Vigilantism Is A Symptom, Not a Cure

A few years ago, it was all the rage to blame spree killings and mass murder on “the mentally ill”, as if the fact that someone shot up a church or a Denny’s qualified as a diagnosis. In the last few months, that line has seen less use, as the facts come out that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. We know that the people who most often do these things are white men from what now count as middle class homes, many of whom are simply angry at the loss of privilege and status that their fathers had. They want to strike out at someone in protest, and those targets are often politically chosen, not for the number of dead or the assumed presence or absence of firearms in the possession of others, but because the shooter is striking at some group he blames for the fact that his life is harder than he thinks it should be.

The new argument that has started to take over is, not unfairly, that we have a cultural problem, and that banning guns isn’t going to change anything. People are mad, and they believe violence is a viable way to express their anger. Drivers shoot each other on the highway, but children fight viciously on school grounds, too. The problem is one that is part of how people think, and some people own guns because they want to feel powerful; others own guns because they are afraid.

The thing that is missing from this argument requires one to think a little harder. It requires one to plan ahead 20 years, rather than thinking only about the next few. The idea that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” isn’t a solution to our cultural disease. That is a symptom and even a cause. The idea that a person has the right to inflict his will on others in public, that violence and death are valid solutions to interpersonal disputes is the thing that people are claiming to be the illness, even as they claim that the cure is more of the same. This is the short term thinking of an addict, who knows that the habit is killing them but can’t face withdrawal. “We can’t change society,” they say, “so we have to protect ourselves from it.” If you can’t beat them, join them. Only, “them” in this case is a class of person no one wants to admit they are siding with.

The thing this whole line of thinking ignores, though, is that policy change can herald cultural change. We can make something not only illegal, but unpopular and even repulsive. We can turn the wheel of justice, and it turns the wheel of education and public opinion. Where racism was once enshrined in the governments of certain states, politicians will angrily defend themselves against any public accusation of it now. We can do the same for violence, if we are willing to put away the weapons.

I bring up racism not just because it is an example of measurable, if incomplete, success in doing just this sort of thing. I bring it up because this same argument, that we have a cultural problem that laws cannot fix, was lobbed at the civil rights leaders of half a century ago. So, I will close this with a quote from the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr in a speech given at Cornell College and many other institutions of higher learning in 1962 and ’63.  If you swap the word “lynching” for the word “shooting” in this excerpt, you can apply it directly to the debate we are having today:

There is another myth that has circulated a great deal.  I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism.  I am sure you have heard this: “Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.”  Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it.  Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem.  Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition.  But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation.  It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.  It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.  It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless…

make a man love me MLK quote


Chemical Weapons and American Hypocrisy

Chemical Weapons

Popular fallacies in the debate on Gun Control, Part 2

Last week, I published a post about popular fallacies being used as debate points in the current, and hopefully unrelenting, effort by the American majority to change our laws and our culture relating to firearms and their accessories. It racked up several comments, and it was taken by one person as an invite to feed me even more such misguided wisdom. That post has been very popular reading, though I don’t know if anyone has read it and learned anything new.

Today, I would like to address a few more of the red herrings and strawmen that keep showing up on the side of people who just don’t want things to change for reasons that, generally, have nothing to do with the arguments being proffered.

First off, let’s talk about things that do not actually cause gun violence.

Television and movies do not create killers. They do desensitize people to some degree, and they do glamorize guns. These are problems, but no more so now than in the 50s, when television shows with titles like Gun Smoke and The Rifleman were on the air. The Lone Ranger was a vigilante with a gun before there were moving pictures in the living room. Clearly, then, the problem isn’t just the visibility of firearms in entertainment.

(Edit to add: Wouldn’t reducing the number of guns also mean fewer guns on television and in movies? The British version of “Law & Order” has to take in to account that the police in London don’t generally carry firearms. That is how they make it look believable.)

Similarly,  we cannot blame video games. Certainly, many gamers develop certain skills in coordination and tactics. almost none of these skills would be applicable to a mass shooting attempt. The controls for an X-Box are nothing like the trigger and sight of a real firearm. Gamers aren’t even shown the actual loading of a weapon as the magazine is slapped into place. The people who commit  insane crimes have access to real weapons and time to practice with them. Their time with the video game might exacerbate some instability in their brain, but it does not train them to kill in the real world any more than World of Warcraft trains you to wield a sword or axe. The skills are far more applicable to piloting a killer drone than to firing the weapons simulated in First Person Shooters. For further proof that games don’t create crime: the Japanese spend fully 10% more on video games per year than Americans, despite the US having nearly 250% of Japan’s population. Japan has 1% of the gun homicides that the US does, along with a stronger sense of civics and 87% fewer guns per person. Clearly the guns are a factor.

