with them. I mean, I think that’s really the whole ballgame. If those people could ever believe, okay, we can work out something of just the shit we want to do to also be completely happy with that. But they won’t cut that deal because they don’t think they think they’re going to get screwed if they cut a deal. Like I think that is the thing to overcome is if we can get their side coming around to being like, okay, if we can do like, you know, all these things, we actually want to meet you halfway on that but are afraid to do it. We’ve been afraid to do it for 40, 50 years. I mean, I think that’s where the huge opportunity is, is the people on the other side who’ve been wanting to make that deal but don’t know how to do it. And that’s why, like, you know, like I this also really affected me. I have a good friend who works for two, you know, she works for MSNBC and NBC, Elise Jordan, she also works part time doing these focus groups. So she’s from Mississippi. And after Parkland, she did a couple of them, one in Mississippi and the other one I think in Tennessee. And they then were breaking this down. This is 2018 to Trump voters on one day and, you know, or the other afternoon or whatever not Trump voters. So in all, Trump voters were the all the people in the room. And in both situations, every single person in the room on guns, they were hardcore what you would think of as gun nuts, in fucking, you know, Mississippi, right? She said every single person in both groups wanted to do something, but then when they would start talking about specifics, people like, oh no no. And like they were afraid to do any specific thing or to trust the other side. They weren’t ready to cut any deal. They all wanted to do something. And, you know, it wasn’t just talking like, you know, deep conversations, like, yes, they don’t know what deal they’re willing to make that isn’t going to screw them. And I mean, that’s been going on for quite a long time that we’re not getting the people on the other side want to make some deal, figure out how to do it. It’s almost like Arab, Israeli, you know, peace accords is like they were trying of want to do something, but there’s sure you’re going to just screw the hell out of them and they’re going to lose in the end. And so they’re not cutting some deal. It’s not an exact analogy, but in fact, that is like a zero sum game, right? Like here, not necessarily, but I don’t know. So that’s where I see the biggest opportunity that and finally which is finally happening of mobilizing the other side to keep the pressure on where, you know, the gun safety crowd actually has people voting for them and for their stuff. And, you know, I was surprised to see, you know, the last polls I saw last month, 10% of the people are still putting it, as you know, or, again, putting it as their top need or their top voting issue, which, you know, pre-Parkland that never happened.
Brian Beutler: I guess that sort of a good data point to put a flag in and then, you know, we’ll see how how well or poorly that translates when it comes to midterm time. And we can like revisit this conversation six or eight months from now. And if if the if the balance of power has shifted politically away from doing more on guns, then then maybe it’ll be a good time to rekindle this.
Dave Cullen: Well, I also want to see sort of like the next Congress after 15 Senate Republican senators stuck their neck out. And it’s no surprise that only two are up for election this time. But that’s fine if like the safe people want to stick their neck out in like like, okay, we’re not going to get punished. And if no one gets punished and I think there are only like ten in the house. I forget the exact number. Not many in the house, but if like nobody gets punished on the Republican side, like they defy the NRA and they don’t get punished in this bill, it’s way less than I wanted, but way more than I was expected. I was shocked. In fact, I was on some, you know, TV news shows saying, like, I don’t I, I come up with any bill. It’s going to be total bullshit. Nothing. I was shocked. It’s not a great bill, but like, it was way more than I thought. And then like many more people than I thought went for it. So if no one gets punished, it’ll be interesting to see a couple of years down the road what’s really happening with the Republican Party. Like, okay, it’s safe to start voting for those. And you know, people have been wanting to like vote for the stuff. If more of them come out of the woodwork once it’s yeah—
Brian Beutler: You know, it will be interesting if Mitch McConnell as majority leader again or Kevin McCarthy or whatever, that when these things have happened in the last two years, year and a half, it’s been, you know, up to basically Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to say we’re going to do something about it. And then up to Republicans to respond when Democrats can only apply pressure on the on the leaders of the party of the on the leaders of the Congress to to to respond to this or that gun massacre. You know, Mitch McConnell will be thinking about the presidency. He’ll be thinking about the Senate majority. And maybe it will actually be like harder for him to just say, no[e, we’re not going to have a legislative response to this at all. Obviously, like I think it would be better if if we never had to find out how Mitch McConnell and and Kevin McCarthy would respond in those circumstances. But but if we get there, I’d love to sort of have a part two to this.
Dave Cullen: Revisit. Sure. Yeah, I’d love to. Yeah.
Brian Beutler: All right, Dave Cullen, thank you so much for being on. Positively Dreadful.
Dave Cullen: Thanks, Brian. Thanks for hashing so this out. It’s a tough nut to crack, right?
Brian Beutler: Yeah. [music break]
Brian Beutler: You know, it’s interesting. Over the course of the week, as we prepped and recorded this episode, a couple of things happened. One is that House Democrats advanced legislation to ban assault rifles. That bill will probably clear the House soon, but I’m guessing we’ll find out pretty quickly after that that it’s a dead letter in the Senate. The other is that Democrats in Congress finally started responding creatively to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe versus Wade, including with the bill to protect same sex marriages. And the difference between these two things is instructive. The Respect for Marriage Act got 47 Republican votes in the House. It stands a pretty good chance of becoming law. And the Republicans who voted no or intend to vote no are almost to a person making up excuses or whining about how it’s a waste of time, about how the Supreme Court isn’t going to avoid marriage equality. The way they avoided the right to abortion. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They may or may not be right about that. But everything about their posture, their lack of conviction, their annoyance, their baseless promises about what the court will or will not do. It all stems from the fact that they’re scared. They don’t want to admit they oppose same sex marriage and they don’t want to admit that their hired guns on the Supreme Court might do something so extreme and bigoted. Saying any of that would be unpopular, but it’s unpopular because the culture changed. The U.S. has become way less homophobic than it was certainly when I was growing up. And that’s reflected in media and in law and in how people think. And from where I sit, the path to more victories, things like an assault weapons ban run through something similar happening with respect to gun culture in America. We’re experiencing more mass shootings now than before and a surge in street level gun crime in every kind of community in the country. Right wing culture warriors are already out in front of that, quite dishonestly to blame it on cities and liberal mayors and black people. And they’re doing that because they know if they can fan a cultural panic about crime in America, like the one that gripped the country during the seventies, eighties and nineties, which was a much more violent time, they can shape their political destiny. There’s no reason Democrats can’t join that fight. Minus the lying part anyway. The politics website axios ran a story a few days back about Democrats aligning with law enforcement here and there against Republican gun deregulation in a way that was common before Donald Trump claimed law enforcement for the far right. So it could be that we’re headed for a long era of reactionary anti-crime policy. But it could also be that we’re a few years away from Republicans alienating themselves from everyone but gun nuts. And then they’ll have to either change or lose. Whichever path we end up on is kind of up to us. Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez and our associate producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.