Monday, December 17, 2012

On Guns and More

I know we have all been deluged with reports, interviews, and other messages regarding the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that claimed the lives of 20 young children and 6 adults. I admit to being deeply affected by this tragedy, as a father, and as a teacher, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not being dismayed by this event.

Earlier this year, I put up a blog post entitled, What to Blame for the Colorado Shooting?, and some of my thoughts on these type of events can be found there. But I think for many of us, this latest round is the last straw when it comes to gun violence. I sure hope it is. So I want to take a little time to share some thoughts that go well beyond that previous post. If I had more time, I'd provide a more comprehensive, if not exhaustive argument, but for now, this will have to do. And I hope you'll forgive me for getting up on my soapbox and getting all political and preachy. I just need to get this off my chest.

There is no one cause for these mass shootings, so anyone arguing that it's not guns, it's mental illness is just plain wrong. It's both, of course, except when the shooter is not mentally ill, say for example when a child is an innocent victim of a drive-by shooting, in which case it's guns and crime that's the cause.  But there is a common denominator between the two main reasons why children are gunned down, and that's guns.

So I'll start with guns, and have the most to say about guns, but then I'll also move to other factors that also play a role, like mental illness, and crime, and licit and illicit drugs, and media content as well.

But it all begins with guns, or firearms, which we can consider as a medium or technology, as McLuhan does in Understanding Media, briefly in the first chapter entitled "The Medium is the Message," and later in a chapter devoted to weapons.  As a medium, what is the message of firearms? Clearly it's violence, destruction, injury, death, or at least the threat of same. As Mark Twain put it, when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail, and when you have a gun in your hand, everything becomes a target.

Yes, there are other kinds of weapons, like the bow and arrow, the knife, the sword, etc. But the innovation of firearms, as a technology, made it possible to injure and kill more efficiently, faster, with greater force, with greater damage, in greater numbers, from greater distances, with less personal contact, with less sense of responsibility, with less connection to the consequences, and with less effort, hence the gun's appellation, the great equalizer

Take away guns, and you won't eliminate acts of violence, but you'll make them more difficult to carry out. It will take longer, which allows for more time to rethink what you're doing and change your mind. It will make the damage done less severe, and give victims a better chance to defend themselves. People will still die from knife wounds, but there is a world of difference between running away from someone with a knife, and someone with a gun. There is a world of difference between defending yourself against someone coming at you with a knife, and someone firing a gun at you. And the damage done by a knife is often less severe than damage done by bullets.

Guns make it easy to kill, easy to do harm to another human being. If it is unethical, immoral, and evil to harm another human being, a point on which more religious and ethical systems agree, then in what sense are firearms ethical, moral, and good, or even neutral?

Let's put hunting aside. This isn't about hunting. Let's assume that's not a problem, holding aside the accidental shootings that occur among hunters, and the fact that hunting rifles and shotguns can be used to harm human beings. Let's say that hunting is acceptable, and allow for the limited class of firearms that have traditionally been associated with the hunting of game, as long as ownership and use involves careful registration and licensing.

So, what other reason is there for gun ownership? Target practice? A sport? Or a hobby? Collecting? Sorry, that is a poor reason for putting others at risk.

So what then? Self-defense? Certainly a legitimate concern, but how about using non-lethal weapons, like tasers, stun guns, and pepper spray? Granted, tasers can be lethal too, especially for anyone with a weak heart, but they certainly are less likely to kill than a bullet through the heart or brain, and cannot be used the way automatic and semiautomatic weapons can, to spray bullets rapidly to mow down a group of people. If more police were equipped with tasers, we'd avoid incidents like the recent police shooting in Leonia, New Jersey. Not to mention the well reported Trayvon Martin shooting by a neighborhood watch coordinator.

Again, there are no absolutes, no guarantees, any object can be used to cause harm or even kill. Framing the problem as either-or/all-or-nothing is wrong (that's what's called two-valued orientation in general semantics). It is painfully apparent that right now there is too much violence, and even if we can't eliminate it, if we can reduce it then that is what we ought to do.

Some point to the fact that in cities, counties, and states where gun control laws have been enacted, shootings still occur, and might even be more frequent than elsewhere (no surprise when we're talking about poverty-stricken urban areas). In some cases, it's because the guns used were legally obtained, as was the case in Newtown, which suggests that regulation and restrictions have not been strong enough. If one person can obtain guns legally, and then they can be used by another person illegally, how do you prevent gun violence? Not by making it easier to obtain guns legally. And if the guns were obtained illegally, then that suggests a need for stronger enforcement. 

