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The unusual infatuation of some Americans with guns and other weapons shows little sign of being affected by the massacre of 20 kindergarten children in Newtown, Connecticut shortly before Christmas. The argument about whether and what restrictions should be imposed on access to incredibly lethal weapons is really one between those who argue in favor of “anywhere, any time, any weapon” and the rest of us who believe not that guns should be banned but there should be reasonable limits on the types of weapons individuals should be allowed to own and the environments into which they should be allowed to bring them. There should also be requirements that have to be met before a person is allowed to acquire weapons (and ammunition) and conditions imposed under which the weapons have to be kept.  While of course none of these safeguards against weapons falling into undesirable i.e. murderous and/or incompetent hands are foolproof, that is not an argument that they should not be introduced and enforced.  Just because any safe can be cracked does not mean that no valuables should be kept in safes.  Gun control is not a panacea, any more than antibiotics are. Some violence will always go on. What gun control is capable of is reducing the number of deaths and injuries caused by people wielding guns and therefore reducing the total number of deaths by murder, suicide, and accident.

Proponents of gun control for the overwhelming majority are not trying to make the U.S. a “gun free” zone except for military and police personnel and other officially authorized users.  For example the rights of hunters and the right of individuals to acquire and keep handguns at home, which they should be trained how to use and take care of, in order to protect themselves against intruders should not be in question. Other exceptions to prohibitions on the types of weapons and circumstances in which they may be acquired, stored, and kept on one’s person may also be reasonable, but not the in practice almost uninhibited access to military-style weapons that have no legitimate use for hunters and are capable of killing dozens of people within a few seconds.

Opponents of any significant gun controls argue that: (i) Any restriction will inevitably lead to a complete ban on gun ownership (the “slippery slope” argument, similar to the notion that anyone who smokes marijuana is bound to end up as a crack cocaine addict or that pregnancy is certain to be the outcome once a boy and a girl start holding hands), (ii) Guns do not kill people only people do, so there is no point in focusing on or laying any part of the blame on guns, and of course (iii) We have a Constitutional right as individuals to “bear arms.”  Unfortunately a 2010 Supreme Court decision ruled 5 to 4 that, “It is clear that the Framers . . . counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.” The pesky part of the Second Amendment about a well regulated militia was swept aside extending a decision two years earlier that only applied to Federal Laws and Federal enclaves such as Washington, D.C., which was the first time the Court had said there was an individual right to gun ownership rather than one related to military service.

It seems to me that the “slippery slope” argument in this instance is much more valid in the opposite direction, i.e. expanding access to weapons and the practical definition of “arms” will lead to truly dangerous situations (right to own shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles) rather than that reasonable limitations or conditions on the ownership and carriage of weapons will lead inevitably to their being banned entirely.

Today’s “arms” are as distant in their capabilities from the “arms” available in the late 18th century as are modern cars and trucks from the horses and carts that were the principal means of transport at that time. Commonsense (which is rapidly becoming a one word oxymoron) should tell us that just as a whole series of rules and regulations have been introduced to control the users and uses of cars and trucks in ways that did not apply to horses, so today’s weaponry needs to be considered in a different light than the muskets and pistols of over 230 years ago.

As to the facile and obvious statement that people kill people, not guns, the point is that people with guns can kill more people more easily and rapidly than people without guns. Humans carrying automatic weapons and large magazines can kill more people more easily and rapidly than humans whose powers of aggression are more limited. Humans with any kind of modern gun can kill more people than humans with knives, who can kill more people than humans with only their fists and hands as weapons. The argument that it is a good idea among others to have lots of gun carrying citizens in public places such as malls, theaters and bars (the latter two locales often having dim lighting) so that they can prevent a possible massacre by taking out a perpetrator may sound plausible to some. But while this happy outcome may occur in some instances, it is most probable that it will lead to more rather than fewer deaths as multiple shooters with varying skills and experiences and states of mind take action and the ability to distinguish between the instigator of the mayhem and other innocent and noble bystanders who are trying to stop him or her is lost in the chaos and confusion. Furthermore with guns present in some of these locales the kinds of disputes that can arise (think young men and young women during “happy hour” on a Friday night) that would otherwise end at worst in a bloody nose or two might escalate into murderous encounters if an enraged loser decides to pull out a gun.

