Everyone is asking why and how this happened. How did he get the gun? How did he get into the school? Reporters asked rabbis and priests on the scene “How will you explain to your congregants how God could let this happen?”
The thing I want to know is a more concrete what, why, how. I don’t have theological questions about how this happened because I don’t believe in a God who makes, or prevents, events. I care less about how this particular sociopath got a gun, and more about how this is part of a larger pattern that has pocked 2012 with murder and massacre – Aurora, Wisconsin, Oregon. I want to know more about the argument regarding gun control in the wake of this horrific massacre, and how people could possibly make the argument against tighter gun control in the face of all this bloodshed. My instinct is that we need tighter gun laws. But I know there are also reasonable people making the case against tightening gun controls, claiming that this will do little to improve things – just like criminalizing drugs makes the sale of black market narcotics – and the violence swirling around these sales – escalate, so will tighter laws around guns exacerbate a problem that is already reaching hysterical levels of tension.
In order to have a better sense of the two sides of the argument, I decided to do some heavy news reading. Let me take you with me through some of the articles I thought made the best points.
According to the BBC, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2008 that the second amendment protects guns for personal use, not just militias, public support for gun control has gone down, while NRA membership has held strong at 4 million, and the NRA has remained steadfast in supporting the right to bear – and purchase – and easily sell – arms.
An article on CNN giving an overview of our history with guns explains that, while federal control over guns has diminished, it has become easier for folks to buy, carry, and use guns in public – mostly because of the power of the NRA .
The laws are being driven by politics, and the politics are being driven by groups such as the National Rifle Association. Once a relatively modest organization of gun enthusiasts and hunters, it has become one of the most powerful political groups in the country. The Washington Post estimates that the NRA succeeded in helping elect four out of every five candidates it endorsed in the 2010 congressional election.
Over and over I found evidence that while these massacres cause a quick spike in resistance against guns, that sentiment fades quickly and support for gun control doesn’t seem to stick; conversely, the NRA’s stance supporting the right to own, buy, and sell guns remains firm and strong, and actually increases after these massacres. According to the Huffington Post, Columbine caused a quick spike in “support for stricter gun laws, but that new support had eroded a year later and ultimately gave way to a longer-term decline.”
A great piece in the New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe explains:
What does it take? If a congresswoman in a coma isn’t sufficient grounds to reëvaluate the role that firearms play in our national life, is a schoolhouse full of dead children? . . . By this time next week, most of the people who are, today, signing petitions and demanding gun control will have moved on to other things. If you want to understand why the gun debate can occasionally feel rigged, this is the answer: the issue is characterized by a conspicuous asymmetry of fervor. The N.R.A. has only four million members—a number that is probably dwarfed by the segment of the U.S. population that feels uneasy about the unbridled proliferation of firearms. But the pro-gun constituency is ardent and organized, while the gun control crowd is diffuse and easily distracted. In the 2012 election cycle, N.R.A. spending on lobbying outranked spending by gun control groups by a factor of ten to one. What that means in practice is that in the aftermath of contemporary gun tragedies, we don’t see new gun legislation. What we do see is a spike in gun sales.
In his Atlantic article “The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)” Jeffrey Goldberg echoed the sentiment:
After Columbine, Colorado closed its “gun-show loophole,” but efforts to close the loophole on the national level failed. The National Rifle Association and other anti-gun-control groups worked diligently to defend the loophole—misnamed, because while loophole suggests a small opening not easily negotiated, about 40 percent of all legal gun sales take place at gun shows, on the Internet, or through more-informal sales between private sellers and buyers, where buyers are not subject to federal background checks.
After the Aurora shooting, gun-control activists who expected politicians to rise up in outrage were quickly disappointed . . . Mauser believes the public has grown numb to mass violence. “People say ‘How tragic’ and then move on,” he said. “They’re told by their governor, their political leaders, that there’s no solution. So they don’t see a solution out there.”
This apathy, or brief “halflife” of caring, doesn’t just apply to citizens. Many journalists are taking Obama to task for being complacent and cowardly. They express outrage at the lack of serious conversation, definitive action, or policy change coming out of these horrifying mass murders. Over and over, they issue a call to action – founded in both fact and fury – imploring the president to do more than cry, visit families, and promise that serious conversations are on the horizon.
