The gun control conversation shouldn’t be led by extremists
(Note: This essay originally ran in AltDaily. I wrote it in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.)
I want to talk about guns. Why should be obvious.
Let’s begin with this basic observation: Guns are unique enablers. They give people the means to commit violence in a much less personal, detached manner than any other weapon (OK - maybe a bow and arrow). They efficiently create large amounts of tissue damage quickly and easily. They generate a false sense of power that can encourage violence in an individual already prone to act that way. Their purpose as designed is to kill. We shouldn't be surprised that the unregulated and unscrutinized proliferation of firearms in America is leading to such extreme death and carnage.
I believe that beyond the usual boilerplate platitudes that emanate from both sides of the debate, there are complexities to the issue of gun violence in America that are being drowned out and need to be part of the discussion. So with a degree of acquiescence that what I’ve written here will make many folks unhappy and angry, here we go.
First, we should establish a necessary metric. Gun owners fall into two groups - extremists and everyone else. I estimate that 15-20% of gun owners can be described as extremists - the activists and their professional lobbyists who work tirelessly (and with an impressive success rate) to erode any oversight, regulation, or scrutiny associated with guns. They make so much noise, however, that it seems like there are many more extremists than there actually are.
So throughout this essay, when I refer to “pro-gun” anything, that’s who I’m talking about - not gun owners in general. Not hunters, nor skeet or target shooters (such as myself), and not even those who wish to keep a gun in their home or place of business so they feel safer (in spite of the fact that statistically speaking, it’s not a very good idea).
By way of disclosure, I have been associated with the Virginia Center for Public Safety (formerly Virginians Against Handgun Violence) since 1993. I’ve never known a more caring and dedicated group of people - many of whom have had their lives forever changed by gun violence - which is why despite the fact that we diverged long ago on how to best approach the problem, I continue to support and work with them.
Most of the efforts of the anti-gun violence movement these days are dedicated to achieving results through legislative action. The standard action plan is to issue a call for people to contact their elected representatives and demand that they do something.
While I have no issue with addressing the politics of guns, I also concluded many years ago that this was a questionable allocation of their relatively limited resources. Our political system’s decent into oligarchism has led to the opinions of individuals becoming much less relevant. Political power has become highly concentrated and any political analyst worth his or her weight in beans will tell you that the pro-gun lobby, fueled by massive amount of money, is one of the most effective organizations in human history at wielding political power.
More importantly, all the laws in the world won’t heal the wounded minds of the paranoid, violence-inclined minority who drive the pro-gun agenda. That’s a mental health issue - something we’ll explore shortly.
The current crop of elected representatives at all levels came to office in a period in which taking on the professional pro-gun lobby was a “third rail.” I’d like to see stricter regulation of firearms, but I question how possible that is in the current political environment. I don’t believe there are enough legislators ready to stand up to the extremists and initiate any substantive change in policy. Of course, 2014 elections are just around the corner (2013 for the Virginia General Assembly). I’d like to think that the Sandy Hook Massacre will serve as am impetus for change, but I’ll believe it when it actually happens.
The greater problem, in my opinion, is that while the anti-gun violence movement has been focused on legislative action, the pro-gunners have been kicking their asses everywhere else - particularly amongst the general population. This is reflected in how dramatically public opinion has shifted regarding guns in the last 30 years.
The pro-gun lobby does pour a lot of money into political action, but that’s not what’s made them so effective. What has is the fact that they’ve been able to instill an irrational level of fear - particularly fear of their own government - in the general population through an effective campaign of lies, hyperbole and obfuscation.
It would take twice the space I’m consuming here to go through all of the pro-gun lobby’s lies point-by-point, but it’s already been done by others many times anyway. So if you think I’m wrong about any points I’m making here, I would invite readers to get off their backsides and do a little research themselves. It won’t take long. The data is readily available.
Once you cut through all of various specious arguments they make (which is really surprisingly easy to do if you try), what you’re left with is a core paranoid delusion that serves as their last line of defense: That any regulation of firearms is just one tiny step away from the liberals teaming up with the guys in the black helicopters and the blue U.N “new world order” hats, declaring martial law, swooping in and confiscating everyone’s guns.
This has to be one of the silliest conspiracy theories of all time and I laugh every time they pitch it or any of it’s many variations, until I realize it’s roughly the same percentage who still believe Mr. Obama is actually a Kenyan-born Commie. If you think I’m kidding, go to Google or YouTube and enter the search term “new world order.” NRA VP Wayne LaPierre will be more than happy to regale you with this lunacy.
I don’t think the average gun owner believes such tripe. However, I do believe the extremists have managed to embed just enough fear of any regulation in a lot of otherwise reasonable gun owners that they now oppose it without even really knowing or being able to explain why.
