WASHINGTON — You have perhaps heard the joke about the liberal who is so open-minded that he can't even take his own side in an argument.
What's less funny is that on gun control, liberals (and their many allies who are moderate, conservative and non-ideological) have been told for years that if they do take their own side in the argument, they will only hurt their cause.
Supporters of even modest restrictions on firearms are regularly instructed that their ardent advocacy turns off Americans in rural areas and small towns. Those in favor of reforming our firearms laws are scolded as horrific elitists who disrespect a valued way of life.
And as the mass killings continue, we are urged to be patient and to spend our time listening earnestly to the views of those who see even a smidgen of action to limit access to guns as the first step toward confiscation. Our task is not to fight for laws to protect innocents but to demonstrate that we really, honestly, truly, cross-our-hearts, positively love gun owners and wouldn't for an instant think anything ill of them.
What is odd is that those with extreme pro-gun views — those pushing for new laws to allow people to carry just about anytime, anywhere — are never called upon to model similar empathy toward children killed, the mourning parents left behind, people in urban neighborhoods suffering from violence, or the majority of Americans who don't own guns.
Some firearm owners have posted images and videos on social media of their destroyed weapons following the school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead. (Elyse Samuels, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)
Depending on the survey, somewhere between 58% and 68% of us live in households without guns. But no one who belongs to the National Rifle Association is ever told to prove their respect for our way of life. Rarely is it pointed out that the logic of the gun lobby's position is to create a world in which everyone will need a gun, whether we want one or not. ("Arm the teachers!" "Arm the students!") I reported on Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s, and I can assure you that a heavily armed country is not an ideal (or safe) place to live.
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, an institution that suffered the worst effects of our inaction on guns, have not gotten the memo that they are supposed to shut up, and may they be blessed for this. You can tell their angry outspokenness is having an impact, and not only because President Trump has taken modest steps to suggest he hears the message. More telling is that some of the same right-wingers who demand deep respect for gun culture have shown no scruples about trashing the kids.
Bill O'Reilly was so upset at the attention their protests are drawing that he accused the media of "promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases." The condescension is revolting, and never mind that without emotionalism and peer pressure to conform, O'Reilly's former employer, Fox News, would go out of business.
Former Republican Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia doubted the capacity of these students to think or act for themselves. "Their sorrow can very easily be hijacked by left-wing groups who have an agenda," he said on CNN. Young people who disagree with him can't possibly have minds of their own.
No wonder the foes of gun sanity are worried. On Wednesday, the students and supporters gathered at the state Capitol in Florida shouting "vote them out!" — a day after the state's Republican-led legislature voted down a ban on many semiautomatic guns and large-capacity magazines.
How come only one side of the supposed culture war on guns is required to exude respect for the other? Because the culture-war argument is largely a gimmick pushed by the gun lobby as a way of demonizing its opponents. None of us who endorse stronger gun laws wants to disrupt anybody else's way of life. And none of the measures we are proposing would do that.
What truly alarms the gun lobby is that many steps to curb the scourge of gun violence enjoy broad support, from those who own guns as well as those who don't. A Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday, for example, found that 97% of Americans favor background checks for all gun buyers. While the survey showed the highest level of approval for background checks in some time, it is not an outlier. Background checks have long been embraced by 85 to 95% of us. Quinnipiac, by the way, also showed that 66% of voters support stricter gun laws, up from 47% in December 2015.
I am all for Americans reaching out across our cultural divides. But if we wait to act until our cross-cultural understanding is complete, many more who might have been saved will die.