The massacre in Connecticut last week of small school children and several of the adults charged with teaching them has prompted discussion of gun control in the United States. Again. This is a "Groundhog Day" issue for the country and sadly it seems that no matter how tragic the event that prompts the discussion, we can't have an adult conversation that explores the complexities of the issue. We repeatedly fall back into our prescribed bunkers of belief and refuse to consider the points made by those of opposing beliefs, or to explore the gray areas that are always present in these large societal debates.
To be fair this incidence seems to be a little different for a couple of reasons: mental health has emerged as an issue with almost equal footing to gun control, and even the most ardent gun rights folks seem to be a bit cowed. From Harper's Weekly Review:
The shooting was the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the sixteenth mass shooting in the United States this year, and the thirty-first school shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. “These tragedies must end,” said President Barack Obama during a speech in Newtown. “And to end them, we must change.” The same week, police in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, arrested a high school student who was planning to kill his classmates with guns and explosives; police in Cedar Lake, Indiana, seized 47 guns from a man who had threatened to attack a nearby elementary school; police in Birmingham, Alabama, shot a gunman after he wounded three people at a hospital; a man in Portland, Oregon, shot and killed two people at a mall, then fatally shot himself; two police officers in Topeka, Kansas, were fatally shot outside a grocery store; and a federal appeals court struck down the country’s only statewide concealed-weapons ban. The National Rifle Association disabled its Facebook page, and 31 Republican senators with pro–gun rights voting records declined invitations to discuss gun control on Meet the Press. “A gun didn’t kill all those children,” said a Newtown gun owner. “A disturbed man killed all those children.” At an elementary school in Chengping, China, a man carrying a knife wounded one adult and 22 children, killing none.
That last sentence makes a point that should be made over and over during the discussion of gun control: gun rights advocates are right when they say that a gun, an inanimate object, does not kill anyone without a person using it. That's a red herring, though, because guns like the semiautomatic AR-15 are tools that allows a person to do exponentially more harm than he could do with any other tool. You'll also hear gun rights advocates say that a smart guy like the Connecticut shooter would have found a way to kill even if he didn't have access to guns – that he'd go on the internet and learn how to build a homemade bomb that he'd then use to kill or maim everyone in the school. That's an almost laughable argument. These guns are easy-to-use, convenient and astoundingly lethal and to argue that a mentally disturbed person would simply build a bomb instead is an astounding feat of false equivalency.
There's another common argument you hear from gun rights folks – that the bad guys already have guns, so by banning guns you're preventing law abiding folks from obtaining arms to defend themselves. If we're talking about a gun ban then they might have a point, but when you're talking about gun control that argument is pretty much a non-starter.
Unfortunately when you try to engage in an intelligent discussion about the gun control issue you run into the stance promoted by the NRA, which stated in its simplest form is, "If you ban one gun that's a foot in the door to banning ALL guns." (See this interesting piece about the NRA's role in changing the interpretation of the Second Amendment in the last 30 years). When you start a discussion from this viewpoint then its impossible to explore the possible ways of allowing hunters, marksmen and those who would like some form of home protection to keep their guns, and at the same time finding a way to stem the flood of assault weapons entering the public realm.
On the flip side you can be sure that anyone who firmly believes we need to melt down every gun in America is going to have a difficult time hearing anything said by a pro-gun person with anything other than disdain. Were the NRA to come out publicly today and say, "We think there should be an outright ban on all semi-automatic weapons" the gun-melters would scoff and say, "That's a good start but until we eliminate all guns we're not going to fix the problem."
Simply put, in order for us to have an intelligent discussion about guns in America the pro-gun folks will have to listen to the concerns of the gun control advocates and be prepared to accept that not all guns are equal – some just shouldn't be allowed in the hands of any citizen. On the flip side the gun control folks need to acknowledge that there's a long tradition of responsible gun ownership in this country and that there are many people who enjoy socially acceptable sports like hunting and target shooting. If we can't get those minimal steps from each side of the philosophical divide then we're going to have a very difficult time resolving our gun problem.
The mental health issue is also worth exploring. Unfortunately our society is struggling with how to deal with mental health issues. Funding for mental health programs has been slashed, and we're struggling with how and where to treat the mentally ill. To be fair it should be pointed out that in the Connecticut case it's probably wrong to point to funding cuts as an issue since the shooter came from a well-off family that probably had the resources to get him whatever counseling is available. It's a good thing that our society is starting to address mental health issues, but it's a damn shame that it takes tragedies like the Newtown shootings to do so.
So here we are, again, dealing with an unspeakable tragedy that we can be sure will not be the last until we can have a serious, thoughtful discussion about how we can change our society to help prevent such tragedies in the future. And of course we'll have to follow that discussion with serious, thoughtful action. Are we capable of it? If not we leave our children and grandchildren a tragic legacy.
Update: Some hope that intelligent discourse is possible has been found at Ed Cone's blog. Commenters from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, whose normal engagement with each other rises to the level you'd normally found on an elementary school playground, found a way to address this issue seriously and with consideration of the others viewpoint.