GUN CONTROL: RELIGIOUS, SECULAR & LEGAL ASPECTS
An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
On December 14, 2012 a deranged youth used a gun to ruthlessly slaughter twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After perpetrating his heinous crime, the criminal shot himself too. Our condolences to the families.
Every time there is a tragedy of this kind in which innocent people are killed in a random-shooting spree in a school, at a theater, in a park at a public meeting, or in a family feud, the question of gun-control becomes center stage in the media, in national debates, in list serves, and in private conversations. The arguments and counter-arguments are often the same: individual freedom to protect oneself, danger from irresponsible misusers of that freedom, need to have more stringent rules, of what good the rules if there are clever criminals who can break them, the obscene irrelevance of assault weapons in the hands of civilians, the lucrative nature of gun business, guns don’t kill, but humans do, etc. As with proofs for the existence of God, all arguments are persuasive in their own ways, especially to those who already have taken a position on the issue.
We live at a time when in principle democracy is rule of, by, and for the people, but in practice many laws of the land are shaped by vested interests with substantial purchasing power. One thing we do seem to still have is liberty to vent our views in various forums. That is what we are doing here. A number of IRASians are sharing below their perspectives on Gun Control.
Comments on their views may be posted in the IRASNET or IRASRN listserves.
One IRAS Lawyer's Thoughts on Gun Control in the US
Other members of IRAS will have the same or similar moral and practical thoughts that I do on gun control, so I'll comment from the viewpoint of a lawyer, with the notation that I was raised in a hunting family and culture in the Deep South.
Largely my thoughts have centered around the 2nd Amendment, but without going into the wonkish details I'll point out three things:
1. The argument that defeats ALL arguments to control guns is that the 2nd amendment is there so that citizens can defend themselves against their own government. Never mind that the 2nd Amendment itself seems to talk about owning weapons in the context of being a member of a state militia, because the current Supreme Court has extended the amendment to say that individuals outside such a context have the constitutional right to own weapons.
2. Once the argument is accepted that the purpose of the amendment is to let me protect myself not only from criminals but also from my own government, then of course there is no reason I cannot have an AK-47 or for that matter a tank.
3. This is not the only way, or even the most logical way, to interpret the 2nd amendment. It could clearly be interpreted to allow the legislature to prohibit ANY gun except in the context of a state militia or other state regulation. But to interpret it in such a way (or other reasonable ways) would require a different court than we have. And in order to achieve the logical and moral goals I hold (and I trust most IRAS members hold), the only way forward is to hope President Obama gets the opportunity to replace one or more of the current conservative justices with persons who hold saner views.
I've often pointed out Steve Winters's view of how Supreme Courts work -- they mumble forward THINKING they are legal scholars, but in fact they are articulators of the public morality, and will eventually get it right IF the public morality develops in the right direction. I believe public morality IS developing in the right direction, and so it is only a matter of time before our Supreme Court gets in sync with our culture on this matter.
guns and self-images
When I was a teenager a licensed driver had the right, in this country, to drink a full bottle of Jack Daniels and then get into his car and drive away. There were laws against “reckless driving.” But there was no law making it illegal to drive with more than a certain amount of alcohol in one’s system.
In this country one has the right to engage in any type of behavior that is not legally prohibited. Of course, a given type of behavior is always subject to more than one accurate description. The behavior may not be illegal when regarded in one way, while it is illegal when it is correctly described in a different manner. But if the behavior is not illegal no matter what description can correctly be applied to it, then one has a right to do it.
This was also the case when the second amendment of the constitution was created. It did not give the citizens the right to possess firearms. They already had that right. The amendment applied to lawmakers. The lawmakers were prohibited from passing any law making it illegal to possess firearms. And the second amendment explicitly stated a reason for its own importance. It gave a reason that was valid at that time. Today that reason should be laughable if stated as a reason for possessing guns
It has become common to characterize the right to have a firearm as a constitutional right. We could even characterize it as a "God-given" right, since it comes under "liberty" as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have been called God-given rights. A person used to have a God-given/constitutional right to drive a car while intoxicated. But we have since come to understand that allowing that type of behavior puts many people at risk of being seriously injured or killed. So we legally took that constitutional, god-given right away.
