In the aftermath of a series of horrible mass shootings across the country, there is a knee-jerk reaction to demonize gun owners and call for sweeping gun control legislation.
But more often than not, those in the media and political classes calling for assault weapon bans and other gun control don’t understand the very things they’re legislating.
“There’s just a complete lack of basic knowledge on the topic of firearms,” says Stephen Gutowski. “How they work, how they’re regulated, what the politics even are around them, why people oppose different policies that are often put forward in the wake of these shootings.”
Gutowski is a firearms reporter and founder of gun news site thereload.com.
He joins this bonus episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss gun laws and proposed gun control legislation.
Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Douglas Blair: My guest today is Stephen Gutowski, founder of thereload.com and a firearms reporter. Stephen, welcome to the show.
Stephen Gutowski: Hey, thanks for having me.
Blair: As a country, we have suffered through some pretty awful mass shootings over the past few weeks. Some however have been critical of how the corporate media has been covering these types of shootings. What are your thoughts on how the media covers these types of events?
Gutowski: Well, I think there’s quite a lot of problems with how the media covers mass shootings, but really just guns in general. There’s just a complete lack of basic knowledge on the topic of firearms, how they work, how they’re regulated, what the politics even are around them, why people oppose different policies that are often put forward in the wake of these shootings, why people own guns, why different kinds of people, different demographics of people own firearms.
There’s just so much ignorance, I think, on the topic that it’s something that really harms the conversation around firearms, because it’s difficult to even talk about the topic if everyone is coming from a completely different set of facts or completely different set of information.
Blair: On that note, does the media’s coverage of these types of shootings affect the national debate about gun ownership?
Gutowski: Yeah, certainly. I mean, one thing I would say, too, is that the media really ignores guns and everything about firearms that isn’t related to mass shootings, for the most case.
Mass shootings are these horrific events and it’s understandable why media outlets would want to cover them significantly. People want to know what happened … There’s a lot of news there, certainly, but it’s not the only thing to cover when it comes to firearms.
I mean, 45% of American households have a gun in them, that’s the latest polling. After the pandemic, that number’s risen because we saw huge increase in gun-buying and so there’s a lot of different aspects of that story that just go completely uncovered.
Blair: Is there a better way that the media can both report on the shooting itself, on the event, but then also not wade into this territory where they’re affecting the gun debate?
Gutowski: Yeah, I mean, certainly, I think that just having a base level of knowledge about firearms and our firearms regulations as they exist now and what these different policy proposals would do, that would be a great start.
And you’ve seen some efforts made at having people on to have that discussion or going a bit further into understanding different policies and what they would do, or understanding, for instance, why some policies poll very well, but there’s never seemed to be any political consequences for Republicans opposing them or the fact that they don’t pass in ballot initiatives.
You see this with universal background checks and to The New York Times’ credit, they just did a piece that examined this phenomenon and why it happens. And that’s a fairly rare thing. You just get a lot of assumptions made that sort of hue to the traditional narrative after every one of these sort of mass shootings, which focuses on why we should have more gun control.
Blair: Right. In the aftermath of this shooting, much like other shootings, we’ve seen politicians in both America and Canada say that they plan to take pretty drastic action. So let’s start with our neighbors to the north, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that he plans to ban the sale of handguns in the country. As a beginning of that type of conversation around gun control, would that actually have been effective at dealing with this particular mass shooting and mass shootings possibly in the future?
Gutowski: No, it wouldn’t have affected Uvalde or Buffalo because those were shootings where the perpetrator used rifles and so obviously, banning the sale of handguns wouldn’t have any impact on those particular shootings.
Most shootings, most mass shootings are carried out with handguns and most crime is committed with handguns so certainly it could make more sense to target them in legislation from a statistical standpoint. But handguns are also, of course, used commonly for self-defense in the United States and Canada and they’re often highly valued for that reason as well.
And I haven’t seen the polling in Canada, but I know in United States, there’s only about 19% of people who support a total ban on handgun sales. So it’s a very unpopular policy, which is why, actually, you’ve seen the gun control groups move away from talking about handgun bans, which a lot of them were founded around. I mean, the Brady Campaign was a campaign initially to ban handguns and it was unsuccessful.
So that’s one area where the politics have completely changed it, but apparently not as much in Canada where now, yeah, Trudeau is trying to ban all handgun sales.
