The shooting in Boulder.

What does it mean for gun control?
Isaac Saul Mar 25, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

The shooting in Colorado and the gun reforms measures people are talking about. Plus, some important quick hits and a story about Amazon and President Biden.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue

A good laugh.

In yesterday’s “quick hits” section, quite a few readers wrote in to point out that I wrote “An enormous shipping container is stuck in the Suez canal,” playfully pointing out that it was an enormous container ship stuck in the Suez canal. Not a shipping container. A very good point. Either way, I’m becoming obsessed with this story because of how simple, absurd, and important it is all at once. Officials are now saying it may “take weeks” to get the ship, which is 1,300 feet long and weighs 200,000 metric tons, free. Meanwhile, it’s blocking one of the world’s busiest waterways for shipping freight.

Quick hits.

  1. Dr. Rachel Levine, the former Pennsylvania Health Secretary, was confirmed by a 52-48 vote to be the assistant secretary of health yesterday. She’s the first openly transgender federal official to ever be confirmed for a post by the Senate. (Associated Press)
  2. AstraZeneca updated its data on how well its coronavirus vaccine works, revising its number from 79% efficacy to 76% efficacy after an independent board criticized the company for using dated information. The vaccine remains 100% effective against severe or critical illness caused by COVID-19. (CNN)
  3. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is under fire again after a new report that his family members were given special access to coronavirus testing when the pandemic swept through New York early last year. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  4. Jobless claims fell to 684,000 last week, the lowest level since the pandemic began and lower than the previous pre-pandemic high of 685,000. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  5. President Joe Biden will be giving his first press conference as president today at 1:15PM Eastern after weeks of criticism for not holding a full press conference since taking office. (CBS News)

What D.C. is talking about.

Boulder, Colorado, and gun control. Because of the well-known contagion effect in coverage of mass shootings (i.e. naming and sharing photos, manifestos, and recordings put out by mass shooters have been shown to lead to more mass shootings), we will do our best to avoid centering the shooter in our coverage. The suspected gunman opened fire at a King Soopers supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. He arrived on the scene with a handgun, a semi-automatic rifle and a tactical vest. 10 people were killed.

The victims in the shooting were:

Eric Talley, an 11-year veteran of the Boulder police force who was one of the first police officers to arrive. Talley was a father of seven children. Denny Stong, a 20-year-old who had worked at the grocery store for several years and was an avid hunter. Nevan Stanisic, 23, the son of Serbian refugees who had fled Bosnia during the 1990s and whose social media was full of anime drawings. Rikki Olds, 25, who was a front-end manager of the store and described as a “bubbly and happy-go-lucky young woman who brought life to the family,” according to her uncle.

Also killed were Tralona Bartkowiak, a 49-year-old who managed a yoga shop; Suzanne Fountain, a 59-year-old known for being a prolific gardener; Teri Leiker, a 51-year-old who had worked at the store for 30 years; Kevin Mahoney, a 61-year-old who was about to become a grandfather; Lynn Murray, a 62-year-old who was a retired photo editor for magazines in New York; and Jody Waters, a 65-year-old a businesswoman who owned boutiques in Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall.

Today, the 21-year-old suspect Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa will appear in court for the first time to face 10 counts of murder charges. Born in Syria and raised in the U.S., the suspect was described by his brother as paranoid, antisocial and mentally ill, according to The Daily Beast. His only previous criminal record was a 2018 misdemeanor assault against another high school student, which was reportedly in response to ethnic slurs and taunts. His “identity was previously known to the F.B.I.” because he was linked to the subject of another investigation, according to The New York Times.

In response to the shooting, President Biden called for a ban on “assault weapons” (Editor’s note: assault weapon is a very broad and ambiguous term with contested definitions. We’ll get to that in a minute.) Boulder banned assault weapons and large capacity magazines in 2018, but a judge recently blocked the city from enforcing the ban. Biden is also reportedly considering three executive actions to fund community violence intervention programs, strengthen background check systems, and classify kits that can be assembled into a functioning gun from pieces as firearms.