When I began writing about guns, as a result of the Newtown shootings, I intended to focus on why we should dismiss the second amendment of the constitution. And I also intended to present the abundance of clear evidence that guns in the household, rather than making the household safer, actually make it more dangerous. However, before I finished my points about those issues, they had already been covered quite well by numerous other articles motivated by the same event. So I decided to pay attention to a more fundamental cause of our fascination with guns and the effects of that fascination.
A major factor in human evolution has been warring competition between social groups of our primate ancestors. Groups of chimpanzees routinely wage a bit of war against a neighboring group in order to take over some of the territory occupied by the neighbors. Human history is primarily accounts of what major war was being waged at a particular time, as well as accounts of the results of the war. These two well known facts provide what I consider to be adequate grounds to suppose this was also the case throughout the millions of years that our primate ancestors were evolving from Chimps into humans. Superior social organization played a major role in determining who survived or won a conflict or war. So the better organized social system was the one passed along to the next generation. As the social systems became increasingly more organized the animals inhabiting them also genetically evolved to become more adept at dealing with the rules making the social systems better organized. In this way they were continuously acquiring more of the characteristics that we now regard as human characteristics.
Many different social animals compete violently against other groups of the same, as well as different, social animals. However there are major differences among different types of social animals. One of these differences is that humans have (relatively recently) developed a high degree of self consciousness. With the human self consciousness comes a self-image. The humans began comparing themselves to other members of their group as they developed more sophisticated self awareness and began judging their self images. Among the most desirable characteristics were those of superior warriors. The characteristics were not only desired by males, they also became characteristics favored by females seeking mates. That not only made them even more desirable among the males, it also contributed to the further genetic development of warrior characteristics.
Most, if not all, human societies have probably had a favorable image of the characteristics of superior warriors during some times in their histories. Even during times of peace the warrior characteristics are further developed by means of games requiring superior athletic prowess. And, of course, the warrior characteristics were also very useful for survival in dangerous living conditions.
As warrior characteristics were favored, it is also the case that people, particularly males, have had favorable attitudes toward weapons used by warriors. It is not uncommon for male individuals to become fascinated by explosives, daggers and, of course, guns. All societies have been influenced by wars. But with some societies the major influence is further in the past than it is in America. Part of this is due to common ideas Americans have about our recent past. The well armed cowboy is a favorite figure in our idea of our recent past. The early settlers had to fight off the Indians and the Mexicans as we claimed their land. As our country expanded, people spread out into areas where there was little organizational law and order. Individuals became responsible for their own well being. Guns, as well as superior abilities to make use of them, became important for self protection.
Self images are extremely important among humans. Warrior characteristics are still highly regarded, particularly among young males. Consequently guns are a major feature of the image many young males would like to have of themselves. The warrior with guns image has also become romanticized by the large amount of books in which many of the male actors are characterized as good people with many of the features of the warrior with weapons. Individual authors, such as Louis L'Amour, have written scores of such books. And of course the image is also romanticized in movies and on television. Not only is the warrior glorified, movies and television feature enormous amounts of extremely explicit violence. This violence, usually explicitly intended to kill people, has also become very popular among youngsters who enjoy playing video games and other types of cyber games.
I am not saying that violent games, nor violent books and movies, cause the people who play them to become violent. But I am saying that they are part of the ways in which our society glorifies the warrior with weapons image, thus making it seem more appealing to males, including youngsters and people with mental problems.
War has played an extremely important role in the evolutionary development of humans. The ancient wars of many thousands of years ago played major roles in the development of increasingly complex social systems, and thus, human evolution. More modern wars have been responsible for numerous technological inventions, from medicine to atomic power. However, in large part because of some of these war-inspired inventions, wars can no longer continue to perform the type of tasks they did in the past. We are now in a situation in which a total war could have no victors, nor even any survivors. It is time to replace the warrior image with other characteristics of both males and females that are more fitting to the evolutionary stage into which we are developing.
One of the ways we will go about accomplishing that is by getting guns out of the hands of so many of our citizens. There has been adequate research to demonstrate that the fetish this society has had with guns has played a major role in the fact that this society has one of the highest proportion of murders, and the highest prison population of any society in the world. One way to begin moving away from our preoccupation with violence is to do away with the second amendment to our constitution, in spite of the fact that it does not grant us the right to possess firearms, and to encourage more responsible characteristics that our young people can pursue for their positive self image. That would, in my opinion, require abandoning our glorification of the warrior, as well as taking major steps to do away with the guns with which our society is infested. This cannot be accomplished in the immediate future. But the sooner we begin working on it the sooner it can come to be.
