Questions about the gun conversation

So it happened again this week: Some nutcase with a gun killed a bunch of people he’d never met before. Three weeks ago, it was 12 dead in Aurora, Colo.; on Sunday, six died in Oak Creek, Wisc.

Stylized close-up of cover art from George Pelecanos’s “The Sweet Forever,” an excellent detective novel that involves a great many guns.

(Disclosure, part 1: I started writing this post after Aurora, got distracted and set it aside, figuring that news would make it relevant again eventually. I didn’t know the wait would be so short.)

(Disclosure, part 2: I have shot guns a few times at targets, once including popping off a few rounds with an M16, and I enjoyed those experiences. I have also had a gun put to my head during a mugging. I did not enjoy that.)

For the second time in three weeks, we are talking about firearms regulation and the Second Amendment with few expectations of things changing. I have some questions about this unproductive conversation.

Could we have a little more context about the relative scope of the problem? Violent crime overall is down, way down, even as we’ve steadily loosened gun regulation; you face a higher risk of death from a car than a gun, and the majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted. (Mass shootings, however, have remained stubbornly steady; why is that?)

Can we agree that, NRA-engineered paranoia aside, nobody is going to confiscate everybody’s guns in the United States? (I will strikethrough the preceding sentence when Democrats launch a serious campaign to repeal the Second Amendment.)

Can we also agree that the Second Amendment permits reasonable limits on who can own a gun, what kinds of guns they can own and where they can take them? Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller striking down D.C.’s handgun ban is clear about that. So can we move on to debate Second Amendment-compliant limits from a public-health perspective, assuming we ever get conclusive data?

Do news stories provide an accurate picture of what most gun owners are like? (One of my neighbors is a competitive target shooter and Navy vet; he and his wife are the people we trust with a spare key to our house.)

To those who have written, sometimes convincingly, that no current or politically plausible gun regulations would prevent an Aurora or an Oak Creek: Are these just unavoidable random tragedies, much like the far higher casualties we tolerate on our roads? Or do you have suggestions for a more effective response by government–like, say, better mental-health care?

If those suggestions instead boil down to “more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens in more places”–well, don’t we have enough in circulation already? We are already the most heavily armed country in the world. Should I not regard the idea that security lies in individual citizens packing heat on their daily errands, staying in a state of perpetual alertness, as a confession of a failure of civilization?

If a post like this counts as “politicizing the tragedy,” when would be a better time? Is there a mandatory waiting period for this sort of thing?


10 thoughts on “Questions about the gun conversation

  1. “Should I not regard the idea that security lies in individual citizens packing heat on their daily errands, staying in a state of perpetual alertness, as a confession of a failure of civilization?”

    Thank you for articulating so well how I feel about those tiresome arguments that are revived every time some tragedy like this happens. The inability to even have a civil conversation about these issues is so frustrating.

  2. First of all, 14 died in Aurora.
    Secondly, the Second Amendment is about a militia and the need to practice/drill. Few of the gun toters are in the United States Armed Forces, though, admittedly, some are in abnormal “militias”. The public doesn’t need to carry guns, especially anything rapid-fire, and guns don’t need to be legally available for purchase.
    We don’t need to repeal the Second Amendment, just READ it!

    • I haven’t seen anything but 12 deaths cited. Are you sure about 14? I usually hope I’m right when a reader suggests I have incorrect facts, but that’s especially the case here.

      As for the militia argument: I get what you’re saying, but the Supreme Court said otherwise, and their word stands unless they decide otherwise later on or we amend the Constitution. FWIW, if you took the militia argument seriously you’d either need to limit gun ownership to people in the National Guard or other reserve forces, or you’d have to make much more lethal weapons available to those judged to be part of some other, irregular militia.

      Scalia’s opinion notes the oddity of this situation–that although part of the justification for the Second Amendment is ensuring that the state will not have a monopoly on firearms, the balance of power between individual citizens and the armed forces has tiled overwhelmingly towards the latter, but there’s nothing we can do about that.

      It sure would have helped if the Founding Fathers had spent a little more time clarifying the language of this amendment.

      – RP

      • Indeed, you’re right, it’s 12, 13 if you include the unborn baby. This is so frustrating but then the Founding Fathers only had to deal with muskets and couldn’t foresee the weapons we have today. I have to say the Supreme Court was wrong, but my opinion certainly doesn’t matter in this debate.

  3. There aren’t a lot of easy answers here. The best answer I can come up with is that in nearly all of these tragedies (also including VT and 9/11) is that warning signs were out there and ignored. In New York City they seem to have had some success with the “If you see something say something” campaign. I think encouraging people to talk gives us a way ahead that additional regulations will not. It is probably not the answer you are asking for, but it is all I have.

