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On guns

In silence I’ve watched the splashes of opinion on Facebook and among blogs on gun control. Mostly because I see the issue framed in such complexity that I knew I could not put up a comment with enough depth to capture what I feel. I felt sorrow and devastation at the horrific shooting in Newtown. I found it unbelievable and still can’t get my head around the loss of so many innocents. I’ve shed tears almost at every mention.

I also sorrowed that it became politicized so quickly. Such a national tragedy was something we might have mourned together–left and right. Perhaps because we were too fresh off a divisive political season such was inevitable, but still it broke my heart, and sadly once again we find ourselves with ideological polarizations promoting a caricature of the deep discussions we ought to be having. This will be a strange post because it will likely please no one. The trouble is I stand in a place of such rarity that you might write this in your book of ‘life lists of uncommon sightings’ on the same page that you’ve earmarked for unicorn sightings. That I am a liberal will not surprise you if you’ve read my posts. That I am a gun owner might. But so it is. However, from those two perspectives I’ve developed some specific proposals that may help frame a discussion that needs to take place about guns in America. We need to talk. Left and Right. Gun owners and not. Sadly, I fear this will not happen. The art of conversation is being lost. Ideologues even promote the idea that to compromise (an art that stands at the heart of our country’s founding and functioning– think of the Great Compromise in the Constitutional convention between the Virginia and New Jersey plans) is a sign of weakness. However, the way forward must be through rational discussion, good information, and a willingness to work together (another art that lies at the foundation of our country that has disappeared–as exemplified by a broken and dysfunctional congress).

First let me establish my gun cred (lest you think my experience of such is analogous to a certain recent political candidate who attempted to grab hunting chops by claiming he liked to shoot varmints.)

I own:

a) .50 caliber muzzleloader
b) .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle
c) 2-12 gage shotguns
d) lever action 30-30 hunting rifle
e) .45 long colt / .410 shotgun under/over deringer pistol
f) bb gun

Not an arsenal certainly, but enough for my purposes. So here I sit, an ecologist, environmentalist and hunter. (As environmental ethicist Rolston Holms II points out, ecologists tend to understand the role of death clearly enough they rarely become the kind of animal rights people exemplified by PETA and tend rather to see the processes of predation, including humans as predators, as natural. Part of the life and death processes that maintain life on earth. But this is not about hunting. If you want to get my take on ecology and death read this paper published in the academic ethics journal Agriculture and Human Values.)

So into the frey. I got my first gun at age nine or ten. It was a bolt action .22 rifle. My dad insisted that to use it we attend the NRA gun safety classes. Under their tutelage we learned that guns were powerful, dangerous, and a serious responsibility. This ethic was instilled in me so thoroughly that it saved my sister’s life. I had an empty gun. I knew that I had emptied it and removed the bullet from the chamber. I knew that it was empty. Knew it. There was not even a little doubt in my mind the gun was empty, I was sitting in a chair sighting in on things around the house. I came to my sister and I thought about pulling the trigger. Had a lesser ethics been installed I might have. It was one of those moments that even now scare and sicken me. Had I acted I would have killed my sister and ruined my and the rest of my family’s life. The gun was loaded. But I had been taught well how to treat guns and tragedy was avoided. Still, guns were a part of our lives. I lived in Evanston, Wyoming where we would walk through the neighborhood, with guns over our shoulder and no one batted an eye–except for an older lady who would remind us not to shoot the birds. We were after rabbits, so we told her we would not. So in that culture a couple of eleven year olds walking down the street with .22s was not even worth a notice. We knew guns and knew enough to be careful thanks to the NRA. I also served in the military–three years Army, two in the Army Reserve. Guns were just a part of the standard equipment. A tool we hoped we would never use, but we knew how should the need arise. We had extensive training.

On one side, my friends on the left need to start understanding why people own guns and find them tools, cultural artifacts they’ve come to associate with family time, Boy Scouts (there are several merit badges associated with boy scouts such as rifling, shotgun shooting and such, (I shouldn’t bring up Boy Scouts (I told my sons if they got their eagle they could not get a driver’s licence, but that’s another post.))) Most gun owners I know recognize there are legitimate reasons to have some sensible regulations on guns (Nate Oman wrote a fairly good article here). We need to find commonalities. To reduce the debate to an argument about whether its guns that kill people or people that kill people is epitome of absurdity from both sides.