Blair: Well, that actually brings up a good point because we’ll hear from gun control proponents that this is a uniquely American issue. You’ll hear Europeans say this all the time. They’ll look at America and they say, “You guys have a gun problem.” Is there any truth to the fact that these types of events are kind of an American thing?
Gutowski: Certainly you’ve seen some evidence. There was one study in, I believe 2018, that looked at incidents of mass violence in other countries that found the United States was not necessarily, … as far as frequency of those events goes, not outside of the average in the world. Although there’s controversy over that. There’s a study by John Locke, I believe. And there’s been counterstudies that go the other way.
I think clearly there has been an increase in mass shootings where far more people are killed over the last 30 years. And I don’t know that anyone has a particular answer for why that’s happening or how to stop it, frankly. Most of the time the left will say, “Let’s just ban whatever guns seem to be popping up most frequently in the high-profile ones,” like the AR-15. And on the right, you would usually hear people wanting to harden targets, have more armed security or allow people to carry guns for themselves, or try to act on warning signs would be another one.
But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen quite a really good explanation for why there’s been an increase in the last couple of decades …
Certainly as far as like mass killings go, it’s not a uniquely American problem. You certainly see mass killings in other countries of all different sorts, whether it’s arson or bombings or using trucks to run people over. Mass killings certainly happen across the globe.
If you’re narrowing it down to just something like Uvalde where … it’s a single person and the motive is not necessarily political; it’s not an act of terrorism necessarily in the same way we would consider something like even Buffalo to be an act of terrorism or 9/11, of course …
So, there might be something unique about our current moment that’s causing these people who have a tendency to want to commit some sort of horrific act like this to do it in this way.
There’s been theories about serial killers were prominent at one point, political assassinations were prominent at another point. Those things have died down and now we have mass shootings. It’s hard to know exactly because statistically, these things are still so rare that it’s difficult to come away with serious conclusions as to why they happen or what exactly would solve them. And I think that’s the unfortunate truth about it.
Blair: Now, on this side in America, we’ve had words from the president about what he thinks we should do to try and curb gun violence. [President Joe] Biden called for banning what are so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, two terms that I actually don’t believe have a technical definition, is that correct?
Gutowski: Well, those are terms that vary from state to state depending on where they’ve been implemented, things like an assault weapons ban or high-capacity magazines. Depending on what state you’re in, a high-capacity magazine could hold seven rounds, … it could be 10 rounds or it could be 15 rounds. So yeah, it sort of fluctuates.
Same for assault weapons. Depending on the state you’re in, it could be a center fire, a semi-automatic firearm that accepts a detachable magazine and has two features like a pistol grip or telescoping stock or flash suppressors. In other states it’s one feature makes it an assault weapon.
So yeah, as far as those terms go, they’re pretty nebulous and it really depends on what state you’re in, frankly, at this point.
Blair: So at a federal level, Biden is calling for a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, as well as barring anybody under the age of 21 from buying a semi-automatic weapon. Would that do anything to curb these types of mass shootings?
Gutowski: Well, that’s where it gets very difficult to answer. Would it do anything to curb, to prevent one of these … Certainly, you can look at individual circumstance and say, “Well, if for instance … ” The popular thing now is Buffalo and Uvalde, both of those shooters were 18 years old so that’s where the age restriction response is coming in.
There’s a tendency, as far as demographics go, younger men are the ones who commit most violent crimes in the United States. And so there’s always the impulse to restrict their access to all sorts of weapons.
But obviously, you can look at other mass shootings where the shooter was outside of that age range or they used a different kind of gun. Uvalde is an AR-15. So if we banded AR-15s, it wouldn’t happen right?
Well, there was the Santa Fe school shooting where a student used a pump action shotgun to kill 10 of their classmates. … The UVA shooting was handguns. There’s not going to be a policy, especially a ban, where you’re going to see, “Oh, that would’ve stopped all of these shootings.”
And when you’re talking about a ban approach, you’re taking the broadest possible approach to that. You’re not talking about going after people based off of their specific individual warning signs that they presented. Instead, you’re saying, “Well, if we just sort of stop selling this entire class of firearm, maybe that would prevent someone from buying them down the line and maybe that would prevent that 0.0001% of the population from carrying out an attack like this.”
So there’s a broad sword approach to trying to reduce the number of these incidents.
Blair: As you mentioned a little bit earlier in the interview, things like background checks or expanding background checks, I think the term is universal background checks, have been cropping up as an idea to maybe prevent these things from happening. What impact would that have on gun rights as a whole?
