|Yow, free stuff!|
Now let me tell you something about me. I like shooting guns. I had a BB/pellet gun from the time I was around ten years old. I never missed out on the chance to go to the rifle range at Scout camp (yes, I was also a member of that organization). I spent my high school years in a rural area in Northern California, where guns, mainly rifles and shotguns for hunting, were pretty common. Some of my friends hunted with their fathers and owned firearms of their own. A couple had .22 rifles; one had a .22 magnum pistol that was a lot of fun to shoot; a couple had 12- or 20-gauge shotguns. A favorite pastime was to have a parent—yes, a parent—buy us a few boxes of shotgun shells and a box of clay pigeons, which we would take out to a flat, largely deserted area outside of town for some trap shooting using the shotguns that various friends owned.
Since my high school years I have rarely had the opportunity to do any shooting. The last time was probably a good 7–8 years ago when I was visiting my mother in a rural part of Texas and my stepfather brought out a .22 rifle and we went out and shot at a crude target we set up. I had forgotten how much fun that could be, but after we put the rifle away I didn't feel like I needed to go back out the next day and do it some more.
I've never owned a gun of my own, though I considered buying a shotgun of my own at one point in high school, so I wouldn't have to borrow someone else's gun to go trap shooting. But somehow I just found other ways to spend my somewhat limited money. I also never felt entirely comfortable with having a gun in the house, especially after an incident during my high school years in which a friend of mine accidentally discharged a rifle while unloading it and lightly injured a family member. This was a guy who had grown up around guns, and he was exercising due care, and yet this one time circumstances nonetheless conspired to remind us that these were dangerous weapons we were handling. Once I had kids of my own, the thought of having a gun in the house was entirely out of the question.
So why is the NRA looking to make me a member? Maybe it has something to do with the current push to tighten gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (and the Aurora theater massacre, and the Sikh temple shooting, and the Gabby Giffords Arizona shooting, and…). I'm sure they feel a need to mobilize and expand their forces. That's apparently why I "have been selected to represent gun owners in [my] area through this special survey". Said "survey" is one of those ridiculous pretend surveys that seem to be favored by right-wing organizations as part of their campaigns for donations and new members, in which you have a bunch of questions that are worded in such a way that it's pretty obvious how you are supposed to answer if you are not some kind of UN-loving commie scumbag. And, conveniently, there's a section at the bottom to fill out in order to become a member and claim that cool free pocketknife.
|Remember your credit card number,|
that's the part that matters.
I have no idea why the NRA is looking to me to join their ranks. Maybe everyone on the street got one, or maybe they got my name from the same mailing list that used to cause me to inexplicably receive invitations to $10,000-per-plate fundraising dinners for George W. Bush. (Fun fact: I have actually been to NRA headquarters. It's in an innocuous-looking building in an office park in Fairfax, VA. Were it not for the gun museum on the ground floor, you would not know that you were standing on hallowed, Second Amendment-guaranteed ground. I wasn't there for the NRA; I was visiting a consulting client who, it turned out, also happened to be in the same building.)
I'm really not the right guy to recruit for the NRA, though. I did say I like guns. I don't worship them, though, and I don't understand people who do. After the horrific mass murder of twenty small children, after all the mass shootings that preceded it, and in view of the general background of gun violence in this country, I don't see how any sane person can say that there should be no limits on gun ownership rights. And yes, I am familiar with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. It states, "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." We get to have guns, but we get to have them in the context of "a well regulated militia". Ooh, there it is—that "R" word that gets NRA types so riled up.
Having read up a little (and I emphasize a little) on the history of the Second Amendment, I accept that at least some members of the Congress that produced it, as part of a process of debate and ultimate compromise, did think that those arms in the hands of the people were there as a check on the power of some hypothetical future tyrant. And I disagree with those who say that the prevalent weapon of the times was the muzzle-loading black-powder musket, so that's what the Second Amendment allows us to have today; we regularly interpret the US Constitution to apply the probable intent of its authors to technologies such as modern telecommunications that they could never have imagined.
