This won’t be about what the Isla Vista rampage may tell us about the need for better and smarter gun safety measures. This won’t be a diatribe demanding “gun control” or gun eradication or anything of that sort in the wake of last Friday’s attack. There’s a conversation to be had about all of that, of course, and it’s one that includes and considers the arguments of gun-owners. But one argument that we’ve heard quite a bit from the pro-gun right just doesn’t hold water and needs to be knocked-off immediately, and that’s what’s going to be addressed here. So let’s make it clear: the defenders of gun rights need to stop going out of their way to point out the fact that Elliot Rodger stabbed three people before shooting four others as if this somehow proves that knives are as dangerous as guns. It doesn’t, because they’re not.
Last night during a televised GOP debate in Iowa, Senate candidate Jodi Ernst defended a campaign ad that featured her personal take on a common, almost comical motif in local and national politics these days: Republicans shooting at things. We’ve seen commercial after commercial in which GOP candidates use guns or gun imagery to prove they’re “locked and loaded” and ready to “take aim” at their political adversaries and those adversaries’ policies. They symbolically shoot Obamacare. They threaten to shoot people’s balls off. They shoot because it makes them look tough. But mostly they shoot because doing so is a necessity if they want to prove they speak their constituency’s language.
In Ernst’s ad, she points a handgun directly at the camera, pops off a few rounds, then turns and says to the invisible voters, “give me a shot.” Last night Ernst was asked to respond to a viewer e-mail which asked whether she felt the ad was insensitive given what happened in Isla Vista. The part of her answer in which she called the rampage an “unfortunate accident” is sure to be repeated ad nauseam by her opponents in the coming days, but it was something else she said that caught my attention because it was so deliberate and clumsy. The very first thing out of her mouth after the question was this: “I would say to this viewer that what happened in that shooting and that stabbing is an absolute tragedy.” Granted, what Ernst says here is a correct description of events, but there’s no doubt the care she took in making sure to shoehorn in the implied defense that some of those killed at UCSB weren’t killed with a gun. We’ve seen this tactic on display quite a bit since last Friday — and it’s horseshit every time.
The capacity to kill with a knife versus the ability and ease of killing with a gun is self-evident. But for those still trying to make argumentative hay out of the fact that Elliot Rodger was able to stab his three roommates to death before taking to the streets with a gun, as if this somehow means he would’ve been just as deadly without the firepower, let’s spell it out. Those stabbed were his roommates, meaning that they were in close proximity to him and had reason to be. They were easy targets for a knife attack. In Rodger’s manifesto, he even admitted that in order to use his knives he would have to “lure” people into his apartment before he could attack them. That’s because the attack radius with a knife is about arm’s length and it often requires either surprise or a trapped opponent.
Contrast that with a gun, which can kill from a distance and can take out several targets in rapid succession. There’s a reason the phrase “bringing a knife to a gunfight” is meant to point out a drastic imbalance of power. Rodger knew this, which is why, in his manifesto, he effused over his newfound might on the day he purchased his first gun. He knew that then and only then could he make his “Day of Retribution” a reality. “After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past,” he wrote.
In our current culture, guns make a statement that bladed weapons simply can’t. They kill quickly and efficiently and provide room for error, room to move, and the lack of a need for intimacy. And in Rodger’s case, they provided the same thing they do for all those ridiculous GOP candidates who use them as props in their commercials: a sense of muscular authority that would be feared by others. They made him feel like a tough guy, not the sad, societally emasculated nobody he imagined himself to be and was determined to take revenge on the world for.
Rodger was indeed so filled with rage that he likely would’ve found a way to kill even if he hadn’t gotten his hands on a Glock 34 and two other handguns (just in case the first one jammed). But don’t think for a second he could’ve done damage he did without that kind of firepower — and that he didn’t know this going into it. Because while it’s true that guns don’t kill people by themselves, you can kill a hell of a lot more people a hell of a lot faster with a gun.