I do know many people who wistfully envision a society without guns. But in all my years involved with this issue and all the people I’ve talked to or worked with, including in every national organization and many at the state level, I have never once heard anyone even hint at the idea of confiscating and banning all guns. Any suggestion that there’s any effort to do so is an utter lie. Don’t believe me? Do an online search. You won’t find a single instance of any publicly known individual or group advocating this.
And that’s my point. It’s a lie that has worked. This nonsense has now seeped its way into our cultural zeitgeist courtesy of one of the most effective mass media driven propaganda efforts ever, and has managed to install an unwarranted degree of subconscious fear in otherwise reasonable people.
This represents perhaps my biggest complaint with my friends in the anti-gun violence movement. If they had kept their eye on the ball and had prioritized public education over legislative action, the pro-gunners might not have been so successful at infecting America with these lies and the fear they’ve created, and a more informed electorate would have voted for representatives with the intellectual tools, as well as the morality necessary to do the job well.
Another failure is demonstrated by the fact that the pro-gun pros have successfully created the myth that anti-gun violence groups are inherently hostile towards all gun owners. This is nonsense. Many people involved with the anti-gun violence movement are themselves gun owners. And while I don’t now, I’ve owned a few guns over the years and at one time was considered a skilled marksman.
The fact is that gun owners - even those with extremist views - are statistically no more likely to commit crimes than non-gun owners. Few will ever commit a crime just because they own a gun. But the pro-gun lobby has successfully instilled an “us vs. them” mentality in society, again enhancing the level of fear amongst all gun owners.
Gun owners as a whole aren’t the problem in terms of controlling gun violence - just the small percentage with extremist views, predicated on lies, who make a grossly disproportional amount of noise; the ones who shout the loudest in an effort to drown out calmer and more rational voices.
Several years ago, more moderately inclined gun owners formed an organization called the American Hunters and Shooters Association, which was focused on protecting the rights of gun owners and sportsmen while accepting reasonable regulation. The extremist elements of the pro-gun lobby utterly crushed them. In their minds, anyone who strays from their particular extremist orthodoxy is the enemy.
Within the anti-gun violence movement, I think I’m probably typical in my views about gun control. If every single regulation and/or restriction that I support was passed - and I support quite a few - 95% of people who currently own guns would still be allowed to own them.
Here’s what would be different: They wouldn’t be able to own or transfer them in secret. They wouldn’t be able to transfer them without the buyer being scrutinized. They wouldn’t be able to carry them concealed.
Speaking of which, here’s a simple question: Why should anyone be able to carry a gun hidden from view?
(Jeopardy theme music here…)
To illustrate: Last summer I was at a Tides game. I was walking in the concourse when I saw a rather portly middle aged man walking towards me with an unusual amount of space between him and everyone else for such a crowded place. Then I realized why. He was packing a Sig Sauer on his hip with two extra clips, and people - particularly parents with children - were giving him a wide berth.
I thought: “You know. That’s exactly how it should work.” Why should anyone be able to conceal from me the fact that they’re carrying? Knowing that statistically, proximity to someone with a gun makes anyone less safe, why don’t I have the right to avoid them, keep them out of my place of business, or keep my children safely away from them? Don’t concealed weapons laws allow those who take advantage to prevent me from exercising my right to be safe from their stupidity? What possible reason is there to allow firearms to be concealed? Why does anyone want to hide their gun? Aren’t they just bursting with macho pride over the fact that they’re packing heat? It can’t serve as a deterrent if no one knows they’re carrying.
I’ve heard some pro-gunners suggest that if no one knows who’s packing, then everyone will just be afraid of everyone else. Great… They speak of such a scenario as if that’s a desirable way to live. That’s just sad and I pity anyone who views life that way.
Yes - law enforcement officers often have a professional reason for concealing a weapon, but that’s it. No one else does.
There is one other thing that I believe: No one has any reason to own military-grade weapons. These are weapons of mass destruction that have no place in a civilized society. Their sole purpose is to kill as many people as possible as quickly and efficiently as possible. Period. Unless that’s what you’re planning - and I’m talking mostly about the people who hint at armed insurrection and “second amendment solutions” - there’s no reason for you to have one, no matter how cool you think they are. So yes. I also support a total ban on military-grade weapons.
But if we do adopt this particular position, I also think it’s only fair for taxpayers to reimburse the owners of these weapons since they were bought legally. It would probably cost us all many millions of dollars, but that’s the price of negligence for allowing anyone to possess them in the first place. it would be a very rational use for public money.
So that’s it. Virtually everyone who works in the anti-gun violence movement advocates for some variation - maybe a little more; maybe a little less - of what I advocate. Anything else anyone tells you is a lie.
