Santa Monica College and the Leaky Pipe Theory of Gun Violence

In a country plagued by scandals, both real and imagined, our collective focus can easily be drawn to each shiny new outrage du jour, with our dwindling attention spans unable to linger too long on the horrors of yesterday.  Then, a fresh new tragedy brings our focus back just before it can fade away.

Such was the case with the mass shooting in Santa Monica, California on Friday.  Though the specifics may have differed, this seemed to be on the surface much like any of the other in the parade of recent slaughters—multiple victims, a cache of weapons and ammunition, questions of mental health and a trail of blood and bodies.  But, it is this very similarity that is so noteworthy.  If it all seemed familiar, it is because it is.  We have seen this before.  And we apparently have resigned ourselves to the reality that we will see it again.  And we will if we do nothing to stop it.

First, a brief recap.  On Friday morning, a 23-year old man shot and killed his father and brother in their home before setting the house on fire.  He then hijacked a car and forced a woman to drive him to nearby Santa Monica College, but not before shooting at another woman driver near the house as well as numerous pedestrians and a city bus, leaving four people injured.  Once at the college, he shot and killed a groundskeeper and his daughter (the man died on the scene and his daughter died Sunday morning in a local hospital).  He shot another woman on the campus before entering the school’s library, where he fired 70 rounds at the students there before being shot and killed himself by police.

In all, five innocent people and the shooter lost their lives and many others were injured.  And, beyond that, a college campus and an entire city were terrified.  But nationally, this was little more than a five-minute segment on the news, quickly forgotten for sexier scandals.

For the sake of disclosure, let me say that I was in Santa Monica at the time of the shooting.  I work mere blocks from the college where the shooting spree ended.  Though I did not hear the gunshots, I definitely heard the sirens of responders and the deafening whir of the helicopters that rushed to the scene.  I was close enough to see the roadblocks and the police tape that crossed all the streets surrounding the school.  And I was certainly close enough to wonder what I would do if I was staring down the barrel of a gun held by a man determined to kill me.

But none of that scared me as much as the photos released by the Santa Monica Police, because while it may be easy to dismiss the actions of a shooter with alleged mental health issues as an aberration (though these sorts of aberrations seem to be happening more and more often), it is far harder to ignore the equipment with which he carried out his plan.

Look at this picture:

SMCShooter

This is a man with bad intentions.  He is a civilian, but he wears protective gear associated with police SWAT teams or the military.  Yet, no flags were raised when he acquired it.

Now, look at this picture:

SMCGuns

This is just some of the cache of weapons and ammunition assembled by the shooter.  The AP reports that he carried an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle, a .44 revolver and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition in several cartridges.  The revolver, though potentially deadly, is the least worrying of the bunch, as it is slow and difficult to reload (at least in comparison to the rifle).

Much more troubling are the rifle and the ammunition.  The shooter (for the record, he has been identified, but I have no interest in using his name, as it is his actions and not his identity that concern me) possessed a weapon capable of firing a very large amount of bullets in a very short amount of time, as well as enough bullets to kill more than a thousand people.  Of course, that assumes that every bullet found its target, which is highly unlikely.  But, the weapon he used has proven popular in recent mass shootings including those at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school specifically because it is so easy to fire quickly and accurately.  And again, he was apparently able to acquire all of it without raising any suspicions.

Recent federal gun proposals would have banned the type of gun he used, as well as the extended magazines he carried.  And, background checks would have prevented someone with his history of mental illness from legally purchasing a weapon or ammunition.  But, that doesn’t matter because gun advocates fought to defeat the proposals.

But, in California, we do have stricter gun laws that should make it impossible for a shooter like this to do what he did.  Yet, he did it.

So, what does this mean?  Are gun laws ineffective?  Or, can they prevent shootings like this from happening?

The truth is that the gun laws currently in place fail because they are inconsistent, both in their content and their enforcement.  Someone who is unable to buy guns from a licensed dealer here in California can easily go to Nevada or a private seller at a gun show or on the internet.  Or, he can steal them or buy them from someone who has stolen them.  This is possible because the same rules don’t apply to everyone, and the rules in place don’t do enough to track guns and who owns them.  And, until they do, the gun violence problem will continue.

But the future of gun legislation is cloudy.  While states like California, Maryland, Connecticut, and Colorado have made progress in strengthening their gun laws, federal attempts to do the same have stalled.  Even Joe Manchin, the congressman who co-sponsored the recent gun legislation proposal puts the chances of getting that legislation passed at 50/50.  That is far from encouraging.

And this doesn’t even mention the fact that proper mental health care is severely lacking (and getting worse) and that gun advocates have blocked attempts to research the causes of gun violence, hoping that ignoring the problem will make it go away or pretending that no problem even exists.

Further, for every group that tries to get guns off the street, there is another seeking to arm as many people as possible.

If we can’t agree that guns are a problem, how can we agree on a solution?  How can we convince people to see that events like this are not aberrations but a pattern of violence that is escalating?  How do we make them care?  How do we make them see?