But let's be real. The US military has assault rifles, just like the "patriots" running around Montana in their camouflage fatigues. It also has a fair number of machine guns, mortars, grenades, rockets, artillery, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, attack helicopters and all manner of other assorted hardware that the camo crowd doesn't. Its members, insofar as they are not currently engaged in actual combat duty, train day after day after day in the use of all that stuff. The notion that some rag-tag guerrilla army of citizens armed with their Bushmaster rifles is going to somehow take to the hills and overthrow some future rogue government is just a childish Hollywood fantasy that is happily instrumentalized by the arms industry and their mouthpiece, the NRA. The NRA, whose letter that accompanies all of the aforementioned material begins like this:
Dear Mr. --------------
With the re-election of President Barack Obama, we must face the fact that we are at the beginning of a four-year nightmare.
You know as well as I do that our freedoms are in far greater danger of being dismantled and destroyed than they were four years ago—not just our Second Amendment rights but all the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.
The full weight of freedom's future is now on our shoulders…
And so on in the same vein. The letter goes on enumerate all the ways the NRA will fight for me. They will fight in Congress, they will fight Supreme Court nominees who don't share our interpretation of the Second Amendment, they will "fight to ban the U.N. from using even one thin dime of [my] tax dollars for their global gun-ban crusade." They will fight a bunch of other stuff as well, and all I have to do is send them twenty-five bucks. Such a deal! That's a lot of fighting for a paltry $25.
Actually, there's a bunch of other stuff I'd like them to fight for me. I'd like them to start with the Tiahrt Amendments, which prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Explosives and Firearms from releasing data about the use of firearms in crimes and hinder law enforcement in various other ways. Oh wait, the NRA supports that, so never mind. Or how about if the NRA were to fight its own highly effective lobbying in Congress to prevent the Centers for Disease Control from studying the effects of guns and gun policies on firearms-related injuries and deaths? Not going to happen, I guess. The NRA wants to protect me by making sure that practically everyone has a gun, but they don't want to protect me from the downside of making sure that practically everyone has a gun, and they want to make it really hard for me to research what that downside might even be. Maybe that's partly why gun violence is listed as one of the factors that helps to keep my life expectancy among the lowest in any industrialized country.
I don't need to cite all the statistics about how severe gun violence is in the US compared to any other modern industrialized country. You've seen those before. You know there's a huge problem, even if you don't want to admit it. You may not agree with me on the solution. But I hope you agree that to shrug and move on is not the solution.
The NRA and its adherents insist that the solution to the problem of guns in the hands of bad people is to put more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens. Put guns in schools, guns in churches, guns in offices, guns in homes, guns everywhere, the theory being that if I have a chance to fight back I have a better chance of escaping with my life when some crazed gunman, or just a garden-variety criminal, points his weapon at me. In principle that sounds logical. In practice I'm not so sure. If I'm carrying a gun, it's probably going to be a handgun; I'm not likely to go everywhere with my trusty rifle slung over my shoulder; that's just a little too cumbersome. I will have to keep that handgun on me and easily accessible at all times, though. And have you ever fired a handgun? I have. Not many, but a few. And I can tell you that it's harder than it looks to hit what you're aiming at. So I guess I'll have to spend a lot of my limited leisure time practicing at the shooting range.
Now, add the adrenalin of an actual life-or-death situation; even with practice, I'm not a trained marksman, and I'm certainly not accustomed to armed combat. What's going to happen when the you-know-what actually does hit the fan? As I contemplate that I think about the recent incident in which a guy took out a gun outside the Empire State Building, fatally shot a co-worker and then carried out a gunfight with two police officers. The police killed the guy; in the process they also wounded nine bystanders who had the bad luck to have been there at the time, and I assume those policemen train regularly with their weapons. But what if instead of two policemen it had been two random citizens blasting away at the gunman—the NRA scenario? I suspect that the collateral damage might have been a lot more than nine bystanders wounded. To spin it a little further, what if other bystanders had been armed, and in the sudden confusion didn't know why those two guys were firing in their direction and decided to return fire? This kind of scenario is why I'm not so convinced that all of us running around like it's Dodge City in 1875 is such a brilliant idea.
Consider also what happens to guns that are kept in homes for "protection". I absolutely understand the impulse to want to protect oneself, one's loved ones, one's property from evildoers. That's not how it works out a lot of the time. I already mentioned the NRA's attempt to squelch research into gun violence; apparently that's partly the result of a study by Art Kellermann of Emory University that found that guns were 43 times more likely to kill a member of the gun owner's household than to kill an intruder.