This brings us to the more complex aspects of gun violence in America.
Question: Why are some men in America so uniquely obsessed with guns?
What is the psychological profile of an individual who believes the paranoid delusions foisted upon them by pro-gun extremists? What factors lead them to completely ignore facts, reason and common sense about this issue? Does discomfort with going out into the world without carrying a gun indicate a rational perspective of their environment? How about a fear of there being any record of gun ownership and/or transfer? (those damned black helicopters again...)
Or this: What does it say when men want laws that not only encourage carrying guns, but allow them to shoot and kill an unarmed person simply because they had some degree of fear and the law gives them the right to “stand their ground.” Is this not the ultimate manifestation of allowance for cowardice and/or machismo in people carrying guns?
Do any of these manifestations strike anyone as indicative of good mental health?
Sometimes I also feel like our concept of gender roles has become twisted. Isn’t it possible that among extremists, there is a common psychological issue - some sense of inadequacy that being heavily armed helps them overcome? If you think about it, this would explain a lot and could lead to a much broader discussion of how mental illness manifests in a modern society.
The fact that discussing the psychology behind guns and gun violence in America adds a whole new layer of complexity, as well as maybe discomfort, shouldn’t scare us away from doing so.
Our aversion to such complexity is also reflected in our reticence to discuss the broader topic of all aspects of mental health. Observers have pointed out that many of the shooters had some sort of mental health issue. Well, duh.
How is it that in the 21st century, we still allow the science of mental health to be treated like it’s alchemy or something. When it’s been established that mental health issues are almost as common as the flu, and that virtually everyone will deal with these at some point in their lives, how can we continue behaving towards those struggling with mental illness like we used to treat lepers?
Any health care professional will tell you that there’s no one more likely to be lacking a personal support system than someone struggling with mental illness. They tend to be more lonely and isolated than people dealing with any physical ailment, often leading to a sense of extreme alienation. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be hard to understand how such alienation can generate a violent backlash, which when combined with easy access to guns can lead to the kinds of carnage we’ve recently witnessed.
Does this sound familiar?
Instead of wanting to understand why and how a disturbed young man broke into an elementary school and slaughtered 26 people, some have suggested that we now just turn our schools into armed camps. Don’t you think it’s possible that had there been an armed guard, it’s likely that’s the first person the shooter would have sought out and killed? And if there were an armed confrontation, does anyone really think a gun battle - which the shooter would have almost certainly won due to superior firepower - would be a preferable scenario?
How about this? 1.) Let’s talk about why this young man’s mother possessed a small arsenal - including military-grade weapons. What in her psychological makeup generated this desire in her? Then, 2.) Let’s talk about the chemistry of putting an angry disturbed young man - one whose issues obviously were ignored - in close proximity to such firepower.
Can’t we at least talk about these things? Will we ever be able to have a rational discussion about gun violence and the underlying causes? Not if the extremists have any influence.
The pro-gun lobby is incredibly well-funded, astonishingly effective at mass communications and has been honing their methodology for decades. They and their surrogates use the Internet and social media as well as anyone out there.
They and their supporters also became aware a long time ago that if they yelled loudly and abusively enough, they could often stifle whatever discussion was going on. You see that today in the comments following any news story or commentary about gun violence. The pro-gunners are usually the first to jump in, attacking anyone who diverges from their orthodoxy, often in an extremely personal and vulgar manner. What rational individual wants to engage with someone who behaves like that?
I propose that we excuse these extremists from this society-wide conversation we need to initiate on guns and gun violence now. Inviting an organization like the NRA or the VCDL to share their views in any rational deliberative process on this topic is the intellectual equivalent of asking someone with the KKK to be part of a national discussion on racial equality.
The First Amendment gives them the right to have their say, and I would defend their right to say it. But we already know now what they believe and that they have nothing new or constructive to add. So lets ask them to please go say it someplace else.
We could then have a calm, rational and fact-driven discussion about gun violence and gun ownership between non-gun owners and the vast majority of gun owners who don’t share the extremists’ views.
We should also be prepared to hold the mainstream media (of which I’m a member) at least somewhat culpable for the state of gun violence in America. When I worked actively in TV news, there was nothing I found more frustrating that covering the standard gun violence story by getting the standard interviews with the standard talking points from the standard mouthpieces for each side. I can’t tell you the number of times some “spokesperson” would spew something I knew to be absolute bullshit, and not be even remotely challenged by the interviewer.
Here’s an example: One of the common statements made by pro-gunners that makes it into every TV report is that gun owners successfully prevent about 2.5 million crimes a year by brandishing a firearm. They cite a single study from 1992 by a criminologist named Gary Kleck. The study’s math and methodology is almost laughable, but the pro-gun guys continue to use this figure without shame or scrutiny.
