Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dealing with the Distraction

I really didn't want to write this post.  What I wanted to do was write about A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (I'd promised in a comment here that a review was coming) and pursue in epistemological and practical and legal terms questions of truth, belief, knowledge, and proof.

And I will do that.  Just not today - in fact, probably not till after the new year.

Because it seems that for right now I have to talk about guns.  I don't want to.  Really I don't.  But there's just no getting around it.

It starts with Norm Pattis who explained the other day that he wants to go after guns and gun owners and gun manufacturers, to regulate them like we regulate cigarettes* with the goal of eliminating all or nearly all guns.  That led Matt Brown to respond by pointing out that guns are a mechanism, but if we want to find ways to prevent the sort of thing that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary (or a movie theater in Aurora or a strip mall near Tucson or a university in Virginia or a high school in Columbine or a sign manufacturer in Minneapolis or a church in Pennsylvania or a mall in -- my god this happens a lot) we have to get at causes not just tools.

So let's talk about causes for a bit.

Here's what little we know for sure.
  1. Most people don't go on killing sprees, don't become mass murderers.  Really, they don't.  And in fact, most of us will never be at more than a theoretical risk from someone who does.  (The theoretical risk is that it can happen anywhere, anytime, so in theory we're all at risk, though the risk is vanishingly small - which is, of course, no comfort to those for whom the risk becomes horrifyingly real.)
  2. Some folks want to call the people who do those things evil, but that gets us nowhere, tells us nothing useful.  Call them evil and there's no point in looking for cause.  They just are.  The Bad Seed.  There's nothing to be done. Might as well sit back and let God zap 'em.  Except She doesn't. 
  3. The people who do this stuff, have mental health issues.  Maybe something that falls neatly into a DSM category.  Perhaps psychotic delusions or acute depression or.  Maybe a chemical imbalance.  Maybe it's just a build up of stress.  But no one who's functioning in a healthy way gets up in the morning, takes a shower, has a bowl of Cheerio's or a couple of eggs, and then heads out to commit mass murder.
  4. These events seem to be happening with greater frequency.  And they happen more often hear than anywhere else in the developed world (and perhaps in the whole world).
  5. Typically, these spree killers are using what we've broadly, if not precisely, called assault weapons.  We're talking firearms, and there are a whole shitload of them out there.  The current estimate seems to be that Americans have somewhere between 250 and 300 million guns.  That's a bit under 1 for every man, woman, and newborn still in a bassinet.
That last point is true enough, but it's also a distraction.  Yes guns are a problem.  But they're not the problem.  The problem is that there are too many folks running around wanting to kill whole bunches of other people.  The problem is that we have crazy people who live in a world (partly of their own imagining) where extraordinary violence seems like a good way to deal with problems.

So we've got a culture of violence and people with serious mental health issues and some small number of them (and the number is small) decide to go postal.  (And you'll remember where that term came from.)  Ready access to guns that can shoot a whole lot of bullets without reloading makes those few people extraordinarily dangerous.

But for the determined mass murderer, restrictions on assault weapons won't much matter.
  1. Mohamed Atta used an airplane.
  2. Derrick Bird used a shotgun and bolt action rifle.
  3. Walter Seifert used a flamethrower and a lance.
  4. Andrew Kehoe used bombs.
  5. Julio González set a fire.
  6. Aum Shinrikyo used sarin gas.
  7. Anders Behring Breivik used both a bomb and assault guns.
As I've said a few times here (though not recently), "I grew up a Jewish kid from New York, and I don't like guns."  I also think that Scalia, for perhaps understandable reasons, got Heller wrong - not that he reached the constitutionally wrong result, that his explanation was wrong.  Which also means that his (and the Court's) explanation of what an originalist (of any stripe) interpretation of the Constitution's prohibition is wrong.

The purpose of the 2nd Amendment isn't to allow people to protect themselves from their predatory neighbors (or from grizzly bears, which Kennedy brought up THREE fucking times during oral argument) or to hunt or shoot skeet or even to fend off Indians.  The purpose was to allow for revolution.

It's precisely the sort of weaponry that even the Scalia's would ban that's the sort the second is designed to allow.  Fighter jets, predator missiles, tanks - you get the idea.

That much said, it's absurd today, and virtually nobody will allow for that.  Which is why Scalia and the Court wouldn't even consider going there and pretty much said those sorts of things can certainly be prohibited.

But if the purpose of the second amendment is self-defense and hunting and sport shooting (and regardless of the framers' language or original intent or original meaning or purpose or whatever, that's the purpose according to SCOTUS), then it would seem to follow that anything which does not reasonably advance that purpose can be closely regulated and even prohibited.  (We can argue around the margins of what weaponry does reasonably advance the SCOTUS-approved purpose of the Second Amendment.)  