You on the right, quit trying to say people are trying to take your guns away. That just isn’t the case. We need to ask hard questions about how best to live in pluralistic society that has legitimate needs to protect the innocent and also protect the rights of people carry weapons. Sorry, but this is going to require dialogue, not entrenched positions that view the other side as inherently evil. This is not a question of good and evil, but divisions about legitimate questions about how to best promote the needs of diverse groups in a sensible way, and for which compromises are necessary in order to come to some middle ground that both sides can live with.

Guns are a problem. Not just in light of the horrific big tragedies like Newton, but the slow, individual tragedies that unfold almost every day (Mostly among poor inner city communities that don’t have the clout to get noticed in our society).

So to that here are a set of six proposals from which to start.

1. Some people should not have access to guns.

For example, children; anyone convicted a violent crime, the mentally ill, anyone who poses a danger to themselves or others. These are people that both gun owners and not can agree should not have access to guns. Because not everyone should have access to guns there must be mechanisms in place to ensure that only those who should have guns do have them. This means that regulations will be necessary. But what kind?

This can be. and usually is, handled by regulations governing the sell of new guns. Utah has a mandatory background check. When I bought my deninger a few months ago, they looked to see if I’d committed a crime, or was wanted for arrest and such. It took about twenty minutes.

However, many guns are bought and sold in a huge used market. These take place at websites, gun shows, and among friends. This puts guns into the hands of people who should not have them. That this occurs is is well known and not really in dispute. This is a challenge that needs to be faced so that people can buy and sell what is legitimately theirs to buy and sell, yet we have to acknowledge the fact that some people should not have access. Self regulating is unlikely to work. There are solutions though.

One would be to set up a state run internet exchange (and don’t you in Utah dare argue the state should not be involved in this kind of activity. I had to go buy a bottle of brandy for a Christmas cake recipe and saw the massive restriction the state of Utah puts on buying alcoholic beverages to protect children from the dangers of evil rum–Do the children deserve less to protect them from gun violence?) Thus used gun purchases could be tied to the same background checks that are used for new guns and could be implemented for both gun shows and sites that cater to used gun sales.

Some may argue that this would create undue burden to taxpayers, but not necessarily, ebay runs an entire company based on taking a tiny percentage from such transactions. This could actually generate income that could be used to manage the program and even earn extra money to support police programs designed to protect us from this kind of violence, such as special quick-acting response teams, or teacher training on how to respond to such emergencies.

I have a friend who suffers from severe depression. He has acknowledged that sometimes when he is in the grip of this blackness that he has wanted to end his life. He says that had he access to a gun there are times he would have used it. This is where some waiting period would be helpful. It rare for a gun emergency to arise that a three day waiting period (like the right wants for abortions ironically). Also, perhaps a program for frequent gun buyers, like that used by TSA for pre-screened passengers, could be implemented to avoid the three day waiting period for those who buy guns frequently. These people with special pre-clearance would help make exceptions for those who feel they need it (These need to be done well, unlike concealed carry permits available in Utah who only make you take a class, but pass no skill tests–The idea that a bunch of people armed with weapons (a serious argument among some) who have rarely fired one is downright scary).

2. Hold people accountable for what is done with their guns.

Recently in Utah a child brought a gun to school and pointed it (unloaded) at another child threatening to kill her if she told. The eleven year old was charged with felony counts, but no mention has been made of the parents or others who let that child have access to that gun. This needs to end. If a crime is committed by a minor with a gun, how that child got access is relevant and we need strong laws to punish those who through carelessness or deliberate actions let a child have access to guns.

3. Begin to think about ways police can be supported in their efforts to prevent these types of crimes.

This could include training programs in how teachers and parents should act when they first hear shots being fired. I’m not sure any of us know what to do and some careful thought needs to go into how to respond in such situations and to prepare those likely to be involved in the proper response. The ideas like arming all teacher, many of whom, not having grown up in a gun culture, will not want to be armed has many difficulties, as there may be entire schools in which teachers may not want to be armed. This can, and should not ever be, mandatory.

What we do not need to do is start legislative efforts trying to anticipate and protect us from every kind of violence possible or likely which demand that people fear their lives with extra burdens to prevent the rare possibility of attack. I think about this every time I enter the airport and have to take off my shoes, because one incompetent terrorist once tried to hide a bomb in his shoes. This creates an endless cycle of stricter and stricter rules that are rarely helpful. I live in constant fear that a terrorist will one day stick a bomb up his or her butt and we are evermore be asked to bend over whenever I want to fly. No matter how carefully we prepare, those who want to do harm, will recognize what structures are there, and take actions to account for them to enact their evil intent. We need sensible policies that protect the innocent, but not an endless sequence of reactionary measures instituted to confront the specifics of each case.