Part of the problem with local gun control is that you can just travel across city, county, or state lines and obtain the firearms you want. There are no customs searches or x-ray screenings across these borders, the way there would be if you were crossing national borders. If anything, this argues for the need for homogenous regulation and restriction nationwide. Anything less and the efforts at gun control cannot be more than partially effective.

And if the problem is that the shooters in Newtown and elsewhere are mentally ill, how do you keep guns out of the hands of such individuals? How else than by restricting access in general. How do you keep guns out of the hands of children? Hiding or locking them up may work, assuming the child doesn't know where the hiding place is, doesn't know where the key is, or can't figure out the combination, so the safest bet is to not have any around in the first place.  How do you keep guns out of the hands of criminals? If they can't be obtained legally, even by proxies with perfectly clean records, then at least we're making it harder for criminals to obtain them, and easier to spot when they have them.

Even if we eliminate gun sales today, there already are so very many guns in circulation, and that will remain in circulation for a long time to come. There is no quick fix, and any short term assessment that indicates that gun bans aren't working ought not to be taken seriously, just as early studies that showed that anti-smoking advertising on TV actually increased smoking did not take the big picture into account. This will take cultural change, and especially generational change, just like smoking did. It won't be easy to kick the habit, but it can be done.

At this point, some reference to the second amendment may seem overdue.  Well, okay, consider this. The Bill of Rights is not the Ten Commandments.  It is an historical document that made sense in the late 18th century. It's something to be proud of. But it's not scripture. Consider the fact that the third amendment is largely irrelevant today, and would hardly merit mention in any contemporary document enumerating individual rights:  "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." It's quaint, and that's all.

Now, let's look at what the second amendment says: "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." Now admittedly, this is by the same somewhat grammar-challenged authors who gave us unalienable rights instead of ones that are inalienable. But the tortured syntax here, and the deliberately ambiguous phrasing suggests a conflicted mindset behind this amendment, and a compromise that made sense only in that earlier era. As many have pointed out, we no longer deal in militias, we have a standing army. But the bottom line is that, unlike the first amendment which states firmly and clearly, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," the second amendment is decidedly unclear and confusing. It should be stricken on account of that, if for no other reason.

And yes, I said stricken. It's not written in stone, not handed down from on high. The Constitution itself was designed to be amended as future generations see fit. The amendments themselves can and have been amended, and that includes being repealed. So why not repeal the second amendment? What if the Bill of Rights had included an amendment detailing the right to own slaves? That's certainly not outside of the realm of possibility, and we'd surely have a different attitude about the first ten amendments to the constitution if that were the case. There is no rationale for continuing to include the second amendment as a fundamental human right. Repealing the second amendment wouldn't automatically result in the banning of all firearms, but it would help to remove the irrational opposition to gun control.

What is the point of the second amendment anyway? I mean, the real, underlying rationale? I'd say that the fundamental human right involved is the right to defend yourself if you are threatened or attacked, and to defend others as well. So let's dump the crazy language of the Second Amendment, and add a new one that says something to that effect.

You have a right to defend yourself, yes. But that does not excuse putting other people at risk, let alone causing harm to others. There are reasonable ways to approach self-defense that doesn't require resorting to firearms. And if your concern is defending yourself against the government, or a foreign invading force for that matter, well, forget about it. Governments have missiles, bombs, tanks, etc. The days of the Minutemen rallying to the defense of fellow citizens are over.

And if you're saying that repealing the second amendment is unreasonable, that what we need is reasonable gun control, well, let me point out that the National Rifle Association is unreasonable in its opposition to any limits being imposed on firearms. In that, they are serving the interests of the gun industry, of manufacturers and sellers of firearms, and not of citizens. But the problem is, what happens when you take a reasonable approach and the other side insists of being unreasonable? It's kind of like going in unarmed and trying to talk a gunman into giving up. Good luck with that. And the simple truth is, there is no reasonable argument for the extreme position on the right to bear arms anymore, and little justification for even moderate stances on the issue.

Take away the means and you go a long way towards taking away the act. Take away the medium, and you take away the message.

But invoking a truly ecological, systems view, it's important to note that gun control is only part of the problem. In many ways the main part, but it is true that it's not enough. So let's consider the mental health issue. While mental illness does not account for all, or even a majority of shootings, it does account for some, and some of the worst. So what can we do about it? Make mental healthcare easily available to all, whether they can afford it or not. This amounts to an expansion of "Obamacare" to cover therapy. We can't force mental health services on individuals against their will, not unless they are already acting violently, but we can make it accessible for anyone who is depressed, troubled, etc. And let's not forget that physical health problems can lead to psychological issues. The two are not all that distinct, and all the more reason to make sure we provide full healthcare for all.