Think of gun violence as a leaky pipe—a crude analogy, of course.  But, just like an unchecked leak can cause a foundation to rot, so can gun violence rot the very foundation of American civilization.  Each drop of blood that is spilled brings us one step closer to collapse.  We are destroying ourselves and we are doing nothing to stop it.

That must change.

Kids with Guns: Not an Accident

Kid With Gun

Fun and games, or an avoidable tragedy about to happen?

A sad and surprisingly popular subset of the plague of American gun violence is accidental shooting deaths of or by children.  This almost always occurs because proper gun safety measures are either unknown or ignored, resulting in the tragic deaths of children by careless adults, careless adults by unsupervised children, and even unsupervised children by other unsupervised children.

It is unfair to try to pin blame for these deaths on the children, but it is just as unfair to absolve the adults involved.  Gun ownership comes with the responsibility of handling a potentially deadly weapon safely.  To write these incidents off merely as “accidents” implies that nothing could have been done to prevent them, when this is most certainly not true.

For example, take this recent AP report on the death of an Army veteran shot and killed by his four-year-old son when they went to visit a friend.  The child found an unattended gun, picked it up, and pulled the trigger, killing his father.  However, instead of assigning responsibility to the gun owner for allowing the weapon to fall into the hands of a young child, police are calling the death “accidental.”

Legally, the gun owner was not required to take any safety measures regarding the storage of his weapon.  And, since no children lived in the home, it may be easy to question why any would be necessary.  Tragically, the shooting that occurred provides an answer.  Because one can never predict who will enter their home, it makes sense that precautions should be taken to make sure the gun is not used by someone it shouldn’t be.

Something as simple as a storage safe would have prevented this senseless death, as would a gun lock that would have prevented anyone but the gun owner from firing the weapon.  But, gun advocates have fought against requiring any of these type of safety measures.

So, although the owner of this gun undoubtedly did not intend for young hands to find his firearm, the fact that he did nothing to prevent it means that he should bear some responsibility for the resulting death.  This was negligence, not an accident.

Even more upsetting are stories involving parents who blatantly put guns into the hands of their children.  While the argument that training children to use guns teaches them to handle them responsibly makes some sense, it only works if the parents themselves practice what they preach.

For example, consider the case of a five-year-old who shot and killed his two-year-old sister after being given a rifle as a gift, after the rifle was stored “in what [the family] considered to be a safe spot.”  This awful event led to a series of troubling statements from family and police.

From the uncle: “It’s just tragic.  It’s something that you can’t prepare for.”

But you can prepare for it by storing the gun safely and not leaving the children unattended.  Or, even better, don’t give a gun to your five-year-old in the first place.

From a police trooper: “It’s just one of those nightmares, a quick thing that happens when you turn your back.”

Yes, this is a nightmare, but it can be avoided by not turning your back.  Any responsible gun owner should know better.

And from the grandmother: “It was God’s will.  It was her time to go, I guess.”

Taking the responsibility for this death out of the hands of the parents and assigning it to God excuses them for their negligence and does nothing to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

Notice that not one person said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have given him a gun.”

Again, the shooting was ruled an accident.  And again, it was anything but.

Shooting Down the Talking Points

The gun debate has received a lot of attention but has accomplished little other than to polarize pro- and anti-gun advocates, leaving them further from any sort of compromise that might actually help curb gun violence.

Part of this polarization comes from the way guns are viewed.  Some people are simply “gun people” who will defend their right to own and shoot guns against any attempts at regulation.  Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum, viewing guns as killing machines that have no place in a civilized society.  Most people, however, stand somewhere in the middle, believing that people should be able to own guns if they choose, but that certain measures should be taken to ensure that they are handled safely.  Sadly, the current debate is forcing people to side with one or the other of the more extreme positions with less and less room in between.

This is largely due to how guns are discussed.  Depending on which camp you sit in, guns are either “good” or “evil.”  But, like most things, it is not quite that simple.  This is not a black and white issue.  In reality, the entire gun debate is a study in shades of gray.

This was demonstrated on the most recent episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” with pro-gun advocate S.E. Cupp squaring off against noted gun control supporter Michael Moore.  A clip can be seen here:

This is a fairly typical example of how the gun debate is carried out in the media, and there are a few problems with it.

The first problem is the format.  Less than seven minutes are dedicated to the subject, leaving little room for actual debate.  Both Cupp and Moore have little time to do anything other than regurgitate talking points that do little to change opinions or further the discussion.  Making things even more difficult is the fact that Maher (and to a lesser extent, the other guests on the panel) interjects his opinion, meaning that there are now multiple voices talking over each other, with little listening being done by anyone.  This is the nature of television, of course, but it is unproductive and forces people to dig their heels in to support whatever position they hold rather than take steps to meet each other somewhere in the middle.

