Saturday, December 15, 2012

Editorial: What will it take to enact gun control?

In the context of the mass shooting events that come  around regularly every year, the Newtown event isn't objectively remarkable by itself, but something about the average age of the victims combined with the temporal proximity to a certain pseudo-religious holiday has got the attention of the unnamed Courier editor, who writes, "In this country, there has never been a serious or credible push to ever ban all guns. That is patently insane." The "ever" is obviously out of place and I'm not quite sure whether he means that never having pushed is insane or the idea of banning all guns is insane, so I can't offer any cookies for clarity, but it's clear in the body of the piece and the headline that he's had about enough of the killing and is encouraging readers to think in terms of stopping it. This is healthy.

Of course this brings out the anti-gun hardliners to joust with the firearm devotees, horsed on swaybacked old nags of argument and carrying blunted lances that never engage the opponent, because most everyone is talking past one another. An exception, from a commenter signing herself Kat Camacho:

"In July of 2011 I buried my child because it's okay for anyone to have a gun, get mad, go into a home a shoot and kill another human, MY SON. Until any one of you folks above have to bury your child because there is no control or justice, I urge you to shut the heck up! Guns don't belong in all of society because sick, evil, spineless creatures live and creep around in this society and Kill with these weapons. Shame on you people."
Hear, hear. She's exactly the sort of person to which I referred in my comment earlier, viz:
On the very same day as the Newtown mass murder, another madman attacked a school in the Henan Province village of Chengping, in China. He knifed 22 children between the ages of six and eleven. Local health-care workers say none was seriously hurt. If the madman had had a gun, of course, that story would have ended quite differently. 
My position on the American cult of the gun is well known, and I'm not the guy who's going to convince any gun lover that it's finally time to start talking seriously about the elephant in the room. It's not the editor either, though it's encouraging to see these words on this page after so many years of this paper going along with the gag*. No, the people who will matter in this debate are the parents in our community who heard the news yesterday and shuddered and cried to think that it really could be their kids, at any time. It's long past time for them to clear their heads and get serious about protecting their children and our society as a whole from this deadly and eminently preventable disease.
Since then I've seen more details come out. The presumed shooter,  Adam Lanza, was a 20-year-old with a disorder on the autism spectrum. The three guns, including an AR-15, belonged to his mother, a kindergarten teacher at the school, with whom Adam lived. She was the first to die. Others are missing who may be victims as well. You're probably ahead of me on this, since this is probably running nonstop from the cable news monsters.

Aside: What kind of society are we living in where a kindergarten teacher with a mentally disabled adult son feels the need to keep two handguns and an assault-style semiautomatic weapon?

Back to the editorial and the subject du jour, the editor's heart is in the right place, but like pretty much all the commenters he's trapped in the world of simple answers to complex problems. Leaping to the idea of "gun control" only raises the defenses of the fearful and locks up the brakes on progress. We have to recognize that to some extent, everyone in this argument has a piece of the truth and no one has all of it.

Gun lovers have it right when they say that the mentally deranged and the criminals (often the same thing) will always be among us,  and that there's no way we can hope to disappear guns from our society.

Gun despisers like me have it right that more guns lead to more violence, that far and away the likeliest person to be hurt by a given gun is its owner or a loved one, and the idea of citizens using their trusty pistolas to face down determined criminals or a tyrannical government is juvenile fantasy.

Even if we could legislate away the weapons, we can't legislate away the sense of entitlement to personal deadly violence that many people read into the Second Amendment. And we can't censor away the fascination with deadly violence in our media and culture without becoming something we all agree would be bad.

Like other forms of crime, gun violence on the whole has been diminishing with our aging population. Mass shootings/suicides have not, and stress-related emotional and domestic violence is as bad or worse than ever. This implies that what so many of us see as individual criminality or derangement is the extreme expression of a much broader-based pathology. Our society is sick.

You've likely heard that one before, but if we take it to heart it means that the practical solution to the problem of endemic gun violence is much more complex, involving the entire society in multi-front treatment that under the best of circumstances will take generations to show positive effect.

But it may not be all that difficult in day-to-day terms. Consider the example from Chengping. Another mentally diminished individual lashes out emotionally, chooses children as his victims and wields his weapon with impunity. The differences: his access to a firearm of any kind was much more restricted than it is here, and his society is much less tolerant of social violence. China is near the other end of the spectrum from us in both these factors, with the rest of the civilized world falling in between somewhere and producing far less gun violence as well. You need both parts, less access and less tolerance.

It's a canard to say that a given deranged person bent on violence who doesn't have a gun will either find a way to get one or kill as effectively with some other weapon. The crimes we're talking about here are emotional paroxysms, not calculated mayhem, and the aggressors use whatever they have at hand. Access to firearms makes death and maiming more likely in the encounter. That's why gun lovers love guns, after all — they're more effective.

We can't start to have a useful dialogue about this very real and deadly problem until we can move out of our accustomed entrenched positions. If you keep a gun because you feel the need to protect yourself, you should be amenable to the idea of reducing access to guns in sensible ways for the people you fear. If you want to see fewer guns in our society because it will reduce violence for all, you're smart enough to  recognize that we can't wish half a billion guns away.

The ultimate solution is bottom-up: we'll have less gun violence when we reduce our tolerance for violence, in daily life, in conversation, in media, in our children, in how we talk about solving problems. If we can make progress on our twisted, adolescent thinking and grow up a bit, then all that's left to do is clear away the mess.

The path to that kind of maturity is to keep the innocent victims in mind and see that it's only luck that you or I isn't in today's body bag. Tomorrow brings another roll of the dice. Wouldn't you like to increase your odds?

*: As recently as nine days ago, btw.

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