“This feels different”: Towards a rational discussion of firearms in America
A Fringe consideration
The contradiction in the title above is self-evident. The quote from President Obama is an emotional response; this “feels” different. The title, though, seeks not an emotional response, but a rational one. The dichotomy between those two approaches makes any meaningful changes in violence in the U.S. unlikely.
The two political parties will likely not provide a rational discussion on violence and 2nd Amendment rights, partly because this is one issue where their roles have become reversed. Most often, it is liberals who seek less government intrusion and control over individuals.
Liberals typically support gender equality, marriage equality and individual liberty in general, but typically take the “commons” approach to private property and a secular humanist approach to violence and the firearms they associate with it. The secular humanist position has a system of values which predisposes them to mixing rational and emotional thought. Guns are about violence and death for them, and children are about purity and the magic of potential. Guns and children should have nothing to do with each other, like sex and children or drugs and children. Guns, drugs and sex are profane, but humans up to the age of 18 are divine. Humanists consider themselves to be more fully developed, morally, so that people who disagree with them must be ignorant or barbaric.
Conservatives typically want to control individuals in those areas of gay marriage and abortion, with the only two liberties supported being private property and gun ownership. Early attempts at gun control in the U.S. were racially based; after the Civil War it was Southern Democrats who wanted gun control, specifically control of gun ownership among the newly freed African Americans. Indeed, to this day a Black man with a gun is a scary thing to many conservative Whites.
There really is no explaining why liberals value the lives of condemned criminals and thugs but are willing to allow pre-term humans to be aborted, or why conservatives want to save “little babies” and so are against abortion but are strong on the death penalty and very weak on providing for the humans we already have on the planet.
There is an even larger reason the two parties can’t find a solution. They are unable to address what a thoroughly violent nation we are, born of revolution, strengthened on the blood of Native Americans and Africans, cemented as a nation by a bloody civil war, and ushered in as a major power at the end of empires by victories in two world wars. Shake the wars out of an American history book and the only things left are the cotton gin and the transcontinental railroad. We are violent in our entertainment and crave violence in our nightly news, it’s the ultimate reality show. Until our national propensity for death and destruction has calmed itself and we abandon war as diplomacy and the “war on” approach to social problems, we will be a violent society.
Clearly, if we rely on our political establishment to work out a rational solution to violence, we’re going to see more laws which negatively impact people, make more money for government workers up and down the line, and almost certainly do nothing about the real problem. The “assault rifle ban” which George W. Bush allowed to expire is a good example. It meant nothing, but calmed those who are motivated by irrational fear of firearms. It did little because it addressed semi-automatic rifles (true assault weapons are selective fire, usually semi-auto, three round burst, and fully auto) which featured the scary outline of the army gun. So, accessories such as flash suppressors, folding stocks and large capacity magazines were outlawed.*
A different theater must be found if we want a rational discussion of violence in our society. The lack of a rational, logical approach increases the likelihood of further attacks on the 2nd Amendment and on legal gun owners without actually reducing violence.
Violence in the U.S. is a complex issue with deeply historical cultural elements. While it is violence that anti-2nd Amendment activists really seek to curb, violence itself is diffused throughout our culture, while guns are visible, and scary, so it is America’s legal gun owners who bear the brunt of our rather spasmodic attempts at social change.
Instead, I’ll suggest ideas which contribute to firearms related violence.
As an aside, it was a mass killing by a young man which prompted the most recent emotional urge towards gun control, but almost nothing we can do will stop that kind of horrifying event. We’ll recall that the greatest loss of life at a school used homemade bombs, not firearms. There is simply no way to wrap the government around us so thoroughly that these events can be prevented; if we could it would be no life for a free person. I hope that a rational discussion of violence reduction would include a consideration toward liberty, a quality we Americans were once willing to give our lives for.
A realistic approach to gun violence would first of all end the war on drugs. It would end the circumstances that encourage gang creation, particularly among young Black men. It must be something of a relief to thoughtful Black people that it’s mostly Whites who commit high profile murders, but that relief would be dwarfed by the realization that a young Black man has about eight times the likelihood of being murdered than a young White man. Ending the war on drugs would be a first step toward de-funding gang violence.
A second step would be to restrict the use of Law Enforcement in gang suppression and anti-drug enforcement. There is a clear trend showing that the more violent and better armed the cops are, the better-armed and more prone to violence gangs are. Those who say that guns do have a strong socializing effect are almost right; it’s the frequent use of guns to kill people, the violence itself, which drives more violence. Firearms are fairly effective tools when violence is at hand, but it is the violent use of guns, which produces more gun violence.
The next step to ending the war on drugs would be to provide legal, gainful employment for young men. Currently we deal with our excess young men of color by allowing them to kill each other and giving the survivors prison records, ensuring they will never have a real job and career. Prison itself teaches these mostly Black and Hispanic men how to live on the outside at the only job they can rely on: crime. If there ever were a witless and cruel society is it ours; our policies ensure a steady stream of dangerous drugs, a steady stream of fresh criminals, and a steady stream of prisoners.
Eliminating violence in this scheme would take a complete re-ordering of society. The wealthy would have to share; bureaucrats would lose their livelihood; the middle class would experience yet another drop in their standard of living. Reducing violence by making room for everyone in society is too broad, too far reaching; it’s just too hard. Let’s take guns away from legal gun owners instead.
Nearly every statistic about gun violence is powered by this class discrepancy: the number of people injured, the number of young people killed, the likelihood of being injured by a gun in the home; all are skewed by this demographic, save one: suicide. Young men of color kill each other with guns; young White and Native American men kill themselves. Suicide drives firearm death rates up, particularly for White men. If one imagines that the state owns one’s life, then suicide is a crime and belongs with “gun violence”. If one believes one owns one’s own life, then suicide is not a crime, not violence, and it should be taken out of the statistic.
Liberals, holding the secular humanist view, tend to see suicide as an offense against the community just as it was not long ago broadly considered an offense against God. Replacing God with the human collective has preserved that “sin”, now a crime. Taking guns from people bent on suicide makes sense if you believe the state owns the person, and if you believe suicides are a dull and unimaginative lot.
Otherwise, suicide becomes something someone will do without a gun. There is the idea that suicide is a spur of the moment act, that a young person distraught over a trivial event will make a fatal mistake; likely that does occasionally happen, but not most often. Most often people of every age attempt to kill themselves as a result of cumulative events. Many people, if unsuccessful, will try again. The most alarming statistics on suicide and the young focus on the relatively high rates of suicide of people under age 13, who most often use asphyxiation, and not firearms.