There has been a lot of discussion on Patch about guns in the wake of the incomprehensible tragedy that befell the poor innocents in Newtown last month. As a father who has also been an on-again off-again gun owner, my feelings are mixed on this. This is an emotional issue and as such rationality seems to go out the window for a spell, replaced by the knee-jerk clarion calls for more “gun control” (whatever that even means).
What is not discussed is the broader context. Indeed as a parent of an elementary school child myself it is hard to stay detached in the mathematical sense. But only when such a complex subject as firearms in America is examined through the prism of the mind rather than the heart can proper policy be formulated—and bad policy headed off before it becomes law and does more harm than good.
First, some numbers: according to FBI crime stats for 2011 there were 12,664 homicides in the U.S. Of those, 8,583 were caused by firearms. But of those, 400 are listed as justifiable homicide by law enforcement. 260 were justifiable homicides by private citizens. Though high, this is hardly the 11,000 often claimed and certainly not the 30,000 as a recent poster on Patch claimed.
Because of the images presented by a media that relentlessly pounds us with coverage, mass shootings such as Newtown seem to be on the rise, but they are not. Any criminologist will tell you that, having peaked in the 1990s, “rampage shootings” have actually been on the decline. In fact, the USA, though having the highest gun ownership rate in the world at 88 guns per 100 people, ranked way down among nations at number 28 in terms of gun homicide rate with 2.97 per 1,000 people. This is still a very safe country; so long as you stay out of the drug trade, your chances of dying in a mass shooting are as remote as suffering a lightning strike.
So why then does it seem so dangerous out there? One contributor is the media itself which knows a story like the Newtown murders touches a nerve in us and understandably grabs our attention by tapping into basic emotions so they run with it ad nauseam.
Gun violence is certainly one issue we face. Yet, we never seem to care too much about it until a Newtown. That’s because whenever we see in the news (when they bother to cover them) stories of much more commonplace shootings among family members or acquaintances, in the workplace, or the streets of some inner city we can reassure ourselves that, terrible as they are, they are never going to happen to us. No one in my family would harm me; everyone I work with seems sane and happy; I will never have reason to be on a Camden street corner when a gang-banging drug war gunfight erupts.
But…when confronted with the horrors of Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, an Oregon mall or Colorado movie theater we immediately draw a disconcerting nexus to our own lives. Insert the names Washington School, Westfield High, Rutgers, Lord & Taylor, or the Rialto and these events suddenly turn very real and viscerally affect us. Any of these could have been me.
And I think it is from this part of our psyche that the reflexive calls for the government to “do something,” i.e. pass yet more gun control laws, originate. We feel we are in immediate peril—because we see it on the news—even though we aren’t. This sense of helplessness combined with a pre-existing condition of Big Governmentitis, prompts petitions to the Emerald City, D.C. to protect us with yet more laws. But it is a hollow reaction whose only pragmatic effect will make us feel empowered, or perhaps give a false sense of security. It is the call of those who still have faith in the State to not only absorb all responsibilities once left to free citizens, but to change the nature of man himself in the process. And it will have no measurable impact on the problem of gun violence...because we are the problem. We always have been.
I will not trot out the cliché “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But I will offer some historical facts that speak more to human nature than to firearms policy per se.
-- On July 25, 1764, four Lenape Indians walked into a one-room schoolhouse in colonial Pennsylvania and killed Enoch Brown and 10 of his pupils. One child survived, scalped and demented to the end of his days.
--The greatest mass killing of school children in US history occurred on May 18, 1927 in Bath Township, Michigan when school board treasurer Andrew Kehoe, angry after losing an election, and after a year of careful planning, detonated two bombs at the Bath consolidated school house killing himself and 44 others – 38 of whom were elementary school children.
--In 1995 Timothy McVeigh massacred 168 people (including 19 children under age 6) by blowing apart the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City using just a truck, ammonia and fertilizer.
--Mohammad Atta and his crew snuffed out the lives of 3,000 people wielding nothing more menacing than ordinary box cutters and a flight manual.
