Guns: Do Something – But What?

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Guns.  Everyone is talking about guns.  And not for bad reasons, either.  When a disturbed young man kills many innocents in their high school, well there is good reason for the topic to come up.

When it comes to gun owners in the U.S. there seem to be two groups of people.  There are normal, sane, stable people who keep a gun or three around the house for protection or who like to hunt or who enjoy target or sport shooting.  Then there are the criminals and predators and insane whackjobs who use guns in furtherance of their crimes or to hurt others.

The first group of people would seem to be no threat and its members get upset when others want to take their guns.  “We’re not hurting anyone.  Why do we have to pay for what those others are doing?”  It’s like when we were in grade school and everyone lost privileges when one or two kids caused a problem.  We all remember the occasional “OK, nobody gets recess today! thing.”  It just doesn’t seem fair.

The second group is, of course, an obvious threat and needs to be dealt with because they are the ones who put the rest of us in danger.  The guns take dangerous people and make them more dangerous.  But what is the best way to minimize the threat these people represent?  The knee-jerk answer today seems to be “outlaw the guns”.

I am not a member of the NRA and am not all that interested in firearms.  I am not a hunter but know others who are.  I have shot targets or skeet a handful of times, but it has been a long time ago.  And this is pretty much everything I personally bring to the debate.  You may also find it strange that an attorney is not addressing Constitutional issues in this piece.  These are, of course, serious issues but they are not the issues that everyone is debating today.  Which I see as another problem, but it is a problem beyond the scope of today’s Big Issue.

The Outlaw Guns argument makes me ask questions.  There are many big cities where guns are actually or practically outlawed.  Criminals and crazies seem to find ways to them anyway.  Yes, I suppose it is easy to smuggle guns in from the countryside or across state lines.  But will outlawing them in a wider area change this?  Other than to push the border of availability farther out as, say, Canada or Mexico countries beyond?  Drugs like cocaine and heroin have been outlawed in the U.S. for decades.  There seems to be no shortage of them here, however, and pretty much all of the stuff comes from outside the country.  I have a hard time seeing how the government will be more successful keeping firearms away from those determined to have them.

Another point that is not being discussed much is this.  It seems to me that the idea of outlawing guns requires this presupposition: That legitimate authority (ie, government) will protect us from bad guys or the criminally insane if we are prevented from using firearms to protect ourselves.  But is this a reasonable assumption?

In the recent school shooting in Florida governments failed the students in that school multiple times at multiple levels.  I have lost count of the stories I have read about how those in the young shooter’s circle reported his instability and obsession with guns and violence to authorities at both the federal and the local level.  Some of these stories are quite chilling.  Was he a danger to others?

There were laws and procedures which would have authorized an arrest or a temporary commitment for evaluation and treatment.  Either option should have resulted in confiscation of the young man’s firearms.  He clearly was a danger and many in his circle of acquaintance knew it.  But somehow everyone in authority seems to have missed the threat.  Or decided that it was kinder or safer to leave him alone.

He was reported to the FBI, specifically, by name, and with many examples of why he was dangerous.  Inexplicably, the FBI failed to refer the report to the local office for investigation.

And even the last resort failed.  The school had armed security on site in the person of a sworn law enforcement officer.  Armed security which, sadly, seems to have hidden safely outside while unarmed students inside were shot one after another by the madman with the gun.

“Government”, it seems to me, failed both repeatedly and spectacularly at its job of protecting innocents from a nut with a gun.  It failed in getting the nut diagnosed and treated, it failed in getting him identified so that his guns could be taken away (which is already the law) and worst of all it failed in its core function of repelling force with force by failing to confront the shooter.  But we are told that these same levels of government can be trusted to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and gun-fetishistic crazies while it takes guns from “normal” citizens who would hand them over voluntarily because those are the rules?

After a tragedy of any  kind here is a universal tendency to look to the government and to scream “DO SOMETHING!”  I sometimes wonder if fully half of the laws on the books are knee-jerk reactions to some tragic situation where a the bad guy ignored laws there already.

I once worked with an attorney who was far more politically liberal than I was.  However, whenever some kind of terrible crime hit the news, his tongue-in-cheek response would be “Let’s Make It Illegal!”  Did a complete whackjob get a semi-automatic rifle and walk through a school killing unarmed students?  Let’s pass a law to keep that from ever happening again!  I can understand a certain satisfaction from “doing something” but do we really think that this will prevent future attacks?

