Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In search of new ideas about guns

Every few months, it seems, we are beset by a new instance of a mentally ill person who has got hold of one or more guns and decided that the best course for his life would be to kill, more or less indiscriminately, a bunch of people who are otherwise going about their business.

It happened again on Friday night, near Santa Barbara, California, but that was merely the latest in a long string of mass murders by gun.  This time the victims were college students, but it has been schoolchildren and teachers, moviegoers, mallgoers, office workers, and any number of other groups.

On Thursday, one of my best friends wrote the following in response to an announcement by Chipotle, the fresh-made burrito chain, that it prefers that its customers leave their guns at home--an announcement made in response to a pro-gun open-carry rally at one of its restaurants:
Have we lost our humanity? Are we so scared of each other that we have to walk around with guns everywhere? I believe having such high strung anxiety about one's neighbor does nothing but escalate the problem. ... What happened to having faith in community, to seeing the good in our neighbor, and to choosing to believe in the idea that we are inherently good people?
Jon is the right combination of smart, kind, and genuine, and he cares deeply about humanity and about finding solutions to our problems.  Although I share Jon's optimism about people, it seems rather clear that many people do not.  

In many respects, the problem is that we seem to have taken to talking past each other.  In the past, when we had political differences, we at least accepted that there were men and women of good faith on both sides, and we would work out our differences through compromise and reason.  Our entire history consists in the struggle between the forces of conservatism and the forces of progressivism, with each dominating in turn but no philosophy maintaining a permanent hold upon us.

These days, compromise is seen, particularly on the conservative side, as weakness or ideological impurity--something that must be purged from the public discourse, even at the cost of legislative representation, or of an entire government shutdown.  There are some on the progressive side who argue for that same purity, but it would be a lie to equate them. 

I don't have the solution to that problem, but I believe that the road to a solution is paved with dialogue and interaction, not exclusion.

The gun issue is part of that seemingly intractable debate.  The National Rifle Association is firmly dedicated to ideological purity among those it supports, and as a powerful lobby it flexes its muscle so severely sometimes that it can singlehandedly grind the legislative process to a halt.

But, as the saying goes, we must first seek to understand, then to be understood.

My friend Jon is a gun owner--he in fact owns multiple guns--but I am not.  I am not really opposed to owning a gun; I just don't really have a purpose for owning one, so I don't.  If I had a reason to own a gun, I might buy one.  

There are many different reasons why people own guns.  They own them for hunting.  They own them as collectibles.  They own them because they enjoy shooting sports, like skeet and trap, or even simple target practice.  They own them for personal defense.  Some people own them because they use them to commit crimes.  And some people own them because owning, carrying, and shooting guns makes them feel more powerful than they feel without them.

One of the problems with the NRA--an organization that was founded and carried on for many years for good reasons, maybe even great ones, but that has lost its way in recent years--and its position on gun regulation is such that it essentially treats all of these reasons for owning guns as irrelevant, or at least as the same, when they are decidedly not the same.  The NRA's position is twofold:  there is no regulation of guns worth having, and there is no situation involving guns that cannot be made better by inserting more guns.  Now, I doubt they would phrase it in these terms, but that is the NRA's position in effect.

The NRA's position is a reflexive "no," which is the easiest form of involvement in a democracy.  That reflexive "no" makes it an ostrich, apparently unwilling even to acknowledge a problem, much less to offer constructive solutions that preserve our rights while keeping us out of a suicide pact.  I have seen this "no" before--it is a staple of the progressive-vs.-conservative debate--and it is ugly because it forecloses any opportunity for debate.  That "no" can be found in the platitudes the NRA offers up instead of policy:  "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" makes for a nice slogan, but it avoids the point.  Guns may not kill people by themselves, but guns enable people to kill and maim more people, more quickly, more effectively, than virtually any other weapon available.

In his brief point on the subject, Jon also said this:
I contend that there is nothing inherent about the gun that makes it any more dangerous or deadly than a sledge hammer, a nail gun, an air compressor, a saw, etc. This is to say guns are dangerous. Just like a circular saw, guns are not something to play around with or joke about. 
Although I see and respect Jon's point, I'm not sure I can fully endorse his position.  I doubt very much that it would ever occur to Jon to use his guns for anything but beneficent purposes--that is the kind of man he is--but the simple fact is that while all of the tools he mentions are indeed dangerous, even deadly, it is nigh unto impossible to carry out a mass murder with an air compressor or a saw--Hollywood horror films notwithstanding.  There are other implements that can kill many people at once, given the proper circumstances--bombs especially, but cars as well--but the mass murder carried out with something other than a gun is a rarity.

The Santa Barbara shooter apparently killed his first three victims, his roommates, with a knife.  But it was the guns he owned that allowed him to go on a spree, killing three more people, in addition to himself, and injuring and frightening many others.  Taking the guns out of his hands, if we could have done it, would have saved those lives.

The challenge we face is in keeping guns out of the reach of people who would use them to commit murder, who are mentally ill and homicidal, and who are not old enough to appreciate their danger, while respecting the rights of those who would use them for other purposes.  

I'm afraid I don't have the answer to that challenge.  But what we are doing now is not working.  It's time to recognize that and try something new.  I'd like to hear your answers.

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