Gutowski: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, obviously, we have background checks now on all commercial sales of firearms. So if you’re in the business of dealing firearms, you have to get a federal license in order to do that. And as a condition of the federal license, you have to conduct a background check through the FBI’s national list and criminal background check system when you sell a gun … to a customer, someone who’s not licensed.
And right now that’s how we regulate it. We regulate it based off of the commercial market. The federal government regulates the commercial market of firearms. They don’t regulate the private market, the used market, the secondary market. So if you own a gun and you want to sell it to somebody within your state who’s also not a licensed dealer, by federal law, you don’t have to get a background check to carry out that sale.
… There are, of course, still restrictions. You can’t knowingly sell guns to people who are not allowed to legally own them, a prohibited person is what the federal government calls them. Somebody who’s had a felony conviction or domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or has been adjudicated mentally ill, that sort of thing.
And so the proposal for universal background checks is to expand that requirement to all of these sales. And sometimes, actually, what the House just passed last year, H.R. 8, that would expand the requirement to get a background check to all transfers. So even if you’re just lending somebody a gun, … usually these have carve outs for family members, but if you went lent your friend a gun, for instance, I’ll give you a personal example.
During the rioting that happened in the summer of 2020, there was my friend, his family, he wanted to have a firearm just in case something happened so I lent him a pump action shotgun and we went through all the safety requirements and all that and had a lock of course.
But … if H.R. 8 was in force when I did that, it would’ve been illegal for me to lend him that gun without first going to a gun store to get the licensed dealer there to transfer the gun between us and do a background check on my friend.
So that’s what the concept of it is and so this has been something that’s been controversial for 30 years. I think everyone’s pretty well dug in on it. This is the policy where you hear a lot of polls really well. It’s 80% to 90% say they support universal background check system. There might not be very much understanding of what that would mean in practice for most people when they’re asked that question, but that’s the policy that comes up a lot as being this extremely popular policy.
But of course, there’s caveats to that, too, because it’s been put to the ballot initiatives and as that New York Times piece I referenced earlier notes, doesn’t always pass, even when it polls in the 80% to 90% range.
For instance, 2016 Maine referendum on universal background checks failed, even though the proponents for it outspent the opponents and Hillary Clinton won that election as well.
So obviously, there’s perhaps less real-world political support for policy like that than shows up in polling. And obviously, another big critique is that it almost never would stop these mass shootings because Uvalde, Buffalo, most of these, the shooter bought their gun legally because they didn’t have a disqualifying record, usually because nobody followed through on the warning signs that they put off.
Blair: As we begin to wrap-up here, I have one final question about how gun control advocates seem to press on topics that they really don’t seem to have that much information about.
So I’m going to read you a quote from President Biden that he made a couple weeks ago about hunting and guns. And he said, “What in God’s name do you need an assault weapon except to kill someone? Deer aren’t running through the forest with Kevlar vests on for God’s sake. It’s just sick.”
It seems like he doesn’t quite understand why people need to use guns. How does that matter when they’re writing this type of legislation that they’re in with this impression about what guns are and the reality on the ground of how people use firearms?
Gutowski: Yeah. I mean, just like it’s a problem when media talk about firearms without even the basic knowledge of any aspects of the conversation, it’s a problem when politicians do the exact same thing and it’s, frankly, just as common there.
I mean, yeah. The president commonly will repeat things that aren’t true. … He uses a line about how cannons used to be banned during the founding era, which is just false. I mean, it’s still false today.
But yeah, I mean, there’s also, of course, this deflection toward hunting, oftentimes. You’ll see a lot of Democratic politicians discuss hunting as this sort of only legitimate use of firearms when most Americans buy firearms, not for hunting, but for self-defense.
You’ve seen that repeatedly in surveys over the last decade or more, and in the kind of guns that Americans buy. Americans buy more handguns than they do rifles or shotguns now. And it’s the No. 1 reason to buy a handgun, is for self-defense or home defense.
And so, yeah, it’s sort of ignoring the more difficult opposition position that he faces in just trying to go with the sort of lowest hanging fruit or these straw man arguments. Obviously, that’s not unique to the president or any political party, but it is common in the gun debate for sure.
Blair: That was Stephen Gutowski, founder of thereload.com and a firearms reporter. Stephen, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
Gutowski: Thanks for having me.
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