What the left is saying.

The left is calling for stricter gun control measures, including restrictions on the sales of AR-15 style weapons and more complete background checks.

“After every mass shooting in America, there are four distinct stages of grief: horror and revulsion, compassion for the families of the victims, anger that these tragedies keep happening and, finally, despair that Washington will [not] do anything to stop this unending carnage,” Michael Cohen wrote for USA Today, arguing the Senate should pass the two gun reform bills already passed in the House.

Ninety-two percent of Americans support requiring background checks for all gun sales. Only 7% oppose it, which is less than the number of Americans who believe that the moon landing was faked. In an era of intense polarization, this is [as] close as America gets to unanimity on any single policy issue… Background checks are not a panacea for stopping the daily carnage of gun violence in America, which takes about 40,000 lives [a] year,” he said. “But as Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun safety group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told me, ‘Background checks are the most effective way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and, ultimately, to decrease gun violence. They're the foundation of a holistic gun safety system.’”

The Washington Post editorial board said the “why” of these shootings “will never be sufficiently answered,” so let’s focus on the “how.”

“With an AR-type assault weapon, that’s how,” they wrote. “The horror that unfolded Monday at the King Soopers grocery store was made possible — obscenely possible — because this country allows, indeed even celebrates, the sale of weapons designed for war. No surprise, these have become the weapon of choice for mass shooters. Assault style rifles were used to kill 49 people and wound 53 others in a Florida nightclub in 2016; to kill 17 people and injure 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018; to kill 12 people and wound 58 others in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012, and to slaughter 28 people and wound two others at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012.”

In an NBC News op-ed, Simon Moya-Smith wrote about how his home state has been hit with another mass shooting (including Columbine in 1999 and the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012).

Colorado “is my home,” she said. “And the one spot on the globe where I feel like I’m on solid ground. But it’s also riddled with mad Second Amendment cheerleaders who blame mass shootings solely on mental health conditions. But these fanatical firearms fans can never answer why, if they genuinely believe that the problem is solely mental health conditions, we shouldn’t implement universal background checks that would prevent the sale of an AR-15-style gun to a person with a documented history of both mental health problems and violence.

“And, really, how many more lives have to be lost for this to be clear?” she asked. “How many more families need to bury their moms or dads or sons or daughters or grandmas or grandpas before we consider changing our gun laws? Because if these laws stay as lax as they currently are, and if Republicans in Congress and our state legislatures continue to put their love of guns and donors first, the question will remain: when and where will the next massacre be? Because there will be another. We’ve seen that over and over again — especially here in Colorado.”

What the right is saying.

The right is mostly arguing that more restrictive gun laws wouldn’t have changed the outcome in this case and that the obsession over AR-15-style guns or “assault weapons” doesn’t address the issue.

“In front of the cameras, Biden called upon the Senate to pass ‘universal background checks.’ But Colorado, in which these killings took place, already has such a system — and, besides, the shooter bought his gun from a store, not privately, passing a background check in the process,” the National Review editorial board said.

“The president’s other ideas were just as ill-considered,” they added. “As he confirmed once again, Biden hopes to prohibit the sale of certain cosmetically displeasing rifles and to ban magazines that are capable of holding more than ten rounds. But, as one of the architects of the now-expired 1994 ‘assault-weapons ban,’ he should know better than that. Not only are so-called ‘assault weapons’ used so infrequently in crimes that the FBI does not even keep statistics — rifles of all types, recall, are used less frequently as murder weapons than are hammers, fists, or knives — but the evidence that prohibiting them does anything of consequence is non-existent.

In The American Conservative, Rod Dreher praised the media’s handling of the Boulder, Colorado, shooting in order to make a point about how previous coverage got it wrong.

“Here is what we are not seeing from the media: rash speculation about whether Islam drove him to murder, or whether Trump Derangement Syndrome had anything to do with this attack,” Dreher wrote. “All ten of Ahmad Alissa’s victims are white. We are seeing no speculation as to whether or not anti-white racism played a role in this crime. And you know what? The media are being responsible here. From what we know at this point, there is no reason to blame his religion or his political views for what he did, nor is there reason to blame race hatred.”