So just out of curiosity, I did a little of my own math. Taking the Kleck figures and extrapolating, this is what I found: The greater Hampton Roads area has a population of roughly 1.4 million people (based on the media measurement of “Designated Market Area,” or DMA). That means our area contains about 4/10 of one percent of the U.S. population. Based on that, about 100,000 of Mr. Kleck’s two-and-a-half million defensive uses occur in our community alone every year, or about 274 a day.
You tell me. Does it sound even remotely reasonable that people in Hampton Roads alone use a gun 274 times every single day to stop a crime in progress? As long as I can remember, every time such an incident has been reported to police, it’s also ended up in the news (“Granny chases off intruder with gun”). If such incidents are happening, they’re not being reported to police. I see daily reports from local departments all the time. The people who make this claim could also be so kind as to introduce the rest of us to the 100,000 people in Hampton Roads that defended themselves with a gun last year.
Or is it remotely possible that it’s just another gun lobby lie, and a whopper at that?
Any journalist at any time could have done the math that I just did. Why haven’t they? Well, the sad truth is that commercial journalism outlets are owned by large corporations which are more worried about profits and retaining their advertiser and consumer bases than maintaining journalistic integrity. It’s not the journalists. It’s their corporate managers.
And this isn’t accomplished by issuing any type of directive, but rather by starving the budgets of their newsrooms to the point that they don’t have the resources to do any true investigative work. Today, the average TV reporter is given 1:30 - 1:45 of time for their report, and four hours to put it together. A print reporter might get 15 column inches if they’re lucky (it ain’t much). And any journalist who doesn’t toe the line will quickly find themselves on the beach.
Issues like gun violence and mental health are much too complex to be addressed with such brevity. Thus, the more complex the issue, the more likely it is that it’ll get glossed over by commercial media.
And we as consumers are largely to blame. These are both issues that are already controversial and our utter failure to express any demand that they be explored has allowed them to be swept under the rug. We could impact this by simply watching news coverage that provides deep insight, as opposed to nibbling at the news McNuggets - particularly at the local level. While I respect a good reporter’s ability to take a complex issue and make it easier to understand, in news, simplicity is most certainly not a virtue.
Besides it being an obvious activity for true journalists, sussing out the truth is something very constructive that the anti-gun violence movement could engage in. If there was any positive trend that emerged during the last election cycle, it was a newfound attention to fact checking. The practice still has room for improvement, but at least there is recognition that too many lies are being perpetrated for political gain.
Every single time the pro-gunners lie, they need to be called out. Just cite the facts with the source. The nice thing about having the truth on your side is you never have to lie, spin or otherwise behave like your opposition (so, don’t).
I believe that Americans eventually will understand that guns don’t make us safer. Education and reason can overcome ignorance and the fear it causes. The desire to stockpile deadly weapons can gradually go away once we universally understand how useless and senseless such behavior is. (Q: Name one time in history or place on the planet where proliferation of firearms has led to a safer, more peaceful society.)
Until we understand the facts and can keep irrational fear from interfering with our ability to accept them, frightened people who mistakenly believe they’ll be safer will continue to want to own guns for personal defense, and in America, that’s essentially their right.
But that also doesn’t mean that there can’t and shouldn’t be imposed responsibilities and expectations on people trusted with tools specifically designed to kill. Let’s just not allow the voices of people long on fear and hatred and short on thoughtfulness and reason to stop the conversation from even getting started, nor allow them to interrupt or interfere with that conversation once it gets going. Based on previous and current behavior, it’s a certainty that they’ll try.
I think guns and people can (marginally) coexist safely in a rational world, but never in the armed, paranoid utopia envisioned by the fear-addled government-hating people who’ve controlled the conversation about guns in America for the last 30 years.
Children don’t like having rules to follow, either. That doesn’t mean we don’t make them. We love our kids and impose rules for their own good. Shouldn’t this same level of caring apply to us all?
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather live in a peaceful society, free of fear - a place where my kids don’t have to go to school in an armed encampment; a place where I can go to the mall or movie theater safely. The alternative is one dominated by violence and irrational fear - fear so pervasive that it becomes a lifestyle.
The pro-gun people will tell you the former isn’t possible, but that’s only true for them - at least until we can figure out how to heal them of that which poisons their souls and makes them so afraid.
And as we’ve already established, they’ve also been known to lie in order to rationalize their own behavior.
To the 80% of average gun owners who I believe don’t share the extremists’ views, can we please now have a discussion about ending this madness, before the next 20 six and seven year-olds, not to mention the many brave caring adults who tried to protect them are slaughtered?