There have been a number of high-profile shootings this year, including the killings at the Sikh Temple, the “Batman” killings at the Colorado movie theater, and what I understand to be a shootout that started when a constable tried to serve an eviction notice.
As is often the case, media coverage (if it bleeds, it leads) is intense after one of these incidents, even when—as it appears with the “Empire State Building” shooting and the Texas A&M-neighborhood shooting—the events are not strictly of the same sort. The shooting of the constable might not have even made the national news if it hadn’t seemed on first report to fit the ‘mass shootings’ model. Don’t believe me? Did you hear about the “weekend of violence” in Chicago at the end of August? Nine dead and another 37 wounded. But… no nationwide headlines, because these are “ordinary” killings. As a side note, why are the seven folks at the Sikh temple more newsworthy than the nine in Chicago? Bear with me.
After each of the mass murders in the last decade, you can count on seeing certain things in the media.
- You’re likely to see descriptions of the amount of money spent by the gun lobby
- There will be pointers to studies showing that gun owners (or people who carry guns) are more likely to be victims of shootings (but the studies don’t always control for criminal element)
- Statements from politicians that they grieve with the families of the victims
- Hand-wringing about the number of mass shootings in the US
- Statistics about gun ownership in the US as contrasted with other first-world countries
- Statistics about “gun violence.”
If you hang out on any social networking sites, conversations after each incident are entirely predictable. You’re very likely to see posts along a wide spectrum of response (but the individual arguments rarely bring out anything new, and are often …well… “uncivil” would not be putting it too forcefully).
- It’s time to control guns!
- It’s time to stand up to the gun lobby!
- Why are our craven leaders not standing up to the gun lobby?!
- No one needs a 100-round magazine!
- Sardonic comments along the lines of “silly caveman, no one wants to take your guns away!” (which of course, ignores the fact that some people do want to take all guns away).
- Our founding fathers knew what was best!
- Our founding fathers were talking about muskets, not M4 rifles!
- If guns are good, why not legalize nukes, it’s just as stupid!
- People who carry are safer!
- People who carry are less safe!
- Characterization of all gun owners as being savage, bloodthirsty, paranoid, and mentally deficient (and usually right-wing).
- Characterization of gun control advocates as being wimpy pinko protectors of the criminal class
- Claims that you can buy guns on the internet, that there aren’t any controls on gun ownership in the US, and that we “should at least stop mental patients from owning guns.”
- Et cetera.
As a personal note, if you are one of the people who believes (or at least suspects) that gun owners actually are all deranged survivalists a twitch away from becoming tomorrow night’s headline, I can tell you that this is hardly likely to be the case. Even if you discount my testimony that the gun enthusiasts I’ve met in person and online are stable, upstanding members of their communities, with good jobs… (keep in mind, this is not a cheap hobby), just consider that an enormous percentage—perhaps 50%—of your neighbors are gun owners. If they were all bloodthirsty killers, I daresay the body count would be a bit higher.
I don’t think that the portrait of the gun owner as a savage lowbrow is in any way accidental. When you think of the power of storytelling and myth-making, this idea is a powerful tool in the attempt to situate the gun-owning citizen as “other,” justifying any outrageous statement. The pro-gun folks have similar caricatures that they haul out in arguments… portraying “antis” as pandering to Big Brother and as UN one-worlders, out to protect the attacker and leave the victim of crime helpless. And on, and on.
As I’ve gotten a little distance from the pro-gun crowd I used to hang around, and spent more time/read a little more among thoughtful folks who are really concerned about how guns are abused and misused in this country, I’ve come to harbor a new conception about the roots of this pro-gun/anti-gun fight, and a new suspicion about (some of) the true causes of why “our leaders” don’t take any action on gun control. I’d like to share it here because I’ve never been able to clearly express myself in any of the social networks I’ve belonged to over the last 15 years. With a little luck, I’ll finally be able to get this out in plain words and be able to point at this post when people ask me why I’m not against gun ownership.
First, think about this plain fact. There are a lot of guns in the US. About half of households in the US have guns, and estimates I’ve seen online range into the hundreds of millions of individual weapons in private hands. Hold that thought for a moment while I review a few other ideas.
Commentators often start articles lambasting politicians for not doing anything about guns by talking about the lives lost to “gun violence” in the US each year. Presumably, these writers feel that ‘doing something about guns’ would lead to a safer world. If we take that concept of increasing the safety of our citizens to be a useful goal (and I do), then it seems sensible to me to ask about whether a given strategy or tactic can be successful. It also seems sensible to me to ask whether one plan or another might save more lives or prevent more injuries. I believe that politicians and other leaders also sometimes consider these issues and come to a cold realization:
Gun control isn’t a good path to increasing safety or decreasing mortality.
- When I see people call for more gun control, they usually call for increased regulation or more laws. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are already a fairly large number of gun laws on the books (probably at least 300 laws nationwide). Guns are not an unregulated product in the US. So far, those regulations haven’t seemed to have much effect on the murder rate in this country.
- But. Let’s say that gun laws might help. Presumably, stopping sales might have an effect. If, somehow, all gun sales were halted right now (not just putting in place mental health and legal background checks, but a complete stop to all sales), the fact still remains that there are a lot of guns around. Remember that estimate of 300,000,000 firearms? Do you plan to remove these from private hands? Please, show me the path that you will take (I hope that it’s one that will not turn this into the exact police state that some gun owners are afraid of).
- Guns can’t shoot without bullets, right? So why not stop all ammo sales? Same thing. There is a lot of ammo stockpiled in the US.