Therapy often involves medication these days, and there has to be much stricter oversite of prescription drugs.  All too often, the pills people are given solve one problem only to create another. Any drug that, upon testing, suggests any violent side effects whatsoever should not be approved for use. We do not need cures that are worse than the disease. This means resisting the political pressure brought to bear by the pharmaceutical industry. They are not as guilty as the gun industry in creating an environment in which these shootings occur, but neither are they innocent. Caution has to come first, the Hippocratic creed of do no harm has to be the starting point. And if the trade-offs do seem worth it, anyone taking medication with potential side-effects leading to violent or suicidal behavior need to be closely monitored, a further role for healthcare professionals.

Of course, most shootings occur due to criminal behavior. And one of the main reasons for gang violence of this sort is the illegal drug trade. The solution, then, is to legalize recreational drugs. Eliminating prohibition will deflate organized crime today, just as it did back when we ended the ban on alcohol. It will certainly give our economy a much needed boost. Sure there will be problems resulting from increased drug use, which will require expanded physical and mental healthcare services, but increased revenues from taxation will more than cover such expenditures. And some health issues, such as the spread of AIDS, poisoning and overdoses, will be alleviated. There are trade-offs, sure, but this would reduce the prison population significantly, reduce the crime rate, reduce gun violence. This may seem to contradict my earlier point about medication, but the common ground here is the need to regulate use, and monitor individuals using drugs with side effects that can lead to violent behavior (say amphetamines as opposed to opiates).

Of course, there are other reasons for crime, and we may never eliminate it totally, but fixing the economy and doing all that we can to reduce poverty, making sure that everyone is given a minimum standard of living no matter what, and the opportunity to better themselves through education, and through hard work, would make a great difference. So yeah, there'll be some freeloaders. So what? It is absolutely wrong to refuse to help people in need out of fear that some may abuse it, or out of anger that some do. Let the abusers and cheats be, as long as they maintain a peaceful existence. Let everyone have enough to eat, decent housing, safe neighborhoods, and a measure of freedom and dignity, and fair opportunity to improve themselves and their lives beyond the minimum standard, and we will eliminate any sociological justification for violence, aggression, and theft. We can then legitimately deal will wrongdoing on the basis of moral/ethical conduct, or simple human frailty.

All of this speaks, I hope, to the restoration of some expanded sense of civil society, of personal responsibility and community ties.  It's an understanding that each one of us is a human being deserving of respect, and that we all need to agree on a basic sense of human decency.

And that does lead, finally, to the media of communication. Unlike the second amendment, the first amendment has served us very well, and has done so consistently over the history of the American republic. So, what's needed is not government censorship, or regulation, but public outcry among citizens, a consensus that there are lines that ought not to be crossed, and an expression of disgust when they are. Let's not leave it to the religious right and social conservatives, while we as progressives may privately feel uneasy about some of the media content, but are reluctant to side with our political opponents on these issues. Let's agree that there are limits, and that it is harmful to our collective psyche to have so much violence, so much sexual display, and for that matter, so much cursing, all so easily accessible to children. And let's especially consider the role of active simulations and gaming, because there is a world of difference between watching unethical and immoral behavior on the screen as committed by others, and engaging in it yourself in a virtual world. I understand the arguments about playing a hitman in Grand Theft Auto being simple fantasy in a virtual world, and cathartic in functioning, but would individuals say the same thing if there were a videogame that had people engage in rape? In the abuse and murder of children? I know this will not go over well with some folks who would otherwise agree with me up to this point, but taking an ecological view, we have to try to understand how all of these things work together. And we have to move beyond the tired old political divisions that result only in discord and stalemate.

I'll add here that encouraging limits on electronic media more generally would also be part of the solution. Technology sabbaths, fasts, and the like are needed. Making time to think, to talk, and to read, read books, real books, with print on paper. We need this balance to regain some measure of reason, of rationality, of critical distance

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Life comes first, it must be protected from harm. Liberty must include freedom from threat and from want.  And the pursuit of happiness cannot come at the expense of
 the happiness of others. I want to believe that deep down, most of us know what is good and what is not, and with that understanding we can reason together and create a better, saner society for ourselves, and for our children.

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