If advocating more gun control to help prevent future incidents of killing school children is a matter of closing the barn door after the horses have left then any attempt to make societal changes in order to prevent recurring future societal problems must be closing the door too late. And that is clearly absurd! The mere fact that this society is now overloaded with guns does not mean we can do nothing to attempt to prevent more guns from falling into the wrong hands. It means that the attempts we make are not likely to be immediately effective. But they can be effective in the long run.
NRA arguments are not based upon evidence. They are based upon outmoded ideas about how things "should" work as are most conservative ideas. We have ample evidence from responsible studies demonstrating that possession of a firearm is far more likely to result in harm to a member of the possessing household than it is to result in protection of the household.
The peace that passeth all understanding
When he was born, his mama said,
“The moon turned black, and the clock stopped dead.
Lord, have mercy,” she said, “what have I done?
Is my flesh and blood the Devil’s son?
The Stone Coyotes’ song “Powder Keg,” (By Barbara Keith)
In director Lynne Ramsay’s (2011) We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film about a mother’s grief and shame after her son’s act of mass violence , her son gives us the motivation for what he will eventually perpetrate in the locked-down gym of a high-school pep rally: “It’s like this: You wake up, and you watch T.V. You get in your car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job, or your little school. You’re not going to hear about that on the six o’clock news. Why? Because nothing is really happening. You go home and you watch TV. And maybe, on Friday, the fun night, you go out and watch a movie. It’s gotten so bad that the people on TV, inside the TV, they’re watching TV. What are all the people watching? People like me. What are all you doing right now, but watching me. You don’t think they would’ve changed the channel by now if all I do is get an A in geometry?” Yes, Lynne Ramsay is also the director of this year’s Zero Dark Thirty, and yes, she does have the pulse on a nasty vein of America’s bloodiness. But no, Kevin is not about firearms; this cold killer is a precision archer.
In the wake of the tragedy at Newtown, I for one am glad that we are engaged in a national conversation about violence made too easy and too deadly with firearms. I have no doubt but that there should be some rational course, which does not infringe on our second amendment right to keep and bear arms, but nevertheless makes less likely the kind of tragic slaughter of innocents we saw happen at Sandy Hook Elementary School . Nevertheless, I do not think that either draconian restrictions on firearms or a radical recasting of our mental health awareness are realistic or probable, and given the greater likelihood of inflaming both the fears of some people terrified by the danger to the innocent and the fears of other people of oppressive restrictions to their liberties, my own fear is that we will engage in the neurotic “security operations” that give us an illusion of security, but change little.
In this light, in our culture of cantankerous opposition for its own sake (often seriously exacerbated by the “information bubbles” in which our communicational technologies allow us to reside …witness the befuddled response of Fox News to Obama’s election), it is troubling that there really is evidence for a link between anxiety proneness and political beliefs. Oxley et al (2008, in Science 321:1667-1670) identified two groups of people with opposite political views. One group favored the death penalty, efforts to block immigration, and availability of firearms. A second group showed weak support for the military and otherwise the opposite views to the first. Oxley and colleagues measured startle responses to loud noise. The first group showed greater startle and slower habituation. Do people responding more strongly to fear stimuli see the world as a more dangerous place? (The data are, of course, correlational, not causal, so it could be the other way around.) People conditioned in environments that are more dangerous, or that include more fear and threat, tend to also have political views supporting a strong military, strong law-enforcement, and the ownership of firearms. In general, appraisal of hostile intent magnifies anger, and discomfort tends to magnify aggressive behavior. Even worse, terror management theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pycszcynski, 1991) accurately predicts that when people are subjected to a “mortality salience manipulation” (anything that reminds them of death, from being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor, to watching war footage) they tend to be even more defensive and less likely to think critically, especially about deeply held beliefs, and this to the point of violently defending them. 9/11 was, in some ways, a massive mortality salience manipulation. So is news about mass killings, particularly in places we normally expect to be safe. And as John Gottman’s (1993) research on marital couples in distress shows, once our level of arousal gets too high (say, a pulse rate of ten beats per minute above baseline), we are substantially less likely to come up with creative solutions to problems, and will continue to repeat the same arguments.