Does this two-and-a-half-century dirge diminish the outrage we should feel over Newtown? Of course not. But it does serve as a chilling reminder that when the demented set their minds to mass murder, a thousand Brady Bills stacked on top of each other cannot stand in their way.
Perhaps instead of just looking to the mechanisms of death we need to also focus on what prompts an Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, James Holmes, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, etc. to don commando garb and go shooting up public places.
I will certainly concede the self-evident: the guns they used were too readily available to them. They took advantage of gross negligence in the face what we see now was tell-tale derangement. Thus, there is sensible wiggle room for any but the purist of gun ownership purists. Even arch conservative Justice Scalia writing for the majority in District of Columbia v. Heller offered that “[The Second Amendment] is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose." As such, the government already imposes substantive regulatory limits: to license guns; bar felons or the mentally ill from buying guns; regulate certain types of heavy weapons, and so forth.
But as Kehoe, McVeigh, Atta, and others amply demonstrate, any device no matter how banal can be turned deadly when mass murder is on the mind. Who’s to say that if the coldly calculating and off-the-charts insane Lanza had no access to his mother’s guns, he would not have studied up on car bombs and then driven through the front office and pressed the button? I don’t know. But neither do the proponents of gun laws that, Constitutionality aside, are not the antidote to a decaying society that prompts a violent lashing out against said society in manifestations of psychosis, despair, loneliness, angst, anger, and foreboding.
The question many legal gun owners have for gun control zealots is what do they really want? Perhaps other types of gun violence prevention could be improved with better background checks, gun show immediate sales restrictions, more rational tracing systems, and more aggressive and effective policing, including more cops on the city streets. Common sense and the Second Amendment can and do co-exist. But the reality is that none of this would have prevented Newtown. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
What the Second Amendment advocates fear is that many on the left do not want sensible gun control but rather total gun banning. What will happen after an assault weapons ban is passed and gun violence persists because handguns are by far the great killers? FBI statistics for 2011 show break-down of gun deaths as so: Handguns, 6,220, Shotguns 356, rifles 323, “other” (which includes everything from undetermined, home-made, collector’s guns, and the amorphous term “sport utility rifle”) 1,684. Even assuming all 1,684 were ‘assault rifles’ -- which they certainly are not, I argue the number is below three digits even -- that is less than seventeen hundred out of a nation of 320 million or .00052%. The NRA and others fear it is only logical that gun control advocates will conclude that all guns are the problem, not those that kill at most five ten-thousandths of one percent of us each year, and move accordingly. (Knives, by the way, killed 1,694 in 2011).
Even though very, very rare, mass shootings with assault rifles are nonetheless heinous acts that we should consider some reasonable reform to try to stop. Those children of Newtown are not just statistics to me; they are beautiful lives lost and families shattered. But the practical question remains: how then does one eliminate these rampage-killings?
Personally, I see no realistic way to prevent another Newtown (a school that was locked) without trained armed guards patrolling places like our little Washington School. Although it seems a repulsive notion to have armed men in grammar schools, we nevertheless accept armed guards in other aspects of our lives: the police who patrol our streets, security guards at banks and malls, M-16-toting soldiers at airport terminals, etc. I think it is for each community to decide for itself how much is safety worth? Security always comes at the expense of liberty. The latter should not be easily bargained away for an unsure dose of the former. Personally, I lean against this idea. It just seems intuitively too severe. I admit that's my gut talking more than data. So my jury is still out.
Other than guards, I honestly don't think much can be effectively done short of inventing a time machine and going back and re-writing/deleting the Second Amendment (condemning our ancestors to being defenseless in a hostile wilderness) while trying to somehow head off the social/moral decay of our post-modern dystopia, familial disintegration, drugs, failing schools, and religious abandonment that fosters much of today's crime culture and youthful angst and sense of isolation and meaninglessness.
It is the classic conceit of liberalism that the solution to any problem can be found scribbled on a parchment in the halls of yet another government agency with a bigger check attached. Thus, to the small-minded, if you oppose gun control laws you are in effect advocating the slaughter of the innocents. Utterly fallacious nonsense. Despite attempts to paint it as such, this is far from a binary issue. It is not a matter of being either for gun control or for slain children. One can be for protecting the Second Amendment and alarmed about the broader implications of disarming the entire law-abiding populace in the face of an ever metastasizing central state while also being concerned about the violence in an armed society. . . and not be by default condoning the latter simply by caring about the former.