As a matter of full disclosure, I certainly stand closer on the political spectrum to Moore than I do to Cupp.  But, that does not mean that I think that his arguments can be blindly supported or hers easily dismissed.  Instead, they should be examined, one at a time.

Most glaring of these arguments is Cupp’s claim that submitting to background checks implies an assumption that gun purchasers have a criminal intent to use a firearm, saying gun owners are “treated as guilty until proven innocent.”  This is simply false.  Rather, it is a verification of eligibility.  If gun owners can acknowledge that guns are instruments capable of causing injury or death—not a given, as many cling to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” semantic argument that Cupp, to her credit, manages to avoid—and that there are certain people who should not be able to own them (again, not a given), a background check system should be embraced.

Since gun supporters like to use the Constitution to justify their opposition, another right guaranteed by that document offers a useful comparison.  All citizens of a certain age are guaranteed the right to vote.  But, they must first register to do so, to prove their eligibility.  This in no way presumes that all voters are ineligible, but it does prevent those that are—whether because of a criminal record, lack of citizenship, or any other reason—from casting a ballot.  The right to own a gun is no different.

Presumably, Cupp would have no problem passing a background check.  So, her Second Amendment right to own a gun would not be infringed in any way, nor would that of any of the millions of other law-abiding gun owners nationwide.  But, people with a history of violence, criminal behavior, or certain mental health issues might be prevented from owning a gun, and lives could be saved as a result.

Cupp is not the only one to misinterpret the Second Amendment, however.  Michael Moore makes the claim that only guns in existence at the time it was written should be protected, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that this protection extends to all sorts of modern firearms.  Further, to make such a claim assumes that the rest of the Constitution and its Amendments have the same limitations.  This would mean that the freedom of the press would apply only to words printed on paper and not to television, radio, or the internet, none of which existed at the time of the Founders.  Likewise, the First Amendment’s freedom of religion would not protect relatively new religions including Mormonism or Scientology.  Those laws have been interpreted to cover societal and technological advancements and the laws protecting gun ownership do the same.  To argue otherwise is an unnecessary distraction.

The scale of the issue was also subject to dispute.  While much of the gun debate has focused on recent mass shootings, Cupp insisted that these incidents were decreasing.  She even restated this point in a tweet later that evening:

However, others were quick to counter her claim, including Mother Jones senior editor Mark Follman:

But, forgotten among these opposing tweets was that the frequency of these shootings is not what really matters.  What actually matters is that they are happening at all and that they should be stopped.  I threw my own two cents in on Twitter:

But, focusing only on mass shootings is not productive.  They may attract the most attention, but they account for less than one percent of gun-related deaths.

The fact is, shootings of all kinds are happening, and will continue unless something is done.  And, that something definitely does not include increasing gun ownership.  But, that did not stop Cupp (and Maher) from claiming that guns are essential for protection against all threats, real and imaginary.

In fact, Cupp made two claims that were especially troubling.  When asked why she might want a concealed weapon, she responded, “Why should I be able to hide a gun?  Clearly, you’ve never confronted the idea of domestic violence.”  The implication, of course, is that having a gun would protect her from an attacker.  While this thought makes some sense on the surface, research has shown that women who are victims of domestic violence risk having their weapon used against them and are up to eight times more likely to be killed if there is a gun in the house.

Cupp followed this with the unintended irony of declaring, “I just happen to be informed on gun issues, unlike most people who talk about them.”  While she undoubtably knows quite a bit about guns, the fact that she is so misinformed on one of her most basic defenses for gun ownership is disturbing, as there are likely many women who see her as a strong role model and will follow her example, unaware of the possible tragic results of keeping a weapon in a home plagued by domestic violence.

However, her statement does raise another point.  Gun advocates often claim that a certain level of knowledge on guns is required before one can weigh in on the issue.  Again, this makes some sense of the surface, but even a moment of thought shows this to be a flawed argument.  One does not need to be an expert on specifications and classifications of weapons to know that gun violence is a problem or that keeping guns out of the wrong hands is the best solution.  Just like one need not have taken drugs to recognize a drug problem or be an accountant to see that the economy is struggling, personal knowledge of firearms is not the issue.  It is just a way to dismiss arguments that run counter to those of gun advocates.  But, since Cupp likes to claim her position is based on facts, here is the only fact that really matters:

So, instead of gun owners fretting over the prospect of background checks or gun registries—even though the proposed bill would have explicitly prohibited them—they should be worried about the people who are dying.  Surely those lives are worth a little inconvenience or extra paperwork.

But, realistically, true gun reform is not something that will likely happen any time soon, if at all.  America is a “gun country,” and gun owners will fight to keep it that way.  But, the least we can hope for is that guns are only owned by those well-trained in both using them and storing them safely.  Moore was right to claim that practicing shooting a few times a year is not enough.  This is where expertise actually matters.  I don’t need to know how to shoot a gun because I don’t have one and likely never will.  However, anyone choosing to own a weapon should be an expert in its use and should do everything in their power to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.  And, there should be legislation mandating this.  Yet, there is resistance even to such common sense measures.

