Update January 2013: See Anthropology and Gun Violence: New Guns or New Gun Control? for ongoing treatment of these issues, as well as Gun Violence Anthropology: AAA and the NRA for a round-up from anthropology.

semi-automatic weapons buybackIt really is not so complicated. The murder-massacre of Newtown was made possible by semi-automatic weapons. The answer is simple. Difficult, yes, but simple: a semi-automatic weapons buyback or other measures to reduce and restrict the weaponry. But as anthropologists, we may not figure this one out until we get walloped and wonder what happened. Or as Ulf Hannerz put it:

We may remember one gentleman, fairly long ago, who proclaimed that “whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver.” I am afraid that, if he had been a certain kind of present-day anthropologist, he may have done so only to shoot himself in the foot. (Anthropology’s World, 2010:53; see also Gun Culture and Anthropology on Culture)

Anthropology’s World, indeed. Got some great anthropological analysis from my hometown paper, The Daily Star, as my Republican state senator warns me about indulging in gun control laws as a knee-jerk reaction, that would sidestep “highly complex and complicated societal issues.” Because after all, “there is no easy answer” and we need to investigate this “culture of violence.” The Republican assemblyman “wants to see a ‘thoughtful’ investigation that would shed light on the ‘root causes’ behind Friday’s massacre. . . . ‘The big issue is to understand why this happened.’”

Sound familiar? Were those Republican representatives reading Neuroanthropology, where anthropologist Daniel Lende writes that there are No Easy Answers? Lende’s thoughtful piece is full of those highly complex and complicated societal issues. It’s holistic anthropology at its best. It’s the kind of anthropology we all love. “We need a multi-dimensional approach for a multi-dimensional problem. But we also need better answers to the question Lt. Paul Vance posed for us, and so many have asked ourselves since Friday–Why?”

Don’t get me wrong. I love Daniel Lende–if it weren’t for his re-tweets, you wouldn’t be reading this today, and he’s been blogging about gun violence for longer than most of us have been blogging. I love anthropological holism. I love multi-dimensional anthropological complexity, especially when it’s posed against uni-dimensional and absurd biological reductionism.

But we have to wake up and smell the complex holistic coffee. Complexity, complicated, no easy answers, root causes, asking why: those have all become Republican talking points. And it’s not because they’re about to enroll in an anthropology class near you. They’ll cut your anthropology budget faster than you can call Florida Governor Rick Scott. It’s because complexity is the new code word for legislative paralysis, because gun control is too simple, because even if they allow for some gun control it’s going to get tied to censorship and speech lockdowns, and we can probably bet on yet more money for police and prisons, but hey we’re now in a battle for public safety.

Fortunately Greg Downey, Lende’s now ex-pat Australian colleague, gives us a bit of perspective:

Outside the US, the carefulness of some of the discussion around guns seems outrageous. By now, most of us have seen the graphic showing the number of murders using handguns in a range of high income countries: the US stands out by an order of magnitude. In Australia, where I now live, the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 led to massive efforts by the government to control guns and buy back arms: almost a million weapons were disposed of. Not a single mass shooting has happened since 1996, and the population here is equivalent to the state of New York. Like the US, Australia had its own frontier culture and rich history of gun use and mythology, but shootings are rare. . . . Thanks for writing this, but no one outside the US, where these incidents happen so much less frequently, sees this as anything other than the sign of a deeply sick society that can’t face the obvious problem. Give people guns, whether they’re healthy, ill, or something in between, and they think about using them.

Indeed, as I wrote in the more policy-oriented reflections Fiscal Cliff Stimulus Package for a Semi-Automatic Weapons Buyback, Australia is the model to copy here. They did it. We can too.

Once again, I love Daniel Lende, as should the whole anthropology blogosphere. And in a recent tweet to me, Lende references Gun violence in America, an interview with David Hemenway in the Harvard Gazette. Hemenway is very clear. The issue is guns:

People think we have a violence problem in the United States, but we really don’t. We’re an average country in terms of all the violence measures you can think of, in terms of crime. But where we’re very different is guns. We have lots more guns than anybody else, particularly handguns. A lot of countries have hunting rifles, but we have these handguns, and then we have these assault weapons. Secondly, we have by far the most permissive gun control laws, the weakest gun policies of any country. It’s not even close. Not surprisingly, we have more gun crime and more gun homicide.