I could be wrong but it seems to me that there is not much bad that can be done to others that is not already against the law at one level or other.  It is illegal to kill people with legal guns.  It is illegal to kill people with illegal guns.  It is illegal to kill people with knives or hammers or rat poison.  It is illegal to kill people with bombs or with Ford trucks or with aircraft.  Yet all of these scenarios have become all too common.  And with the exception of certain kinds of firearms none of these instruments of harm has been outlawed.

It also seems to me that there are some bigger questions that need addressing.  Care for the mentally ill has been a low priority for governments at all levels, leaving the problem to the families of the afflicted, folks who are often ill-equipped for the job.  Does anyone doubt that the incidence of serious mental illness is decreasing, what with the rampant drug use, poverty and family breakdown we have been experiencing over the last generation?  There has to be a better plan here than to do nothing after one with a dangerous mental instability refuses care or treatment.

I am all in favor of preventing the next school massacre and making the recent occurrence in Florida the last we ever experience.  I am just not yet convinced that “ban the guns” is going to actually accomplish this.  Oh, it is “an” answer, to be sure.  But is it a cheap answer that will only expose the next failure point in our legal system and in our fracturing society? Because if the next mass killing is simply carried out by an outlawed gun (or by some other method) then perhaps it is not really an answer at all.

This is a raw and divisive topic today so I think it a good idea to remind readers of the comment policy here.  Strong feelings and deeply held beliefs are expected.  Comments of that kind, including those which may disagree with those expressed here by me or by other commenters, are encouraged so long as they can be phrased respectfully.  Name-calling and ad hominem attacks are not OK.  In other words, I want to hear from you, even if you disagree.  Just remember that everyone in the discussion is a real person who is entitled to the same kind respect that is also due to you.

16 thoughts on “Guns: Do Something – But What?

  1. Jim, oftentimes I feel like an echo chamber to your current event blog entries as we are very much on the same page with many things. But here goes.

    What I’m seeing in this debate is indicative of the larger picture in what is fracturing this country. There is one group of people who are attempting to look at the situation from 30,000 feet and offering rational thoughts. Then there is another group that is full of emotion, who are clouded by what is directly in front of them. Neither are wrong, but as one who know where he falls, being blinded by emotion often clouds judgement and prevents seeing the big picture. And there is no doubt some (many?) fall somewhere in the middle.

    There is also the problem I see from both camps but in unequal amounts. Disagreement is natural, but how one expresses the disagreement is key. If I disagree with you, but then tell you about how horrible you are (invariably using words having the suffixes of -ist and -phobic) I will never get anywhere with you. Yet we see it every day.

    So while I love the Second Amendment yet do not own firearms this current debate is simply reflective of our current society. The art of creative disagreement and trying to find common ground for the benefit of all is nearly extinct.

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    • Perhaps the disagreement at its most basic is about human nature. Are we basically good? Or is this a fallen world where depravity and evil are unavoidable? It occurred to me that before 1934 there was virtually no restriction on firearms, to the point that machine guns were available to anyone. There were gangsters (as ever) but no famous mass shootings that I am aware of. As you have deduced, I fear that the current state of things is more about us than it is about the guns.

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  2. This is a toughie. You’re right that no one law will stop all of these events. And I don’t think anyone wants to create a new law in the aftermath of Parkland that wouldn’t have helped Parkland. But if we can even just reduce it, that would help. In the same way tougher drunk-driving penalties don’t stop it, but do reduce it greatly, I think we could do something to deter many people intent on shooting up schools. I don’t pretend to know how best to go about it, but I do think we cannot in good conscience conclude that we should not try, because it might not help.
    Sally Shideler

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    • Some good points. You mention tougher drunk driving laws (which are good) but those focus on the driver, not restrictions on owning cars.
      Two thoughts come to mind. First I am concerned that governments are doing so many jobs these days that they are doing none of them well. If true, more responsibility for policing guns will be less effective than we might think.
      Also I wonder about the violence and mayhem that has been glorified by movies and videogames for years. Is it time to do something really outlandish like make 2 years of military service mandatory for every 18 year old? If nothing else it would create a universal mental/emotional assessment which would catch more people like the shooter. Of course this is easy to suggest, me (And my own children) being over 18.

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  3. I think there’s a third group of gun owners you’re missing: those who live in fear of the world and think they need guns to protect them and their families, and tend to fall prey to the propaganda from the pro-gun groups.

    I stupidly commented on a Facebook thread of an old college friend who lives in Clay County now with his family. He posted about becoming an NRA member in the wake of all this recent stuff and becoming an instructor there to help others protect their families.