Cupp claimed that the hallowed Second Amendment protected gun owners like her from any legislation regarding guns (even though the Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of certain gun restrictions), which led to the quote of the night.  Though Maher waffled between pro- and anti-gun stances, he rightly stated that “the second Amendment is bullshit.”  And it is.

The Constitution is not a perfect document.  Indeed, the very right being debated was not included in the original draft, but rather added among a set of ten amendments four years later.  Much of the original text has been found in need of an update, leading to the abolition of slavery, expansion of voting rights, and changes in how legislators are chosen, among other things.  One of the amendments was even found to be flawed, leading to a repeal of the prohibition of alcohol.  Yet gun advocates hold on to the Second Amendment as though it is a right granted by God, rather than by men who were far from infallible.  So, yes, the Second Amendment is bullshit, and it is time that it is repealed and replaced with responsible gun legislation that properly protects the American people.

The Holy Trinity: God, Guns and the GOP

God is a gun

Those in the anti-gun camp often wonder why it is that their pro-gun counterparts seem to be immune to logic or reason in the ongoing gun control debate.  It has occasionally been suggested that love for firearms has become something of a religion.  The comparisons are obvious.  True believers in both god and guns are devoted in a way that defies argument or scientific dispute.  And, to non-believers, this devotion simply makes no sense.

recent interview with psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja suggests that there may be something to this comparison, saying:

Because of [America’s] separation between church and state, it’s full of unconscious, undeclared religion: America itself is a religion of democracy, and the gun is a symbol of democracy. So partly because of its history, and partly because the gun belongs to a collective archetype present in every country, guns in America are imbued with a religious quality.

Though I would argue that the separation of church and state has done little to actually keep religion out of government, it is easy to see how the religious-minded would seek to substitute guns for god.  Just as the Constitution is a secular substitute for the Bible, its Second Amendment—by guaranteeing that their right to worship guns “shall not be infringed”—offers a stand-in for a state-approved deity.

It is easy to see why this has been embraced by Republicans, or at least the more religiously fundamental members of the party.  Guns are a physical symbol of their beliefs, a show of strength against the temptation of liberalism.  This also explains how “sinful” behavior—homosexuality, atheism, abortion, or pacifism, to give just a few examples—can bear the blame for mass gun violence, while the weapons themselves are innocent.  Their god is a vengeful god and guns are merely the tool by which this vengeance is enacted.

Guns also offer an outlet for many of the urges that fundamentalists are forced by their religion to repress.  Zoja continues:

[W]e have to be equally aware of the pathological, almost pornographic, side of America’s preoccupation with guns. Psychologically, owning a gun has become a naïve expression of macho masculinity — a show of sexuality and arrogant power.

So, by limiting their ability to admit weakness or vulnerability—physical, mental, sexual, or otherwise—and by forbidding believers from giving in to normal human urges, this fundamentalism forces guns to become a universal form of expression.

All of this helps provide some context for the strength of the GOP devotion to guns, but it does little in the way of offering solutions.  Just as science does little to lessen religious fervor, logic stands little chance of dissuading gun advocates.  Therefore, the only hope lies not in science or logic, but in math.  Only by outnumbering these fundamentalists can anti-gun groups hope to enact any meaningful change.

Hitting Close to Home

Boston - Back Bay: Boylston Street (Aerial)

Boston’s Boylston Street in better days.

The bombing at today’s Boston Marathon was senseless and shocking.  It is far too soon to even speculate as to the perpetrators or their motives, or for me to adequately focus my reaction into a coherent form.  But, as events like this often do, it has provoked some reflection.

I’m not from Boston and I don’t live there now.  But, I did.  I moved there many years ago a few days after the beginning of the new millennium.  The move was a formative moment in my life, as it was my first step toward real independence.  After flirting with college for a few years, I moved away from home to a city far away from everyone and everything I knew, all alone for the very first time.

 

Boston is a beautiful city, and the Marathon is a vital part of that.  I lived for a while near Symphony Hall, a few blocks from the Boston Public Library, the traditional finish line of the race.  And, many times I walked down Boylston Street, along the same blocks where thousands of runners annually complete their trek and where today two bombs exploded, raining chaos and debris over a crowd assembled to celebrate a remarkable feat of human endurance.

 

I have stood in the very spot where today lives and limbs were lost.  And, though that shouldn’t make a difference, somehow it does.  Any bombing is a tragedy, including those that plague the Middle East on a seemingly daily basis.  But, this one feels different because it happened here, in someplace I know, in a place that is dear to me.

 

But, though an event like this is heartbreaking, I know that my sadness and my shock are a pale shadow of those of the people who are there in Boston today.  My thoughts are with them and I hope that they somehow find a way to cope with what happened to them and get on with their lives.

 

However, while my heart goes out to those in Boston, I am reminded that this type of shocking and devastating violence is not just an American tragedy.  These things happen all the time, all over the world.  And, each of them leaves victims just like those that I saw on my television today and people heartbroken because it happened in a place that is dear to them.

