Saturday, December 29, 2012

Gun Control

As promised in a previous post, here are my thoughts on practical gun control. Obviously these are my opinions. I’m not any kind of expert, just a concerned citizen familiar with the topic.

I believe that most “gun control” is an attempt by society to legislate evil. It doesn’t work, because guns aren’t evil. They’re just objects. Society has been taught to fear and loathe guns. So they battle the tool rather than the wielder. It’s easy to call for restrictions on an object that you have no personal use for. I could for instance call for restrictions on cars since I don’t drive one. It would inconvenience a bunch of people, but since I don’t have any personal need for a vehicle, it’s no loss to me.

This kind of thinking is inherently flawed. I may not own a vehicle, but I benefit from the availability of transportation. Those who have no desire to own a firearm still benefit from their presence and the freedoms that make that presence possible.

The point in this case is that I don’t believe reducing the number of available firearms or access to them makes anyone safer. If you look at countries like England and Australia that have virtually no private firearm ownership, their violent crime rate is greater than that of the United States. Then there’s Israel where military service is compulsory and gun ownership rates are greater than or equal to ours; or we could look at Switzerland, where fully automatic rifles can be found in many households. In both cases violent crime is extremely low even though gun ownership rates are high. Guns aren’t the issue. People are the issue. If you look at the 2009 CDC death figures for the U.S., you’ll find that firearm related deaths came to about 31,000 for the year and automobile related deaths came to about 34,000. So you’re more likely to die from a car accident from a transportation device that requires skill based certification than a gun.

Instead of looking at gun violence as the problem, I find it instructive to look at its source. A disproportionately large amount of that violence is committed by a disproportionately small segment of the population. Namely young minority males in poor urban areas. You can track that directly to drugs and gang activity. Like it or not, certain cultures glorify violence and crime. So, if you really want to reduce gun violence, it pays to focus on those socio economic groups.

Here are a few things we can do to positively impact those numbers:

1. We can focus on education and urban renewal in high risk areas. Providing a consistently better standard of living and more alternatives to the gang life style is good for the economy, good for the community, and bad for violent crime.

2. We can end the war on drugs. Mexico is currently undergoing a virtual civil war as members of rival cartels fight amongst themselves. In many areas the government is powerless to stop mass executions and human rights violations. That violence spills over into southern Border States. It indirectly filters into our cities as the cartels seek to fill the immense demand for illicit drugs. We don’t have to make everything legal. The specifics aren’t as important as cutting the heart out of the illegal drug trade. Twenty years of drug war hasn’t reduced the nation’s consumption rates. It has bolstered the criminal element. Resolving this issue will reduce crime and related violence.

3. We need to hold states accountable for reporting mental illness and background restrictions to the federal government. Currently states are required to report individuals with qualifying mental illness and criminal records. This is so that when a federal background check is run at the point of sale, unfit people will be denied. However the federal government doesn’t enforce this requirement. The result is that some states report and some don’t. Rather than coming up with new restrictions on legal gun owners, we should work toward enforcing this law.

4. We can ask the media not to glorify people who commit sensational crimes. It’s one thing to be well informed. It’s another to know that if you shoot six people your facebook page will get a million hits and you’ll be the focus of a media storm. We should morn the dead and care for those left behind. We should make every effort as a society to make sure that people who commit atrocities and those who seek to imitate them are condemned and shunned. Doing so won’t stop bad people from doing bad things. But it will remove public recognition as an incentive.

Finally, while limiting access to certain firearms and accessories may theoretically make some people safer, it restricts the lives of millions of lawful gun owners as well. When politicians and activists talk about “an honest discussion of gun control” they aren’t talking about discussing the effectiveness of current laws and viable alternatives. They are talking about further restrictions with no compensatory loosening of strictures for law abiding citizens.

If someone could pick up every firearm in the world today and really and truly make the world a better place I’d be first in line to turn in my guns. But that’s not possible. Guns are an integral if controversial part of our society. There is a movement afoot right now that seeks to marginalize gun owners. It seeks to characterize them as archaic relics of by-gone days. It seeks to portray them as dangerous reactionaries who can’t be trusted with the responsibility of firearm ownership. It seeks to incrementally restrict gun rights in the U.S. until private gun ownership is a thing of the past. Please do not give in to this movement.

An honest discussion of common sense gun control must begin with the understanding that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are responsible and productive members of society. We are not the enemy. What gun owners have seen over the last thirty years is a relentless assault on our rights and our character. We are vilified in the press.

An honest and open discussion of gun control will only be effective if all sides of the issue can reach a legitimate compromise. That requires loosening existing strictures in return for concessions in other areas. That is the only way that the gun owning community will support such action.

