Monday, April 8, 2013

Beyond gun 'debate' noise

I've shied away from writing about gun control. Since the unbearable massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in mid-December, it seems everybody with access to a keyboard or a digital video camera has stepped up to have their say. I saw no need to compete with that. And there's not much I have to add to the 'debate' -- if that's the right word for 300 million people talking past each other. For the most part, others have said or written anything useful that I might contribute.

But the Editorial Board at the NY Times -- in The Damage Wrought by the Gun Lobby (a title that tells all about the NY Times Editorial Board's position) -- pointed out this weekend that President Obama is being shouted down by the gun lobby. I agree. Even, as the editorial points out, with 80% of Americans polled supporting universal background checks, it's the marketing arm of the firearms industry, a.k.a. the NRA, that shouts loudest.

Loudly enough to drown out reason.

President Obama made the right rhetorical points on this at the end of last month. The POtUS called for active, vocal, grassroots support for those universal background checks that four out of five of us agree are in order:
If you think that checking someone's criminal record before he can check out a gun show is common sense, you've got to make yourself heard. If you're a responsible, law-abiding gun owner who wants to keep irresponsible, law-breaking individuals from abusing the right to bear arms by inflicting harm on a massive scale, speak up. We need your voices in this debate.


Tears aren't enough. Expressions of sympathy aren't enough. Speeches aren't enough. We've cried enough. We've known enough heartbreak. What we're proposing is not radical, it's not taking away anybody's gun rights. It's something that if we are serious, we will do.

Now is the time to turn that heartbreak into something real. It won't solve every problem. There will still be gun deaths. There will still be tragedies. There will still be violence. There will still be evil. But we can make a difference if not just the activists here on this stage but the general public -- including responsible gun owners -- say, you know what, we can do better than this. We can do better to make sure that fewer parents have to endure the pain of losing a child to an act of violence.
The POtUS is right on this point: it's time for everybody to weigh in. This is especially important because his personal leadership on this issue and others provokes hostile, paralyzing opposition in the reactionary halls of Congress, as the NY Times reported yesterday in Obama must walk fine line as Congress takes up agenda.

On weighing in

I'm not going to weigh in by inventing my own arguments. Rather, I'll quote from articles and opinion pieces that frame the question of gun control in ways I think sensible (though I don't think that all the opinions I quote make sense).

By 'the question of gun control' I mean not only requiring universal background checks, the aspect of gun-related policy that is now under active debate; but also limiting the types of weapons, clips, and ammunition available for purchase in the United States.

Not that it ought to matter much to readers of this post, but I am not declaring here a particular set of limits that I support. I haven't worked that out for myself. I will say, though, that I haven't yet seen good reasons to oppose something like Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. I don't think that 'there are lots of assault weapons and high capacity magazines out there already' is a good reason to oppose such a ban. As the Prez said, above, There will still be gun deaths. There will still be tragedies. There will still be violence. There will still be evil. But if we would, um, stick to our guns, and keep massacre-grade weapons off the open market for a period of many years, the prevalence of operational assault weapons and ammunition would decline, gradually. It took the U.S. decades to go gun-crazy. It will take decades to fix that mistake.

But enough rathole-opening blather about what I think or don't. Better to consider and juxtapose some of the most illuminating pieces that others have written. Here goes:

Framing the issue

Here's an early, eloquent, and livid response to Sandy Hook by father and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, titled Newtown and the Madness of Guns, and posted on the very day of the massacre, 14 Dec 2012. It's as good a frame as any I've read since to an issue that's all about moral choices:
So let’s state the plain facts one more time, so that they can’t be mistaken: Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.

The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns -- we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them -- is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

All of that is a truth, plain and simple, and recognized throughout the world. At some point, this truth may become so bloody obvious that we will know it, too. Meanwhile, congratulate yourself on living in the child-gun-massacre capital of the known universe.
Adam Gopnik is, of course, a New York liberal of the type that elevates the blood pressure of "gun guys," from the nutters to the 'reasonable and responsible' folks like Dan Baum, interviewed in the NYT this weekend. I make no apology for excerpting Gopnik's argument.

Armed good guys protect against armed bad guys?

Both nutters and the reasonable and responsible folks on the side of the 'debate' generally opposed to gun control often advance arguments about how good guys with guns are the only effective protection against bad guys with guns. Unless you've been living under a rock these past few months (well, decades really) you've seen plenty of running-in-place on this topic, and precious little common ground between those who advance and those who dismiss these arguments. I won't reiterate any of that here. Nor will I attempt to plumb the absurdities inherent in dividing the world into "good guys" and "bad guys"; that could go on for megabytes.

What I will point out is an article of 16 Jan 2013 in Time Magazine that reveals essential truths about the effectiveness of even trained good guys with guns. The article is called Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear and Flawed Instincts, and it's worth a read-through. Its worth derives from the grounding in reality that it offers to the question of armed good guys and their capacity to thwart armed bad guys. Excerpting:
But the research on actual gunfights, the kind that happen not in a politician’s head but in fluorescent-lit stairwells and strip-mall restaurants around America, reveals something surprising. Winning a gunfight without shooting innocent people typically requires realistic, expensive training and a special kind of person, a fact that has been strangely absent in all the back-and-forth about assault-weapon bans and the Second Amendment.

In the New York City police department, for example, officers involved in gunfights typically hit their intended targets only 18% of the time, according to a Rand study. When they fired 16 times at an armed man outside the Empire State Building last summer, they hit nine bystanders and left 10 bullet holes in the suspect—a better-than-average hit ratio. In most cases, officers involved in shootings experience a kaleidoscope of sensory distortions including tunnel vision and a loss of hearing. Afterward, they are sometimes surprised to learn that they have fired their weapons at all.
Life. It's not an action-hero movie.