We compared the United States to the other First World countries. We looked at both genders and all ages, but here are the statistics for 5- to 14-year-olds. A child in the United States compared to a child in Finland or France or New Zealand is not 20 percent more likely to be killed in a gun homicide, or 50 percent more likely, or twice as likely, or five times as likely. It’s 13 times higher.

Our gun suicide rate for these children is eight times higher. Our non-gun suicide rate is average. For unintentional gun deaths, we have 10 times the likelihood of death [compared with other developed countries]. These children are at risk. When you do surveys across states or cities or regions, you find that where there are more guns and more permissive gun laws, people are dying.

We can do so much better. Other countries have done so much better.

Don’t Ask Why – Describe the Conditions of Possibility

I’m trying to remember exactly how my late mentor Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it–it was something to the effect of trying to change our why questions into how does questions, or to get us to think about the conditions of possibility. Anthropology cannot do the why, anymore than we can explain why the granary collapsed at that precise moment. We should not offer the why, because then we attempt to deliver something we cannot. It is perhaps a harsh creed, a creed that gives no answers while recognizing that what people seek most are those answers.

But in analyzing the conditions of possibility, there is much that can be done, and anthropology might help us make choices about those possibilities. One of the conditions of possibility is race in the U.S., as Discuss White Privilege replies to Greg Downey, and this is a big reason why realistically we won’t get that semi-automatic weapon buyback. She also points usefully to the Salon article, Time to profile white men?, which makes very clear that the only reason we are allowed to talk about these as complex and complicated societal issues–rather than simple, knee-jerk reactions–is because this is about white men.

Meanwhile, we’re now hearing the clamor of the Rush to boost school safety. So now everyone wants to spend a gazillion dollars on school safety. They won’t spend 50 billion to buy back 50 million semi-automatic weapons; they won’t run anti-gun-control politicians out of office; they won’t spend money to support normal education; they won’t spend money to integrate our schools and neighborhoods. But now everyone has to get some new technology and lockdown consultants because the kids must be safe at any cost.

I do not like where this all seems to be going.

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  • S.

    It is really easy to talk about gun control. Not that it shouldn’t be done, because it should. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that it is much more difficult to talk about mental illness and the way it is dealt with in American society. There should be more talk and more investigation about it every time something like this happens. Because science can either cure your cancer or make an atomic bomb that destroys an entire city. It’s people’s choices that make the difference. And once you investigate what lies beneath each choice, then you’ll have the whole picture.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thank you, S. for stopping by. I’m not trying to get into either/or fights, but I have to disagree here. Maybe it’s easy to *talk* about gun control, but it sure has not been easy to get any meaningful legislation passed that would provide effective gun control. And until that happens, it’s difficult to tell how much of the iceberg that really is. When it came to mass shootings, Australia and Britain discovered gun control really was the iceberg. Again, I do not want to get into either/or, but check out Top 10 Myths About Mass Shootings which points out the difficulties of such diagnosis, and Gun Control: A Misguided Focus on Mental Illness.

      • S.

        You obviously can’t ban children because there are pedophiles, but you can ban weapons because there are psycopaths. In that sense, it is easy to talk about passing legislation and it *should* be done. However, I’m just pointing out that as much as there is a trigger that souldn’t be there, there is also a finger insane enough to pull it. And that’s also a serious issue that, for what I know, has been neglected and covered in prejudice. I don’t have time right now to check those links, but I think that someone that wants to do something as violent as what we’re talking about here, in the absence of weapons will find other ways. Unfortunately we can learn on the internet how to make bombs and other stuff, and we know some people have used them to commit acts of terrorism. We will probably have to agree to disagree, but for me it is more important to discuss the causes of something than the means used to get there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m obvioulsy in favor of doing everything we can to control those means, I’m really just not sure it will be the whole answer to the problem.

        • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

          Hi S., thank you for this follow-up. I am definitely not saying this is in any way the “whole answer” to the problem. In fact, we probably would want to follow this up with say a discussion on our healthcare system more generally, because it’s difficult to treat mental illness outside of this holistic context. But the point is that many of the right-wing talking points now hammering on-and-on about mental illness have always completely resisted any kind of healthcare reform. So, yes, I agree that this is tip-of-the-iceberg, but needs to be done.

  • Fran Barone

    Jason, thank you for this exceptional post.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thank you, Fran, and many thanks for getting the word out, as well as all the great writing you’ve been doing on anthropology lately!

  • http://twitter.com/Patrick_Clarkin Patrick Clarkin

    Jason, I agree. Like you, I have an appreciation for complexity, holism, and the need to avoid simplistic explanations. A variety of factors is almost always in play when we are addressing complex phenomena, all of which may be critical. An analogy I sometimes use is that fire requires heat, fuel, and oxygen. Remove one of those elements and there is no fire. But it seems rather straightforward that the critical element in gun violence is the guns themselves. Various other culprits for gun violence have been proposed by pundits lately: culture, violent video games, mental health, or some decline in religious attendance, morals, family values, etc. Guns ARE the issue. Which of these people would be most feared if they entered a public place?

    The one with a mental health issue.
    The one who exclaimed “I am immoral.”
    The one who said “I have no family values.”
    The atheist.
    The video gamer.
    The one with a semi-automatic rifle.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Patrick, thank you. There are some legislative signs of hope–Obama to Give Congress Plan on Gun Control Within Weeks–but it’s disturbing that not a single House Republican has indicated a willingness to support legislation. Unless they must pay a political price, we won’t get anywhere. It’s not like they are about to support comprehensive healthcare…

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  • http://twitter.com/GregDowney1 Greg Downey

    Although I agree strongly on the need for gun control, I also think that guns alone do not explain what happens in the US. Truth is, we’ve still got a lot of guns in Australia, and I can legally buy one because I live on a rural property.

    I think one of the things that is really sticking with me after Daniel’s post, and Discuss White Privilege’s comments, and a couple of other columns that I’ve read, is a discussion of the psychological and cultural facilitation of massacre. As Daniel and some other posts have made clear (I think I read one on Mother Jones, too), most of the people who commit these mass killings — almost always white males — do not have florid symptoms of psychosis before they kill. They often have paranoid thought patterns, but I’m not convinced that they would even stand out in a crowd of conspiracy-loving, angry young men.

    They’re not crazy, or, if they’re crazy, they’re crazy in ways that are actually reinforced by some groups around them — yes, the Glen Becks and the other conspiracy lovers who pin blame for ‘lost’ status on immigrant groups and women and other vulnerable populations. A long time back I wrote a piece on how it is to have delusions (especially ‘prodromal’ thoughts for schizophrenia) in a group where other people around you have similar thoughts (hear God’s voice, believe in elaborate global conspiracies, etc.). I think we have to keep pointing to a culture that is saturated with material that helps the angry and aggrieved rehearse, over and over again in their heads, fantasies of violence.

    Yes, it takes a gun to make the violence a reality, and that’s why I agree that the US needs some kind of gun control (or, a ‘well regulated militia’ if you must have a gun in your home, that is, some requirement to actually be trained with it and be carefully observed). But there are places with lots of guns that do not have NEARLY the problem of mass killing that you have in the US.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Greg, I don’t think you are wrong, but I think the numbers you cite are misleading. Yes, there are lots of guns in Australia, but nowhere near the number in the U.S. The U.S. is an enormous historical outlier both in the number of guns and the kind of guns. Moreover, as Hemenway writes (referenced in the post above), we are not an outlier in terms of the levels of violence, just the guns involved. I don’t even think we are an outlier in terms of attempted attacks on school-children, but again, we have lots and lots of semi-automatic weaponry.

      I suspect it makes a difference that you arrived in Australia after the initial gun buyback was accomplished. There were many skeptics in Australia, Britain, and South Africa, but in each of those cases gun control has been able to do more than what the skeptics feared.

