About the Guns
In the week since the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary, we’ve heard a lot of crazy ideas (as we do in the wake of every mass shooting) about how best to protect innocent unarmed civilians from nutters with guns. Today we’ll be hearing from the NRA, whose position we already know will be that “guns don’t kill people; crazy people with guns kill people.” A true statement, but one that doesn’t solve or even suggest a solution, which would have to involve keeping the most lethal weapons out of the hands of crazy people, which is a bridge too far for the NRA.*
There’s a genuine conflict here: we do have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing people the right to own guns. Clearly we aren’t going to be able to declare all of them illegal and force people to hand all of them over. Even if we could, I don’t think I would favor it – there are millions of hunters in the country and many millions more who are responsible gun owners, who keep their weapons secure and own them only for home protection. In many cases, this is an imagined need, but nonetheless it’s one that’s not entirely unreasonable and it’s a right that goes all the way back to British common law, which makes it a bit hard to argue against from a legal standpoint.
By and large, hunters and the owners of well-secured guns kept for home protection aren’t the problem. They also aren’t the ones buying semi-automatic weapons. Let’s be honest: a semi-automatic rifle or handgun is an offensive weapon designed for military use, and as such, is not an appropriate weapon to allow anyone and everyone to own. There’s a contingent of crazy that insists that one of the things the Founders had in mind when drafting the Second Amendment was keeping citizens armed in case of the need to overthrow a tyrannical government. Again, there may be truth in this – the Founders themselves had only recently thrown off a government they considered to be tyrannical, though its offenses and predations fell far short of the tyrannies we’ve seen enacted over and over again in the modern world.
Consider the context: the Founders lived in a time where the most powerful personal weapon was a muzzle-loader, which could fire off one shot every couple of minutes, or perhaps once per minute if the guy handling it was particularly adept at re-loading. It was an age where parity in firepower was possible - a group of average citizens, all armed with muzzle-loaders, would, with the exception of cannons, be as well-armed as an organized military of the same numbers.
That parity is not possible these days and indeed hasn’t been for a century or more. It goes without saying that it wouldn’t be desirable, either. We can’t very well allow every citizen the right to own and keep any variety of weapons, including but not limited to hand grenades, shoulder-fired rocket launchers, or nuclear warheads. Those are all “arms” as well, and somehow we’re able to agree that not everyone should have them and that there are no legal uses for them outside of a battlefield.
So why the hangup when it comes to semi-automatic weapons? They aren’t used for hunting, and for home protection you don’t need something that can fire off 30 – 100 rounds per minute. In fact, while handguns are the weapons most often chosen for home protection purposes, for most people, a shotgun would be a better choice, owing to less need for accurate aim (and really, just playing a recording of a shotgun being pumped would be enough to persuade all criminals aside from psychopaths to clear the premises immediately).
Once we’ve ruled out hunting and home protection, the semi-automatic’s sole use is unavoidable: it is an offensive weapon, not intended for personal defense so much as for killing the other guy. Given that murder remains illegal, it’s insane to insist that a weapon designed solely for killing multiple human beings in a minute or less should be readily available and legal to own for an average citizen. About the only purpose I’ve heard gun enthusiasts advance for which these types of weapons might have even a borderline legitimacy is that they are “fun to shoot.” Perhaps so, but the Second Amendment isn’t concerned with your personal enjoyment of any particular weapon; as such, I’d have to say that the right of crowds of citizens to not be slaughtered greatly outweighs any “fun” an enthusiast might experience in firing one of these weapons at a shooting range or elsewhere. People who have a burning desire to handle these types of weapons have the option of joining the military; outside of that, they don’t need to be handling them.
As for those who persist in clinging to the idea that they have a “right” to own these types of weapons in the event that the evil gubmint gets too oppressive what with the seat-belts and the motorcycle helmet and the required food labeling laws and so forth, add them to the mental health registry: their belief that they could, with a semi-automatic weapon, fight off the fighter jets, targeted missiles, tanks, and other weaponry in our awesome military arsenal should the need arise, clearly marks them out as both paranoid and delusional; they are precisely the type of people who should NOT be running around with powerful, rapid-fire weapons.