Let me be clear: the Second Amendment is not more important to American freedom than the First Amendment.

Even after I dismiss violent entertainment as a major contributor to gun violence, I will give you a remedy for the impact it does have: civics and empathy. We need to instill in our kids the sense that they are part of a community and that they have responsibilities to that community, and the community has responsibilities to them, too. We tell them that they are not alone, and we teach them that people are not superior or inferior to others except through their choices and actions.

We absolutely need to address the problems with our mental health system, but we just had a huge fight over healthcare reform, and it didn’t exactly come down on the side of massive expansion in services to the poor or in the area of metal health and treatment. Now seems a strange time to take on healthcare again, but I am in favor of doing more for those in need.

I purposely avoided one point in my last post: the seemingly ancient trope that “Guns don’t kill people.” To that, I have to ask: What is the purpose of a gun? If not to injure and kill, then what is the point? To look threatening? That comes from the knowledge that since the invention of the single shot Chinese fire lance, which was invented in the 10th century, people have been refining firearms to be more accurate, more lethal, and more efficient at killing, or at least seriously injuring, other living things. Sure, there are other ways to do that, but there are few things currently available to the public that are more capable of killing large numbers of people, and the things that are, like explosives, don’t have the same mythology. That is why we don’t see people emulating Timothy McVeigh: these crazy people and gang members and vigilantes don’t want to kill people, they want to shoot people.

“Criminals are criminals, and they aren’t going to care what the laws are”, I hear over and over, but we all know this to be untrue. Most criminals work pretty hard to not get caught. They care a great deal about the laws, and they do the things that get them the greatest reward for the least risk. If we make it harder to get guns, then fewer of them will have guns. If we threaten higher penalties for illegally obtaining a gun, then fewer people will be willing to risk it. If we start prosecuting straw purchasers and shutting down the small number of dealers who “loose” to criminals over half of the guns used in violent crime in the US, then we will have less violent crime. We aren’t, generally, talking about terrorists and anarchists trying to bring down western civilization. Sure, those people are out there, and they make headlines, but they are not the biggest contributors to gun crime.

Plenty of people with some grasp of history ask about how prohibition only led to more illegal activity in the 1920, and that smuggling would keep up the supply of guns. First, 78%of the guns used in criminal activity in 1994 that could be traced originated in the United States. Smuggling could not supply those numbers, and would increase the prices drastically. Similarly, most of the illegal alcohol consumed in the 1920s was illegally produced in the US, which is a difficult process requiring leaving the orange juice in the fridge too long. There is no correlation to be drawn between alcohol prohibition and firearms.

“People will just use another weapon, though,” you might be thinking. Certainly, there are those who will. That isn’t really the important part of the question, though. The question is what will changing weapons do to the victims. Gun violence is 5 times more deadly than knives. You cannot have a drive-by knifing. Just this week, a man went on a stabbing rampage through a college here in Texas. He stabbed 14 people, 2 were critically injured. No one was killed. He was stopped simply by one brave young man tackling him. This was a disturbed individual by all reports, having thought about a stabbing rampage for years. He killed no one.

Along with all of the crimes that would either be less deadly or outright impossible to commit with another weapon, we need to look at the incidents of where the ease of access to a gun makes a situation deadly when it would have only been violent, or the many that would never have happened at all. Domestic violence with a gun in the house is 5 times more likely to result in a murder; so much so that half of the women murdered with guns in the U.S. in 2010 were killed at the hands of their intimate partners.

In 2008, the last year for which I can find numbers, there were 680 accidental shooting deaths in the United States. More than 15,500 additional shooting injuries. Each day approximately five children were injured or killed on a nationwide basis as a result of handguns. Most of these were accidents, and not targeted shootings.

Finally, we need to address one of the most difficult areas of gun violence in the US: Gun suicides are almost twice as common as homicides (19,392 to 11,078 in 2010). Gun ownership makes you more likely to commit suicide. Again, the argument that comes up is that these people will just find another way to kill themselves. The fact, though, is that a great many people who attempt suicide aren’t addicts, terminally ill, or clinically mentally ill. A great many suicides are, more or less, spontaneous and unplanned. As the link tells it, proof of this exists in the history of England, where the switch from deadly coal gas being piped to residential ovens to less lethal and more sickening (thus less comfortable to breath long enough to be fatal) natural gas. In making the switch, the rate of successful suicide went down by about 1/3, or exactly the percentage that had resulted from people sticking their heads in the oven in the first pace. Similarly, would-be jumpers who were stopped by the police from jumping off the Golden Gate between 1937 and 1971, which was 515 individuals in all, were researched for the book “Where are They Now” by Richard Seiden. He found that just 6 percent of those pulled off the bridge went on to kill themselves. The overwhelming majority weren’t acting out some careful plan to end unendurable suffering. Similarly, then, by making guns less available to people in general, and not just criminals and the certifiably mentally ill, we can reduce the number of suicides.