Let’s at least dispatch a few of the myths. James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University exposed these in his December 18 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. 1). Mass shootings are not on the rise, but have averaged about 20 a year for the last three decades; what has changed is the style and pervasiveness of news-media coverage. 2). Mass murderers do not snap and kill indiscriminately, but tend to plan their assaults for days or weeks, and are both deliberate, methodical, and determined. 3.) Enhanced background checks would do little to stop them, as most do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that most criminals do not buy guns at gun shows, 79% of prison inmates who used firearms obtained them illegally or from friends or relatives. 4). Most mass shootings are done with firearms that would not be restricted by “assault weapons” bans, and even weapons that look like assault weapons are not automatic, despite their cosmetic appeal. Still, yes, a restriction on clip size might force reloading. 5). There are not really “telltale warning signs” that allow identification ahead of time. Features common to mass killers, like depression, resentment, social isolation, externalization of blame, fascination with violence, and interest in weaponry are, unfortunately, fairly prevalent. 6). Widening the availability of mental health services and reducing the stigma of mental illness would likely do little. Mass shooters tend to externalize blame, see themselves as victims, and would tend to resist encouragement to seek help. Calling them “wackos,” or “sickos” doesn’t exactly help. 7). Increased security tends only to serve as an inconvenience for the determined, excessive security serves as a constant reminder of danger and vulnerability, particularly troublesome in environments where trust and nurturance are important parts of institutional process. 9). Expanding “right to carry” laws are likely to produce a lot of collateral damage, as citizens without stress-training are likely to be surprised and frantic, making more errors than those of prepared killers.
James Fox points out that while sensible laws about the arms we bear (upon which polarized positions would have to agree), affordable mental-health care (an oddity to the poor and disenfranchised in any case), and reasonable security measures might enhance the well-being of millions, it won’t take much of a bite out of mass-murder. Please, don’t talk to me about low homicide rates in countries with stricter restrictions on firearms; what of the low homicide rates in countries where every able-bodied male of military age owns an automatic military-style assault rifle, like Switzerland? Switzerland, Israel, and Norway all have high rates of ownership but low rates of homicide; Holland, Sweden, Denmark, and Russia have the opposite problem. So it is more complicated. Yes, the ready availability of guns can make homicidal violence more likely. But gun ownership by law abiding citizens is, remember, constitutionally protected, and not only is hunting a part of our culture, but target shooting is both respectable and, it turns out, the only sport next to bowling in which girls and boys compete on equal footing.
Even further, there are dangers from which we have every right to protect ourselves and those we love. I think it was during the 1990’s that the statistical likelihood of being the victim of violent crime exceeded the likelihood of being in an automobile accident. Call for a pizza, call the police, and see who gets there first. I’m sorry, I became a gun owner not long after I witnessed two urban teenagers rob a pizza delivery man, with a small revolver, from a distance of less than ten yards away, while holding my infant son in my arms. We soon moved to the suburbs, but it was a few years before a student convinced me that my owning guns in an otherwise safe neighborhood put a common good at risk. So I sold them. Last summer, I bought a five-shot polymer frame revolver for my girlfriend, then living in the neighborhood of a college campus where a colleague had been mugged on a weekday summer afternoon. Of course, the first pistol I purchased looked just like one used by Jean Claude Van Damme, the “Muscles from Brussels,” not the first bodybuilder turned “action hero.”
So what should we be talking about? How about the glorification of violence in our culture, especially that involving firearms? The American obsession with firearms has a long history, from the flintlocks of our colonial forebears, through cowboy six-shooters, to the automatic and semi-automatic weapons of modern warfare. It’s not just about weapons technology, of course, but violence as entertainment. We live in a culture that values and seeks excitement and arousal, like amusement park rides, and the depiction of violence on television and in films is one of the most straightforward ways to produce it. I got a lesson in realism from a college chum from the steel producing Region of northern Indiana, when he told me he could no longer watch fisticuffs on television because the only time he’d heard a real life sound like the sound effect of a punch to the head was when someone’s head was being stoved in. We’ve been watching the choreography of violence made slow-motion beautiful since Peckinpah’s Bonne and Clyde, and even as recently as the newest Sherlock Holmes. The good guys kill the bad guys, often with efficient dispatch. The newest James Bond is nothing short of brutal. I won’t even talk about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I find it deeply troubling that showing the humorous, Broadway style “penis song” from The Sweetest Thing can still occasionally offend a college student nonplused by watching the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, death in the air on Omaha Beach, young men with missing limbs screaming for their mothers as they die.