So what's the solution? Maybe first we should agree what the problem is. The general problem is a country awash in guns, in which gun violence is far more prevalent than in any of the other modern nations we would view as our peers (okay, I know that we are better than every other country and therefore have no peers as such, but humor me). The more acute problem is that of mass killings perpetrated by deranged individuals wielding weapons that give them massive firepower. Where do we start?
Maybe we could start by taking some of those guns off the street, and making sure that way fewer of them even make it to the street. Institute a real ban on high-powered weapons and high-capacity magazines, and not one like the earlier so-called "assault weapons ban" that was so full of loopholes that it still enabled guns like the one used at Sandy Hook to be bought and sold perfectly legally. Make it illegal for anyone but a licensed gun dealer to sell a gun, the one exception being that a private citizen may sell a gun to a licensed gun dealer (but not to another private citizen), and register every sale; have ATF audit the books of the dealers to identify any possible funny business, and let the dealers pay for that through their license fees. Prohibit gun dealers from selling any weapon or magazine that falls under the new ban; have the federal government purchase those items at the dealer's cost and destroy them. To pay for that, tax gun and ammunition sales, and by more than just a token amount—gun-related violence creates huge costs to us as a society, so let people who want to own guns bear some of that cost. Make all of the restrictions on gun sales apply to gun shows just as to gun stores. Prohibit all sales of firearms, accessories and ammunition over the Internet or through the mail. Require all gun owners to carry liability insurance, just like we require car owners to do; hold them civilly and criminally liable if a gun they purchased is used in a crime.
At the same time we need to better manage who gets to buy guns. Above all, we need to eliminate the many holes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that is the basis for those background checks. Even John McCain, no bleeding-heart liberal he, was for that once upon a time. We also need to better ensure that people whose mental state should prevent them from ever owning a gun end up in NICS as quickly as possible. Currently, if I tell my therapist that I'm angry at the world and I'm going to get a gun and shoot as many people as I can, the shrink has no obligation to tell law enforcement about that—that should change. I know the argument is that breaching doctor-patient confidentiality in this way will make some people less likely to seek help for mental problems, but if you can make a professional judgment that someone is a danger to himself and others and should not have easy access to weapons, shouldn't the obligation to tell someone about that trump the confidentiality argument? According to the widow of a victim of the Aurora theater shooting, that answer would be "yes"—I will be interested to see where her wrongful death lawsuit against a psychiatrist who treated James Holmes goes. Maybe instead of trying to keep that important information from finding its way into NICS, we should be working to destigmatize mental health issues.
Finally, we need to do something about the culture of violence that permeates our society. I will confess up front that I have no idea how to do that. Maybe it's simply not possible to remove the archetype of the crusader who takes the law into his own hands, visiting righteous violence upon the bad guys, from our national psyche. That's been there for generations, but somehow something has changed; I know that back in the mid- to late seventies, when my friends and I were running around with guns as an instrument of leisure entertainment, the thought of taking them to school to seek vengeance for real or imagined slights would have been utterly inconceivable to us. Nowadays when I sit in front of my TV and a promo for the new Schwarzenegger film comes on, much of it seems to be about the arsenal of weapons that he will employ over the course of ninety minutes or so, and I am mindful of the fact that these films, these TV shows, these video games in which the guns themselves are practically supporting characters… they generally come with "Made in USA" stamped on them. If I watch a detective show from, say, Belgium, or Australia, or Japan, at the end the hero will outwit the villain; in the American show the hero will as likely as not outshoot the villain. I'm not saying there's causality between violent media products and violent acts, but it's hard for me not to conclude that there's at least some correlation there.
Vice President Biden this week presented the findings of his gun violence task force to the President, who will be announcing some sort of policy initiative based on that. I hope that there will be some real effort to do something meaningful as part of that, and not just a lot of watered-down symbolism. And I hope that responsible gun enthusiasts will find something in there that they can also support. I am hoping that the nuts who spout that nonsense about giving up their gun "when they pry it from my cold dead hands" will get shouted down for a change. There have been plenty of cold dead hands already.