Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why the gun debates matter

Full disclosure: I do not own any handguns. Nor do I own any assault-style weapons with large magazines. What I do own is a shotgun, an antique shotgun actually, though still in working order. I do not have a concealed-carry permit (and am very much opposed to such permits, as a matter of course) and I am not currently a member of the NRA. And I have no intentions to change any of these things in the near future. The debates on gun control have not sent me rushing out to stock up on weapons or on ammunition and I certainly do not feel a need to have a gun with me at all times "just in case." And quite frankly, it wouldn't bother me in the least to see handguns go the way of the dodo, when it comes to private ownership of the same. I am, in short, a poor poster-child for staunch advocates of the Second Amendment, with regard to how I live my life.

That said, I am a staunch advocate for a very traditional interpretation of the Second Amendment; I am very much opposed to increased Federal measures designed to limit access to and ownership of various kinds of firearms.

What is happening now in this nation, some of the steps that are being taken--or are being recommended to be taken--by the Federal Government via the current administration, are bad news. They won't solve any problems and they won't magically lead to a decrease in violent deaths, gun-related or otherwise.

Following Sandy Hook, President Obama directed Vice-President Biden to fashion a set of recommendation--encompassing executive and legislative actions--to address the now-supposedly-critical issue of gun violence. But before looking at them, let's talk a moment about how this became a supposed crisis.

Sandy Hook was a great tragedy. I, myself, considered pulling my kids from school when the news broke. My middle child was deeply disturbed by the events, so much so that he left school early the next day, do to all the talk in his school. And while it is true that Sandy Hook was not the first tragedy of this sort--just as it's true that the events in Aurora or in Virginia Tech were not the first of their type either--the specifics of Sandy Hook still give one pause, given the ages of the children killed.

That said, there is no evidence--none--that this is reflective of some sort of trend. Yet, it's being sold that way, even by people who have done the research. For instance, here is a very detailed piece at Mother Jones on mass shootings. It's problematic, insofar as it only goes back to 1982, but nonetheless it is instructive. Look at the chart, below:

There just isn't a meaningful trend here, especially if one factors in population growth. Yet another article in Mother Jones--by the same author and drawing on the article above--opens with this (my boldface):
It is perhaps too easy to forget how many times this has happened. The horrific mass murder at a movie theater in Colorado on July 20, another at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on August 5, another at a manufacturer in Minneapolis on September 27—and then the unthinkable nightmare at a Connecticut elementary school on December 14—are the latest in an epidemic of such gun violence over the last three decades.
Epidemic? Minus four specific incidents--Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sand Hook, and Aurora--there's a pretty steady line to be drawn, with the occasional small spike. Even with these four, there is again no true trend, much less an epidemic. This reality has been pointed out by a number of other writers, though it continues to be roundly ignored by much of the media and those in government fixated on limiting access to firearms.

That's because such language--calling something an epidemic, even when it most certainly is not--plays to emotions, it sells well, both from the standpoint of the press and of politicians, because it gives the latter group something to talk about, to use to drive policy so that they can claim to be doing good. We've seen it with various "wars": ones on drugs, on poverty, on teen pregnancy, etc. And the efficacy of these wars--with regard to changing things--can be and rightly has been called into question. Because in that context, these wars have largely been fruitless, since there really was no surge in numbers which could be linked to specific policies and thus "defeated" by changing these policies or creating new ones.

It's worth remembering that we aren't all lab rats in some huge experiment, wherein social policy can be randomly adjusted in order to achieve some desired result. This doesn't work; it never has and it never will.