Computerized video games are also increasingly violent and increasingly engaging. I frankly got bored one night watching two college students play Black Ops, as it seemed to simply involve addictive shooting after shooting after shooting, from the first person perspective. Lieutenant Colonel Grossman’s On Killing points out that it is only realistic stress-training, and sprayed fire that increased the number of combatants who kill in modern warfare; a sizeable proportion of the muskets found on the Gettysburg battlefield were unfired, loaded with one minie-ball on top of another. First-person shooter combat video games are training a generation of male youth the deadly skills of using assault weapons to kill. Worse is our training of soldiers, with little self-identity other than basement warriors, to kill in Iraq or Afghanistan, and then dumping them back on our streets with a few days of debriefing (cf. David Philipps’ Lethal Warriors). We are going to be paying this terrible debt for a generation.
I’ve written in Zygon about toxic levels of individuality, social fragmentation, loss of social capital, living alone, and increases in anxiety in our society. David Baron-Cohen warns us, in The Science of Evil, that it is the failure to empathize with the pain of victims that leads to genuine pathology. You want to abstract out all empathy cues? Eliminate the facial engagement of shared emotion, and communicate entirely by email, text, or twitter and then wonder why you feel lonely and alienated. Not only is it not uncommon for recent mass shooters to have been videogame aficionados, but it is the isolation and separation of an electronic world of which they are the most prominent victims; that this is occasionally acted out is collateral damage. I’m reminded of an alumna who was a career counselor at an engineering school who reported about students who couldn’t bear the vulnerability and exposure of a face-to-face job interview. Interesting that contemporary neuroscience shows the emotional pain of social rejection being mediated by the same neurophysiology as physical pain.
How do we heal? We first need to accept our fears, and our grief, and acknowledge them. Then we can start thinking more seriously about programs like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissionin South Africa, or the much simpler and plainer reconciliations and forgiveness of an Amish community, as they reached out to the family of the killer of their children at Nickel Mines, as documented by my colleague Don Kraybill et al in Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (2007). Remember the heroes who stood in harm’s way, and gave their lives for those they loved, the heroic teachers and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Think of the tragedy of the smile that lights up your world, lost forever, which is no less tragic for the mothers, the families, of the lost souls who were drawn to such acts of violence. Have compassion. Talk to each other. Turn off the TV, or the computer, or the XBox, and try playing some games which require you to have face-to-face interaction with other human beings. Have fun. Laugh. Pay attention to what you do in the video games you play, and from what your catharsis and identification come when you watch a movie. Are those the skills you want to be learning, or the feelings you want to nurture? You need have no instrumental purpose whatsoever simply to treat people as something other than parts of the machinery, or as virtual avatars, but as ends in themselves. Go out, see people, join with others; they may make you feel more vulnerable and exposed, but love always involves risking part of yourself. Danger and delight grow on the same stalk.
"One who makes a habit of prayer and meditation will easily overcome all difficulties and remain calm and unruffled in the midst of the trials of life." (Holy Mother Sarada Devi)
Guns, yes, common sense, yes
I am a card carrying Libertarian. When asked for how long I usually say I was born that way. I of course get very concerned when personal freedom is threatened. Efforts to restrict ownership of guns therefore get my attention even though I am not a gun person. But I have 5; my Dad gave me his 22 before he died and I inherited 4 from my brother.
Also as a Libertarian, I believe in strict adherence to our Constitution and its amendments. The second one reads “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”. The fourth amendment starts by saying “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, effects……” This can be extended to include more than unreasonable searches. Illegal intrusions are not good for one’s security.
A local Militia at that time was needed and thus guns. Guns were a household necessity as they put meat on the table. Lincoln realized that in 1865. Neither are necessary now – but until abolished or amended, the second amendment is still the law of the land. A ‘well regulated Militia’ implies to me that the guns can be regulated too, but not denied or taken away. Certainly bazookas are not needed to put meat on the table. So rules on gun ownership to me are reasonable and within the Constitution.