David Remnick writes about the president in “What Obama Must Do About Guns.” Remnick calls for the president to stop “holding himself hostage” to swing state voters who are gun advocates, for fear that he would lose their votes in this most recent election. He insinutates that it is more than politicking or cowardice, but a divergence from his very core of sincerity and values as a person, that renders Obama flaccid at the very moment he needs to strike firmly. He writes,
It is hard to believe that Obama, a decidedly liberal teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago and a former protégé of Laurence Tribe at Harvard Law School, really and truly believes that the Second Amendment is to be read the way that the N.R.A. and the Republican Party say it is.
What matters is that Obama, having just won reëlection, is liberated to do the right thing. After the Tucson shootings, he talked about having—cliché of clichés—a “national conversation” about gun violence “not only about the motivations behind these killings but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental-health system.” This conversation never happened; further gun violence, of course, did. . . Let there be a conversation. But also let there be decisive action from a President who is determined not only to feel our pain but, calling on the powers of his office, to feel the urge to prevent more suffering. His reading of the Constitution should no longer be constrained by a sense of what the conventional wisdom is in this precinct or that.
Alex Koppelman, in “The Right Day to Talk About Guns,” agrees that the President needs to pull his tail out from between his legs. He writes,
It is cowardice, too, the way that Carney and President Obama and their fellow-Democrats talk about gun control, when they finally decide the time is right. They avoid the issue as much as possible, then mouth platitudes, or promise to pass only the most popular of measures, like the assault-weapons ban. And then they do nothing to follow through.
The picture I’m starting to put together is a well-oiled, focused tight little powerhouse – the NRA – with a clear mission and a lot of clout, wielding most of the control. They’re going up against a scared, unfocused, easily distracted, confused public who want to put a stop to gun violence, but lack the understanding , organization, or follow-through that would put them on equal footing with NRA proponents. It’s like having a seasoned prosecutor representing one side in court, and the captain of a 10th grade debate team representing the other. The public is horrified, inspired to act; then the horror fades, apathy sinks in, and another cause that needs attention presents itself. Throughout this ebb and flow of caring on the side of gun control proponents, the NRA stays firm, strong, and focused. And so, they wield the power.
There is one odd-angled voice that stands out and interests me – someone passionately and loudly calling for stronger restrictions on guns, who is also an NRA member. Senator Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia is a “lifelong member of the National Rifle Association,” who tells MSNBS that he is “a proud outdoorsman and hunter, but this doesn’t make sense.” At the Washington Post, I learned more about Manchin’s A rating by the NRA, as well as his pleas to change the converstaion around assault weapons. As he put powerfully, “Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered. Anybody that’s a proud gun owner, anybody that’s a proud member of the NRA, we’re also proud parents. We’re also proud grandparents.”
Perhaps Manchin can take the best from both sides – the call for reform, as well as the ear of the powerful NRA – to make something meaningful happen to stop this deadly pattern from proliferating.
On the other hand, many other folks call gun-control laws laws disempowering; blame them for making us defenseless; cite examples of times (such as most recently, at the mall in Oregon) when shooters were confronted by armed citizens, and that this confrontation was what caused them to stop their killing sprees.
On the extreme end of this argument, Larry Pratt, Executive Director of Gun Owners of America went so far as to say,
“Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to insure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones. The only thing accomplished by gun free zones is to insure that mass murderers can slay more before they are finally confronted by someone with a gun.”
Oregon State Representative Dennis Richardon agrees that teachers be allowed to keep guns in school. Teachers need to be armed. He said, “The gun he used was illegal in the state of Connecticut; the tachers were taught how to do lockdown. We need to stop being passive, we need to take an active stance against this violence.” This is echoed by the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners, who went on CNN to again remind us all that it was an armed citizen was the one who confronted the Oregon mall shooter, and that’s what stopped his killing spree.
Like the Oregon and Michigan folks, Jefrey Goldberg suggests in, The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)” that having more guns in the hands of citizens who are ready to defend themselves or others might be the solution. He proposes:
Even the leading advocacy group for stricter gun laws, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has given up the struggle to convince the courts, and the public, that the Constitution grants only members of a militia the right to bear arms. “I’m happy to consider the debate on the Second Amendment closed,” Dan Gross, the Brady Campaign’s president, told me recently. “Reopening that debate is not what we should be doing. We have to respect the fact that a lot of decent, law-abiding people believe in gun ownership.”
