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.

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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.

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*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.

10 Responses to “An Especially Tricky Topic”

  1. shelby Says:

    Gale – I completely agree with you. What is missing from the gun control debate is the acknowledgement that not all guns are created equal. Similar to you, I often say that “no one needs an assault weapon to take down a deer.” As well, we have laws in place to limit harm to others. For example, we limit how fast people can drive to ensure the public’s safety. Yet, it’s somehow not okay to limit the types of guns available…how does this make sense?

    I believe that guns can and should be regulated. Certain types of guns, magazine clips and even bullets should be certainly banned. And, I’m open to a national tracking database to flag those people, like Holms, who might be buying too much too fast. (This last one does make me nervous — I don’t completely trust our government and certainly not all local police departments….perhaps we need some HIPPA-like privacy guards in place so only those buying too much are personally identified). I hope those smarter than me about the specifics can somehow unite to form – outside of the NRA – a balanced and (dare I say) mainstream view of the issues.

    Lastly, I’m alarmed that support for gun control is waning. How can we not care enough about the lives of ourselves and others to engage in this important debate?

  2. Alan Ebright Says:

    Personally, Gale, I think this post was worth more than $10. I look forward to your conversation in paragraph two.
    I often refer to your peers as the “Cross Fire Generation”. While you may not remember the original show from the late 70′s and early 80′s, it morphed from civilized debate into shouting heads, finally lambasted and disgraced during an appearance from Jon Stewart that became one of the all-time most viewed Youtube clips in 2005.
    Civil debate and news delivery has largely been replaced by shouting heads and editorial commentary by news-anchors, or, even worse, entertainment fluff parading as important information.
    That dumbing-down has made its way into social media as re-posting of bumper-stickers has replaced civil conversation and writing, like your effort here.
    Thank you for your thoughtful and elegant expression.

  3. Gale Says:

    Shelby – Thanks for commenting. In my perfect world even handguns and shotguns would be banned, but I don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately the bar is set pretty low in my mind right now, as I think just about anything would be better than what we have. Unfortunately, I think the gun lobby is too big and powerful for much to change. I really hope I’m wrong.

  4. Gale Says:

    Alan – Thanks for this lovely comment. I remember well the Jon Stewart interview that finally felled Crossfire and Tucker Carlson. (I think it will be interesting 20 or 30 years from now to see what general consensus emerges about the effect that Stewart had on moden journalism.) Profitability is what drives most of today’s news industry, which means that we all have to be particularly vigilant about seeing through the propaganda and posturing. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to find the objective truth amidst all the political grandstanding. In the meantime I will continue to do my best to sort through my beliefs in this space, and to do so in a way that isn’t so alienating. Thanks again for your compliments.

  5. Jan Says:

    Sorry, but I don’t believe the Daily Show adds much to the world, but I do believe that there should be no more discussion about hand guns and assault rifles. They should be banned. Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

  6. Jeff Says:

    Gale – I’m on your side with this one — at least as far as automatic weapons are concerned. As you know, we have a rifle for coyotes and a shotgun for copperhead snakes, but other than that I have no need for a gun. And, no civilian has a need for any weapon that can function essentially like a machine gun.

    To me, the entire NRA lobby is a bit scary, and yes you’re probably right, getting any meaningful reform is not likely in the cards. But, as with many issues, this one gets politicized to such a degree that right and wrong are less the issue than who says what. It becomes a Republican vs. Democrat and conservative vs. liberal argument. Crime is bad. Shooting people on the streets is bad. And finding the solution, regardless of which party gets the credit, is not the issue. It is a problem that supersedes the political overtones.

    Thanks for your gutsy and thought provoking comments.

  7. Gale Says:

    Jeff – Thanks for your comment. You’re right, this issue is too important to let political ideologies get in the way of solving it. However, I don’t see the air being cleared in that regard any time soon. Also, I take it as a huge compliment that you think I’m gutsy. Thanks!

  8. anne Says:

    Really great post. Because of where my interestes lie, I’ve largely been reading news stories from the entertainment industry that analyze the shooting and how it’s related to entertainment. So I appreciate this summary of several of the issues at play with gun control. Living in Oregon, the politicized nature of this argument is abundantly clear. There are uber liberal VERY anti-gun folks, and uber conservative VERY pro-gun folks when you leave the I-5 corrider. I’ve never gotten that involved in the debate because I’ve always just figured “Well, I don’t hunt, so I’ll never own a gun. End of story.” But now that I have a child, and having been someone who’s attended a midnight movie premiere (granted, it was Harry Potter, but whatever), I’m feeling way more disturbed these days. when someone comes up with a solution that allows sportsman to keep their guns to kill deer, but prohibits the kind of killing that happened in Aurora, i’m all ears.

  9. Heather Says:

    An interesting post. I have been reading your blog for awhile and I admire your diverse topics and attention to details. I like how you do your research and aren’t afraid to say what is on your mind :) That said, I tend to disagree with many of your thoughts on gun control.

    You state, “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.”-This same thing could be said for victims of drunk driving accidents. Should we ban alcohol in the United States just because some people get hurt and killed? Because a few people in this country are severely inappropriate with guns, no one should be allowed to have them? This world is a painful and unsafe place. You take away the guns and don’t you think the kind of people who shoot up movie theaters and college campuses are just as likely to choose a different weapon, perhaps building a bomb out of whatever we keep under our kitchen sinks?

    I agree when you say that we need to figure out the motive behind these tragedies. We need to prevent them in the future, because you are right movie goes, school children, and college students shouldn’t have to fear for their lives. It infuriates me when something like this happens, it gives guns a bad name. I have shooting for quite some time now and it is not an easy world for a casual gun owner to live. I shoot clay targets for fun with my shotgun and yet because I live in the state of Illinois, I have to have special identification to purchase ammunition. I keep my gun religiously locked in a safe because if someone were to steal my gun and harm someone else with it, I would be held responsible. My dad taught me how to shoot, without it, I don’t know if our relationship would be as strong as it is today. My husband and I met on our college trap and skeet team.

    Yes, it is a gross oversimplification, but without a person behind it to pull the trigger, a gun is just a cold hunk of metal. Anything can become a weapon if people are determined enough.

    Whew, your longest post and certainly my longest comment:) Thanks for posting something real to chew on.

  10. Gale Says:

    Heather – More than a month later and I’m finally responding to your comment. My apologies. You posted it right as I went on blogging vacation, which was then shortly followed by actual vacation, and I sort of lost track of things. Again, I’m sorry. It was a brave and thoughtful comment and certainly deserving of a more prompt response.

    As for your drunk driving analogy, I’m not sure it holds up. The purpose of guns (handguns in particular) is to kill people. The purpose of alcohol is not to kill people. Neither is that the purpose of cars. But an unfortunate side effect is that drunk driving happens. People also drown in swimming pools and overdose on pain killers and meet myriad other tragic ends. The difference with guns is why they exist. They exist to kill. Perhaps you are right that these sorts of people could build a bomb out of household chemicals. But the amount of chemistry and planning involved likely significantly reduces the number people willing to go to that sort of trouble. Crimes of impulse and passion are not carried out by bomb.

    I’m sorry that your hobby – something you value and enjoy and which hold particular sentimental value to you based on the relationships that are tied to it – is, as you say, being given a bad name by horrible, irresponsible people. Nevertheless, I hold my position. It is your hobby, not your life. I still believe that anyone’s life is more important than anyone’s hobby.

    Thanks again for your comment, and for reading.