    I said something like, “How much danger are you actually in? I lived in Indianapolis for 24 years and never once felt like I was under any kind of threat.”

    Holy frijoles, did I ever step in it. The man’s wife posted some highly reactionary responses, including links to terrible crime stories that happened in places nowhere near where either of us live.

    I chose not to respond. But what I want to say is: when was the last time you felt threatened enough to need a gun?

    I wrote about it a couple years ago: we live in one of the safest times in human history. https://blog.jimgrey.net/2015/12/14/on-safety-and-security/

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    • Good point, there is always going to be a messy boundary between the two big groups. I would tend to include your third group in the big 2, but closer to the border (On either side, depending on whether it is vigilance or paranoia) than where most of the rest of us are.
      I think the biggest challenge (and best chance for real success) is to focus attention on the place where guns and mental instability intersect. Those two don’t go well together at all.

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  4. Indeed that is a toughie. Not being American I’ll point out that I don’t speak for the rest of the world. But I’ll point out that the way Americans often look at guns is different than other countries. Here it’s a tool: wrench, chainsaw, gun. My co-worker the farmer has a 22 rifle and a chainsaw. My friend who got into competitive shooting had a couple of target pistols for a few years. I have wrenches, inch and metric.
    But in America there’s this whole additional layer of fetishism wrapped up in culture and national identity and fear that makes it very hard to understand to the outsider. It probably makes it very hard for you to understand how different the rest of us feel.

    I have had the pleasant opportunity to work in the States for a few months at a time, I have American relatives and friends and we have had some odd conversations:
    I’ve been asked by clients from Missouri “So, what do you guys shoot here?”. Well, uh, we don’t shoot anything here.
    Lunchtime conversation at my employer’s office in Idaho “So, what kind of guns do you have?” Well, uh, none. “But what about your family guns, don’t you have those?” No, my parents are Dutch immigrants. They saw enough guns during WW2 so they didn’t bring any.
    One co-worker was doing an installation in El Paso, the guys at the plant couldn’t believe that he had never fired anything so they got a bunch of different arms and ammo together at the range. He shot everything from a handgun to an assault rife, it was a very generous gesture by these men to share something that was obviously very important to them but it didn’t change Dave’s life. He found it interesting in the same way if someone had set up a felled tree to cut with a chainsaw. Cool, but I don’t need that tool.

    It’s very sad to see these things happening and it really seems senseless and obvious. But if that horse has been out of the barn for more than 50 years who knows where it’s got to? Pretty sure just closing gate won’t help much now.

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    • A appreciate the perspective of someone from another country. And I think that the allure of guns among the law abiding tends to be more regional. Certain parts of the US have a “damned if you are going to tell me what to do” kind of attitude that I find lacking in my Midwestern suburbs. How many in my circle of friends or relatives has guns? Outside of a very few, I have no idea.
      I think the more rural you are the bigger deal firearms are here. And the 2nd Amendment certainly has a following, no doubt. I sometimes wonder if the fetishism you note is somewhat exaggerated in media (which is fairly unfriendly to those who would belong to the NRA). I don’t know – I’m sure those people exist but I don’t think I know any of them.
      It would also seem that the real-life examples you have cited are part of my group of law-abiders.
      There is no question that we have trouble with crime in cities and with a slow moving parade of nuts who kill innocents for kicks. My engineering/lawyering mindset wants to be able to solve a problem. But when unpredictable people are the problem, I don’t know if there is a ready solution.

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  5. Here goes….

    The one thing that stands out to me is that we don’t strictly address school shootings or mass shootings or any of that. We wrap all them together in a tangled mess like a ball of yarn. I happen to believe that the folks who perpetrate these kinds of things are similar to the religious zealots we see in the Middle East, for example. Willing to blow up themselves and others for Allah or some other equally contradictory reason. Along the way, they get their 15 minutes of fame or their 72 virgins, whichever comes first. I feel a need to explain that I chose that particular example because I feel that it’s the most extreme one I can think of. FWIW, I have Muslim friends and most likely relatives; part of my ancestry is the former Yugoslavia. Until Tito died, it was not unusual (and still isn’t) for Christians and Muslims to intermarry. Possibly I could have thought of another kind of zealot, but not in modern times that we could relate to easily.
    I’m sure there are other examples, but the fact remains these folks are narcissists of the highest order; they specifically choose targets that will get them the most notoriety and are the easiest to attack; with (generally) the least amount of resistance. You notice these folks never seem to want to try and walk into a police station or National Guard armory and try to fire off a few rounds. Once we fortify our schools like army barracks, these arseholes will target day cares and the like; they want the notoriety but don’t want to be stopped easily.