The alternative is for these discussions to consist of anti-gun supporters lecturing the rest of us as to what new restrictions we should accept in the name of public safety. That isn’t a discussion and certainly isn’t compromise. Treating the entire pro-gun community as if we are responsible for the actions of a deranged minority isn’t just. Proposing legislation that makes no distinction between these two elements is intellectually dishonest.

Current estimates range from 39% to 50% of U.S. households owning at least one gun. The number of firearms in private hands increases by 4,000,000 annually with an estimated current total of more than 300,000,000. Groups like the NRA, SAF, GOA, and others don’t exist as extensions of the gun lobby. They exist because nearly half of U.S. households own a firearm responsibly and are willing to pay these groups to defend that right.

We are not the enemy. We are your neighbors, coworkers, politicians, and public servants. We represent nearly half the population. We don’t appreciate being treated as if we are the problem, especially since we aren’t. We have a right to exorcize our constitutionally guaranteed liberties responsibly. Comparing us regularly to mass murderers forces us to adopt an aggressive stance. We have no other choice. So the first step to meaningfully reducing gun violence needs to start with both sides understanding and respecting each other’s motives. Then both sides need to stop fighting over guns and start fighting against those who use them to do bad things.

Friday, December 28, 2012

On recent events

I haven’t written much about guns lately. Part of that stems from limited cash. Another part is that I haven’t had much free time. The main reason is simply that talking about firearms in the wake of the Colorado movie massacre and the Sandy Hook elementary school attacks leaves me sick at heart. The loss of all those people is a tragedy that words are inadequate to address. What makes such events doubly hard for those of us in the shooting community are the campaigns to curb gun violence that spring up over the ashes of the fallen.

I enjoy guns. Shooting is a relaxing social experience without equal. There is no malice in the act. It is a demanding task that requires great physical and mental focus. I leave the range clear of mind and peaceful in my heart. Like a good book, that joy is magnified when shared with friends and family. Many of my firearms are collector’s pieces dating back fifty or more years. They aren’t in my collection waiting to take a life, but because all of them represent a piece of history. Like any hobbyist, I love leaning on a counter and talking with the clerk about my latest interest. I love the science, the stories, and the quiet camaraderie that comes with firearm ownership.

I recognize that firearms are dangerous if not handled and stored responsibly. I also recognize that guns can kill. Whether it’s a .22 derringer or .50 BMG sniper rifle, all firearms have the potential to end life, the operative word being “potential.” Guns do not fire themselves. People cause them to fire through intent, negligence, or ignorance. Human agency is the motive force; the gun is simply the instrument.

Therefore, I cringe when I hear about a sensational gun-wielding psychopath. I morn the victims. But I know what will follow before the dead have been laid to rest. The cry is raised to “do something.” With the shooter dead, vengeance is directed at the tool rather than the wielder. Guns make an effective proxy for those seeking retribution. Politicians call for laws to protect society. Activist groups fuel public outcry while advancing their own agendas. The media prints the most controversial and sensational material they can. Those who call for a sense of perspective are shouted down. Facts are ignored in favor of a narrative in which guns are the enemy.

I’ve read thousands of pages of material regarding gun control including scientific studies, historical perspectives, philosophical treatments, and personal narratives. Every year I safely put thousands of rounds down range. This is by way of saying that my opinions are grounded in fact, logic, and personal experience. I’ve spoken with friends, family, even coworkers about the reality of gun violence. I try not to attack or criticize. I ask questions and offer constructive discussion. I don’t want to “win” these exchanges. I want to offer what little wisdom I have. I want to know if they have a new perspective. I want them to have the benefit of my experience. In most cases they don’t care. I can hear in their voice that while they may not want to offend me, they don’t want to honestly consider my point of view either. It’s just easier to believe that evil can be legislated from the world.

This is not to say that everyone I talk to is willfully ignorant. Deathquaker and my father are both committed pacifists. I have met several people that understand my viewpoint and choose to model their views on principals I don’t agree with. I relish conversations with these people because they challenge my beliefs. Like faith, perspective is meaningless if not questioned. I am not the best tactical debater. Being forced to defend my views in a rigorous forum forces me to critically view my principals.

Even so, I have found over and over again that most of the public is at best misinformed and at worst dangerously ignorant where firearms are concerned. You would think that with upwards of 300,000,000 guns in private American hands that a basic understanding of firearms would be impossible to avoid. Unfortunately, while the number of guns in the United States continues to climb, public awareness of firearms is marginal.

There was a time 60 years ago when you could buy a gun through a mail order catalog. Shooting was a traditional and publically accepted part of life. Guns were everywhere. There was no federal background check. You could simply walk into a hardware store and buy whatever your wallet would bare. You could even buy a fully automatic machine gun at cost plus the $200 tax stamp.