4. Continue Health Care Reform.

Mental illness is real and often a contributing factor in the kinds of senseless violence we see in these attacks. Often in the US getting access to the help necessary is unavailable to the people who need it most. This is especially true of mental health needs. Effort in this area must continue. The US is far behind the rest of the world in this regard, in which, by every measure we are among the furthest behind in any measure of health care (except ironically spending).

5. Criminals should not be better armed than our police

Hunters and citizens do not need automatic assault weapons, bazookas, tanks or F15 Fighter planes. Period. End the perception that by banning these we’ve given up our right to bear arms.

7. End the influence of the NRA

When George Bush resigned from his lifetime membership with the NRA because of their ridiculous stances, it generated a lot of attention. Little has changed since then. The NRA has become a bizarre, bloated caricature of itself. Where once it promoted hunter safety and strong hunting ethics as I describe above, it has now lost all sense of proportion and makes pretend arguments that Americans are on the verge of having its guns taken away and argues that even the most sensible gun regulation is going to send us down slippery slope to a totalitarian regime in which no one can own a gun. The NRA really has become a force for nonsense and paranoia, but with deep enough pockets to sell their twisted perception of reality to masses of supporters that really truly believe their guns are in danger of being taken away. This plays out in Facebook type discussions that argue that first the Nazi’s took guns away and then started the massing killings. Almost always a comparison with Nazi Germany is inappropriate but it comes up often enough to be a persistent meme, but this is not only not historical, it’s nothing but a propaganda ploy by a very powerful organization that needs to go. It needs to be dismantled. Not by the government (I can hear the screams of the propagandized at that suggestion), but by hunters and gun owners themselves who understand that there are appropriate regulations that will support sensible procedures and policies that will protect our children and still allow gun owners to exercise the constitutionally granted right to bare arms. I picture hunters and sensible gun owners starting an organization much like the NRA used to be, before they became extreme advocates of an anything goes, including ownership of essentially military-grade assault weapons. A sensible organization that promotes what’s good about American gun culture without the craziness and congressional buyoffs engaged in today is sorely needed.

So there they are. We need need to talk. Stop the polarization and start real conversations. While these proposals may not cover all the ground, nor even ultimately be useful, I hope they will start the conversation rolling.

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11 comments to On guns

  • Well done, Steve. You’re a gun owner I’m proud to know.

  • Stephen R. Marsh

    Got it. #7 is “demonize a group you don’t like.”

    So, surely we are not stopping with the NRA for demonizing groups, right?

    Surely it is fair to call on Democrats to defund and to demonize every group that has advocated confiscating guns? Including the NPR personalities who did that recently?

    /Sigh.

    The essay got off to a good start, too.

    Though are you going to take away the F-5s in private hands, noting that none of them carry armament? Or just F-15s? Does it matter if the airplanes carry weapons or not?

  • Peter LLC

    As a gun-toting liberal resident of California, I say preach on. We bere in the red hinterlands might chafe at some of the most restrictive laws in the nation, but it’s safe to say they haven’t sparked a wave of fish in a barrel shootings.

  • Steve

    I liked the way this article started. Yes, I think we need to have a discussion. Yes, I think we need compromise. I was expecting a discussion of principles that might help us frame the discussion. I was disappointed the article jumped right to proposing a set of solutions.

    The constitution says “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” According to wikipedia, “The Second Amendment was relatively uncontroversial at the time of its ratification.[68] Robert Whitehill, a delegate from Pennsylvania, sought to clarify the draft Constitution with a bill of rights explicitly granting individuals the right to hunt on their own land in season,[69] though Whitehill’s language was never debated.[70] Rather, the Constitutional delegates altered the language of the Second Amendment several times to emphasize the military context of the amendment[71] and the role of the militia as a force to defend national sovereignty,[72] quell insurrection,[73][74] and protect against tyranny.[75]”

    Wikipedia also gives several possible reasons for the right to “keep and bear arms” as:
    * deterring tyrannical government;[34]
    * repelling invasion;
    * suppressing insurrection;
    * facilitating a natural right of self-defense;
    * participating in law enforcement;
    * enabling the people to organize a militia system.

    When we regulate the right to keep and bear arms, we must address how these new regulations will regulate without infringing on our ability to effect all of the above listed actions.

