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I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size.
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Guns, Violence and Common Sense
Posted at: Apr/18/2013 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Common Sense, Politics & Gov, Society, The Law, Watching America,
Nothing creates a passionate outcry faster and louder than the killing of children. From the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999, to Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012; these are tragedies of the first order. We are instantly stirred to fervently ask “what can we do to prevent this from ever happening again.” In the wake of this tragedy, lots of things are getting blamed. The blame list includes gun access, school security, violent content in games and media and our mental health system. As a parent, I know that the safety and security of my children and their friends is paramount to me.
The issues at stake here are more than a single essay so I am going to focus on the national gun debate that has moved at phenomenal speed from Newton Connecticut to the President’s desk. Unto itself, the gun debate is still extremely difficult to follow. There are those who site the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution as their argument. Some people are focused are a particular type of weapon. Others still are focused on trying to eliminate all weapons. Of course, there is the faction touting the argument that it is not the guns, it is a few dangerous people and “what is law enforcement doing?”
The Second Amendment to the US Constitution is part of the “Bill of Rights” adopted by congress in 1791. It states “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” For those who study the history of major documents, you know that this amendment leverages a great deal of content and context from the 1689 English Bill of Rights which states “That the subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defense suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by law.”
A few quotes from noted founding fathers may be useful at this time.
”And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms….The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants”
”Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the peoples’ liberty’s teeth.”
Clearly, between Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the English Bill of Rights, there was a general distrust of government at the time our Constitution was written. In response, it was felt that maintaining an armed citizenry would keep government on edge and less likely to abuse power. Having an armed population also sent a clear message to any power considering invading the fledging new democracy in North America. Beyond a militia, it was not until 2008 that the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an “individual” right to possess and carry firearms. I have my concerns with how poorly our government functions, but I’m not ready to march on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with my rifle in my hand.
One of the loudest voices currently is the faction calling for a ban on “Assault” style weapons and “large capacity magazines.” I personally don’t see the need or reason for anyone to privately own an assault rifle. I have been told “it’s a sporting weapon.” I have been hunting before and I would not want to be in the same woods as anyone packing a full auto assault weapon to hunt deer or turkey. If the purpose is home defense, I really don’t want my neighbor pulling the trigger to unload 30 high velocity rounds when someone crawls through their window. The collateral damage in either of these scenarios is too much to comprehend. There is really no purpose to owning a machine pistol or full auto rifle except to kill lots of people easily and regulating the sale and ownership of these does not offend me. I am sure someone will say this interferes with their 2nd Amendment rights, but we already restrict ownership on a number of weapons including grenades, bazookas, shoulder launch rockets and nuclear bombs to name a few; expanding this list does not seem unreasonable.
I was a dues paying member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) for quite a while, but discontinued my membership when I became aware of the lobbying agenda my dues were being used for. According to the NRA, its membership wants to “take responsibility for our own safety and protection as a God-given, fundamental right.” While this dovetails with the ideal American image of “rugged individualism”, I’m not sure how well truth aligns with the words and movie like image.
I guess it’s time for a few statistics. Most of these come either from the FBI or from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). All hospitals and morgues are required to report causes of death to the CDC.
• The US has an estimated 283 million guns in civilian hands (roughly 1 gun for every 89 of 100 people)
• The percentage of American households with a gun is at roughly 33%
• The average number of guns per owner is 6.9
• More than 30,000 people are killed by firearms each year in the US
• ½ of the 30,000 are between 18 and 35
• Gun related homicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds
• Gun related homicide is the leading cause of death among 15-24 year-old African Americans
• Germany, Italy & France average less than 150 gun homicides a year
• Japan averages less than 50 gun homicides a year
• Canada averages less than 200 gun homicides a year
• In the US, over 10,000 of the 30,000 killed by firearms are homicides annually
The obvious conclusion of these numbers is that the United States has a problem with gun related violence and gun related deaths. While the numbers don’t lie, statistics don’t always yield a direct one-to-one cause and effect.