      This is not to say that we don’t need to also address issues of universal healthcare, income and wealth inequalities, ongoing racism…

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  • Paul Moore

    An excellent post, Jason! I’m sick and tired of hearing people say that it isn’t easy. Of course it’s easy. Simply pass a new law banning the sale of guns (all guns!) and enforce it. Isn’t that was laws are all about … enforcement? So why the delay? Why the discussions? Why the stalling? I really don’t understand what these people are playing at. I really don’t understand the hesitation.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Paul, thank you. There are certainly glimmers of hope that this time (crazy that has to be said, but anyway) things are different, that people are moving more quickly and there might be legislative action. However, I am simultaneously hopeful and skeptical. Nate Silver’s analysis, Party Identity in a Gun Cabinet, reveals how the partisan divide on gun ownership has grown much wider. The Republicans in the House simply have little to lose from voting no, as it probably would not damage their chances in their districts.

  • http://twitter.com/bmumford1 Brian Mumford

    I respectfully disagree with the author and the person who
    recommended this article. The person is
    right about Republicans overcomplicating things to stall legislation, but
    Democrats do that too. The truth is that
    sometimes issues ARE complicated, and when both parties cry wolf, it causes us
    to question everyone’s sincerity when something we disagree with has a
    complicated answer. I’ve been a Democrat
    all my life. That is, I started out with
    an autographed picture of President Carter on my wall when I was nine years old,
    and I spent a few years as a paid member of the Democratic Party. I was even an elected Democrat (albeit to the
    lowest position possible).

    With that said, I am a staunch defender of the Second
    Amendment. I didn’t grow up with guns,
    nor did I hunt or own a gun until I was well into my 30’s. I also do not own an assault rifle, so I don’t
    have a personal dog in the fight other than I think the Second Amendment is
    absolutely essential to liberty. I’ll
    put that aside for now.

    What’s important to know here is that the facts in this
    article are misleading, and I’d like to draw your attention to the Harvard
    Journal of Law and Public Policy. They
    have a study titled “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide” that I think
    every American should read. Here is the
    link: http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlpp/Vol30_No2_KatesMauseronline.pdf

    The reasons behind what happened ARE complicated. The “how” isn’t, but the author is
    trivializing that as well. Yes, “The
    murder-massacre of Newtown
    was made possible by semi-automatic weapons”, but it was also made possible by
    issuing this person a driver’s license as well.
    Based on what anyone could have guessed about him, I don’t think we
    should have denied him a driver’s license, nor do I think it would have been reasonable
    to institutionalize him because he has Asperger syndrome or because he was a
    loaner (not that he didn’t deserve it, but surely others with similar problems
    don’t). What’s complicated is isolating
    a smoking gun (no pun intended, seriously).
    I believe, and I’m speculating at this point, that it boils down to
    this. What we put in our bodies, how we use
    our bodies, how we fulfill our human needs—essentially, how we live our lives—is
    what is behind this. Everything we do
    from the food we eat to the jobs we spend 40, 50, 60+ hours a week doing comes
    into play. Evolutionary wise, we’ve been
    built to eat and act in a very certain way from anywhere from 200,000 to
    400,000 years. We only started living in
    a “civilization” sometime between 5,000 and 8,000 BCE. Money, and everything that does or doesn’t
    come with it, has only been around since 3,000 BCE. More than that, we’ve drastically changed
    they way we live our lives just in the past 100 years. My point is, the further we stray from living
    as we have for hundreds of thousands of years, the more stress we’re putting on
    ourselves. It probably all started going
    down hill when we stopped being nomads.
    In any event, the last century has increased our unnatural ways
    exponentially. How do you explain the
    massive increase in autism in our country?
    The prevalence of cancer? The
    popularity of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)? This is complicated stuff because it probably
    isn’t any one thing (although some factors are more influential than others). It also is dealing with ways that we do
    things that are so entrenched in our society there are no easy work arounds
    when you have to genetically modify wheat to produce the yields we have now to
    feed 7 billion people. The list is
    almost endless about why things are so—pardon me—f**ked up!!!