One fact that is on the side of the gun lobby that you hear almost endlessly is that gun homicides are down, and down drastically, in the last few years. Many of the people touting that fact claim that the rise in gun ownership is responsible. That is odd, sense the rise in gun ownership is due almost entirely to the decreasing number of gun owners buying more and more gun, to the point that 20 percent of gun owners own 65 percent of the guns. The fact is that assault rates are up, as are property crimes in many “right to carry” states. So-called “Stand-Your-Ground” laws can be traced to several incidents where an armed individual seemed to provoke others, in one case leading to the aggressor actually being convicted of murder in Texas. It seems unlikely that he would have been this brazen if he hadn’t convinced himself that the law was on his side.

The fact is that guns do kill people. They make it possible for 5 and 6 year olds to kill. The NRA brags that tweens can handle an AR-51. They make it possible for a person in a car to kill 2 or 12 or 20 people without ever slowing down. They make death easy, and they kill people who would not otherwise be in any danger from the person with the gun. There is no other class of weapons that this is true for, because that is the intent of the gun maker: a tool designed to make killing so easy that an unlucky toddler can become a killer.

There are certainly other factors, but the gun is the common denominator in these suicides, infant deaths, drive-by shootings, and mass murders that no other weapon will replace. It is proven by history, mathematics, and the obvious evidence of the daily news. There are other avenues that might each address some of these circumstances, but none that will be more effective or less controversial. In short, real reform on gun ownership and accessories could make a difference in all of these areas and is much simpler than trying to implement changes to the mental health system, the education system, and censoring movies, television, and video games.

Popular fallacies in the debate on Gun Control

I am tired of the debate on gun control being sidelined by poor knowledge and the idiocy of “rugged individualism” in popular culture. I cannot sit back while this debate flails, because I have children and I want them to die of old age. I want America to get over its obsession with the gun.

The gun manufactures have an unprecedented place US law and US culture. They own one of the most effective lobbying groups, and manage to maintain the thin visage of a grassroots organization. They are free from any kind of prosecution, safety regulation, or responsibility for the use of their product. More over, the laws actually prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from doing anything to regulate any gun manufactured legally in the US.

The facts are against them, though, and they are up against a wall. People are finally seeing what an unregulated gun industry has done to the culture. We are mad, and now is the time to make sure that we educate the masses, too. To that end, I am now going to try to pull back the sheep skin from the wolf that profits on death.

First, let me address the biggest, most troublesome myth: that the second amendment is absolute and no regulation can exist, because the point of the second amendment is there to arm the people in their eventual rebellion against the government of the United States.

Did you know that the original text of the Constitution only lists one crime? I has lost of rules about how the branches of government divide up power and work together, but it lists only one restriction on the people. That crime is treason. The only crime in the text of the entire document is written: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

That statement makes it pretty clear that the founders never intended to enable the populous to rebel against the agents of the Federal Government. Any armed conflict would be considered a constitutional crime. There is no provision in the Constitution for “defending” yourself against the Federal Government.

All this ignores how silly it is to try and arm yourself against a force that can launch a missile at you from thousands of miles away, from a submarine that doesn’t even need to surface to level your house. You can’t beat the American military. Only the fact that it is sheer overkill and frankly inhuman kept us from turning the whole of Iraq into a sheet of glass. We could win anything if we cared only about the victory.

Next, let’s address the idea that background checks won’t stop criminals from getting guns. This one falls apart pretty quickly when you simply ask, “where are criminals getting guns, anyway?” According to the National Gun Victims Council, “Nearly 60% of the guns used in crime are traced back to a small number—just 1.2%—of crooked gun dealers.” Criminals get weapons from gun shops. They get them from dealers who “loose” thousands of weapons every year, funneling those guns onto the black market, knowing  that they will end up in the hands of criminals.  The ATF isn’t allowed to do anything about it, being barred from tracking the guns themselves or from keeping a close watch on this small percentage of dealers who create the bulk of this problem. After shady dealers, most guns reach the hands of criminals through family and friends who buy the weapons for them. This is called “Straw Purchasing”, and is a crime unto itself, though one that is rarely prosecuted. Other criminals buy their guns from strangers who are just looking to make a little money off unwanted personal items. These private citizens are generally allowed to sell to anyone with out a background check or any other form of paperwork. These are the purchases that truly universal background checks would solve by making every gun purchase take place through a dealer who would ensure that known criminals and the mentally ill cannot buy guns in this way.