Since then America’s population has condensed around urban areas. Guns are not only more difficult to purchase but also less relevant in the big city than they were in the rural towns of yester-year. In some parts of the country hunting season is still a community holiday. But for most of the public firearms have become something you see on television rather than a tool over the mantle. It’s not really surprising then that many of those calling for more gun control neither understand what they are asking for or how little their proposals will improve public safety. They have little to no personal knowledge of firearms. What knowledge they do have is based on movies, video games, and factually challenged press accounts.

Further, the media and politicians have fostered the concept of the gun as sentient evil. Read any account of a firearms accident and you’ll see what I mean. The sentences are constructed in such a way so as to remove human agency from the process. It will say something like “The gun discharged.” They don’t say that the man wasn’t paying attention and shot his son, they say that the _gun_ discharged. This fits the narrative of the gun as inherently evil. As one of my friends said recently, you can’t control people. You can control objects. It is this desire to legislate against evil that gives rise to most of the gun control arguments. Guns are evil. Thus, if we get rid of the guns, then we will eliminate evil. It doesn’t matter how many times I disprove the premise, it is a safety blanket that the public doesn’t want to live without.

My range partner and I read a recent facebook exchange in which a mutual friend made two claims which perfectly illustrate this point. The first is that guns have only one purpose, to kill. The other is that nobody needs a thirty round magazine. Take a minute and really think about that first statement. Every day millions of law abiding citizens use guns for entertainment, investment, competition, and self defense. None of them intend to take a life. Many of the guns they use are optimized for accuracy, concealability, or one of several other rolls that don’t include lethality. My 1911 is set up for competition accuracy. It can kill, but its controls and internal mechanism are configured for maximum range performance. I give it its purpose, the design is simply a mechanical action for cause and affect.

The other claim is that I have no need for a thirty round magazine. Consider the genesis of that statement. What is really being said is that no law abiding citizen has a need for an object that makes killing people easier. In other words, I shouldn’t mind giving up my access to the tool because I don’t need it in the first place. It, like the gun it fits, is an agent of evil. In point of fact I can think of several reasons why I might want a thirty round magazine. But that’s not the point.

The real question is why should I have to demonstrate a need in the first place? I am a law abiding citizen. I play by the rules even when I disagree with them. Limiting my access to thirty round magazines doesn’t make anyone more secure. I was never a threat in the first place. The number of spree killers is so infinitesimally small compared to the totality of the gun owning public as to make the question absurd. I am not evil. Guns are not evil. Thirty round magazines are not evil. I can demonstrate theoretically and practically that limiting my access to thirty round magazines only helps those who might wish to do me harm. But again, that doesn’t matter.

I have given up trying to appeal to the public with facts and logic. It doesn’t work. You can’t rebut principals and misinformation when the other person isn’t interested in rational discourse. My experience has been rather that facts simply get dismissed out of hand and logic gets countered with feel-good morality which makes people feel safer, but offers little actual protection.

In response I have decided to leave the facts at home. They aren’t helping. Here is what I believe as simply put as I can make it.

1. People have an individual right to defend themselves. While guns enable bad people to do bad things, those bad things were going to get done whether guns were present or not. Guns represent a tool by which the weak and righteous may ensure their safety. Thus any bad things that are attributed to firearms are vastly outweighed by the good that guns make possible.

2. I do not believe that punishing the many for the sins of the few helps anyone. Guns are easy targets when the public demands action. But guns aren’t the problem or the solution. Guns are tools that can be used for good or evil by the individual. I believe that the overwhelming majority of gun owners do not pose a threat to society and should not have their rights limited due to the misguided actions of the minority.

3. I believe that gun control in all its forms fails to make society safer in any way. I am not willing to trade my freedom for a false sense of security. Murder is illegal. Laws, by definition, are broken by criminals. Those who would break the law will not be inconvenienced by society’s rules. If they were, they wouldn’t be criminals.

4. I believe in laws and procedures that truly protect society. Background checks, though imperfect, do serve a purpose. Most gun control legislation does not serve a purpose.

I believe that there are steps we can take as a country to limit violent crime and gun violence in particular. There are steps we can take that don’t involve further restricting my rights. I’ll go over that in a different post. I am tired of being made to feel as though I had a hand in every bad thing done with the aid of a firearm. Guns aren’t the problem. I am not the problem. The gun owning community isn’t the problem. Tragedy happens because there are bad people in the world who are willing to do bad things. I am tired of the solution to long-standing public safety issues being sold as a de facto condemnation of me and my motives.