In one notable dissent, The New York Post editorial board called on Biden to push for gun control and ban weapons of war.

“Curbing guns is what led to New York City’s three-decade reduction in murders,” The Post said. “And, sadly, it’s the dismissal of that progress that has led to a rise in shootings here. Outside the city, the toll of semi-automatic weapons is a sad litany of cities and schools: Newtown, Parkland, Aurora, Las Vegas. It’s a national shame.

“Wait! shouts the ‘do nothing’ crowd: The Atlanta and Boulder killers used handguns, and both seem to have major mental-illness issues. How does this justify drastic action?” the board wrote. “In fact, the Boulder gun was an AR-15-style weapon with a pistol stock and a shorter barrel — less accurate, but easier to conceal — and nothing that any civilian needs to own. And, sure, the nation also needs to do better on mental health. But beefed-up background checks would help keep firearms of all kinds out of hands attached to unsound minds. Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa bought his Ruger AR-556 just six days before the Boulder slaughter; Robert Aaron Long bought his pistol just minutes before the Atlanta spree. Even a waiting period might have made a difference.”

My take.

Imagine there were legally sold items in the United States responsible for 38,000 deaths annually, but Americans love them dearly and they would never be made illegal. Imagine that over 90% of American households have access to one of them; but that there are strict laws that govern their usage. Each one must have a unique serial number that tracks its usage, and it is illegal to use one unless you are trained, tested, insured, certified, and re-certified regularly to ensure you are capable of using it safely. Imagine that there are oversight panels that require safety features to be equipped in each one and that it is illegal not to use some of those safety features when operating one, because of how lethal and dangerous these items can be. Would you think we should ban these items? Would you think we should de-regulate them? Or should we try to make them incrementally safer to use within this current system?

It's not hard to imagine, because this is already the American relationship with the automobile.

Now: Automobiles aren’t designed to be weapons. There’s nothing in the Constitution about our right to own a vehicle. And there’s no complex relationship in America between ownership of a car and self-defense or protection from government tyranny. But we can look at these two distinct kinds of ownership in America and think about how they differ. When we do, I think there’s reasonable cause to bring the gun world a bit closer to the regulatory world of vehicles.

I wrote 10 days ago about the Democrats’ two gun control bills. I’m often skeptical of gun restrictions, and while I’m not exactly sold on what positive effect the bills could have, it’s clear they do practically nothing to restrict “the law-abiding citizen buying a gun” — and, given that, if they were to prevent a few of the horrific mass shootings we experience every year, it’d be worth passing them. Both of the bills seem to be constructive, common-sense gun laws that have the rough outlines of additional background checks and restrictions that the vast majority of Americans support. They’d be a perfectly reasonable piece of the solution.

At the same time, the left continues to undermine itself with language around gun legislation. I have, no joke, asked about 20 liberal friends to define “assault weapons” and none of them can. The real definition is quite difficult to pin down because it is essentially a term invented by activists. Technically, if you’re talking to someone who understands guns, they’ll tell you an assault weapon is a gun that can switch between semi and fully automatic firing capabilities. But under that definition, AR-15s, which are the bane of many gun control activists, do not qualify. They don’t have select fire capabilities, they’re just semi-automatic (and “AR” does not stand for “assault rifle” — it stands for ArmaLite, the manufacturer of the rifle).

The AR-15 is notorious for its use in mass shootings. But it’s also the most commonly owned rifle in the United States, and it’s still popular amongst hunters. Even if Congress were to ban or limit sales of those rifles today, I think it would just lead to a giant boom in sales and court battles that 2nd Amendment advocates would likely win (the Supreme Court’s “in common use” standard for gun ownership essentially protects the right to own weapons that are common).