But if this is not a surprise to the level-headed among us, why is America talking about social policy of the highest moral import as if we're legislating CGI-space?

Tyranny v. pop-guns

The other vein of 'debate' worth calling out is the notion that individuals who own assault weapons are a legitimate, necessary, and effective means of constraining government's tendency to tyranny. Explicating that position, here's Lawrence Hunter, published in Forbes on 28 Dec 2012:
[...] the Founders looked to local militias as much to provide a check -- in modern parlance, a "deterrent" -- against government tyranny as against an invading foreign power. Guns are individuals' own personal nuclear deterrent against their own government gone rogue. Therefore, a heavily armed citizenry is the ultimate deterrent against tyranny.

A heavily armed citizenry is not about armed revolt; it is about defending oneself against armed government oppression.  A heavily armed citizenry is not about overthrowing the government; it is about preventing the government from overthrowing liberty. A people stripped of their right of self defense is defenseless against their own government.
Is Lawrence Hunter a fuzzy-thinker because he seems unable to distinguish between nuclear and conventional arms? Just in case, let's hear from a fellow traveler, Kevin D. Williamson, as published in the National Review on the very same date, 28 Dec 2012:
The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions. The Second Amendment is not about Bambi and burglars — whatever a well-regulated militia is, it is not a hunting party or a sport-clays club. It is remarkable to me that any educated person [...] believes that the second item on the Bill of Rights is a constitutional guarantee of enjoying a recreational activity.
How to answer arguments like these? One "M.S." in The Economist addressed Williamson's arguments directly on 30 Dec 2012, a couple days after they hit the intertubes:
Militia are hopelessly inadequate as a means of defending a free country. While "people's war" militia-based strategies have been employed to wear down invading armies in numerous countries over the past century, not one of those countries (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, southern Lebanon, etc) is "free". This is not an accident of history. Freedom is the product of orderly democratic governance and the rule of law. Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. [...]

As crummy as popular militias have proven at defending against "sudden foreign invasions", they've been even worse at defending against "domestic usurpations of power by rulers". There is, I think, not a single case in modern history, certainly not since the invention of the Gatling gun. No popular militia has ever prevented the seizure of power by an authoritarian ruler. In countries with well-established democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers are rare; when they occur, popular militias do not resist, or are ruthlessly crushed by national armed forces. In countries with weak democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers sometimes go smoothly, or in other cases touch off periods of civil war, which are resolved when one faction finally defeats the others and imposes authoritarian rule. Name your authoritarian takeover: Germany, Japan, Russia, China, Egypt, Libya, Brazil, Greece, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran, Chile, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Syria—popular militias never resist authoritarian takeover and preserve democracy or civil freedoms. That is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.
And here's Mark Nuckols in The Atlantic, writing a month later on 31 Jan 2013 about Why the 'Citizen Militia' Theory Is the Worst Pro-Gun Argument Ever:
If America experienced a widespread political uprising today, it would bear little resemblance to Lexington and Concord in 1775, with well-disciplined minutemen assembling on the town square to defend liberty against the redcoats. It would more likely be a larger scale reenactment of the "Bleeding Kansas" revolt of 1854 to 1861, when small bands of armed zealots unleashed an orgy of inter-communal violence, unbounded by any laws of war or human decency. 


The constitutional government of the United States has never been perfect, but it has repeatedly corrected its mistakes and sometime tendencies to abridge the fundamental rights of its citizens. If this basic order and balance is ever imperiled, it will almost certainly be under circumstances of severe economic stress. And in such circumstances, tolerance and good faith trust in other Americans will likely be in short supply. Even today, numerous public figures routinely characterize their political opponents as enemies of American values. And a quick glance at the comments sections of websites around the Internet reveals that many people in this country already doubt the "Americanness" of their fellow citizens and the legitimacy of existing government institutions.

So a citizen uprising at any point in the foreseeable future would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty. It would more likely be a matter of one aggrieved social group attacking another. And for the most criminal and vicious members of society, the rationale of "protecting" their own rights would be a convenient justification for straight-up looting, robbery, and bloodshed.
In a sound-byte? I'd say that Lawrence Hunter, Kevin D. Williamson, and their ilk aspire to an America that is indistinguishable from today's Syria or Afghanistan.

I would like to think we can do better than that.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

The controversy machine v the reality machine
North Korea, women's rights, and post-truth politics
Democracy makes your head hurt? What else you got?

Thanks to enigmabadger for the image BrickArms Heavy Assault Carbine Prototype With M203 Grenande Launcher, and to rcoder for the image of assault weapons, both via Flickr.


  1. Steve, well done. The lack of better gun control in this country amazes me. This isn't a 2nd amendment issue, although its become one, but simply a financial issue for those selling weapons. The general public is no place for many such items. Only when congress overturns liability limits on the manufacturers will this madness end. The NRA likes to suggest that the problem isn't guns but a mental health issue...ok, if one believes that is part of the problem why is the NRA the leading voice instead of the mental health professionals and why have NRA backed legislators passed legislation limiting the ability of the CDC to study the mental health aspects of gun violence?

    1. Good questions, Jim, and an interesting thought about liability limits ... though one wonders how much more winnable that fight would be against the gun lobby.

      The pundits and analysts who call for getting corporate money out of politics as the fundamental fight are on the mark (I'm thinking of Robert Reich especially, but he's not alone).