    The author is right, however, that the “how” is pretty
    simple. How about this…avoid encouraging
    firearm training when the following COMBINATION of things are occurring: 1) the person is taken out of school and homeschooled
    because of severe social problems, 2) he’s pumped up on SSRIs to treat his emotional
    condition, if that proves to be the case (which I think it will), 3) the person
    lives 20 years without any friends, and 4) he spends copious amounts of time
    playing first-person shooter games. How
    is that for a bad combination? We know
    how SSRIs can damage our brains. Hell,
    they have a list of symptoms as long as my arm.

    Guns aren’t the issue.
    If he was a chemistry geek, he could have produced enough cyanide to
    poison over 900 people as was the case in Jonestown in 1978 (276 of which were
    children). Firearms weren’t used. Maybe it was suicide, maybe it wasn’t. You can’t call it suicide if you parents, or
    anyone else, convinces a child to allow a person to squirt cyanide into their
    mouths.

    That said, we need to find out the “why”. I’m not an anthropologist, so I don’t know
    why they are only concerned with “how” something like this happens (as the
    author points out). In my opinion, the how
    and why are interchangeable. Why and how
    “C” can happen can be answered by a + b = C.
    In other words, I’m interested in cause and effect, and I don’t believe
    guns were the cause of this, just as I wouldn’t blame the DMV, and just as I
    wouldn’t blame his chemistry teacher if he had poisoned the food in the school’s
    cafeteria.

    SO LETS GET BACK TO GUN CONTROL HERE!!! Among other things, the following study from
    the HARVARD Journal of Law and Public Policy will tell you that people will
    find a way to kill regardless of whether they have access to firearms. Moreover, the study concludes that access to
    guns, even handguns and assault rifles, do not result in gun murders. Furthermore, the study points out that in the
    U.S.,
    places with more relaxed gun laws have fewer murders and violent crimes. Why?
    Because murder is a product of socioeconomic and cultural influences—not
    guns. The Soviet Union, by far, has the
    highest murder rate in the industrialized world and it has some of the most
    oppressive gun laws. When guns aren’t
    available, people kill others and commit suicide with knives and other
    weapons. The article also points out all
    of the fallacies floating around about guns.

    Please visit and read the white paper: http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlpp/Vol30_No2_KatesMauseronline.pdf

    The other thing to think about is the black market. Just as prohibition and the war on drugs
    failed, outlawing firearms will not keep them out of criminal’s hands. The only people who you’ll hurt are law
    abiding citizens—the ones you’d want around to save your ass if something like
    this was to happen again.

    An interesting study was done in Florida about ten or so years ago. For about nine years, they tracked the
    criminal records of everyone Floridian that had a CCW (Carrying a Concealed
    Weapon) permit. They tracked over
    125,000 CCW permit holders for almost a decade and, if memory serves me
    correctly, only five of those people had felonies on their record (only three
    of which were for murder). That may
    sound like a lot, but when you compare that criminal record to the non-CCW
    permit holders in the Sunshine State, people licensed to carry firearms were statistically
    much, much less apt to commit ANY crime (much less murder). That isn’t even the most impressive
    part. When they compared these CCW
    permit holder’s criminal records to non-CCW permit holder in the U.S., people
    that conceal carry weapons were still more law abiding. Okay, here we go…if that wasn’t enough, the
    study compared their criminal records to the entire industrialized world and
    guess what? Yep, CCW permit holders in Florida had better
    criminal records than every non-CCW holder in the industrialized world. What does that tell you about gun-toting
    people? The very same people that are
    licensed to conceal carry semi-automatic firearms many of you are looking to
    ban?

    I am challenging everyone, not just anthropologists, to do
    some research here. Start with the 2nd
    Amendment. Don’t just focus on how the
    18th and 20th centuries are so vastly different; think
    about what they have in common, and give the 2nd Amendment a chance
    to redeem itself. It’s mostly about balance of power, not just merely
    protecting yourself from criminals (which wasn’t as much of a burden in the 18th
    century when everyone had a gun in the house).
    It’s about symmetry. When a
    British soldier knocked on your doorstep in the 18th century, both
    you and he had a similar gun (musket or rifle).
    Even though you were outnumbered by a garrison of soldiers, you had neighbors
    that could come to your aid. If a soldier
    knocked on your door in the 20th or 21st centuries, however,
    that symmetry is lost.