What’s obvious, though, is that we’ve spent decades doing nothing and the problem has not been solved. Everyone looking at this shooting can pick their narrative. A foreign-born teenager bullied until he snaps? A Syrian immigrant who could have extremist ties? Another lonely male taking his frustrations out on the world? A mentally ill person who needed treatment and therapy? Another angry male having a bad day with too easy access to firearms? You can latch onto something that ties to your priors.

Yes, suicides account for most gun deaths. Yes, handguns are used in most mass shootings. Yes, the practical application of expanding background checks has had mixed results. Gun control activists understand a lot of this stuff and hope their measures address suicide and crime and violence. Their question, and it’s a good one, is how can we possibly look at what’s happening in our country and continue to do nothing?

The right’s focus on “mental health” is also overstated. As is often pointed out (and cannot be noted enough), people with mental health issues are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators. But that doesn’t mean mental health issues aren’t at play in a lot of these shootings. Nor does it change the fact that the typical profile of mass shooters seems to be lonely, socially ostracized young men. It just means we need to be as precise as we can in our language. Solving for “mental illness” is not going to gain us much ground.

We have a lot of problems to address. It’s too easy to buy a gun in our country and it’s definitely too easy to buy weapons designed for soldiers. We celebrate and glorify big guns and military cosplay and violence in a pernicious way that creates an arrogant, bombastic, ill-informed and dangerous gun culture — one that I’m loath to be associated with despite often defending second amendment rights and being one who enjoys the use of guns myself. The internet is accelerating extremism and young men in our country are increasingly anxious, paranoid, lonely and susceptible to being coaxed into extremism. We don’t do a good enough job of protecting our children from the cruelty of others that often sends them down that path of violence, though anti-bullying programs are gaining steam and importance in these conversations, too, which is good.

Further, there are many common-sense restrictions on gun ownership and background check laws in place that don’t need to be changed or expanded, just properly enforced. And gun ownership advocates are right to point that out: we’re not doing nearly enough to enforce sharing data across state lines and flagging people who may be a threat to their communities.

There’s a lot to work on — but instead of pointing to non-restricting changes we can make anytime someone says “gun control” or pointing to the abundance of guns every time someone says “mental health” we should embrace that these changes will come piecemeal and work toward something holistic. Understanding and studying motives is a start. Reforming (and better enforcing) background checks is practical. Elevating the threshold to own weapons of war seems wise. And addressing the epidemic of violent resolutions to personal strife is part of it, too.

Your questions, answered.

For the sake of length, we’re taking today off from the reader question. But if you have something you want to be answered in the newsletter, you can simply reply to this email and write in or fill out this form to submit a question.

A story that matters.

President Biden and Amazon are doing an interesting dance. On one hand, Amazon is aligned with Biden on things like a minimum wage increase and meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. But on the other, a union drive at one of its warehouses has created some tension worth keeping an eye on. Amazon is both trying to squash the unionization but maintain the good graces of Biden and Democratic allies on the hill. Biden, meanwhile, has signaled support for the union drive and union workers more generally, which is exposing some fractures in a relationship that could become fraught quickly. (The New York Times, subscription)


  • 19,379. The number of homicides, murders and unintentional deaths involving guns in 2020.
  • 24,156. The number of suicides by gun in 2020.
  • 611. The total number of mass shooting incidents involving death and injury reported and verified in 2020.*
  • 21. The total number of mass murder incidents involving firearms reported and verified in 2020.**
  • 393 million. The estimated number of guns that are owned in America.
*FOUR or more shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.
**FOUR or more killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.

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Have a nice day.

When the vaccine rollout began, Native American tribes in Oklahoma were getting support from the Indian Health Service. After a quick and efficient drive to vaccinate tribal elders, and after having received tens of thousands of doses, the tribal leadership decided to use their infrastructure to help fellow Oklahomans. Now, they are opening their services to all Oklahomans and supplying vaccinations to anyone in the state who needs one. “We are a part of these communities, and they are a part of us,” Dr. John Krueger, chief medical officer for the Chickasaw, told WRBC TV. “The faster we can get all of us back to essential protection, the better it is for us and the better it is for everyone.”


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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