    WRT the folks calling for a ban on AR-15s or semi automatic weapons, it’s a sad coincidence that this is the weapon of choice for US maniacs. If we were to outlaw all rifles, these low-lifes would find another way to get their notoriety. Yes, I called a spade a spade, these people are so full of themselves they can’t hurt themselves without hurting lots of other people. To me, this is an indication of how messed up parts of our society are.

    We were a hunting family, we always had long guns in the house. My father had been in the military and was very strict about our handling of weapons and ammo. I have a healthy respect for weapons, part of it through my own experiences and the other imparted through my father’s examples.

    It’s been interesting to read others responses to your post; particularly Jim Grey’s and Doug D’s experiences. I grew up in a steel town on the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania. The area always had a bit of a “beyond the reach of the law” feel to it. For many years, there was no reciprocity between the counties and cities along the state line; John Dillinger was reputed to have robbed a bank across the state line in Pennsylvania, he came and hid out in my little town in Ohio until the local authorities assumed he’d left the area. There were plenty of legends growing up about the Prohibition days (unsubstiantiated) and the ongoing war between the Cleveland and Pittsburgh mafia factions (true). For many innocents or people who just wanted to be left alone, having your personal firearm was sometimes your only guarantee of a relatively peaceful life.

    I lived in some of the less desirable areas of the Youngstown area while in college, I kept a 20-gauge shotgun under my bed. I knew several people who carried two pistols, because they were afraid they’d lose or be stripped their first one. I believe that the second amendment allows folks to provide for their own protection, because frankly, the government (local police) aren’t going to be able to react quickly enough when the stuff hits the fan. Unlike the militia idiots, I don’t think that a bunch of suburban pencil pushers would be able to keep the government from rescinding our rights, even if we were all armed with Uzis and unlimited rounds, the government has firepower far beyond anyone’s imagination and capabilities. Spend some time studying an A-10 Warthog, you’ll get the idea…

    That said, I feel for the people who are affected by the shootings in Florida and now in Michigan. If it were my child involved in those actions, I would be highly upset. I would want to ban anything beyond a water pistol (and maybe those, too) and incinerate anyone who said otherwise. These folks just want to be noticed and they don’t care how. We need to take away the prize at the end, the notoriety. We need to discredit these sick people, not sensationalize or inadvertently promote their lame agenda.

    The media is complicit in promoting this kind of thing. They stop all other coverage and use long focus lenses on the school building, showing the unfortunate (but otherwise alive) kids running out of the school, hands above their heads as if they were enemy soldiers surrendering to conquering troops. Hours and hours of coverage, talking a lot, but saying little. They stay on-air because of ratings, I guess. They have hours to fill and can only speculate or project a motive. There’s little substance, but a lot of chin music, as they say in German. It has an unintended effect, breeding more sick minds whose only goal is to get that nugget, that notoriety, even if it’s only for a little while.

    This won’t be the last mass shooting we see (it already isn’t thanks to an apparent domestic argument that happened at CMU), no matter what the kids in Florida do. Gun control is a political football, like abortion or immigration. Great for getting the “base” riled up, like a bunch of monkeys in the jungle. These incidents are too good of a tool to inspire useless debates on TV and the internet; no real movement or resolution, but a great way to bash the “other” and score invisible points in an endless political game that means little.

    Sorry for the rant…

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    • Many excellent points, George, and I don’t think I have a quarrel with anything you say. I don’t think enough people think what happens if we outlaw the guns and guard the schools. Whatever it is it won’t be good.

      The hours and hours of not-news coverage is a problem for sure. These perpetrators are badly disturbed.

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      • Thanks George, you raise some good points.

        As in a lot of difficult issues how we were raised and our personal experiences color the lens through which we view the world.

        Malcolm Gladwell raised a similar point about fame and validation in his book “The Tipping Point” although I think his main example was teen suicide. Once it happens in a population enough it becomes validated as an accepted way of dealing with your personal problems, and the departed person gets lots of attention. Kind of the same thing here.

