The Bloody Crossroads Where Conspiracy Theories and Guns Meet

Gail Collins: Bret, you and I live in a state that has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. But that didn’t stop a teenager with a history of making threats from getting his hands on a semiautomatic rifle and mowing down 10 people at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo on Saturday.

Bret Stephens: It’s sickening. And part of a grotesque pattern: the racist massacre in Charleston in 2015, the antisemitic massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018, the anti-Hispanic massacre in El Paso in 2019 and so many others. There’s a bloody crossroads where easy access to weapons and increasingly commonplace conspiracy theories meet.

I have diminishing faith that the usual calls for more gun control can do much good in a country with way more than 300 million guns in private hands. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Gail: Sane gun control won’t solve the problem, but it’ll help turn things around — criminals and mentally ill people will have a harder time getting their hands on weapons. And the very fact that we could enact restrictions on firearm purchases would be a sign that the nation’s whole attitude was getting healthier.

Bret: Wish I could share your optimism, but I’ve come to think of meaningful gun control in the United States as the ultimate Sisyphean task. Gun control at the state level doesn’t work because guns can move easily across state lines. Gun control at the federal level doesn’t work because the votes in Congress will never be there. I personally favor repealing the Second Amendment, but politically that’s another nonstarter. And the same Republican Party that opposes gun control is also winking at, if not endorsing, the sinister Great Replacement conspiracy theory — the idea that liberals/Jews/the deep state are conspiring to replace whites with nonwhite immigrants — that appears to have motivated the accused shooter in Buffalo.

Bottom line: I’m heartbroken for the victims of this massacre. And I’m heartbroken for a country that seems increasingly powerless to do anything about it. And that’s just one item on our accumulating inventory of crippling problems.

Gail: You know, we thought the country was going to be obsessed with nothing but inflation this election year. But instead, it’s hot-button social issues like guns, and of course we’ve spent the last few weeks reacting to the Supreme Court’s upcoming abortion decision, which probably won’t actually be out for weeks.

Bret Stephens: And may not end up being what we were led to expect by the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s opinion. I’m still holding out hope — faint hope, because I fear that the leaking of the decision will make the conservative justices, including Justice Gorsuch and Chief Justice Roberts less open to finding a compromise ruling that doesn’t overturn Roe.

Gail: Is it possible things will get even more intense when it’s announced? And what’s your take on what we’ve seen so far?

Bret Stephens: Much more intense and largely for the reasons you laid out in your terrific column last week: Abortion rights are about much more than abortion rights. They’re also about sex and all that goes with it: pleasure, autonomy, repression, male responsibility for the children they father and the great “who decides” questions of modern democracy. The justices will have to gird for more protests outside their homes.

What do you think? And is there any chance of crafting an abortion rights bill that could get more than 50 votes in the Senate?

Gail: Well, maybe if everybody hunkered down and tried to come up with something that would lure a few Republicans who say they support abortion rights like Susan Collins. Many Democrats don’t want to water down their bill and really there’s not much point in making the effort since they’d instantly run into the dreaded filibuster rule.

Bret: Wouldn’t it have helped if Democrats had devised a bill that a majority could get behind, rather than one that had no chance of winning because it went well beyond Roe v. Wade by banning nearly all restrictions on abortions?

Gail: Given the dispiriting reality of Senate life — 60 votes, Joe Manchin, etc., etc. — I can see why Chuck Schumer has pretty much given up the fight to change anything on that front and is just focused on drawing attention to the whole abortion issue in this year’s elections.

Bret: Shortsighted. Democrats need to secure their moderate flank, including lots of voters who want to preserve abortion rights but have strong moral reservations about late-term abortions. It just makes the party seem beholden to its most progressive, least pragmatic flank, which is at the heart of the Democrats’ political problem.

Gail: Now whatever happens isn’t going to directly affect folks who live in states like New York. But when I look at states that have already passed abortion bans in anticipation of a court decision, I do worry this won’t be the end of the story — that the legislatures might move further to ban at least some kinds of contraceptives, too.

Am I being overly paranoid?

Bret: It’s hard for me to imagine that happening, unless Republicans also intend to repeal the 19th Amendment to keep women from throwing them out of political office. Even most conservative women in America today probably don’t want to return to the fingers-crossed method of birth control.

Can I go back to something we said earlier? How do you feel about the protests outside of the justices’ homes?

Gail: Pretty much all in the details. The Supreme Court members have lifetime appointments and they’re immune from the normal constraints on public officials who have to run for re-election or who work for a chief executive who has to run for re-election.