The purpose and value of having an armed populace with the right and ability to bring weapons with them potentially almost everywhere and at all times should be examined and clarified.  This view of what is desirable in a civilized society reflects a very bleak and depressing perspective on American society and Americans.  Its justification is variously founded on the ideas that we have to be able to defend ourselves at all times and in all places against heavily armed maniacs and malefactors and be able to resist attempts by our own democratically elected Government – as well as foreigners perhaps arriving aboard notorious black UN helicopters – to take our rights and even our lives away from us.

This view supposes that Americans are uniquely murderous among the inhabitants of this planet in their intent and behavior and that our Government is of the same ilk as say the Syrian and the former Libyan regimes.  With respect to the former, I do not believe that Americans are intrinsically more murderous than other humans (and perhaps less so than in other societies where for example “honor killings” of women seen with “inappropriate “ males are still seen as justified) or that our Government however dysfunctional it may be is fundamentally bent on oppressing American voters and their families. Yet deaths from guns are much lower in countries that while they share many values with the U.S. also have much stricter and more effective rules about gun ownership and use.  Furthermore the range and quantities of weaponry needed order to resist an oppressive regime  (Syria again) go well beyond even assault rifles. They include shoulder born surface-to-air missiles, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades, IEDs and armored vehicles such as tanks.  So either the advocates of more weapons and no controls intend to include these other categories of “arms” as falling within the Founders’ original intent and therefore covered as an individual right according to the Second Amendment, or the argument that these weapons are needed to ensure the preservation of “ordered liberty” against a potentially oppressive Federal Government (or United Nations troops) is bogus.

The position of the NRA today about guns is remarkably and ironically similar to that of the Black Panthers in the 1960s.  Malcolm X argued that because the government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of blacks they had to be able defend themselves “by whatever means necessary.” Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” Wayne LaPierre and Malcolm X,  now that’s an odd couple.

A second NRA argument that the solution to reducing deaths from guns is to invest in more effective mental health programs is equally misplaced and misleading. Many murderers are people who do not qualify as being mentally unhealthy. Many mentally unbalanced people are not violent. They are more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence. Many and probably most “normal” people are prone to periods of anger, rage, upset or impulses (or having drunk a bit too much) that can lead to deadly outcomes if access to and use of lethal weaponry (or our car) happens to be at hand at those times. While better mental health programs are desirable for many reasons, to improve the lives of the mentally ill and help them become productive members of society, a focus on mental sickness as a major source of gun deaths is an attempt to divert attention away from the much more important problem of how to curb and reverse the trend towards the spreading diffusion of weaponry in U.S. society that has no place outside a war zone.

The comment, “The law is an ass” originated in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, when the character Mr. Bumble is informed that, “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”.  Mr. Bumble responded, ““If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble … “The law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.” In the case of the Second Amendment the consequences of the Supreme Court’s recent interpretations of its meaning make it evident that the law can be a very dangerous, and even a lethal ass.

The adage “follow the money” should tell us what and who really lie behind the campaigns to prevent any sensible restrictions on gun ownership and carriage. These campaigns are fueled by special interests who make a lot of money out of making and selling guns and ammunition. They are wrapping themselves in superficially plausible extensions of Constitutional rights, but their real motivation the pursuit of profit in a spirit of untrammeled greed and indifference to the interests of others. The pursuit of profit can lead and has led to enormous benefits for society through the fruits of the innovation and entrepreneurial energy it has inspired. But the profit motive for a few while often a positive force should not take priority over all other goals and values to justify  activities and the promulgation of policies that are injurious to and bound to result in harm to many other people.