 

So, while I am sad for what happened today, I am also sad that we live in a world where things like this happen on far too many other days.  I am sad that there are people who want to literally blow other people apart, to cause mass destruction and devastation in order to make some kind of point or spread some kind of message.

 

I don’t really know what to think and I don’t really know how to make these things stop.  But, I know that I want them to stop.  I want people to stop killing each other and I want them to stop thinking that blowing each other up accomplishes anything other than causing sadness and anger and devastation and loss.  There is nothing gained from events like this.

 

I left Boston years ago, moving first across town and then across the country, but it is still a special place to me, as it is to millions of other people.  It will survive what happened today, even if some of its people were not so lucky.

 

Moving to Boston helped me grow up.  It made me stronger.  And, today’s events, tragic as they are, will help others to do the same.  But, it is awful, something that we will never forget, and something that I never want to see again.  But, saddest of all, I know I will.

 

The Dubious Link Between Experience and Legislation

The latest ridiculous chapter in the ongoing effort to make the gun safety debate about anything at all other than actually preventing gun violence involves the controversy over President Obama’s claim that he often goes skeet shooting.

After gun nuts scoffed, Obama’s camp released a photo seemingly backing up his claim:

130202111850-obamaskeet-story-top

Yet, in a flashback to the idiocy of the “Birther” saga, documentation was not nearly convincing enough for the skeptics.  They questioned his technique, his wardrobe, and even his apparent pot belly.

Perhaps most ridiculous was the claim that the photo itself was a fake, a position quickly mocked by more rational minds:

But, lost in the conspiracy theories was the deeper implication: that somehow the fact that Obama did not appear to be an expert on handling and shooting a gun disqualified him from proposing legislation on guns.

Let’s take a second to examine that.  On the surface, it makes a little bit of sense.  How can someone legislate something he doesn’t know that much about?  But, a little thought reveals that this logic is ludicrous.  I have never shot a gun (or even held one, for that matter), but I know that people get killed every day by guns.  I can’t tell you what it feels like to pull a trigger, but I have seen the damage that pulling triggers has caused.

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that personal experience and intimate knowledge are actually requirements for proposing legislation.  This would virtually destroy the entire conservative platform.

For example:

  • No one could legislate drugs that has not done drugs themselves.  Those relying on propaganda instead of experience would need to recuse themselves from the discussion and leave it to the stoners to determine drug policy.
  • Everyone without a womb would be disqualified from regulating abortion, contraception, or any other aspect of women’s health care.  How could anyone possibly have an opinion on issues like pregnancy if they cannot get pregnant themselves?
  • The same applies to the idiots who voted against the Violence Against Women Act.  If you are not a woman, or even more specifically, a woman who has suffered abuse at the hands of a man, you would no longer allowed to decide if they need protection or not (and, just for the record, they do).
  • Only LGBT people could determine the legality of same-sex marriage.  Unless you plan on getting married to your same-sex partner, and have been subjected to the discrimination that goes along with that, you would get no say.  Sorry.
  • Only scientists would get to establish environmental policy.  If you haven’t done the science that has indisputably proven that climate change exists, and if you continue to believe that weather is controlled by the whims of your fantasy deity, you lose your seat at the table.
  • Likewise, only economists could discuss the deficit, the debt ceiling, taxes, budget cuts, or anything else involving the economy.  If you haven’t been poor, you wouldn’t get to speak on food stamps and public assistance.  If you haven’t had to struggle to pay your bills and feed your family, why should you get to regulate those who do?
  • White people wouldn’t get to make the laws that continue to suppress minorities.  If you don’t know what it’s like to be held down for no reason other than superficialities, you would have to keep your opinions to yourself.

Actually, on second thought, those might be good things.  But, predictably, conservatives only expect knowledge or expertise on the one thing they know a lot about.

Pay Teachers to Teach, Not to Shoot

Easily the most ridiculous idea from pro-gun zealots in their efforts to fight gun violence with more guns is their plan to eliminate school shootings by arming teachers.  Any effort to increase the number of guns in schools is a bad idea, but putting the burden of protecting students on teachers is just awful.

In a recent piece at Campus Progress, I wrote about the reaction from teachers and administrators to this proposal.  Needless to say, they are not in favor of it.  Among their reasons are fears over the effectiveness of arming teachers and fears that guns would potentially fall into the hands of students, leading to further tragedy.

Beyond that, teachers are already underpaid…

figure05-teachers_wages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and are getting older, on average…

NCTAF_CIC_03…so expecting them to act like police officers is just silly.

Luckily, public opinion seems to be opposed to any proposal to give guns to teachers.  While there may be some support for placing armed guards or police officers in schools, at least these people are paid to protect and serve.   Teachers are paid (and not very well) to teach.  We should let them do that, and keep guns as far away from our classrooms as possible.

Bad is Bad, Regardless of the Roots

English: The Bill of Rights, the first ten ame...