  4. Rob –
    Have been a long-time reader of your technical writings and was really surprised to see you step into this quagmire, even more surprised to see the lack of comments from both sides of the issue. It can get nasty out there as I am sure you are aware. It is likely your asking for real answers, in your typical intelligent manner, is what has kept the crazies away. Real answers are hard to come by, rage is cheap.

    Before I get too far into this I want to tell you who I am. I’ve been a shooter for 45 years, a Life Member of the NRA, an NRA Certified Pistol Instructor and Certified Range Safety Officer. I am a 20 year Navy Veteran and have shoot on Navy Pistol teams, even earning the privilege of instructing future Navy officers in firearms marksmanship and safety at Annapolis. I also have a Concealed Weapons Permit issued by my state of residence.
    I just want to run through your questions, comments, and concerns in the order in which you presented them, giving my own views. You may take them for whatever you think they are worth.

    “Muggings in DC.” — Rob, that must have been a truly harrowing experience. I’m very thankful you survived unharmed. I have previously commented on Gene W’s blog and one of the regulars there told about his father being mugged in DC. The mugger got what he wanted then turned to leave, his father also turn to leave and exit the area. The mugger then turned and shot him in the back. Luckily, he survived.
    So here is the thing, it is not legal to carry a handgun in DC, and I am fairly certain that at the time, it was not legal to even have a handgun in the city, not even in your own home. What good did that do you or my friend’s father? The MUGGER had a gun. How did the laws protect you? How could MORE laws protect you? Short answer: They can’t, and never will. It takes about 0.1 second to fire a handgun, how long did it take for the police to arrive? Even if “they” manage to somehow destroy all the guns, the criminals will use knives, clubs, bricks, or bare hands. These too are illegal weapons when misused.
    Let’s ratchet this up a bit. You may say to yourself, “well, no serious harm was done; I’m only out a few bucks and a new pair of pants.” But my friend’s father was shot in the back after it was all over, just because. Think about this – you have recently become a first time Dad – congratulations by the way. Have you not had the thought cross your mind that you are now responsible for that new life in ways that you never thought possible before? Is it not your duty, responsibility, privilege, and RIGHT to protect your family? When it comes down to it, who else can or will? In the few short seconds you may have to make a difference, what can you do? In DC, LA, Detroit, and several other cities and states, not a darn thing if you are a law abiding citizen. That right has been taken away from you. Does that not make you at least apprehensive, if not downright paranoid, maybe even a little sick to your stomach? You are powerless.

    “Context on the relative scope of the problem.” — For many years the likes of the Brady bunch and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) have warned that allowing law abiding citizens to carry or even possess firearms would lead to tankers of blood running down the streets and thousands more people killed and maimed. Hasn’t happened. As you noted, violent crime is down. If they are so wrong about this what else are they wrong about? Hint – just about everything. All of the top violent cities are gun-free zones, aka “target-rich environments” to the criminals. You also mentioned that the majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted. It should be noted here that the NRA’s primary mission has been, is, and always will be, firearms safety. The NRA has probably done more to prevent gun deaths than any law or politician ever has or ever will. Not provable but true nonetheless.

    “Can we agree that, NRA-engineered paranoia aside, nobody is going to confiscate everybody’s guns in the United States?” — Well, no, we cannot agree. Not on this point. As someone once said, “It ain’t paranoia if they are out to get you.” Rob, they ARE out to get us pro-gun types. The Brady bunch, MAIG, and a host of other groups have attempted, and continue to attempt, to involve every government agency that has any regulatory authority to directly or indirectly attack firearms ownership. The EPA has been continually pushed to ban lead ammunition and OSHA has been called upon to shut down shooting ranges. They have sought to involve Child protection services and Doctors. They want to serialize every round of ammo used in the US. Billions of rounds. In NY they have had a system in place for over 4 years, at a total cost of over $16M, to have a fired casing from every firearm sold in the state submitted and placed in a database for police use. They will be shutting that poorly thought out program down soon because over the entire 4 year span of the program not one piece of database brass has ever solved a crime. MAIG and the rest were wrong again.
    Several Congresspersons have attempted to enact laws requiring all firearms to have internal automatic locks (VERY expensive) or to have all firearms “microstamp” all rounds fired. Neither technology exists in a usable form (and probably never will) but they are pushing such technology anyway. Ok, so maybe they have decided not to confiscate all firearms, just an end run to make them way too expensive to own or shoot, too inconvenient, or just plan illegal, instantly making anyone who owns a firearm a criminal. We can’t have criminals owning guns, now can we?

    California at this very moment, in Senate Bill 249, is planning to outlaw all firearms with detachable magazines. This law will ban the sale and POSSESSION of virtually all semi-automatic firearms. Still think they aren’t going for complete elimination of all firearms?