Some foreign observers have commented that if the Newtown massacre does not change Americans’ infatuation with guns than nothing will.  If the recent expressions of determination to introduce or re-introduce (assault weapons ban) limited restrictions (eliminate the gun show loophole for gun purchases, restrict the sale of multi-round magazines etc.) on gun ownership and use melt away like snow in the spring, then “nothing will” may be the sad conclusion. Unless perhaps the victims of the next massacre are newborn babies in a maternity unit.

This view supposes that Americans are uniquely murderous among the inhabitants of this planet in their intent and behavior and that our Government is of the same ilk as say the Syrian and the former Libyan regimes.  With respect to the former, I do not believe that Americans are intrinsically more murderous than other humans (and perhaps less so than in other societies where for example “honor killings” of women seen with “inappropriate “ males are still seen as justified) or that our Government however dysfunctional it may be is fundamentally bent on oppressing American voters and their families. Yet deaths from guns are much lower in countries that while they share many values with the U.S. also have much stricter and more effective rules about gun ownership and use.  Furthermore the range and quantities of weaponry needed order to resist an oppressive regime  (Syria again) go well beyond even assault rifles. They include shoulder born surface-to-air missiles, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades, IEDs and armored vehicles such as tanks.  So either the advocates of more weapons and no controls intend to include these other categories of “arms” as falling within the Founders’ original intent and therefore covered as an individual right according to the Second Amendment, or the argument that these weapons are needed to ensure the preservation of “ordered liberty” against a potentially oppressive Federal Government (or United Nations troops) is bogus.

The position of the NRA today about guns is remarkably and ironically similar to that of the Black Panthers in the 1960s.  Malcolm X argued that because the government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of blacks they had to be able defend themselves “by whatever means necessary.” Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” Wayne LaPierre and Malcolm X,  now that’s an odd couple.

A second NRA argument that the solution to reducing deaths from guns is to invest in more effective mental health programs is equally misplaced and misleading. Many murderers are people who do not qualify as being mentally unhealthy. Many mentally unbalanced people are not violent. They are more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence. Many and probably most “normal” people are prone to episodes or moments  of anger, rage, upset or impulses (or having drunk a bit too much) that can lead to deadly outcomes if access to and use of lethal weaponry (or keys to a car) happen to be at hand at those times. While better mental health programs are desirable for many reasons, to improve the lives of the mentally ill and help them become productive members of society, a focus on mental sickness as a major source of gun deaths is an attempt to divert attention away from the much more important problem of how to curb and reverse the trend towards the spreading diffusion of weaponry in U.S. society that has no place outside a war zone.

The comment, “The law is an ass” originated in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, when the character Mr. Bumble is informed that, “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”.  Mr. Bumble responded, ““If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble … “The law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.” In the case of the Second Amendment the consequences of the Supreme Court’s recent interpretations of its meaning make it evident that the law can be a very dangerous, and even a lethal ass.

Some foreign observers have commented that if the Newtown massacre does not change Americans’ infatuation with guns than nothing will.  If the recent expressions of determination to introduce or re-introduce (assault weapons ban) limited restrictions (eliminate the gun show loophole for gun purchases, restrict the sale of multi-round magazines etc.) on gun ownership and use melt away like snow in the spring, then “nothing will” may be the sad conclusion. Unless perhaps the victims of the next massacre are newborn babies in a maternity unit.

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2 thoughts on “More Guns Please, We’re American

  1. What do you think we should do about guns? Most states have reasonable gun restrictions. Connecticut and Massachusetts have strong gun laws. Massachusetts requires a license to own a gun and imposes restrictions on gun and magazine models. Most states, including Massachusetts, have concealed carry permitting systems – your favorite restaurant probably has gun-toting clients. John Lott has compared locales with and without carry laws and concludes that guns make us safer. In 1998 Massachusetts revised its guns laws, making it much more difficult to get a gun license. The number of licensed gun owners has declined by over 50%, while the number of gun homicides has increased by over 50%.