        Also I really like A-10 Warthogs, although that’s another specialized tool I don’t need. 🙂

        If I can throw in one more Canadian example (does this help? hope so) our most infamous recent firearm attack was in 2014 when a loser/mentally ill/drug addict attacked the national war memorial. Sadly one soldier guarding the memorial was killed, and the perp was killed by security after entering the parliament building. He was armed with a single lever action rifle.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_shootings_at_Parliament_Hill,_Ottawa

        At any rate I appreciate the tone of this, it’s helpful to hear some considered opinions rather than the unyielding shouting that can be found just about anywhere else. Peace.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting read. A few years ago I would have fallen on the pro-gun side of the issue, arguing against knee-jerk political reactions or legislation on the issue and saying that measures other than gun restriction were what was needed to prevent events like this from happening in the future.

    As time as gone by, however, I have increasingly drifted towards the “I don’t know anymore about either” stance on this issue (and a lot of others, if I’m honest).

    There’s still the part of me that believes the 2nd Amendment is important; that talk of restricting it or doing away with it tends to go hand in hand with a general lack of respect for the constitution (in my experience folks who disregard the 2nd Amendment also care little for the 4th or 10th.), and that restricting legal gun ownership will only mean that murderers and maniacs will find other ways to kill a bunch of people (I think a lot of what happened in Europe over the past few years, in which folks plowed trucks into crowds of people or stole automatic weapons that they theoretically shouldn’t have been able to get, bears that out). And there’s also, as you point out, a problem with current procedures not being followed. You’re right that if the FBI and local authorities had reported things as necessary, this might not have happened. The same goes for the Texas church shooting last year, in which the murderer’s record of assault (which should have barred him from obtaining the weapons he used in the massacre) was not properly filed with the right agencies — an egregious oversight — thus allowing him to obtain weapons. At the end of the day, regardless of what rules are in place, there is no fix for incompetence.

    On the other hand, though; there’s the part of me that’s starting to think that it shouldn’t be too easy to get a gun, that maybe 19 *is* too young an age for most people to own their first firearm, and that some folks wouldn’t kill if there were more restrictions in place. Increasing the age required for ownership or lengthening the amount of time or increasing the number of hoops to jump through to get a gun wouldn’t stop every person determined to kill, but it may be just inconvenient enough though to prevent some of the spontaneous snaps of violence and insanity that seemingly drives some of the massacres we’ve seen as of late. I’ve been fortunate enough not to live in any of the areas where these shootings have taken place, but it does naw at me at times that any day at any moment, where I live could be the next place to have a mass shooting. And a part of me does want something to be done about that. And while I get where some of the more pro-gun people are coming from on it, their argument that if everyone had a gun, there would be less mass murders doesn’t really sit well with me.

    So again, I just don’t know. It’s not an easy question.

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful response. Like you I am not as knee-jerk anti any restrictions as I used to be. After all, things like sawed-off shotguns, silencers and full automatic weapons are not allowed without certain licenses (if at all). But there seems to be no shortage of those things among the criminal element, either. I am starting to fear that our “nationalizing” of our lives is taking a toll. Even a generation or two ago, it was uncommon to leave the community where you grew up. Now “a good job” can take us anywhere and often does. People are transplanted here and there and after awhile there is no community anymore. People don’t know who is really crazy and dangerous and who is not. Also it is so much easier to attack strangers than someone you know (which is where the “crimes of passion” occur). Drug use, family breakdown and fewer and fewer people who believe in any consequence for bad actions after this life is over are other things I see that make these kinds of attacks more likely. Everyone wants a solution, but I don’t know what the solution is.

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  7. Jim, I grew up hunting and still have the .22 my father let me shot when I was five. I now have guns in every level of my house. None of them have high capacity magazine and none are semi automatic, yet I feel very secure. AR-15s are a weapon of recent times and have no purpose in either hunting or self defense. This is a weapon of disturbed individuals whether psychopaths or merely paranoid. Only because of the availability of weapons of this nature do we have the mass killings we have today. The Las Vegas shooter got off approximately 1100 rounds in less than 10 minutes and hit over 500 people, 58 fatally. What about him would have given anyone a clue that he would do something like this?
    The people who believe that it is there right to have weapons of this nature are do not care about the innocent lives who are expended as a consequence. They are complicit in these massacres.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I struggle a bit with this issue myself. I am not sure I can agree with your final thought, though. The 2nd Amendment guarantees certain rights and (assuming the right to own an AR-15 is one of them) recognizing the right doesn’t mean someone cannot feel sorrow when that right is abused.
      We have all been following the story about the guy in Texas leaving bombs. Disturbed individuals have many ways of causing death and destruction.

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