I do think the gun lobby has a point when they say that an armed society would be a polite society, in the sense that if everyone was packing heat, from bus drivers to schoolteachers to first graders, then violent criminals — be they armed robbers or mass murderers — would have to think twice about whether they’re really up for testing their marksmanship against a bus/mall/classroom full of armed, trained killers. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction works in international relations, why not interpersonal relations as well? It’s madness, but it’s hard to say for sure that it couldn’t work.

Likewise I think it’s abundantly clear that the “ban all guns now” lobby has an equally good point when they say that a member of a totally unarmed society would have a much harder time going out in a blaze of psychopathic, murderous glory if he (why always he?) had to rely on knives, sticks, or krav maga, rather than weapons capable of annihilating an entire Revolutionary War army regiment. Issues of rights and liberties aside — and these are big issues, I agree — this practical point should be obvious and uncontroversial. I don’t think anyone who says “guns don’t kill people, people do” actually fails to recognize that the gun does play a fairly important role in the killing process.

The problem is that we are very far indeed from either of these stable equilibria. Though the NRA may fantasize that we are a couple of handgun safety classes away from the Wild West situation described in the first paragraph, the fact is — and they know this, when they look at the data — that while the USA has an enormous number of guns per capita — we own half of all the guns in the world — they are far from evenly distributed. Just under a third of Americans own guns at all, and 20% of them own 65% of America’s guns. So something like 7% of the American population owns about a third of all the world’s guns.

We are at least as far from a universally armed society as we are from a universally unarmed society. And the contentiousness of this issue means that we are not going to make it to either extreme any time soon. It’s hard to see how a five per cent — or even a fifty per cent — bump in either direction could be politically practical given the emotions (and political will) on each side. And even a fifty per cent movement wouldn’t be enough to stop these massacres from taking place. We Americans have proven time and time again that we have the desire to kill, and as long as some of us have guns and some of us don’t, we’re going to find a way.

So it’s got to be all or nothing. But it can’t be. So then what?