Here’s the thing: the Second Amendment says you have the right to own and keep a gun. It doesn’t say what type of gun, and none of the guns in production today could have been anticipated by the Founders. If pistols were available in the late 1700′s, they had only recently come on the scene; certainly there was no gun at the time capable of firing more than one shot without being re-loaded. The Second Amendment could be interpreted as the right to own a more modernized version of the single-shot firearms available when the Amendment was drafted, and nothing else – if we had a sane majority on the Supreme Court or in our political discourse. Instead, we’ll probably spend the next weeks, months, and perhaps even years listening to ridiculous suggestions about how we can turn every public space into an armed camp to “protect” us against armed lunatics who should never have access to weapons in the first place, instead of dealing with the issue of having too many, too powerful, guns floating around. Already ruled out is the idea for a real ban on semi-automatics such as the one used in last Friday’s shooting; we are told that even a ban on future sales of these weapons would do nothing to take care of the estimated 8 million of them already in citizens’ hands. In other words, a buy-back program coupled with hefty fines for anyone caught with one after the deadline for turning them in, as was successful in Australia, is off the table. We don’t know what number of murdered children would be required in order to even begin a serious political discussion about taking this very reasonable step, but the correct answer to the question is obviously ”> 20.”
I’m not going to belabor the transparent insanity of the suggestions being put forward by those who value cold hard steel more than young children’s lives, but I will briefly recount them. First there’s the camp who believes that the answer to mass shootings is more guns. According to these fine patriots, if all of us were packing heat, some citizen-Rambo would pick off the crazy guy with the gun before the body count gets too high. Never mind that never, not even once, has an armed civilian stopped a mass shooting by taking out the gunman. There have been a few times in low-profile cases where an off-duty policeman, former Marine, or other individual with career training in handling firearms stepped in and stopped a bad guy; there are about as many similar cases in which the would-be hero either almost shot the wrong guy or determined that an innocent bystander would be at risk if he took the shot. In other words, thanks to these guys not being average civilians with guns, the gunman was stopped without harm to innocent parties. Substituting the average citizen into these scenarios, most of whom have had nothing like the extensive training of police or members of the military, the likelihood in these scenarios is that even more people would get shot in the crossfire, law enforcement arriving on scene might mistake the hero for the bad guy, and so on and so forth. That’s all true, but beside the point, which is: your right to own a weapon designed for offensive purposes does not trump MY right to not live in the Wild West or an armed camp. There’s nothing in the Second Amendment to suggest that it trumps the express goal of the overall document, which I will remind the brethren, is to:
“…insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…”
I feel that continuing to indulge the fetishes of a fringe group of maladapted, insecure and fearful people endangers or denies all of the above goals to the great majority of people in this country.
Then there are the proposals to turn schools into windowless bunkers patrolled by pistol-packing teachers and other school personnel. This one is interesting primarily because it’s being advanced by the same folks who insist teachers are a bunch of overpaid incompetent boobs – but you can count on them to handle a gun around your kids every day!
We’ve heard again how “an armed society is a polite society,” for all values of “polite” which equal “being afraid to say anything out of fear that the gun-toting Cletus at the next table in the bar might disagree.”
The final, the piece de resistance of dumbassitude, goes to one Megan McArdle, formerly of The Atlantic, now decamped to The Daily Beast (Tina Brown sure knows how to pick them, doesn’t she?), who suggested that we should teach children in this situation to rush the shooter. Because, according to Megs, it will unbalance him and throw him off if a bunch of people, even small ones, are running at him from different directions. It’s also a sneaky way of blaming the victims – in this case six- and seven-year olds – for failing to save themselves when a guy who had no business with any type of gun managed to get his hands on a very powerful – and legal – one.
That’s an awful lot of flailing FAIL to go through to arrive at the conclusion that the only thing that CAN’T be part of the problem is the gun itself, despite the fact that in these mass shootings, the gun is a tool performing the function for which it was designed, and that function is an illegal act for civilians.