  2. Grant, Perhaps the best way to proceed is to find a number of propositions on which we (or most if not all of us) can agree. These propositions can be the starting point for reasonable and reasoned debates to: (i) Identify if there are any specific new or modified steps regarding gun controls we can agree on beyond those that already exist as well as (ii) Clarify the nature of significant disagreements about whether, and if so where, lines should be drawn between an otherwise unfettered right of individuals to acquire and carry any weapon of their choosing anywhere and a range of restrictions on this freedom. Restrictions up to and including bans might be based on the type of weapon, the locales and circumstances into which they can be carried, and the requirements that have to be met in order to acquire the weapon and its ammunition as well as for its storage.

    Here goes:

    1. The Second Amendment does not give everyone the unfettered right to acquire any weapon they choose and bring it anywhere they wish. (I realize that some people think it does confer this right).
    2. The killing and destructive capabilities of modern weapons are far beyond anything foreseeable at the time the Second Amendment was written as are the military capabilities of governments (e.g. warplanes, tanks, drones etc.).
    3. Americans are not more murderous than other nationalities and the U.S. government is democratically elected and is not oppressing its citizenry and other U.S. residents in ways that justify armed revolt (I remember that when I immigrated to the U.S. I had to promise that one of my goals was not the violent overthrow of the U.S. Government. At the time I thought this was a strange question because if such were my aim why would I tell an official of the U.S. Government?)
    4. The core of the dispute between advocates of more effective gun controls and those who oppose them and would like to eliminate or weaken those that exist lies in whether you believe that an extensively armed population will result in a smaller or a greater number of deaths (murders, suicides, accidents) and serious injuries than in one in which the presence, types, and numbers of guns or firearms are limited.
    5. There are many causes of deaths and serious injuries that have nothing to do with guns per se. Consideration of gun controls as one means to limit deaths and serious injures does not absolve us from the need to tackle other causes, but neither do these other causes justify doing nothing about guns.
    6. More effective gun controls are not panaceas and cannot guarantee immunity from gun-wielding assailants.
    7. Comparisons of death and injury rates between locales in the U.S. and ascribing these differences to the nature and content of local gun laws is of limited value since it is easy to transport weapons acquired in a location with no or lax gun controls into one with strict rules and regulations. Comparisons with other countries in which gun controls are enforced nationally and where it is harder to introduce weapons acquired in other jurisdictions should shed more light on proposition 4 above (see also proposition 3 above, and the U.K. and Australia as examples).
    8. It is undesirable to live in a society in which we should expect to have to be alert at all times and everywhere to attacks from an assailant wielding an automatic weapon (and impractical) and to be surrounded by an armed populace (there are some other countries or regions you can move to if this is the environment you are looking for).
    9. Just because you are a law abiding citizen does not mean you will be able to use a firearm wisely, accurately, and safely in all the circumstances you will encounter, e.g. in crowds, when stressed, tired, or drinking, etc.
    10. Any efforts to make gun control laws and enforcement procedures more effective while respecting the rights of individuals to acquire and use some types of weapons in specified circumstances and locations and for specific purposes (e.g. hunting, target shooting, self-defense with special consideration given to protection against intruders into homes) should focus on : (i) Types of weapons; (ii) Access to ammunition; (iii) Closing loopholes in distribution and sales channels for firearms; (iv) Finding ways to make background checks more universally and conveniently and accurately applied; and (v) Ensuring that sensible requirements for training in the safe use of firearms that are acquired and for security in their storage are formulated and applied.

    In terms of questions: (a) Are current laws and restrictions on guns justified or should they be reduced or even removed? (b) If they are justified can their effectiveness be improved through better procedures and processes for implementing them (e.g databases for more accurate and comprehensive background checks)?(c) Are there new. modified or other (replacement) laws and restrictions that could do a better job of keeping weapons out of the wrong hands and the wrong places and circumstances?

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