The world is changing, and so should the Constitution.

As the debate over guns and gun violence protection continues, there is a constant search for new angles from which to attack the issue, and more specifically, the Second Amendment, which is at the very heart of the conflict.

As the left argues that the Amendment is obsolete, written by men with muskets, the right counters that all guns are not only protected, but necessary in order to preserve their freedom.  But, this week, a new narrative has emerged.  The accepted line of thinking has long held that the Second Amendment originally referred to the necessity of a militia to aid in the defense of a young nation with no standing army against foreign threats or potential government tyranny.  But, the hallowed “Right to Bear Arms” has been given a new origin, as seen in stories like this one or this one.

According to these accounts, the Second Amendment was enacted to protect against a threat much closer to home, namely the fear of an uprising by the slaves who were an essential part of the American economy of the time.  I don’t have any dispute with this spin, and actually find it to be an interesting theory.  But, I do object to the attempt to use this origin story as a reason to overrule the amendment.

First, the obvious disclaimer: slavery was awful, reprehensible, shameful, and unforgivable.  But, with that said, the vileness of slavery does not in any way discount the validity of a law enacted to protect it.  No matter the circumstances under which it was written, the fact remains that it is part of the Constitution of this country.  Pointing out its disgusting origins does not bring us any closer to overturning it.

And that is the heart of the matter.  Instead of focusing on where this law came from, we should be looking at where it has brought us.  We now live in a country with nearly as many guns as people, all justified by a single sentence written more than two centuries ago.  But, I would argue that what is needed is a different kind of history lesson.

The world has changed since the writing of the Constitution.  And the document itself has also changed.  Its true genius is not in its content but in its construction.  By allowing for it to be amended, the Founders made it possible for the Constitution to reflect the changing times.

Our sacred Constitution once legitimized the institution of slavery and the oppression of women, allowed for the prohibition of alcohol, and restricted voting rights for most Americans.  All of these things were seen as mistakes and were remedied by passing various amendments.  It is time for another.

The Second Amendment is a bad law, plain and simple, not because of where it comes from, but because of what it does and where it has brought us.  And the focus should not be on the past, but on the future, on a new amendment that would regulate or even outlaw guns.

Obama Promises to Act on Gun Violence

President Obama presented his plan to help curb America’s rampant gun violence in a speech yesterday.  He signed 23 executive orders that he said would tighten current gun regulations and called for Congress to pass new legislation including a ban on assault-style weapons and extended magazines and, perhaps most importantly, mandatory background checks on all gun purchases.

I wrote a recap of the president’s proposals, which can be read over at CampusProgress.

I believe this is a large step in the right direction, but it is only the first step in a long uphill journey.  As the president said, it is up to the people of this country to keep the pressure on their elected officials to actually pass this legislation.  Campaigns like DemandAPlan, from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, have done a great job of spreading information and making it easy for people to contact their Senator and/or Representative to voice their support for the presidents plan.  I encourage everyone to do so.

Here is a video of the president’s for anyone who missed it:

Mourning in America: A Time for Action

Twenty children and six adults were shot and killed in an elementary school on Friday, with another dead in her home.  One man entered that school in Newton, Connecticut and pulled the trigger.  But he is not the only one with blood on his hands.  Every gun manufacturer, every lobbyist pushing to relax gun laws and every politician that takes their money, every media organization glorifying killers and the havoc they wreak, and every gun owner who refuses to admit that there is a gun problem in this country shares in the responsibility for what happened.

My Toy!

Assault weapons like the one used in the Newtown school shooting must be outlawed.  But, that is only the beginning of what should be done to solve America’s gun problem.

Sadly, massacres like this are so common that there is a standard response when they occur.  The instant media blitz is always accompanied by a debate over whether such an event could have been prevented.  The country mourns with the families of the victims.  Prayers are said.  Speeches are made.  Bodies are buried.  But, ultimately, nothing is done.  People move on.  And then, inevitably, the cycle begins again when there is another slaughter by another man with a gun.

Not this time.  The cycle cannot continue.  There must be a response.  Something must change.

Conventional wisdom says that a certain amount of time must pass before reacting to a horrific event, that decisions should not be clouded by emotions.  That is nonsense.  We cannot and should not wait one single day more before taking action to attempt to eliminate the possibility of any more killings.

We should not wait until these fresh emotions pass, but should hold on to how we feel right now.  We should remember the sadness, the rage, the confusion, the desperate agony of yet another avoidable tragedy and use it to motivate us to get something done so that no one has to feel the way we feel right now, use it so no one else has to die this way and no one else has to bury their children.  We must do something, and we must do it now.  Today.