Another Patch writer for example offers this bit of (albeit sincere) sophistry that illustrates my point: “The right to bear arms is not more important than a child’s right to grow up.” I didn’t realize it was an either/or proposition. All the kids with whom I somehow survived into adulthood while our parents—like my dad who was an ex-Marine—had legal guns would be surprised to learn this. And what about one’s right to be shielded from illegal search and seizure? To protect their home and families? What of one’s right to privacy? Etc., etc. All of these Constitutional matters come into play beyond just the Second Amendment. How much of the Bill Of Rights are some willing to shred to achieve a faux security?
And for that matter, if this either/or argument is legitimate then should it not apply to all threats to children? Car accidents are the great killer of our youth. Would the writer offer we impose 25 mph governors on our automobiles? After all, “one’s right to drive 65 is not more important than a child’s right to grow up.” How about swimming pools that drown far more young children than guns kill every year? Should we then ban them too? I say “the right to a leisurely swim is not more important than a child’s right to grow up.” You get my point. Again, how many freedom chips is some safety worth?
So I ask instead a legitimate question. What does one propose?
*Confiscate all guns? From a practical standpoint alone, that is so obviously unfeasible, even if the Second Amendment was revoked, as to be unworthy of serious debate.
*How about banning assault rifles then? Ok. Define "assault rifle"? How long is the barrel? How heavy is it? Is it semi-automatic? What if I cut off the shoulder stock or remove a bayonet clasp (which changed past definitions of them). Or are we simply to entrust a bureaucratic behemoth to adopt the old justice Potter Stewart test for identifying pornography: “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.” And remember, Columbine occurred five years into the last assault rifle ban. Besides, as I said, handguns are the great killers in our country. Not assault weapons. (See the “confiscate” point above).
*Should we ban certain high-capacity magazines? What is “high capacity”? Ten rounds? Twelve? Six? And how did that number become the cut-off? And does this guarantee no one will just manufacture or import them illegally while making a tidy sum? And in the end, so a demented madman just carries three magazines instead of one. A 15-round .30-cal. carbine clip is the size of an iPod and easily fits in your pocket. A Glock pistol has a standard magazine of seventeen rounds.
*How about stricter background checks including banning anyone with a mentally ill person in his or her home from owning a gun? I fully support this idea and on the surface it seems reasonable and common sensical. The key is to keep guns out of the wrong hands. But how do you root every one of them out? Oh, and have fun dealing with the left this time in the form of the ACLU and privacy/civil liberty concerns.
*Curtail violent video games? Here comes the ACLU again with a broader a interpretation of the First Amendment than the NRA’s of the Second for which it is berated.
We are often admonished to look to other nations whose incidences of gun homicides are dwarfed by ours. But many are erroneous comparisons. How does one compare, say, Sweden, an homogenous outlier country of less than 10 million people and does not already have a gun for every man woman and child in circulation, to a vast continental nation of 320 million of all backgrounds and cultures where over a third of its children are raised in fatherless homes (as much as three-fourths in some minority communities), whose citizens sport public educations that would embarrass the Congo and are presented with drugs on every corner while at home are perpetually marinated in an endless stream of gratuitous multi-media violence?
Many like to compare us to Japan with 40% of our population but a fraction of our gun deaths. This too is a bogus example. That once-vicious and bellicose island nation was utterly leveled by the USAAF in 1944-45, underwent military occupation for eight years, and was wholly disarmed by a conquering superpower. It was also a psychological blank slate after the exposing of its warrior god-emperor as a fraud and so it even had its national character re-molded on purpose into a pacifist state. From an historical viewpoint this is a truly ignorant comparison.
It is true that Australia has had no mass shootings since it adopted its 1997 gun control…but neither has its neighbor, the demographically and culturally similar New Zealand, which has 1.1 million guns for just 4 million people. Perhaps, it’s who they are “deown un-dah” rather than what weapon they carry.