The folly of the 18th Amendment for prohibition was a disaster. So are the present laws on drugs. Both have resulted in the nurturing of crime and death. This is because a significant portion of the public was and is not cooperating. Were gun possession denied to the people, we would have another unenforceable law and its consequences. None of the measures currently being proposed to reduce deaths due to guns will do much to do that. They are much to do about nothing (politics).
A few years ago I awoke and heard activity in my house. I scared off a burglar; fortunately my baseball bat was persuasive. Afterwards I asked what if he had a big knife or gun? I felt somewhat similar to a raped woman. I and my house had been violated with the threat of significant injury. Not a nice feeling and it remains with we to this day. I now have my brother’s hand gun and as Joe Biden recently suggested, a shotgun.
My cousin, a police officer, once told me if we could keep second time offenders off of the streets, we could reduce crime by 80%. So I now think anyone who uses a gun in a crime of any sort, should be permanently removed from society. Most here may find that rather harsh but it would be a big deterrent, effective and there would be no repeaters. This would still not prevent crimes of passion, but what law can do about that?
New regulations that prevent a few deaths are hard to reason against. But are the bad guys going to comply? And what is the cost of more erosion of personal freedom? I’m not into punishing the 999 because of the 1.
Evil Visited the community
To the Rev. Msgr. Hilary Franco of St. Augustine's Catholic Church.
And with all due respect for your honest compassion: The American Rifle Association visited the community. The radical American right wing visited the community. A corrupted American culture visited the community. Every person in American who stone walled gun control visited the community. Every person who turned his or her back on funding help for the psychologically disturbed and disabled—including institutionalization visited the community.
Our nation is in decay. Until we are able to unite and look for the blame not from outside of ourselves; but from inside, the decay—evil you call it—will continue.
Monsignor; evil does not run around visiting people and destroying communities. People destroy communities.
Your concept of evil has been a doctrinal weakness in Christianity for 1400 years, ever since the formation of your Roman Catholic Church, ever since Nicaea.
Don’t believe me? Remember the Inquisition? Or listen to the twisted American response to that “Evil Empire” Iraq shortly after the Bush invasion as thousands of Iraqis were dying.
“Fans at sporting events around the U.S. greeted the war and its early ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign with the chants of ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’” BOB HERBERT “Death of a Marine” N.Y. Times March 19, 2007
No Monsignor; Evil did not “visit” your community.
The American Rifle Association did. The radical American right wing did. A corrupted American culture did. Every person in American who stone walled gun control did. Every person who turned his or her back on funding help for the psychologically disturbed and disabled—including institutionalization did. A word from Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Thomas is in order. (remains declared “heretical” by the Roman Catholic Church)
The Gospel of Thomas, Nag Hammadi, Egypt, 1945:
(7) Jesus said; blessed is the lion which when consumed by man becomes man, and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes….
Down in the Southland
Out among the twisted pines
You oughta see my baby
Shootin' up the freeway signs
"Ain't No Way Baby" - Bob "Frizz" Fuller
I grew up with guns of all sorts with which I was trusted at an early age, on a farm where we were heedless of the direction of our discharge, save with large bore rifles.
I won a riflery contest at summer camp. At thirteen, with my mother's father in Comanche County, Texas, I hit a dove on the wing with a Mossberg single-shot .22, after having bagged three squirrels in the creek bottoms, all head shots. Grandpa Mac bragged on me. We ate the squirrels with dumplings.
At sixteen, I had an old Swiss high-powered rifle and roamed the countryside with it unsupervised, shooting through this and that debris with armor-piercing ammo to see what would happen. I hunted regularly. With bow and arrow as well. In later life I became something of a marksman with a sidearm. I could put ten consecutive BBs into the butt of a beer can at sixty feet at a side rest with a Benjamin pneumatic pistol.
My interest in shooting waned in my late twenties. The last of my pistols I sold ten years later in the early '90s. The beautiful '64 Browning Light Twenty shotgun I inherited from my grandfather, with which he had bagged an eight-point whitetail buck and which I carried so often in the field, I gave to my son, now a libertarian pacifist veteran. I can say with some satisfaction that I never had an accidental discharge. I shot up some public property early on, but never a citizen or a farm animal.
I'm never fearful of a gun in my control, but somehow I am always fearful of another person with a gun, unless it is my son or someone else I trust completely in that respect. And even though I trust them, I still watch them when they are handling a firearm.
