Tag Archives: gun control

Framing the Issue

Guns are the issue du jour right now, thanks to yet another school shooting (Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida) that resulted in multiple deaths. We’ve had lots of mass shootings in America in recent years, and we’ve also had a well-documented cycle of reactions that lead, eventually, to…nothing. No matter the number of innocent people killed, or the circumstances in which they’ve been killed, the cycle has been the same: outrage, intense scrutiny in the media for a week or less, calls for gun control, calls for mental health reform, lots of grandstanding and then…nothing. Until the next time, usually within a month or two, when the cycle starts anew and we all get a little number, shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. Is there a good comedy on Netflix to lighten the mood?”

The most recent shooting seems to have a slightly different feel. Mainly that’s due to teenagers. It ends up that some of the kids in the high school that was the scene of the shooting are actually quite articulate, and they’re impassioned, and they’re inspiring a lot of people to speak out for gun control. They’re so effective that the Fox News and NRA crowd are accusing them of being “crisis actors” (whatever the hell that is), which is an amazingly extreme form of victim blaming, not to mention picking on kids, which can only backfire on them in the long run.

When you think about it, this is an amazing turn of events. The pro-gun folks, led by the NRA and their media arm at Fox News, have been amazingly effective at framing the gun control debate for the last generation. No matter how serious the shooting, they always have a plan for framing the debate so that it moves away from gun control and ends up at promoting gun rights and identifying mental health reform as the only viable solution for ending mass shootings. The debate quickly devolves into a bunch of shouting, everyone becomes entrenched in their familiar positions, and within days we have a society that’s lost interest/given up. These kids seem to have at least ensured we’ll be paying attention longer, and that’s obviously a good thing and I’m heartened by their activism, but I’ve been around long enough that I’m highly skeptical their efforts will lead to a radically different conclusion.

My skepticism stems from the gun lobby’s skill in framing the debate. Of late their primary tack has been to say that in addition to mental health reform, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy(s) with a gun around. Because the current focus is on schools and the latest tweak to their scheme is to propose arming a certain number of teachers as the best line of defense against an armed attacker. It’s no surprise that this “solution,” which President Trump has endorsed, has generated a heated backlash and unfortunately, I think this reaction is the turning point that could lead us closer to where we always end up – doing nothing – than to see any substantive change in terms of alleviating gun violence.

I seriously doubt the gun lobby, Fox News pundits, and President Trump, ever truly believed that arming teachers was a proposal that would see the light of day. What they did believe was that it would frame the debate; it would signify the worst possible idea from the perspective of gun control advocates, and stake out a negotiating position for the gun lobby that would allow them to compromise and accept a proposal that would calm the gun control people and still be acceptable to gun proponents. I don’t know what that is, and obviously, it’s better than nothing, but I expect that if you see anything happen at all, it will be closer to nothing than to a solution.

It sucks being pessimistic, and I truly am glad to see these kids getting engaged, but I think we’d seriously be mistaken if we thought this was going to lead to revolutionary change. I guess a more positive outlook would be this: maybe we’re seeing the first step in evolutionary change.

For the sake of innocent bystanders everywhere, I hope that’s the case.

Living in a World of Red Herrings

Every time we have another gun-related tragedy in the United States, like yesterday’s killing of a reporter and her cameraman live on air during a morning news broadcast, we are all fed a predictable diet of red herrings. It’s tiresome and, worse, prevents us from even starting to address the problem. For those of you not from these parts here’s how things currently work:

  1. On a daily basis some Americans die of gunshot wounds for a variety of reasons, but on a fairly regular basis multiple people are killed in such a way that it makes the news.
  2. Before the gun smoke has even dissipated people in favor of gun control cite the story as a prime example of why we need <fill in the blank gun control proposal>.
  3. At the same time gun rights advocates invoke the mental health argument, i.e. “The shooter was mentally ill, and if he didn’t have a gun he would have found another way to kill him”, or the “if the victims were armed they could have killed the attacker” argument, or the “gun control only takes the guns out of the hands of honest citizens since criminals would still find a way to get them” argument, or some combination of all three.
  4. Everybody argues about it for a couple of days.
  5. We move on.
  6. The next tragedy happens.