That said, opposition to any effort to regulate guns is strong.  The National Rifle Association, the biggest and most powerful pro-gun lobbying group has not been shy about spending money for their cause, and its list of friends in government is long.  Courts have ruled that gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment, despite a convincing argument from Harvey Wasserman at the Columbus Free Press that this was not its original intention.  Wasserman says that the Second Amendment exists for the express purpose of regulating gun ownership and does not guarantee the right of private citizens to own firearms.  Still, it seems very unlikely that any law outlawing guns would be found to be constitutional.  But, that does not mean that we cannot try to lessen their availability.

President Obama spoke this morning on the subject of gun violence and said that he is seeking solutions for the plague of gun-related killings.  It is notable that he mentioned the numerous shootings that have occurred just since Friday’s massacre in Newtown, as well as the thousands of deaths that occur each year due to guns.  He has boldly called for action.  His full statement can be seen here:

There is momentum behind an initiative to ban some types of semi-automatic guns, also known as “assault weapons.”  This weekend on Meet the Press, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, said that she plans to introduce a bill banning assault weapons on the first day of the next session of Congress.  Her proposed bill would also outlaw certain kinds of bullets and extended magazines.  A similar ban was enacted in 1994, but was allowed to expire under President George W. Bush in 2004.  In an encouraging sign, numerous lawmakers, including President Obama in his comments this morning, have voiced their support for a new assault weapons ban.  This would be a step in the right direction, but it would only be a small step.

This is not a time for small steps.  It is a time for bold, decisive action.  I’ve come up with a few suggestions of my own that I believe can help fix this country’s dysfunctional relationship with guns.  I am no expert, and I certainly make no claims that any of these would result in a complete end to gun-related killings.  But, like the president, I do think that every idea should be examined, every solution considered.  We have made token gestures of gun control and they have not worked.  It is time to try something else.  My wish is that these ideas can be part of a much larger discussion, one in which we recognize the true scope of this nation’s problem with guns and a genuine effort is made to remedy it.  I would welcome any explanation as to why any of these would not help, as well as any additional ideas.

  • Renew the ban on assault weapons- As I said, this is only a small step, but it is still a good start.  I have seen no valid reason that any private citizen would need a semi-automatic rifle like the one used to slaughter the children in Connecticut, capable of shooting a large number of bullets in a very short period of time, causing a maximum amount of damage with a minimum of effort.  This is not a weapon for self-defense.  It is offensive, in every sense of that word.

Feinstein’s bill would also ban extended magazines, like the 33-round clip used in the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that resulted in six deaths and numerous injuries, including the wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  These magazines exist only to allow shooters to fire more bullets without needing to reload, to cause more devastation without being inconvenienced by the necessity of changing the clip.

These guns and their accessories serve no purpose other than to make easier to kill people, and should therefore be outlawed.  This is also among the ideas backed by President Obama this morning.

  • Repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act- This bill, enacted in 2005 under President Bush, protects gun manufacturers or sellers against prosecution if those firearms are used in a crime.  There is no reason that the makers and providers of weapons designed specifically to kill other human beings should be protected when those weapons do exactly that.  To suffer no repercussions when they are directly responsible for every single injury or death caused by the guns they make and sell allows them to literally get away with murder.

This is an idea backed by the National Law Journal, and it in no way infringes on the Second Amendment.  By facing large financial penalties for the misuse of their products, gun makers and sellers might be encouraged to back measures that ensure these weapons are only owned by people who will use them responsibly.  Of course, it would be even better if they were so heavily penalized that they decided not to make or sell guns at all, but  as with the proposed assault weapons ban, any step in the right direction is a good thing.

  • Mandatory and thorough background checks on ALL gun purchases- The law currently requires background checks on all gun purchases made via licensed gun sellers.  But, due to the dubious “gun-show loophole,” there is no such requirement for guns sold privately.  According to a study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, fully 40 percent of all gun purchases are made this way, without proper background checks.  Additionally, privately sold guns are used in 80 percent of crimes committed with a handgun.  This is easily fixed, and makes so much sense that it is even supported by most NRA members.

But, I would go a step further.  In addition to a simple criminal background check, there should be a full psychological evaluation of anyone seeking to purchase a gun.  After all, most mass-killers obtained their firearms legally and had no previous criminal record.  Granted, a psychological evaluation is not a foolproof method of identifying just who is likely to slaughter masses of innocent people, but it would keep guns out of the hands of a lot of potentially dangerous people.  A similar policy has been enacted in Japan and has been very successful in keeping both the rates of gun ownership and gun-related murder among the lowest in the world.

  • Safety and skill testing- The Japanese laws also require a mandatory gun safety class with a written test and a skill test which requires gun-owners to show that they know how to handle their weapons safely and effectively.  Anyone who met these requirements would receive a license allowing them to purchase and own a gun.  Anyone who did not have such a license would be prohibited from buying a gun, simple as that.  This is another common-sense requirement that is shockingly lacking from American gun policy.

It only makes sense that anyone wanting to own a weapon should at least know how to use it responsibly.