So I support people’s right to make their feelings known in the very few ways they have available. As long, of course, as the demonstrators are restrained and the justices and their families are provided with very good security.


Bret: It seems like a really bad idea for a whole bunch of reasons.

If the hope of the protesters is to get the justices to change their vote by making their home life unpleasant, it probably accomplishes the opposite: People generally don’t respond well to what they perceive as harassment. Those homes are also occupied by spouses and children who should have the right to remain private people. It’s also a pretty glaring temptation to some fanatic who might think that he can “save Roe” through an act of violence. And, of course, two can play the game: What happens when creepy far-right groups decide to stage protests outside the homes of Justices Kagan and Sotomayor and soon-to-be-Justice Jackson?

Gail: Well, I guess we’ll get to have this fight again. Meanwhile, let me switch to something even more, um, divisive.

Baby formula!

Bret: I wish I could joke about it, but it’s a seriously unfunny story.

Gail: A plant that manufactures brands like Similac was shut down after concerns were raised about possible contamination. Things will eventually go back to normal, at least I hope they do, but in the meantime the supply dropped by about half.

Lots to look into on how this happened. But it’s a reminder that parents have to rely on four companies for almost all the nation’s formula supply. Which then should remind us of the virtue of antitrust actions that break up mega-corporations.

Bret: One lesson here is that when the F.D.A. decides to urge a “voluntary recall” of something as critical as baby formula, as it effectively did in February, it had better be sure of its reasons and think through the entire chain of potential consequences to public health. Another lesson is that when our regulations are so extreme that we won’t allow the formula made in Europe to be sold here commercially, something is seriously wrong with those regulations.

Gail: I’ll go along with you about the imports from Europe, after noting that importation from Canada was restricted by the Trump administration.

Bret: We will mark that down on the ever-expanding list of things we hate about Trump.

Gail: However, recalling formula that’s given bacterial infections — some fatal — to babies doesn’t seem all that radical to me.

Bret: I agree, of course, but it isn’t clear the bacteria came from the plant in question and surely there must have been a way to deal with the problem that didn’t create an even bigger problem.

The broader point, I think, is that our zero-tolerance approach to many kinds of risk — whether it’s the possible contamination of formula or shutting down schools in reaction to Covid — is sometimes the riskiest approach of all. How did the most advanced capitalist country in the world become so incapable of weighing risks? Is it the ever-present fear of lawsuits or something else?

Gail: Part of the problem is a general — and bipartisan — eagerness to restrict imports on stuff American companies produce.

Bret: Am I hearing openness on your part to a U.S.-E.U. free trade agreement? That would solve a lot of our supply-chain problems and annoy protectionists in both parties.

Gail: Yeah, but the last thing we ought to do is respond to an event like the formula shortage by saying: “Oh gosh, no more federal oversight of imports!” Really, there’s dangerous stuff out there and we need to be protected from it.

Bret: Well, of course.

Gail: Let’s move on to the upcoming elections. Really fascinated by that Pennsylvania Senate primary. Particularly on the Republican side, where we’re seeing a super surge from Kathy Barnette, a Black, very-very-conservative-to-reactionary activist. The other leaders are still Trump’s favorite, Mehmet Oz, and David McCormick, former head of the world’s largest hedge fund.

Bret: Nice to see a genuinely competitive race.

Gail: Barnette is doing very well despite — or maybe because of — her record of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

A pretty appalling trio by my lights, but do you have a favorite?

Bret: I’m in favor of the least crazy candidate on the ballot.

Gail: Excellent standard.

Bret: The problem the G.O.P. has had for some time now is that in many states and districts, not to mention the presidential contest, the candidate most likely to win a primary is least likely to win a general election. Republican primaries are like holding a heavy metal air guitar contest in order to compete for a place in a jazz ensemble, if that makes any sense.

Gail: Yeah, although that particular music contest does sound sorta fascinating.

Bret: Question for you, Gail: Do you really think President Biden is going to run for re-election? Truly, honestly? And can you see Kamala Harris as his successor?

Gail: Well, I’m of the school that says Biden shouldn’t announce he’s not running and embrace lame duckism too early. But lately I have been wondering if he’s actually going to try to march on through another term.

Which would be bad. The age thing aside, the country’s gotten past the moment when all people wanted in a chief executive was a not-crazy person to calm things down.

Bret: If Biden decides to run, he’ll lose in a landslide to anyone not named Trump. Then again, if he decides to run, then he’ll also be tempting Trump to seek the Republican nomination.

Gail: If Kamala Harris runs we will have to … see what the options are.

Bret: I’ve always thought Harris would be a great secretary general of the United Nations. When does that job come open again?

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