- The phrase “gun violence.” Have you thought about that phrase before? Consider that Americans have one of the highest rates of assault and suicide in the developed world even if you take the gun statistics out of the numbers! Removing firearms through some magical process will still leave the fact behind that we seem to be a violent bunch. Hint: the guns aren’t causing the violence, they’re being used by violent individuals.
Remember my comment back in the second paragraph about “ordinary” killings? The media has almost stopped reporting on what used to be called “gangland” killings. Unless you live along the border, you also don’t hear much about what essentially is a civil war happening in Mexico, a war that’s been going on for years and has led to thousands of deaths, the militarization of the police, and corruption of public officials at an almost unimaginable scale. Take a guess at the link between kids killing each other in Chicago and gangs shooting it out and beheading each other in northern Mexico. I’ll give you one guess, and if your answer isn’t “The War on Some Drugs,” I invite you to research the unmitigated disaster that started 40 years ago and seems likely to go on for more decades. Be sure to delve into the “lost generations” of young people (young men, for the most part) that has been the result of our country having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Note in passing that 40 years of fighting this “war” has not resulted in any particular reduction in the use of the banned substances. Read about how researchers are prevented from even discussing the success or failure of this War.
The War on Drugs is valuable to this discussion for several reasons. It serves as an excellent example of how unlikely to be successful a ban on guns would be, even if such a ban could be instituted. It shows how the ‘cure’ can sometimes be worse than the ‘disease.’
Think about this… most firearms in the US spend most or all of their time in closets or locked in gun cabinets. They aren’t a threat to you. Most shootings are not like the dramatic event at the theater in Colorado, most of them are between drug dealers and other criminals. Do you think that I consider those deaths to be below my notice? No, not at all, but I do think that they aren’t the result of “guns in the hood,” but a direct or indirect result of the War on Drugs. Remember all those shoot-em-up movies about the Prohibition-era gangs? These guys fought over distribution routes for moving whiskey from Canada into the US. How many people do you think have died in the last decade over whiskey smuggling? One day after Prohibition was repealed, the economic underpinnings of the alcohol smuggling gangs evaporated. If you don’t realize that the killings in Mexico are related to the money to be made selling drugs to Americans, you must be living in an alternative reality.
If you want your favorite “gutless politician” to take action to cut down on the number of murders in the US, how about urging him or her to do something really radical… stop the War on Drugs that’s costing this country billions of dollars, leading to the incarceration of 1 out of every 30 persons in the country, undoubted corruption of officials in this and many other countries… but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Now let’s turn away from guns for a moment. I would suggest that if you’re really concerned about increasing safety and are not just someone who dislikes firearms, you might consider:
- Banning all cellphone use, texting, and any other form of distracted driving. If you think that losing a family member due to an accident caused by a distracted driver is somehow less terrible than losing them to a random drive-by shooting, I’d be glad to talk with you about the accident that put my dad in a coma for several months. An accident I have good reason to believe was caused by a driver who was looking at a PDA instead of the road she was driving on that morning.
- Fighting obesity and other causes of diabetes. I recently saw a statistic that 11% of our country’s medical costs go to diabetes and diabetes-related diseases. I have heard that nearly all forms of diabetes are preventable. How many lives can be saved there?
- Fighting tobacco use. Let’s make smoking as archaic as public spittoons. If you care a bit about the rest of the world, you will also fight the spread of smoking overseas… Companies are supporting the popularization of smoking in Third World countries, and it’s just shameful.
- Name your favorite preventable disease.
There are many ways to save lives and cut down on injuries that are relatively simple, direct, and—perhaps most important—achievable. If you really want to fight private gun ownership, more power to you, but I think you’re fooling yourself if you believe your efforts will result in a reduction of violence in this country.
Still reading? I suspect that most of my dozen and a half readers have given up by now and either gone off to do something more amusing with their free time or have started writing a scathing attack post about one or another aspect of this rant. However, if you’re still here, you might be wondering if I’m ever going to get around to the point I seemed to promise in the title of this post. Well, here we go.
Have you noticed that politicians talk about gun control when it’s election season, but once they’re elected don’t say or do much about it? I think that this is because they know it’s not a winnable fight. Not because “the gun lobby is too strong;” I think that they know there’s no real way to ‘control’ guns, and even if you could, it’s not a direct way to control violence... and violence is the real problem, not whatever tool is used (if you doubt this, consider that in countries where guns are not common, the press talks about “knife violence.”)
So why do politicians talk about guns during election cycles? Because the topic of guns is one that has taken on an almost magical power to distract. If you are a politician and want to distract people from things like the consolidation of wealth, the growing wealth gap, the erosion of personal freedoms, the rise of a militarized/paramilitary police force, universal monitoring of the public (in the name of safety, of course), an endless overseas war or two, the corruption of governments by global corporations, the rising costs of health care, threats to our environment etc. etc., where do you think they turn? All they need to do is start a discussion about some highly charged topic and people will happily forget that there might be real issues to manage.
Mind you, I doubt that many people in politics do this deliberately. They may not even realize at a conscious level that a War on Guns would be even less of a winner than the War on Drugs has been (though the cynic in me suggests that there are many winners in the W.o.D. …there’s a lot of money floating around out there)
My simple invitation to you is this: if you’ve ever found yourself fired up about ‘the attack on your second amendment rights’ or ‘demanding that our leaders do something about gun violence,’ the next time you feel your blood pressure rising, stop and think about whether this is something that’s really worth your time, or whether (perhaps, just perhaps) someone’s distracting you from issues you might actually be able to influence.
Thanks for reading…