Like the Kiwis, some other nations do have strong gun cultures. In fact, if the amount of guns in the home is a correlative predictor of gun violence, then how is it that Finland and Switzerland have strong traditions of gun ownership but very little gun crime? Thirty percent of Swiss, for example, have guns in their homes. In a nation of 8 million there are over 400,000 fully automatic and 300,000 semi-automatic rifles yet only 40 gun homicides in 2010.
Conversely, Great Britain—the model Piers Morgan keeps touting—where gun control laws are strict, has a higher overall rate of violent crime than the USA. Americans, suckers for a neat accent, still think of Britain as a peaceful country but it is actually quite dangerous now. The UK has the second highest overall crime rate in the EU. The UK has the fifth highest robbery rate and the fourth highest burglary rate. But more importantly, the EU named Britain as the most violent country in the EU. In the UK there are 2,034 violent crimes per 100,000 people. That puts it way ahead of even South Africa with a rate of 1,609 per 100,000. In the United States, we're not even in the top 10. The U.S. has a violent crime rate of 466 crimes per 100,000 residents. In fact, there were just shy of 10,000 gun crimes in the UK in 2011…that’s up 89% from when the first strict gun control laws were enacted in 1988, and up five-fold in some sections where gang violence has exploded.
Sure, you are more likely to get shot here where there are guns galore than in the UK where there are no guns. But you are far more likely to get raped, mugged, beaten, robbed, assaulted in Piccadilly than take a bullet in Times Square. This applies to rural Cornwall versus rural Idaho as well. Perhaps, again, the disconnection between guns and crime lie in who the Swiss are, and the Brits are becoming, more than their arms.
My point is this is a very complicated issue. The easiest thing in the world to say after a tragedy is "Enough is enough! There oughtta be a law!" But what law? That's where the more vociferous advocates of gun control tend to retreat into the land of platitudes. Climbing up onto a self-righteous pedestal and demonizing the NRA while calling for a local politician to sponsor a “ban on guns” is an easy position to adopt. It requires little thought and makes one feel good about themselves for it shows they "care." Proposing realistic solutions to a hyper-complex problem is a far more difficult proposition.
I am sympathetic to anyone’s heart-felt sentiments over this subject at this time. What parent could not be sickened and angry about Newtown? I cannot even fathom the parents’ abject despair. But it doesn’t alter the reality that in this country, which is unique, violent crime is down 4% from 2010-2011, even if gun ownership remains widespread. Perhaps, on some level, there is a kernel of truth to the old adage “an armed society is a polite society.”
History shows that we are not the first generation to be afflicted with such atrocities against innocents, nor will we be the last. Life is dangerous, freedom can be messy, laws are often ineffective, and we are at times vulnerable no matter what. So then, my answer to how to prevent another massacre: I don’t think you can so long as you just target guns and not those whose mental illnesses go unreported or improperly treated. Weapons of some kind will always be at their disposal. And there will always be those who slip through the cracks of any system. The best we can do is try to caulk some of those fissures with sensible laws debated in an atmosphere of pragmatism not passion.
I refuse to support just throwing a bunch of gun-banning laws against the wall just to see what sticks (even if they make us feel like we’re “doing something”) without considering the unintended consequences of such actions and what they mean to a vast republic of freeborn citizens who were empowered by some very smart men to be a firewall against a tyrannical state—a disease to which no nation is immune. I certainly would look warily upon any bills drafted in this wave of emotional recoil by demagoguing representatives who spy an opportunity to score some cheap political points and advance their own agendas, even as they cynically go about their daily affairs escorted by armed guards of their own.
In the end, I cannot see how disarming responsible gun owners will prevent the next Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Newtown—gun massacres that occurred in so-called “gun-free” zones even though the killers apparently never got the memo. These crimes are a symptom of profound mental illness left to fester untreated, immersed in a far deeper and more pervasive underlying cultural sickness, resting atop the foundation of a fatally flawed, often savage, species of homo sapien that inhabits this earth. And that cannot be legislated away. Freedom, however, can be—very easily and irreversibly.
This is just my opinion…I could be wrong.