    Take the MAIG. PLEASE! Do you know why they are against “illegal” guns? I mean, who wouldn’t be? Who could be for “illegal” guns? The problem, of course, is their real agenda is to make all civilian firearms possession illegal. They couldn’t call themselves “Mayors Against Guns” now could they? Just the fact that they won’t even expose their true agenda in naming themselves makes their motives stink. If they want to fool you about that, what else are they hiding?

    “Do news stories provide an accurate picture of what most gun owners are like?” – – Oh, absolutely not! Most gun owners are stable, law abiding citizens. If that were not true there really would be blood running in the streets. The MSM, however, paints us all with the same broad brush when any event happens that allows them to sell more newspapers and air time. Where are the reports of those who use a firearm to prevent violent attacks, robberies, and assaults? Almost never reported by the MSM because happy does not sell! Sure, you occasionally hear about an incident like the young lady in Oklahoma, recently widowed, who called 911 to report two men attempting to break down her door. At least one assailant had a large knife. The woman asked for PERMISSION to shoot them if they entered. The dispatcher could not give her permission but told her to “do whatever it takes to protect your baby.” Uh, duh! The police arrived nearly 30 minutes after she dial 911 to find a dead guy sprawled over the couch that was used to block the door.

    Rob, this kind of thing happens every day. You just don’t hear about it because it does not sell. You are an ex-newspaper guy. Am I lying?

    “…well, don’t we have enough [guns] in circulation already?” — Wrong question. The problem for those of us who believe we have a right to protect ourselves and our families is that in far too many places, we are not allowed to do so. In some cities you are not even allowed to have a ready available means of protection in your home. Legal firearms, if you are even allowed to possess them, must be under lock and key or disassembled, ammo must be in separate locked storage. Is the solution for us to never leave our homes? What happened to freedom and liberty?

    Am I paranoid? No, I don’t believe I am. There IS evil out there, however. Real evil. Read the news. The pharmacy that I frequent several times a month has been robbed at gun point twice in the last three weeks. You yourself have experienced some of it. Stuff happens. Do you have smoke detectors and CO detectors in your home? Do you have insurance on your home, your car, yourself? Are you paranoid about fires, CO poisoning, or car accidents? I don’t think you are.

    Here is my bottom line: Every day when I walk out the door I make an implicit promise to my wife and daughter that I will do EVERYTHING I can to return safely that evening, or, if they are with me, that we will all get home safely. I am fortunate to live in a state that gives me a little extra edge in that regard. Those in DC, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, NYC, Detroit, California, and several other places, including most of the rest of the world, do not have that privilege. They walk out their door every day, no more prepared for what the day will bring them than the movie-goers in Aurora or the college students at Virginia Tech.

    • Dennis,

      Thanks for the reply. (After reading your description of your background, I suspect you know my neighbor–but since he didn’t ask to be named here, let’s leave it at that.) Quick answers:

      * Yeah, I figured this thread might turn into a free-fire zone (ahem), but I could always turn off comments or disemvowel particularly obnoxious ones. That’s the advantage of keeping a thumb-sucker like this on my own real estate instead of playing expert on some op-ed page.

      * If I’d been carrying a gun the night I got mugged, I would have been practicing horrible firearms safety: I’d spent that evening having a few drinks at a friend’s house.

      * You make a good case for some jurisdictions trying to ban certain types of weapons or make firearms ownership inconvenient, but that’s still not the same thing as “taking away everyone’s guns.” I should note that SB249 failed the day after your comment.

      * I never worked in the Metro section of the Post except for a few shifts answering the phones early on, but I have never heard, even at the level of third-hand gossip, of pieces on people defending themselves with firearms getting killed because they wouldn’t sell papers. (They would. Plus, the resulting endless comment threads over whether the citizen involved should have pulled the trigger would be page-view gold.) You can, however, make a more convincing argument that papers neglect instances of gun violence in poor neighborhoods where, you know, that happens all the time.

      * Your closing grafs imply that my family and I would be safer if I had a gun. (Insert joke about Daddy buying a shotgun once his daughter turns 16.) I’m not persuaded. One, with a curious two-year-old at home I’d have to keep a gun locked anyway. Two, I already have “insurance”–my taxes help support an effective police force in my county, which has a low crime rate anyway. (Also, our choice of a walkable neighborhood probably does more for our health–in terms of getting more exercise on foot and spending less time driving–than my owning or not owning a gun.)

      One last thought: If it’s wrong to invoke awful mass-shooting anecdotes (Columbine, Aurora, Oak Creek, etc.) to justify gun control, I don’t know that it’s better to cite scary home-invasion anecdotes as reasons for gun ownership.

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