So what about the recommendations the current administration is proposing? Here's a summary, from the mouth of the President:
We will make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by strengthening the background check system. We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them and develop emergency preparedness plans. We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence -- even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.
And while year after year, those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to defund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it -- and Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds. We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.
Note again the use of the word "epidemic." And the video game angle is both stupid and fruitless, nothing but a waste of resources. As to the ideas in the first paragraph, those really aren't objectionable, in my opinion (apart from sending more Federal dollars to schools, dollars we don't really have). But the President--apart from these steps--also has designs on some legislation to get through Congress:
First: It’s time for Congress to require a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun. The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks, and over the last 14 years that’s kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun. But it’s hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check. That’s not safe. That's not smart. It’s not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers... 
Second: Congress should restore a ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10-round limit for magazines. The type of assault rifle used in Aurora, for example, when paired with high-capacity magazines, has one purpose -- to pump out as many bullets as possible, as quickly as possible; to do as much damage, using bullets often designed to inflict maximum damage... 
And finally, Congress needs to help, rather than hinder, law enforcement as it does its job. We should get tougher on people who buy guns with the express purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals. And we should severely punish anybody who helps them do this. Since Congress hasn’t confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in six years, they should confirm Todd Jones, who will be -- who has been Acting, and I will be nominating for the post.

And there it is. The issue of background checks is again a fair one to broach. I'm not sure it's Federal issue, in actuality, but there does need to be consistency here: different standards in different States is unwise. As to getting tougher on those selling guns to criminals, that's a little comedic coming from the folks that brought us Operation Fast and Furious, but maybe Obama is actually learning something.

The real problem is in the second paragraph, the idea that banning specific kinds of weapons and limiting clip size will somehow magically lead to a reduction in gun violence or even in mass shootings. Such restrictions are, quite simply, government overreach. The Federal Government--via Congress and/or the President--can't do this. They just can't.

I realize people have been parsing the Second Amendment left and right since Sandy Hook and before in order to justify their views on things like this, but even those who believe--wrongly--that the Second qualifies ownership as necessarily militia-related must admit to a simple reality: if "arms" are those that would be used by a citizen-militia (what we would now call "small arms," perhaps), assault-type weapons and high-capacity magazines are most definitely the standard for such citizen-soldiers. It's ludicrous to suppose otherwise. If the Second is about anything, it is about such weapons. Handguns? Please. What militia--in today's world--would arm itself in such a manner? It's akin to supposing the weapon of choice for the militia at the time of Ratification would be a dueling pistol.

And I know that the powers-that-be, people like Obama, Biden, and various leaders in Congress, know this; they know they're crossing a line. But they're pushing ahead, secure in their belief that this "crisis" gives them room to do what they know they should not do. And sure enough, there's widespread support for these initiatives, even though--when it comes to gun violence--handguns account for far more injuries and fatalities than do assault-type weapons.

Beyond that, there is also the disconnect from restrictions on gun ownership to increased or decreased gun violence. The city of Chicago has some severe restrictions in this regard, restrictions that have been in place for a while. Yet, there has been no corresponding drop in gun violence. Just the opposite, in fact. And the steps Obama is recommending--to counter the "epidemic"--would do little in the Windy City, or in other cities afflicted with such violence:
The sad reality is that while terrible mass shootings like the ones at Aurora and Newtown shock the nation’s conscience, pull at the public’s heartstrings, and garner wall-to-wall media coverage, they represent a tiny fraction of the number of gun homicides in the country every year.

Consider this, Mr. President: During the first 16 days of January, 26 people have been killed by guns in Chicago -- the exact same number as at Sandy Hook Elementary School. By the time this year is out, the south and west sides of the city we both call home will have endured, in terms of sheer numbers of people killed, the equivalent of 20 Sandy Hook massacres. That’s on top of the equivalent of the 19 Sandy Hooks the city experienced in 2012.

Yet there has been little outcry by the national media, and not much public attention paid to Chicago’s crucible by either national political party. Just the sterile news stories in the local papers every morning recounting the details of yet another young person’s life cut short and another family ripped apart thanks to senseless violence.

The other sad reality, Mr. President, is that almost nothing proposed this week in Washington, D.C., by your administration will do anything to stem the tide of gun violence in our inner cities. Most of these crimes were not committed with semi-automatic assault weapons, they weren’t committed by the mentally ill, and they won’t be stopped by universal background checks.
Far too true. Yet, the national debate remains largely fixated on assault weapons and magazine-size. Why? For two reasons. First, because these issues are easy to sell to the under-informed. And second, because they represent another avenue of securing new power for the Federal Government, which of course is the penultimate reason for the Second...

Cheers, all.

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