We don’t have to put up with this crap. We can insist on reasonable gun laws which both protect the rights of sportsmen and people to be secure in their homes while recognizing that some weapons have no place in civilian society. We can insist on background checks for any sale or trade of arms at any venue. We can insist that gun buyers be required to register their weapons, and that they demonstrate that they’ve completed some sort of training on safe handling and keeping of firearms, in order for those weapons to be legal. We can insist on not just a ban, but a buy-back program designed to get most of the most lethal weapons out of circulation. We can insist on a law that imposes heavy fines upon people found to have those types of weapons after a specific buy-back deadline. It won’t get them all off the street, but getting 75 – 90% of them would be a good start. Sure, criminals will continue to get these types of weapons – but it’s not criminals who have been shooting up our congressional meet-and-greets, our movie theaters, our houses of worship, our malls, and our schools. Criminals use guns primarily to help them obtain money or other goods illegally – they aren’t interested in shooting little kids, or really anyone else, unless it furthers that goal. Crime is down overall, while mass shootings are up, and none of the gunmen in these cases have been hard-core criminals. If these types can’t get their weapons legally, they’re not likely to get them at all.
Finally, we can insist that the right of the majority for domestic tranquility trumps the right of a vocal minority to own a tool for which there is no constructive legal purpose.
In closing, I’ll note that I lived a full third of my life in a home that was a virtual arsenal of guns. My father was an avid collector – mostly of military-issue guns from WWI and WWII – and other military paraphernalia. He didn’t have any semi-automatics, because he was more a collector than a “mah gun gives me POWER” fetishist. I have no idea how many guns Dad had, but when they were auctioned after his death almost 20 years ago, they went for over $75,000. In short, it was a lot of guns. He wasn’t a hunter and he rarely took out any of the guns and fired them. He did occasionally target practice at a gun range or other safe location, and for a time, he headed up a group for teenagers wanting to learn target shooting. The entire time I lived in the same house with him, I never saw a gun lying around unattended. In fact, I never saw a gun unless he had it out and was in the same room with it. If I had seen one out, I already knew that I wasn’t to touch it. I learned how to shoot, but also knew I was never to have a gun in my hand unless my Dad was there and had handed it to me.
But the guns were a constant menace anyway. When we lived in Georgia, he stored his collection in an attic space that was fairly easy for him to access, and which he kept securely locked. After the move to Arkansas, he had no appropriate place in the house to store them, and so for the last 15 years of his life, they were packed away in crates that took up one end of the family room. We were instructed from a very young age to never tell anyone about Dad’s guns. They weren’t even insured, because Dad didn’t want anyone knowing about all of them. His fear was more about robbery than government. So I grew up surrounded by an arsenal, which didn’t make me feel any safer; we were far more likely to be murdered by gun thieves than by anything else.
After Dad died, the guns worried me even more, because now my Mom was alone in the house with a commodity eagerly sought-after by criminals. She contacted an auctioneer with some expertise in weapons, and within a year of my Dad’s death, the collection was auctioned off in Illinois. It provided a great sense of relief to all of us.
Just a few years after my Dad’s death, a gun collector in a town about 40 miles away went missing with his wife and young daughter at the same time his gun collection went missing. Some months later, the family’s bodies were discovered in their vehicle, submerged in an abandoned flooded gravel pit. The crime was eventually traced to white supremacist Chevy Kehoe, after his infamous shoot-out with Ohio police. Proceeds from the theft went to fund terrorist activities, including bombing a government building. Just a few months after Dad’s death, there was another robbery in a town only 75 miles away. No one was murdered in that theft, but the proceeds from it went to fund the Oklahoma City bombing. The trail of violence and terror from the flood of guns in this country doesn’t end with the guns themselves.
Before Dad’s collection went to auction, Mom offered each of us the chance to select anything we’d like to have. I didn’t choose anything. Even one gun in close proximity would make me feel less secure than not having one.
*The NRA held its non-apologia before I was finished drafting this post; as expected, the guns aren’t the problem. It’s the mentally ill; better to compile a list of them than to stigmatize people who want to own deadly weapons by forcing them to register them. Video games are the problem; that’s why all those kids are dead.
Mom and I had a discussion a few days following the Sandy Hook shootings. She said this event was finally going to change things; I was less sanguine. But something about that press conference felt like a Schiavo Moment. At one point, LaPierre is actually advocating for armed volunteers to police our schools. The insurance premiums to cover the risks associated with having armed non-employees on school property when children are present…well, he didn’t offer any advice on where schools should go for the millions of dollars that would be required for that, should anyone be stupid enough to take such a dumbshit idea seriously and try to implement it.
Enough is enough. It’s time, and well past the point, for us to stop allowing the radical, the paranoid and the profiteers to dictate what our policy will be. They can only get away with it again if we don’t speak up and demand that they accept responsibility, and the limits to freedom that it sometimes requires in the real world.