It wouldn't get the guns off the streets or out of the homes. It's purely fantasy to imagine that Congress would ever pass gun control legislation that doesn't include some grandfathering.  There'd still be 250-300 million of them out there, and more to come. And the vast majority would be, as they are now, in the hands of sane, responsible folks. But the government could, were it so inclined, make it harder to get them - and get access to them. It's at least marginally possible that they'll actually restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines and the guns that can handle them.

Would that prevent mass killings? Certainly not all of them. Might it stop one now and again? Probably. And it would likely reduce by some number other odd killings and injuries. Not a bad thing.

Of course, there's that other approach, too. Wayne LaPierre laid it out at his press conference.
I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school — and to do it now, to make sure that blanket of safety is in place when our children return to school in January.
. . .
The NRA is going to bring all of its knowledge, dedication and resources to develop a model National School Shield Emergency Response Program for every school that wants it. From armed security to building design and access control to information technology to student and teacher training, this multi-faceted program will be developed by the very best experts in their fields.

Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson will lead this effort as National Director of the National School Shield Program, with a budget provided by the NRA of whatever scope the task requires. His experience as a U.S. Attorney, Director of the Drug Enforcement Agency and Undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security will give him the knowledge and expertise to hire the most knowledgeable and credentialed experts available anywhere, to get this program up and
running from the first day forward.
Now there's a plan.  Armed cops in every school.  A guy who ran the DEA and helped get Scope 'n' Grope up and running to protect our children.  Because school's aren't enough like prisons.  And school cops aren't already arresting, beating, tazing, and killing enough kids.

Lyndon Johnson is said to have explained why he kept Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General after President Kennedy was murdered.
Better to have the bastards inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.
The truth is that schools remain remarkably safe places. 

Still, I'm all for greater gun control. I don't think any sorts of control I can imagine being enacted would do much to prevent future mass shootings. But even a marginal reduction would be a good thing. And some sensible gun control measures would also probably reduce gun violence generally.

If what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary spurs meaningful gun control, that's terrific. But it's also, as I said, a distraction. I believe what I've said about mental health. The folks who do this stuff need (needed) treatment. Either they didn't get it or they didn't get enough or the right sort. When our approach to mental health issues is to wait until something awful happens and then lock people up, we're really doing things backwards. 

And we really, also, need to go further and find ways to get at the root causes of violence. We are the most quotidianly violent of the developed nations. We don't have the drug cartels running around offing large numbers of our people, but we do have just lots and lots and lots of individual violent acts. When H. Rap Brown said "Violence is as American as cherry pie," he was exactly right.

But why exactly is that?  It's not because of movies and video games.  They're the way they are because of our enthusiasm for vicariously experiencing violence.  And it's not because we don't pray enough or because the 10 Commandments aren't prominently enough displayed in schools and courthouses.  Most of the rest of the developed world is far more secular than the US.  And far less violent.

Part of the answer is surely our frontier heritage.  But there's more.  And we need to understand it and address it.

The NRA used to say (maybe still does)
Guns don't kill people.  People kill people.
That's a lie of course.  Guns kill people all the time.  The thing is that they don't do it volitionally.  We can make people safer by making the tools safer.  But we won't really solve the problems until we find ways to get at their root causes. All those folks who, in their fuckedupedness decided to kill whole bunches of folks.  They didn't decide that because there were guns around.  They went and got the guns after they had the idea. It's having the idea we really need to deal with.

We need to decriminalize mental illness.  Destigmatize it, too. 

And then we need to work on just why we're so violent a people.  

If we make access to guns a bit harder along the way, that's not a bad thing.  But if we think it's the answer, we're in for a real disappointment.  And a lot more blood.

Baby Blues - by Rick Kirkman, Jerry Scott

*Norm's suggestions for gun control actually bear no relationship to the way we regulate cigarettes.  We tax the hell out of a pack of Winston's, prohibit (more and more, depending on where you are) where it can be smoked, don't allow certain kinds of advertising (though as I recall that was a voluntary concession by the tobacco companies - if I'm wrong, tough, I'm not bothering to look it up), require a warning on the pack saying they're dangerous and insist that nobody under 21 can buy it.  Smoking is down, but the tobacco companies aren't out.  If instead we said that every time someone dies of lung cancer every smoker has to cough up a $5,000 fine and some tobacco company must pay 250K, which is exactly what Norm suggests for the firearms manufacturers, the tobacco companies would be out of business in a week.  And the numbers of homeless and desperate would increase exponentially.  Of course, Norm's goal is to prohibit all guns.  But the analogy to cigarettes is, well, I like Norm so I'll call it disingenuous rather than dishonest.

1 comment:

  1. guns don't kill people, bullets do