Which raises a question: When even anti-gun activists believe that the debate over private gun ownership is closed; when it is too late to reduce the number of guns in private hands—and since only the naive think that legislation will prevent more than a modest number of the criminally minded, and the mentally deranged, from acquiring a gun in a country absolutely inundated with weapons—could it be that an effective way to combat guns is with more guns?
Today, more than 8 million vetted and (depending on the state) trained law-abiding citizens possess state-issued “concealed carry” handgun permits, which allow them to carry a concealed handgun or other weapon in public. Anti-gun activists believe the expansion of concealed-carry permits represents a serious threat to public order. But what if, in fact, the reverse is true? Mightn’t allowing more law-abiding private citizens to carry concealed weapons—when combined with other forms of stringent gun regulation—actually reduce gun violence?
Goldberg calls for both sides to meet in the middle:
A balanced approach to gun control in the United States would require the warring sides to agree on several contentious issues. Conservative gun-rights advocates should acknowledge that if more states had stringent universal background checks—or if a federal law put these in place—more guns would be kept out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally unstable. They should also acknowledge that requiring background checks on buyers at gun shows would not represent a threat to the Constitution. “The NRA position on this is a fiction,” says Dan Gross, the head of the Brady Campaign. “Universal background checks are not an infringement on our Second Amendment rights. This is black-helicopter stuff.” Gross believes that closing the gun-show loophole would be both extremely effective and a politically moderate and achievable goal. The gun lobby must also agree that concealed-carry permits should be granted only to people who pass rigorous criminal checks, as well as thorough training-and-safety courses.
Anti-gun advocates, meanwhile, should acknowledge that gun-control legislation is not the only answer to gun violence. Responsible gun ownership is also an answer. An enormous number of Americans believe this to be the case, and gun-control advocates do themselves no favors when they demonize gun owners, and advocates of armed self-defense, as backwoods barbarians. Liberals sometimes make the mistake of anthropomorphizing guns, ascribing to them moral characteristics they do not possess. Guns can be used to do evil, but guns can also be used to do good.
Alright. So here is my summary:
There are two problems:
1.) Keeping new guns from getting into the “wrong” hands
2.) Regulating how the guns that are already out there are used.
Gun control laws would address both of these issues, although two common arguments are that criminalizing guns will increase problems, same as with the drug trade, and that this would then render people defenseless if they were confronted with a gun-wielding-maniac, as we saw on Friday, or any individual who owns one of the 8 million guns floating around.
While I do see the logic of these two arguments, I don’t agree with them; I think that the black market problem is a real issue, as we see with drugs and slowly coming around to legalize marijuana. But I also think marijuana and Glocks are very different, so to compare the two is a bit of apples & oranges. Gun control laws would help with #1 – keeping guns from being sold to people who should not have guns, which is currently incredibly easy – which would in turn help with #2, so long as these laws are actively enforced.
I think a larger problem is the “conspicuous asymmetry of fervor” between gun control supporters, and the NRA. As with so many things, we see an imbalance between the Republicans and the Democrats; Republicans are tight; polished; a well-oiled machine. They are focused, tenacious, consistent, relentless. The Democrats are not. They are sad; feeling; unfocused; spread out; heady; talking, instead of doing. If the gun control side could take a page from the NRA’s book and get organized – with fundraising, lobbying, being bulldogs – then I wonder how many lives could be saved.
I also feel that we need to approach this from a different perspective. Every gun counts – even if you are one of the law-abiding citizens who uses the gun in the “right” way (which, I guess, means never using it unless you’ve found yourself threatened with a gun by someone else), the fact that you get to have a gun means that we live in a country where civilians owning guns is OK; which means we live in a country where folks like Adam Lanza can buy guns. Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we have “good” guns that lie dormant in closet safes in case of a robbery, or sit patiently in purses with the safety on in order to ward off muggers, and still have enough controls in place to prevent criminals, children, and the mentally ill from getting their hands on guns, too? Is it worth it to have a gun in your closet or handbag if it means things like Sandy Hook can happen?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but they sure as hell need to be answered.
Well – what are your thoughts on all of this?