Quite frankly both groups are right and wrong. They’re also being manipulated by various constituencies – the most obvious being the NRA – in those groups’ attempts to avoid any kind of rational approach to dealing with what everyone agrees is a national problem yet might require them to make some kind of compromise from their entrenched positions.

Since people can’t seem to be rational about this issue, and since I’ve long since grown tired arguing about it, I’m starting to take the following approach when people bring it up to me:

If a gun rights advocate uses the “he was mentally ill and would have found a way to kill them” argument I simply ask: “Given the choice of being confronted with a nut-case armed with a gun or knife (or hammer, or crossbow, or bottle full of acid, etc.) which would you prefer?” If any of them answer “gun” then I stop talking to them because they either aren’t interested in having a rational discussion or they shouldn’t be allowed to walk without a helmet.

If a gun control advocate invokes an “it’s all about the guns” arguments then I ask, “If confronted by a mentally deranged man armed with a handgun would you rather have a gun or a knife (or hammer, or crossbow, or bottle full of acid, etc.) to defend yourself?” If they answer anything but a gun then I react the same way I do to the answer from the gun rights advocate.

My purpose in asking these kinds of questions is to try and move the discussion away from the red herrings thrown out there by the gun rights/control advocates and toward a discussion about how we might take a rational, comprehensive approach to solving a very serious societal problem. Of course that won’t work with those who firmly believe that ONLY gun control or ONLY absolute gun ownership rights are the solution, but those folks could never be part of the solution anyway. The people who can and should come up with a solution are those who believe the answer is somewhere in between.

The Race from Race and Guns

Speaking, or writing, about race in America is almost always an exercise fraught with risk and anxiety. Because we each bring our own racial identity to the table, our own experiences and perspectives, our own preconceptions and expectations of other races, we almost always struggle with overcoming our own obstacles to express our views. Maybe we’re afraid of offending so we salt our statements with ample disclaimers. Maybe we’re enraged so we salt our statements with hyperbolic adjectives. Maybe we’re confused and salt our statements with conflicting viewpoints. Maybe we’re so wrapped up in our own experience that we close our ears to the stories of those we’re trying to talk to. Likely we’re a combination of some or all of these things and as a result our attempts at talking about anything race-related are uncomfortable at best. The result? We do as much as we can to not talk about race in anything but the most generic terms.

Then we have something happen like the Charleston shootings of this week, or the events in Ferguson and Baltimore in the last few months, and race catapults to the top of our minds and the tip of our tongues. We can’t avoid addressing it and that’s when a great divide appears between us. That’s when we most need for people who can articulate the issues in a way that helps us better understand them. but unfortunately that’s when opportunists, the self-appointed leaders of their constituencies, appear on camera claiming they represent the whole of their race and instantly closing the ears of just about everyone. (How long do you think it will be before Al Sharpton shows up in Charleston?) That’s also when those who would like anything but reconciliation, the haters, step up with a megaphone and barf their venomous propaganda all over the rest of us.

Then there’s the matter of talking about guns in our country. The reaction to mass shootings like those in Charleston (and Connecticut, Virginia, Colorado, etc.) is depressingly predictable and divisive. It is near impossible to have a conversation about guns without it spiraling into a heated, virulent argument in which no one seems to think there’s some point between absolute freedom to own ANY weapon or a total ban on weapons.

In its own way gun control as a topic is as divisive as race and when you combine the two topics, as you most definitely are when you start to address the shootings in Charleston, you have the recipe for a witches brew of misunderstanding and divisive rhetoric.That’s why it’s so important that we DO have people who can say what’s needed in a way that we can all hear and understand. Once again the comedian shows us the way:

And then there’s this from David Remnick on President Obama’s reaction to the events in Charleston:

Obama is a flawed President, but his sense of historical perspective is well developed. He gives every sign of believing that his most important role in the American history of race was his election in November, 2008, and, nearly as important, his reëlection, four years later. For millions of Americans, that election was an inspiration. But, for some untold number of others, it remains a source of tremendous resentment, a kind of threat that is capable, in some, of arousing the basest prejudices.