Gun nuts, and by that I mean those to whom an obsession with guns is intertwined with a sense of self, are hard to suffer. One of the times I've come closest to getting into a fight was in the early '90s when I was sitting at a bar in south Arkansas, a few stools down from a young feller who was bragging about how effective his full-auto assault rifle was in the deer woods. "I just pull the trigger and I shoot off sixteen rounds! I can't miss!" he exclaimed. I, slightly tight and feeling deep revulsion, leaned over and shouted "why don't you just pull the trigger with your dick!". Everyone was horrified, of course, but the man didn't respond. The fact that I had even said it was enough for me, and I paid my tab and marched out.
A few years ago I was attending monthly meetings of the Atheist Club here in Lexington, Kentucky. I had hopes in attending to get involved in interesting philosophical discussions and make friends. After a time I realized that the bulk of the discussion centered on what the Fundamentalist demagogues in Frankfort were up to. It's good to keep an eye on that bunch of course, but it isn't a very stimulating exercise.
One evening a young man with a pistol on his hip came to a meeting in the coffee shop where we met. He was friendly, and announced that he was doing PR for the open-carry law in Kentucky. You can carry too! No one complained. I don't know about the others in the room, but I was full of unease during the meeting. Had the gun been on my hip and not his, however, I wouldn't have been uneasy.
A common comment by the NRA crowd is that gun-free zones are potential killing fields, and that armed citizens are a deterrent to crime. As far as I know there is no statistical analysis of this assertion. Had the principal at Newtown been armed and trained, she might have been able to stop the killer before he killed her and went on about his work. Her heroism might have had a different outcome. But then the school wouldn't have been a gun free zone, and that would have influenced the perp's choice of targets. I've run through this scenario over and over in my mind. Is this a situation in which guns could protect children without ever having been used?
If you ask me if I feel safer in a crowded public place in the assumption that any number of others present are packing heat, the answer would be you've got to be kidding. The worst thing a pistol packer who is confronted with a public assault by a lunatic can do is fire at random, in panic, and that's probably what would happen. It is always a possibility, as there is no screening for this propensity. For that matter, imagine the scene near the lobby of the Empire State Building when the police opened fire on a suspected armed assassin and wounded nine bystanders. Perhaps it would have been better if armed civilians had sprung into action and taken out those cops, who had become assassins. Would that be NRA policy? Gunfire to silence gunfire to silence gunfire, ad infinitum. No, the only way I'd feel more at ease in case of a public rampage is if I had the only other gun. And, since I don't pack, that will never be the case.
The gun control debate is political theater on both sides. There is a risk of further alienating and enlarging the very real sub-culture of armed, radical individualists in the US, to whom Obama is Stalin/Satan incarnate. And these people are not bad people. They are full of fear and rely heavily on their arsenals. There is a risk of expanding the black market in weapons. Of vigilantism. Of greater societal upheaval and polarization.
While I sympathize with the anti-coercion ideals of Libertarianism and Anarchism to a large degree, I do feel that the concept of personal liberty has been fetishized at the expense of reasoned debate and the common good, and emptied of meaning or relevance. Freedom has become a reactionary talking point. Don't misunderstand me. I believe that personal liberty is a fundamental principle. But I believe that ceding an appropriate measure of personal liberty to the good of the community is mandatory to honor. And in the absence of a perfect community, this gesture of selflessness will always be required.
It has been said that new gun legislation must be given time to become effective. I suggest that soon, gun legislation and registration will be more moot than it is already, as technology rapidly advances. Things no one ever dreamed of are happening. 3-D printing, for example. The latest tech I've seen is a mostly plastic AR15 receiver that can fire up to 600 rounds.
At bottom I feel that gun violence in the US is a symptom of a culture in which we have been convinced that violence gets results and that many of our public and private goals can be achieved by its judicious application. In fact, this is the guiding principle of our government, the Constitutional source of "legitimate force". Apparently Obama will proceed now to arm the so-called Syrian Freedom Fighters in order to advance our geopolitical goals. The arms race continues unabated and ever escalated.
I'm impressed neither with the hash that is the 2nd Amendment, nor the slogans of either camp in this propaganda war. Laissez-faire or Legislation. I fear we will see no substantive policy innovation, no serious dialogue. But that's how we do it here.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science