    I’m only scratching the surface on all fronts here. I could and probably should write a book on the
    subject, though there are some good ones already available. If this article mentioned some of the facts I
    mentioned here I would respect it more.
    Either the author hasn’t done his or her homework or he or she is
    choosing to see what they want to see; either way, the other side should be
    mentioned even if only to poke holes in the findings.

    The data is compelling.
    Someone please read it.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      I’m not always sure what to do about rants that are longer than the original post, so just a few brief points:

      1. The Kates and Mauser article cited here from 2007 is unreliable, in part because it bases much of its comparison with murder rates in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, under a Communist regime, which is not very relevant to current issues. Kates and Mauser also completely fail to talk about Australia, which is where we should most turn to think about a semi-automatic weapons buyback.

      2. I would readily agree that Democrats have hardly taken leadership on this issue and could do much better than they are doing now. My only comment was that while there have been several prominent Democratic legislators who have announced their willingness to now support legislation, I have heard nothing from current House Republicans.

      3. I really don’t think anyone who argues for the relevance of Second Amendment rights can be part of an intelligent discussion of the current issues, anymore than I would want to have a discussion about the intricacies of evolution with someone who argued for the literal truth of the Bible.

      4. Of course anthropologists look for “why” and we know many of these issues are complicated. We’ve been saying that for years. The question is why so many people want to talk about how complicated it is now. The answer is by now blazingly obvious.

      Since you are well on your way to writing your book on these issues, I would suggest putting your energy to that task. But you may want to read some anthropology and history before you get too carried away.

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  • Daniel Lende

    Jason,

    Definitely a fair critique of my piece. “It’s complicated, baby,” said in my best anthropological imitation of Austin Powers. So to paint a broader picture of violence, as I tried to do in the piece, I did have to use a wider palette of colors.

    I also see your point – a very good one – on how Republicans will try to use that same sort of language for political ends. It’s striking, really, and something that anthropologists should be aware of as an easy misappropriation of our reasoning and our approach to policy. We will likely need to turn more to framing, as George Lakoff promotes, and emotional appeals, as Drew Westen advocates. Certainly your framing is better than mine.

    Lakoff link: http://truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/12401-george-lakoff-progressives-need-to-use-language-that-reflects-moral-values

    Westen link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/17/AR2010051703823.html

    That said, I don’t think my piece was all that complicated, particularly in the way Greg and I have critiqued some anthropology out there. It came in a timely manner. It didn’t use a lot of
    academic language. It didn’t just wallow in critique, but made specific policy proposals. So in that sense, I think we both did a fair job.

    But we still have a fundamental difference. It’s about violence, not about guns, not about mental health. That’s the main message of my piece. In that sense, I don’t think it’s that complicated. We have a violence problem in the United States. That problem comes at the intersection of social, economic, and behavioral issues. Anthropologists are really good at analyzing those things. Taking away all the guns won’t change the underlying problem.

    And here’s our biggest contrast, because for you, it’s about the guns. I agree, better gun
    control can help reduce the terrible outcomes from our political economic and sociobehavioral (macro and micro) dynamics. But it’s not a solution in itself. So I wanted to change the direction of the conversation, and to be able to talk about violence in the United States. That was why one of my main policy proposals focused on criminal justice reform – on prisons and drug laws, rather than on gun control.

    In one way, I think we are just operating on different time frames. You have an immediate one, whereas I am taking a longer view of the conditions of possibility. I do wonder if taking away all the semi-automatic weapons will really change the conditions of possibility all
    that much, in the larger anthropological sense. I also wonder about the gap between the conditions of possibility and politics as the art of the possible (in other words, as I
    saw in your twitter feed, I think controlling all semi-automatic weapons is wildly optimistic for the United States right now). But I think we are both in large agreement about the need for better gun control, and even more importantly, as you highlight at the end, to avoid the further creation of a security state because of this tragic event.

    Best, Daniel

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