Obama hates to talk about this. He allows himself so little latitude. Maybe that will change when he is an ex-President focussed on his memoirs. As a very young man he wrote a book about becoming, about identity, about finding community in a black church, about finding a sense of home—in his case, on the South Side of Chicago, with a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson. It will be beyond interesting to see what he’s willing to tell us—tell us with real freedom—about being the focus of so much hope, but also the subject of so much ambient and organized racial anger: the birther movement, the death threats, the voter-suppression attempts, the articles, books, and films that portray him as everything from an unreconstructed, drug-addled campus radical to a Kenyan post-colonial socialist. This has been the Age of Obama, but we have learned over and over that this has hardly meant the end of racism in America. Not remotely. Dylann Roof, tragically, seems to be yet another terrible reminder of that.

Nearly all of South Carolina was in mourning Thursday. Flags were at half-mast. Except the Confederate flag, of course, which flew high outside the building where Tillman still stands and the laws of the state are written.

I’m with Jon Stewart in feeling confident that nothing will change as a result of Charleston, or the dozens of similar events that have preceded it, or the dozens of similar events that are sure to follow. Why? Because change comes only when enough of us want it, and right now there just aren’t enough people who want it. Too many people benefit from the racial divide, from scaring the crap out of people – “They’ll take your guns, rape your women, steal your jobs… – and playing both sides to the middle for any real change to happen. The odds of that changing in my lifetime are minuscule and shrinking by the day, but my hope is that my children and their children can fix what the rest of us have so royally screwed up.

Is the NRA Really All That?

The National Rifle Association's political clout has long been feared by politicians in the US, but that fear may be misplaced. From an interesting piece at The Atlantic Wire:

Much of the decline in the clout of the NRA is traceable to what has changed in American politics generally and the Republican Party in particular. The NRA is often cited as the reason the Democrats suffered massive losses in the 1994 midterm elections, by both reporters and even Bill Clinton. But a lot has changed since 1994. Democrats may have lost most of the South in those midterms and those southern Republican states are still where the NRA is strongest. As The New Republic's Nate Cohn explained, "pro-gun voters are lost to Republicans, and probably for good." Put simply: no one thinks NRA members would vote for a gun-toting Democrat. The NRA's political fortunes are tied up with the Republican Party's and the NRA's campaign donations reflect this: it supports vastly more Republicans than Democrats. (A comment from an October 2012 Hot Air post: "I’m still PISSED because the NRA endorsed Harry Reid. There’s ‘stupid’, and then there is ‘absolutely stupid’." The endorsement, in that case, does not appear to have delivered a vote.) And yet since the NRA's asendancy, Democrats have still managed to win national elections and congressional majorities. When Obama won Ohio and Virginia, it was by focusing on the cities and suburbs, not rural voters. "To win nationally, Republicans will need to reclaim the socially moderate suburbs around Denver, Washington, and Philadelphia where gun control is at least a neutral issue, if not a real asset to Democrats," Cohn writes.

In other words if you're a Democrat the NRA can't help you and they can only minimally juice the numbers of the voting block you've already lost anyway. In the larger national picture the NRA holds sway in places that are already heavily Republican so why should the Democratic Party worry about it at all since the group has minimal influence in areas that sway elections these days – those being the suburbs in large metro areas?

Here's a thought: the NRA is more afraid that it's losing its clout than it's afraid of a ban on assault weapons. That might help explain the craziness emanating from NRA HQ these days

An Adult Discussion?

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.”[6][7][8] 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.[9][10][11][12][13][14] 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.”[15][16][17] At an elementary school in Chengping, China, a man carrying a knife wounded one adult and 22 children, killing none.[18]

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.