  • Buyback programs- A simple way to get guns out of the hands of people is for the government to buy them.  A recent two-day buyback effort in Camden, New Jersey netted 1,137 guns.  Admittedly, this is barely a drop in the ocean of an estimated 300 million guns that are owned nationwide.  But, if more than a thousand guns can be taken off the streets in a single city over a single weekend, a national buyback program could succeed in removing millions of guns from circulation in this country.

Importantly, this buyback program should include firearms that would be outlawed by any assault weapons ban.  The proposal by Sen. Feinstein would not apply to guns that are already in circulation, but would merely prevent any new sale of these types of weapons.  Her bill should be amended to make all assault weapons illegal and institute a mandatory buyback for all such firearms.  This was part of the gun control policy in Australia that has virtually eliminated mass shootings in that country and seen a steep decline in both gun-related murder and suicide rates.

  • Tax all gun and ammunition sales- There are currently taxes on things like alcohol, tobacco and gasoline.  Guns and ammunition should be added to that list.  Not only should they be taxed, but it should be at such a high rate that it discourages sales.  Firearms and the bullets they use are cheap enough that people can buy them easily and in large quantities. As suggested by Alex Pareene at Salon, they should be made “less cheap.”

There will likely be an objection to this sort of taxation, but exceptions can be made for certain groups.  For example, target shooters tend to use a lot of bullets, but they do so in a way that is not dangerous or criminal.  The easy solution would be for them to use rubber bullets or non-lethal ammunition that could be exempted from exorbitant taxation.  Surely, a rubber bullet is just as effective at shooting a paper target as a traditional one.  The tax would apply only to live rounds and the guns that fire them.

Additionally, revenue raised though these taxes should be used to increase federal spending on mental health care.  People that truly want to buy a gun will do so no matter the cost, but there’s no reason that some of the money spent should not go to providing help for people who currently lack it.  Obviously, only a very small fraction of people with mental illnesses have violent tendencies, and a large number of people with these tendencies have no history of mental illness.  But, funding for mental health care has been slashed nationwide, and the recent trend of mass-killings by shooters with psychological problems has brought the need for better mental health care into the spotlight.  Any additional revenue from taxation could be used to create a federal gun registry.

  • Registration of all guns and ammunition- There is currently no federal law requiring that guns be registered, except for certain fully-automatic guns and weapons like bazookas or mortars.  This makes it virtually impossible to track who owns a gun or how many guns any person has accumulated.  This is another problem with a simple solution.  A law should be passed requiring gun owners to register their weapons, and should require them to submit their social security numbers and fingerprints.  This would make it much easier to account for weapons that have been stolen and to track anyone who amassed a cache of weapons.  It would also help identify any convicted criminals attempting to purchase firearms.

Equally important would be tracking ammunition sales.  By flagging anyone buying large amounts of ammunition, law enforcement would be better prepared to stop mass-shootings before they occur.  An added benefit would be that the additional paperwork and time necessary for registration, as well as the sharing of personal information that would be required, might deter people from buying weapons.

A gun registry would also allow for law enforcement officials to track crimes committed by gun owners. For example, any gun owner who committed a violent crime, even if it did not involve a gun, could have his gun license revoked and his guns confiscated.  This would be especially helpful in cases of domestic abuse, since 70 percent of spousal murder/suicides involve previous incidents of domestic violence.

I would also propose limits on the numbers of guns and amount of ammunition that any one person could legally purchase.

  • Gun Insurance- Guns, like cars, are dangerous machines that can be deadly if not handled correctly.  So gun owners, like car owners, should be required to purchase insurance in case anyone is injured or killed when these machines are misused.  Similar ideas from Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars and Robert Cyran and Reynolds Holding at Slate illustrate how a gun insurance program could work.

Rates could be determined by insurance providers based on a risk assessment of the gun owner.  Those with a history of handling guns safely would pay lower rates, and those with a record of anything that would rate them as a higher risk for coverage would pay higher rates or not be insured at all.  Anyone deemed too high a risk to be insured would not be allowed to purchase a gun.  Likewise, guns carried in public, like those allowed by concealed-carry laws, would be subjected to higher rates than guns kept safely locked away at home.

  • Smart guns- Numerous advancements in gun safety have been made that could help eliminate misuse of firearms.  It should be made mandatory that gunmakers adopt these advancements when manufacturing weapons.  For example, “grip recognition” technology exists that prevents anyone except for the owner to fire a gun.  A similar system reads fingerprints.  This would have prevented the shooter in the Newtown massacre from successfully firing a single round, since the weapons he used belonged to his mother, who was shot and killed with her own gun.

So, those are my suggestions.  Though they will do little to regulate the estimated 300 million guns currently in circulation, any or all of these ideas should make it far less likely that we have to go through what we’ve gone through this week.  Any idea that can save lives and prevent tragedies like the one in Connecticut, or the ones before that in Wisconsin, Colorado, or in countless other places, should be considered.  Too many people have died for us to stand by and let it continue to happen.

We should mourn those we lost, but we cannot let them have died in vain.  We must do something to break this endless cycle of death and despair.  Enough is enough. The time is now.