As the various factions dig their heels in, the debate gets louder, but with any war of words you have to be sure you are talking about the same things. Some of the terms make finding common ground very difficult. “Gun control”, “gun violence”, “ gun rights”, “common Sense”, “assault weapons”, “semi-automatic”, “high capacity clips & magazines”; the use, misuse and manipulation of these terms contributes to the confusion. Twisting words to sway an argument is not unique to guns. Which sounds better, “estate tax” or “death tax”? People like to be “pro” rather than “anti”, are you “pro-choice” or “pro-life”? Do you believe in “marriage equality” or “protecting marriage”? A lot of people get paid to figure out how to brand a message for the best public appeal.
Supporting gun control is considered a slippery slope, but no one is in favor of gun-violence. American’s love to speak of their “rights”, so gun-rights always gets points for popularity. When Wayne LaPierre of the NRA spoke of putting armed security guards in American schools, he called it a “common sense solution.” Most of us want to be associated with ideas that are common sense. When former Representative and shooting victim Gabby Giffords began a political action committee to take on the gun lobby, she called the groups agenda “common-sense reforms.”
President Obama proposed legislation prohibiting “further manufacture of military-style assault weapons.” There are a lot of terms there that can be folded in almost any direction you want. What is “military-style” and what is an “assault weapon”? Arguing over abstract things seldom has a good conclusion. Personally, anything that is military-style probably does not belong in our general society.
In general, assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine for ammunition designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use. The National Shooting Sports Foundation and other gun enthusiasts complain that it is only cosmetics that separate assault weapons from non-assault weapons under the 1994 law on the subject.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who has submitted legislation for a new "assault weapons ban," says it would include, among other things, "all semiautomatic rifles that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature: pistol grip; forward grip; folding, telescoping, or detachable stock; grenade launcher or rocket launcher; barrel shroud; or threaded barrel."
How about the term “military-style”; I’m not sure what that is, but I don’t really want anything military-style in my neighborhood.
Other important terms are “automatic” and “semiautomatic”. A semiautomatic weapon can only fire one round for each trigger pull; an automatic weapon can fire many rounds with a single pull of the trigger. Wrapped up in the automatic/semiautomatic debate is the subject of high-capacity magazines and related devices. I have a tough time rationalizing any reason for a private citizen to own a weapon that can fire in an automatic mode or hold more than a handful of rounds.
There has been a great deal of talk about restricting types of weapons that can be purchased; some call this a slippery slope. I don’t really know that there is any reason for a private citizen to own a fully automatic weapon that can empty a 30 round clip in 3.5 seconds. If I went hunting with an automatic weapon there would be nothing left to eat.
What do you get when you start breaking all this down?
One of the key parts of the gun debate focuses on registering all purchases, either at the State or Federal level along with background checks and waiting periods. At face value, none of this bothers me. We need to ensure that people with a known history of being dangerous or unstable are not sold the tools that make them a greater risk to society. Nevertheless, we need to keep our Constitution in mind. Registering purchases creates a database that could be misused by government agencies at some time in the future. I have no plans to lead a militia against our government and don’t hold an overt distrust of government, but our leaders have already shown a willingness to abuse their authority with warrantless wire-taps, email searches and 10’s of thousands of secret warrants. I see too much opportunity for this data to be abused by those with the authority to stretch the limits of their position.
As mentioned earlier, the notion of large capacity magazines and weapons that can empty them of their rounds in seconds being available to our society at large scares me. There is no real purpose to a weapon of this nature except to kill the most number of people with the least effort in the shortest amount of time; sure sounds combat oriented to me! Words like Dianne Feinstein proposed do not offend me, but I doubt they will work. In a country with too many lawyers, the ability to find loopholes in the wording of any law that defines specific hardware with specific and detailed terms is destine to fail. If a pistol grip becomes a lower handle and telescoping stock becomes an adjustable rear alignment butt, the law becomes moot. Regardless, these mass fire weapons still do not belong in general circulation even if there is no clear way to legislate that result.