    Our right to keep and bear arms is not for the purpose of hunting or sport. It is to defend ourselves and our freedom from other individuals, other countries, and should the need arise, from our own government.

    So the discussion must include how to protect these capabilities while restricting the ability of “crazy” people to carry out acts of violence.

    I know it won’t be popular, but I think we must be able to talk of acceptable losses. Over 30,000 people in the US are killed each year in automobile accidents, but no one is suggesting we should outlaw private ownership of automobiles or that we should limit speed to less than 20 mph. There are also more than 30,000 people in the US killed each year by guns. CDC numbers for 2011:
    Accidental discharge 851
    Suicide 19,766
    Homicide 11,101
    Undetermined Intent 222

    How effective will single-shot weapons be in “deterring tyrannical government”, “repelling invasion”, “suppressing insurrection” or any of the other purposes suggested?

    How much freedom are we willing to give up in hopes of attaining what may be an unachievable level of “protection” from “crazy people” carrying out violent acts. When the crazy people switch to knives, will we register all knives? When the crazy people switch to poison, will we register all poisons? When the crazy people switch to gardening tools and farm implements, will we register those?

    Every course of action has its advantages and disadvantages. We must be allowed to address them all. Every course of action has its unintended consequences. We must be allowed to address them too.

    We must weigh all the options. We must find a balance between freedom and security. There is no silver bullet. There is no perfect solution. The best we can hope for is finding and maintaining balance.

  • JrL

    Pertinent to (2), I was intrigued by this suggestion heard on the radio last night from an official in Philadelphia, where most murders are done with guns that are actually or allegedly stolen: Require that all thefts of firearmas be promptly reported. Then the person who claims “Oh, that gun was stolen” weeks or months ago from my collection” can be prosecuted for failure to report.

  • don

    Good post, thought-provoking. I’m sure you’ll be called a scumbag by people who claim to love Christ, but please continue. I own guns, my family used to sell guns, but I do not view gun ownership as an unfettered right. We’ve gone from a sensible world of hunting and legitimate self-defense to complete lunacy. We don’t need to worry about foreign terrorists anymore because we’re so damned good at killing each other we’ve put the terrorists to shame.

  • jks

    Thanks for this.We live in a very liberal area. My husband likes guns and likes taking our teenagers shooting. My teenage daughter’s Xmas present this year was a gun. (Kept in a safe that she doesn’t have the combination for). I am printing this out for her since she is hearing the two sides be a little extreme, but it is good for her to realize that meeting in the middle on what both reasonable sides can agree on is the best way to go. This should help give her some perspective.

  • Thanks for posting on this important issue.

    I am as conservative as they come and enjoy guns as much as the next guy, but it is time for change. We’re losing the war on glamorization of violence. This glamorization coupled with relatively easy access to assault weaponry and mentally unstable individuals is a toxic mix. If we can’t curb the glamorization of violence on television and video games, and we can’t get a grip on mentally unstable people, then we have to approach this problem with gun control legislation. I’d start with restoring the assault weapons ban and restricting access to handguns to individuals with concealed carry permits who have passed a mental examination.

  • “ideological polarizations promoting a caricature of the deep discussions we ought to be having”

    …I’m so tired of this in general.

    As to gun owners/liberals. I am less than you of both, but a little of each. I hate guns, but out where I live they are kind of necessary. People in my ward depend on hunting season to fill their freezer & keep their food budget affordable. And if you go hiking in some spots nearby, better have a powerful rifle (or at the very least, bear spray) handy. At the same time, before my husband buys even one firearm, I’m making him take those NRA classes, and before any of my kids even thinks about touching a gun, they will also take them and any firearms will be stored in a safe with the bullets secured separately. Honestly, I secretly hope that all of our kids are at least 10 years old before we can afford such a lifestyle change.

    The way this turned into a gun-anti-gun debate just made me sick. I couldn’t read any comments or post anything about it. I read a few articles and felt really sad, that’s it.

  • I believe it is a sin to infringe on people’s right to keep and bear arms.

  • Cap

    Great post. These things definitely need to be addressed and understood better. I must say, I am proud to see that many people are starting to see in this light and are looking or even voicing a demand for change. I’ve noticed that there are only a few (comparatively speaking) that are fighting to keep assault rifles. Unfortunately, those same few are the most loudly outspoken people. I do see good change coming.

    Thanks again for the article. I enjoyed it and couldn’t agree more.

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