Sunday, December 23, 2012
Bonanza Column 264 - The Need for a New National Dialogue
It ought to be too obvious to bear mentioning that the problem of gun violence in the United States does not admit of easy answers, but the spate of reactions in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown indicates that a significant number of people with access to public platforms don’t seem to understand that simple fact.
I understand the appeal of simplicity. The problem is that in order to come up with a simple solution, you have to over-simplify the problem. It’s easy to say “ban all guns,” but as we’ve learned from Prohibition and the “war on drugs,” banning anything only creates an underground economy in the banned substance, and underground economies are much harder to regulate and control than open trade. Conversely, the “let’s arm everybody” argument is equally unrealistic – to have all kinds of untrained and unscreened people running around with deadly weapons hardly seems likely to improve the situation.
The spokesman for the NRA says we should have armed guards in every school, ignoring both the financial costs and the psychological costs of our children having to go to school behind armed guards. It also ignores the fact that in the shootings at Fort Hood in 2009, in the most populous U.S. military installation in the world, a single gunman killed 13 people and wounded 29 others. Despite being surrounded by armed, trained military personnel, some of whom engaged him, the killer fired 214 rounds before being stopped. There were also armed guards at Columbine and Virginia Tech, to no good effect.
Here are some things we can say: first of all, automatic and semi-automatic weapons have only one function, which is to shoot as many rounds as possible in the shortest possible times. Fully automatic weapons have been illegal since Prohibition, and the most recent ban that was allowed to expire, was full of holes including, incredibly, “grandfathering in” weapons manufactured and sold before the ban and already in people’s possession, i.e., potentially on the market. These are not hunting weapons or self-defense weapons, they are designed for and work well in combat situations against multiple adversaries.
Secondly, weapons for hunting or self-defense do not need ammunition clips that hold 30 rounds or more. Hunting, say deer or elk, you’re going to get one shot, maybe two at a time before the animal is either down or gone. If I’m defending my home against intruders, there are unlikely to be more than a couple of them, and they are likely to take off after the first shot or two.
Third, analogies advanced on both sides of the argument are flawed – yes there are countries where a large part of the population own and even carry guns, and those countries have lower rates of gun violence than the US. And there are countries where almost no one owns guns and those countries have lower rates of gun violence than the US. Looking at it logically, one has to at least entertain the notion that gun ownership, whether free or restricted, has no correlation with gun violence. What does? I have to assume that the culture of those countries – how people approach violence in general and gun use in particular – has something to do with it.
Fourth, blaming easy scapegoats is unlikely to make anything useful happen. In the past ten days we’ve seen attempts to place blame on everything from the media to the NRA, to violence in movies, to the State of Connecticut’s position on same-sex marriage, to the absence of prayer in schools, you name it. All of that is blatant opportunism on the part of the speakers, cynically taking advantage of a tragedy to advance their pet agenda. Twenty children and six adults are dead – that is a fact; anything else is just opinion, and in most cases the “connection” between what is being blamed and the tragedy exists only in someone’s fevered imagination.
So what do we do? As with most complex problems there are some obvious steps to take – restore the ban on automatic weapons and beef it up – get them off the market and make the penalties for violating the ban draconian. In the longer run, though, let’s get into a serious national conversation about what facilitates a culture in which gun violence happens at a rate far higher than anywhere else in the world. Is the Second Amendment really central to what America is about? Given the Founders wrote that amendment when the most deadly weapon around was a flintlock, does it need to be modified? How is it that the NRA has a stranglehold on so many of our elected officials? What do we need to maintain, modify, or eliminate in our national dialogue to have people be safe in their own homes, schools, military bases, and streets? Until we address these questions, we’d best keep in mind the aphorism, “If we don’t change our direction, we’re liable to get where we’re headed.”-->