An Especially Tricky Topic July 26th, 2012
Once again, this is the week of touchy topics here at TDT. For my earlier disclaimer on the matter, click here.
There’s a great bit in an Eddie Izzard standup routine.* I’m paraphrasing here, but he says, “The National Rifle Association says that, ‘Guns don’t kill people – people do.’ But I think the gun helps. I think just standing there going, ‘BANG’ isn’t going to kill too many people.” And if we’re going to grossly oversimplify things, it’s a pretty good summary of how I feel about gun control.
That said, I understand that if we’re going to address the issue in any kind of a meaningful way we can’t afford to oversimplify things. This is not a simple problem. But it is a huge problem. It is a huge problem that is mired in all sorts of political and emotional complications. This makes it an especially tricky topic to broach even in the most civilized of forums. Unfornately, these days our national conversations are typically broached in the forum of cable news, which is anything but civilized. (That’s a topic for another day.) I will try, though, to broach it here in a way that is fair and decent.
If we want to take it all the way back to the beginning we look at the Second Ammendment. There are two primary ways to read it. The first is that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed. Period. As you no doubt inferred from my opening paragraph, that is not my interpretation. My interpretation is that the Second Ammendment was first ratified in 1791, eight years after our young nation successfully defended itself against the British. It was the era of minutemen. We had to be able to defend ourselves against foreign governments and arming civilians with muskets was a critical component of doing so. We also had to ensure that citizens could protect themselves against their own government, should it desire to attack them. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that that is no longer true. If a foreign government wanted to attack the United States today, or if the United States government wished to attack its own people neither one would do it on foot with or with rifles. It would involve bombs, tanks, and predator drones. And no civilian would stand a chance, armed or not. I will concede that a “well regulated militia” is still “necesary to the security of a free state.” But we have one. It’s called the United States National Guard.
While purists will quarantine their arguments to the interpretation of the written law (which is a fair stance), I am willing to admit that it’s not necessarily a realistic approach these days. American citizens have had the right to own guns for centuries, and like it or not gun ownership is a big part of large swaths of American culture. It’s also a big part of the American economy, grossing roughly $6 billion annually. Even if everyone admitted that our adherence to the Second Ammendment has been misguided all these years, forcing our country to go cold turkey on guns would be a bad decision with all sorts of unintended consequences (most significantly, a huge black market for guns). This doesn’t mean, however, that today’s permissive gun and ammunition laws aren’t due for revision.
Call me crazy, but I believe that people should be able to go to the movies without the risk of an ambush. I believe that children should be able to go to school without walking through metal detectors. I believe that students and professors should be able to walk freely around a college campus without being mowed down by gunfire.
I get that guns are big part of life for many people. Hunting is a very popular pastime. Handguns provide a sense of security for people who live in rough neighborhoods. Many responsible adults go to shooting ranges to blow off steam in a safe and controlled environment. And by and large, these people are not the problem. I understand that it seems unfair to penalize the sweeping majority of gun owners just because some people are erratic and dangerous. But I also think that it’s unfair for movie-goers, school children, and college students to risk death just because some people believe that their right to guns trumps other people’s right to life. No person’s hobby is more important than another person’s life.
So where do we go from here?
I believe there has to be some sort of reform. (Even Bill Kristol believes there should be some sort of reform.) The data bears it out that a strong correlation exists between stricter gun laws and lower gun deaths. And as information has become available about James Holmes and his actions leading up to last week’s attack I’ve been shocked and saddened to learn that not only were most (if not all) of his gun, gear, and ammunition purchases legal, they didn’t even raise any red flags. This man was able to outfit himself to the extent that the SWAT team nearly took him for one of their own without any part of our gun control system taking notice. That shouldn’t be the case. I won’t sit here and suggest that I know what the right regulations are. I am not knowledgable about what is an acceptable number of guns or bullets for a single individual to have at any given time. (Is “none” too constraining a suggestion?) But I know for certain that semi-automatic assault rifles (such as the one used in Aurora last week, and those affected by the now-expired 1994 Assault Weapons Ban) exist for one reason alone: killing large numbers of people in short periods of time. And there is no reason that any civilian person should have access to that kind of weaponry.
The popular refrain among gun advocates is that if more people have guns, fewer people will use them. That if someone else in the Aurora movie theatre had been carrying a gun, fewer people would have been killed. For starters, no one with a pistol in her purse was going to outshoot a man with chemical bombs and assault rifles. Further, as a friend of mine aptly put it, crossfire doesn’t improve anything. More shooting is just more shooting. No one comes out ahead there. So then what’s the point? Well, the argument is based on creating a culture of fear. Its proponents assert not that it’s the gun that reduces violence; it is the fear of someone else’s gun. ”I won’t shoot at you because you might be able to shoot back.” It’s a position I can’t begin to understand. The idea that we are all safer because everyone is carrying deadly weapons is unfathomable to me.
Another popular response to the call for stricter gun laws is that murderers aren’t likely to follow them in the first place. In that vein, a Facebook friend of mine (who is also a gun rights advocate) posted a digital postcard this week that read, “Gun laws would prevent shooting sprees? Please tell me more about how criminals follow laws.” And while I take his point to a certain extent, it’s not the inner city gang bangers I’m expecting will be reined in by gun laws (though if they were, it would be terrific). It’s the James Holmeses, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds, and the Seung Hui-Chos. It’s the people who are disenfranchised and disturbed and looking for some outlet for their pain. It’s the people who act out in fits of massive violence because they can and because it’s easy whom I want to prevent; people who, without access to 6,000 rounds of internet-purchased ammunition, would have would have done something far less tragic with their destructive energy. The data tell us that mental illness is negatively correlated to gun deaths, which is encouraging, but even if the people mentioned here are outliers, they’ve still managed to kill dozens of people.
With that in mind, the other thing I think we should do is learn about James Holmes. Some people will say, ”It’s done. Why does it matter why he did it?” To those people I say, because he has problems. And he’s certainly not the only person with these kinds of problems. So let’s try to understand what drove him to do this and find ways to identify and help people like him before they go on a rampage.. Let’s try to understand what the warning signals were (aside from, you know, the detailed description of the attack that he mailed to a psychiatrist more than a week before he actually carried it out, but which wasn’t opened until nearly a week after the damage was done…) Let’s try to understand how to help people with problems like this so that we can prevent future killing sprees. So often in situations like this the shooter is killed – either by himself or law enforcement – at the end of the raid. I see the fact that James Holmes is still alive as an incredible opportunity.
The saddest part of all of this is that for all the conversation about gun laws, chances are slim that things will change. Research shows that support for gun control is withering away in this country. It’s a fact that’s hard for me to digest. I want to know who the people are who believe that the lives of the victims in Aurora were appropriate prices to pay. Or what about the victims of the recent homicides in Tulsa (in April and July of this year)? Were their lives less valuable than the right to bear arms? I don’t think so, but our decreasing support of gun control measures indicates that many Americans do.
This is the longest post I’ve ever published here. If you’ve read this far, thank you. You may or may not agree with me. If you do agree with me, I’m glad. If you don’t agree with me, I hope I’ve presented my position in a way that you found worthwhile, and that you’ll consider my point of view. I don’t believe that this one blog post will change anything. But I do believe that it is my part of the national conversation, and to keep quiet on the issue would be a waste. I hope you’ll continue this conversation both here in comments, and in the offline world with people on both sides of the issue. It’s far too important a matter to let slip by just because it’s hard to talk about.
*Actually, there are lots of great bits in that particular Eddie Izzard standup routine. It’s from his 1999 show “Dress to Kill” and it’s probably my all-time favorite standup routine.