Mental health concerns and the inability to function in our society in a normal way scare me. Harris and Klebold of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999 spent a long time planning their attack. For their family and friends, there were lots of indicators that were ignored. For James Holmes, the Aurora Colorado shooter, there were plenty of warning signs to include his personal psychiatrist contacting local college security official with a concern that “her patient might be a threat to others.” Adam Lanza was obsessed with other mass murderers. Apparently, Lanza felt he was in competition with Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed 77 and Lanza was therefore striving to “out do” him. All of these individuals and a host of others showed warning that were not taken seriously enough by people in their inner circle, but hindsight is always with 20/20 vision. Nevertheless, protecting society from every unbalanced person is a near impossible task, especially since most of them are only unbalanced part of the time. Should we start arresting people for their thoughts? There have been a number of movies and books’ investigating the notion of thought police….that’s a place I really don’t want to go.
Putting armed security in our schools scares me. The notion of instructing teachers in CPR and first-aid for a few hours, then placing them with school children does not bother me. Training these same teachers in the use of weapons and allowing them to have those weapons on campus creates greater access to guns and gun related accidents. While gun violence at schools is horrific, the child welfare concerns caused by predators and estranged parents is greater. For the sake of our kids, all campuses should be “closed campuses”; secured by fences that restrict access on or off to a controlled and limited number of places. A majority of schools in my community already have closed campuses. In some cases the limited points of entry route everyone through administrative areas providing a further level of oversight and security. In my community, most of the high schools have a full time police officer on campus. This officer is not there for security. By the time some teens reach high school age, a few of them will be involved in illicit activities. These same kids who are now involved in drugs, gangs, or a host of other activities are likely to bring these activities on to their campus; having a full time police officer there to manage this makes good sense.
Moving off the subject of school shooting, the vast majority of gun homicides in American have a racial coefficient. Depending on the data source, anywhere from 82-89% of the homicides victims in America are African-American; of those, 80% are African-American’s killing other African-American’s. Clearly, there are sociological forces at work here. I don’t know if this phenomenon is a result of educational failings, lack of opportunity, drugs, inner city pressures, broken family structure, criminal activity or something else. When children are killed in our schools it is a horrific event we should not ignore, but the bulk of gun deaths in America is Black’s killing Black’s and this needs to be the real focus. I am aware that many pundits will argue it is “just bad guys killing other bad guys”, but that rationalization doesn’t solve the problem or make our streets any safer.
The real question is “what do we do next?”
Harris, Klebold, Holmes and Lanza all had access to weapons that their parents or friends purchased in a legal and legitimate way. Restricting the types of weapons that can be purchased might reduce the carnage these persons could inflict, but it would not stop them. Our mental health system clearly failed us. Additionally, the cultural desire of those closest to these estranged individuals to deny anything serious might happen is the greater threat to our safety. I don’t know what the fix is, but with modern tools of death and destruction, it is unfortunately very easy for the unbalanced to take out their frustrations on society with dire consequences. More proactive ways of identifying when these people reach their tipping point are needed.
The other actions being debated; restrictions on types of weapons, types of magazines, background checks, registration and such are all designed to reduce the number of guns that are out there, and by association reduce the number of gun deaths. Unfortunately, I feel this is all terribly misguided. Years ago my father taught me that locking your front door and keeping valuables out of sight in your car will “keep and honest man honest.” I asked what I should do about the real bad guys who don’t care about locks, he said “have insurance!” The majority of guns being used for crime or violence in American were not purchased “over the counter”; they were stolen and resold in back alleys or brought into the country illegally. The laws being discussed will make it more difficult for law abiding gun owners to purchase weapons, but will likely have very little impact on the availability of guns to those who use them to commit crimes.
We don’t really need our legislators debating and passing laws with little if any chance for real impact except to keep honest people more honest. If we really want to decrease the gun violence in American, we need to better understand the forces at work in that part of society and where the majority of gun related deaths occur. If common sense matters, one more law that punishes the wrong people is not going to make us safer.