Lastly, for now, let me address the idea of the “extended clip”. No one needs more than 10 rounds for anything other than target shooting, and target shooters may just have to suffer for the safety of the nation. If you need more than 10 rounds to kill a deer, then you need to spend more time at the range working on your aim before you head out to the woods. If you need more than 10 rounds to defend yourself, you shouldn’t be doing it with a gun, or at least not a precision gun; get a shotgun or learn to aim. If your home has been invaded by 5 armed criminals, giving you 2 rounds to scare off or take down each one, then you are already out numbered, even if they came in without firearms of their own. The number of rounds you have loaded isn’t going to stop them without seriously decreasing the value of your home in the process. There is no honest need for more than 10 rounds in a weapon at one time, and this is an easy way to limit the number of people killed in mass shootings and the number of kids killed in drive-by shootings. This is low-hanging fruit in the world of crime prevention, and it is being fought by people who are just too lazy to reload.

These are the kinds of arguments that are derailing the debate on sensible reforms to our gun laws and regulations. We have to do better. No one wants to take away your ability to defend yourself or your home, or to hunt for food, but we cannot allow things to continue as they are. We must start enforcing the laws we have, and we must empower the ATF to do more on our behalf. We have to talk about why you cannot buy a car without an airbag, which saves only the driver, but we cannot require a child-proof lock on a trigger, which could save a hundred children a year. Shouldn’t guns be as secure as cigarette lighters? isn’t it time we demand better form the only civilian industry that engineers human death? That seems like  a lot of responsibility to leave unchecked.

Edited to add: I had to write a Part 2 thanks to the comments here and elsewhere.

Weapons are for killing. Are we against killing, or not?

I had planned on doing a post, today, on gun laws. I thought I had waited almost long enough after the Jordan Davis shooting when the Jovan Belcher/Kasandra Perkins shooting happened. Today, that clock reset, and I finally got tired of the argument that it is ever too soon to talk about this. The simple fact is that it is too late. Too late for Trevon; for Jordan; for so many young children. So, I am proceeding with this post, edited to reflect more of my feelings this morning.

American foreign policy is to limit the proliferation of weapons. UN policy is to limit the proliferation of weapons. We understand, as humans, that other people having more efficient ways of killing humans is bad.

We don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. We don’t want North Korea to have a delivery missile for the weapons we know they have. We don’t want anyone to use chemical or biological weapons. Weapons are bad.

So why are Americans so opposed to talking about gun control? Weapons control is a huge part of American policy, both foreign and domestic, already. Why are there stricter limits on my carrying blades than on my carrying firearms? What are we really afraid of? Why can’t we be reasonable about this?

We need firearms. We need hunting rifles and some people honestly need a rifle of shotgun for home defense. I accept that. I applaud people who teach their children to respect the power of a firearm and to use them safely. I am not anti-gun. I love shooting, personally.

That said, I don’t see a need for private citizens to own automatic weapons, or even semi-automatic weapons. Maybe we can create special licenses for well regulated ranges to offer the chance, but no private citizen has need of an AK47. Making them available to anyone makes it easier for criminals to get them, though theft or through under-the-table deals. Anyone who wants to own a handgun ought to have to go through the Police Academy or bootcamp. I am serious. The geek in me leans on the adage that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and a hand gun is a lot of power.

Americans always end up having this discussion as though someone involved is a constitutional scholar. “The 2nd amendment says that I can own any gun I want!” “The Constitution says that you can’t take away my guns.” Let’s look, very briefly, at what it actually says, though. The first words of the 2nd amendment are “A well regulated militia”. I think the fact that the law opens with the words “well regulated” shows that there was never intended to be a hands-off policy. The founders knew that guns were dangerous and only getting more so as time went on. They knew that they couldn’t foresee the actual course of weapons technology. More over, US law does limit the kinds of weapons available to the public, and has been stricter about it in the past.

What we seem to be ignoring another very important fact that the founders were wrong. They were wrong a lot. Remember the three fifths compromise? Are we forgetting the disenfranchisement of women? Or the appointment, rather than election, of senators? We have corrected their mistakes and oversights over the last 200 years. That is a part of the Constitution, even before the Bill of Rights.

We have a gun problem. We have cultural problems of violence and apathy that need to be addressed, and it isn’t wrong to count them as the real root of the gun problem. Being angry and violent isn’t caused by the gun. We cannot ignore that access to the gun makes that person much, much more dangerous.

We need to have a serious discussion about guns. We cannot wait until the tears are all dry, because it is clear that, as long as we avoid the discussion, that day will never come. It is not too soon. It is never too soon to honor the victims by changing the situation so that it doesn’t keep happening. This is what we do after most tragedies: we address the problems head-on and try to insure that they don’t happen the same way, again. Why, then, is 2 weeks too soon to talk about this issue, when we know that our reluctance will allow it to happen again in a few weeks time?