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Gun control is not a four-letter word

Somewhere between fearing guns and fearing those around you, there is a healthy respect for weapons. Knute Berger will meet you there.
A sculpture outside the U.N. headquarters in New York

A sculpture outside the U.N. headquarters in New York Island Nimbus/Flickr

I am sympathetic with President Barack Obama's multi-pronged effort to reduce gun violence. His new plan proposes new measures across the board, from national medical and public health research to individual background checks for every gun buyer. Last August, I wrote a column for Seattle magazine (reprinted on Crosscut) about Washington state's own futility in dealing with the same issues.

If you'll remember, Seattle suffered from a spate of bystander shootings and mass slaughter (Cafe Racer) in 2012. There were so many murders at the beginning of the year that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn even declared a murder "emergency." Over the year, the murder rate fell to about average in the city, but the year's events left us jumpy. Still, there's the question of what to do.

Olympia has largely become the place where gun control legislation goes to die. In the wake of other shootings, well meaning bills have fizzled, such as the "Aaron Sullivan" assault weapons ban in 2010 and Seattle's 2008 ban on guns in city parks, tossed out by the courts.

And the approach on guns needs to be broader. It has to include closing the gun show loophole, but also a bigger commitment to safety, and to mental health care. As I wrote after the Cafe Racer shooting, "a heavily armed democracy must also have a commitment to sanity and humanity."

Things aren't looking any better this time around. The state legislature is not done shredding the social safety net and appear to have little willingness, even in the wake of tragedy, to do something about guns themselves. Governor Inslee has talked about an assault weapons ban, but with conservatives in control of the state Senate, its future seems dubious. This is a reality we have to live with.

The fact is, some significant steps (in the mental health system, for example) will be expensive, ongoing and will require a wide range of initiatives. Guns are only part of the problem.

I say that as a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter. Like Obama, I believe law-abiding people should be allowed to own guns for sport, work, collecting, hunting or protection — whatever. Guns aren't magical, they aren't evil. People who've grown up with them, are trained to use them and need them can be dispassionate about them. I support gun ownership.

There is much irrationality on both sides of the gun debate. Liberals appeal to a kind of bottomless pit of unaffordable compassion: "If this new program [gun buyback, banning assault weapons, etc.] saves just one life it will be worth it." Obama, Joe Biden and Dow Constantine have all recently used this rhetoric, but it's not very logical — let alone sustainable — as policy. The benefits to the public of broad, expensive public measures have to be much broader and bigger than the standard of saving a single life. Otherwise, why not pay me $200,000 a year to stay home, so I won't be run over by a car?

But the real, bull-goose lunacy is currently flowing from the National Rifle Association. Their proposal to put armed guards in every school, the despicable attack on Obama and his daughters in a false TV ad, and their ginning up of paranoia and conspiracy theories about Newtown are little more than an attempt to boost membership and sell tons of guns to scared Americans. This is sick stuff. The NRA leadership is lucky that there isn't a national mental health database already. If there were, they'd be in it.

They are being aided by so-called mainstream Republicans, who continue to flog a false narrative. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, supposedly the fresh, more rational face of the party positioning for 2016, declared that Obama lacks "guts" because he isn't being honest that he hates the Second Amendment. It doesn't matter to Rubio that Obama has explicitly stated that he actually is a supporter of the 2nd Amendment or that he believes in gun ownership. This is how Fox election night bubbles are created, and Rubio is bucking to be pitchman for a tinfoil hat company.

I do find it ironic when people argue that guns don't kill people; that they are merely tools. These folks are often the most irrational and emotional about guns. Yes, a gun is a tool, but it is not a sacred symbol of anything. If you can't de-emotionalize, de-mystify and de-fuse, please unclamp your cold, sweaty hands and put your gun back in its lock box. I do understand paranoia — I have experienced it myself — but take some deep breaths, scale back the caffeine and sugar and rejoin the reality-based community.

Much of this comes from simple fear. Liberals tend to fear guns, conservatives fear being disarmed. It's a psychological yin-yang that drives much of our politics. The fear of guns can be understood by mass shootings and drive-by tragedies. The fear of being unprotected is just as real. The long arm of the law cannot protect an individual 24/7; a protection or anti-harassment order is a useless piece of paper if someone (an abuser, a stalker, a violent criminal) is out to get you. And for too many people in this country, that is a reality.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

To my mind the most disheartening aspect of the current gun debate is the notion that it will all be resolved in the next few months. I will use drunk driving and automobile safety as an example. In the '60's, when I first became aware of drunk driving and the carnage it caused, people either winked at the drunk drivers ("boys will be boys" or "I didn't have THAT much") or dispaired at the seemingly unsurmountable task of ridding the roads of drunk drivers. But changing community attitudes over the past two generations have made it morally unacceptable to drive drunk and the number of fatalities from drunk driving has been cut in half. I doubt that our society will ever see zero deaths from drunk driving but its been trending that way for decades.

Also during the past several decades we have seen an continious trend to more safety devices in automobiles. As a kid I remember mom & dad taking the Chevy to have seatbelts retrofitted. Now seatbelts are factory installed universally and use is, depending on where you look for statistics, the vast majority of drivers. Antilock brakes, traction control and airbags are all safety items I've seen over my driving career. Each has reduced injury and deaths but none have completely eliminated fatal accidents.

Gun violence could go the same way if our society decides that the number of gun deaths is unacceptable. It won't happen by the end of this legislative session. It probably won't happen this decade. But reducing gun violence will happen if our society chooses to make it so.

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute,
You and I haven't always aligned on this issue but if you are calling for thoughtful measures to protect 1st Amendment rights and public safety (the gun show loophole) then you and I are aligning.
David Freiboth

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Berger overlooks at least five critical factors in his otherwise notably rational discussion of firearms and forcible disarmament:

(1)-Those of us from the Northeast, as I am, know from bitter experience the terms "gun control" and "gun safety" are deliberately misleading euphemisms for forcible disarmament. In New York City, civilian possession of rifles and shotguns was commonplace as recently as the 1960s but since then has been increasingly regulated to the point it is now effectively illegal. Registration – which out here in America-Beyond-the-Hudson is currently disguised as "closing the gun show loophole" – was indeed the precursor to confiscation without compensation. In both NYC and New Jersey, all defined mental problems including dyslexia, hyperactivity, attention deficit and/or any other learning disability make you a prohibited person forever. So does even a single I-have-a-problem consultation with a psychiatrist or other mental health professional. Given that half the U.S. population will at some time suffer a mental disorder (see http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/medical/health/medical/mentalhealth/story/2011-09-05/CDC-Half-of-Americans-will-suffer-from-mental-health-woes/50250702/1 ), about half the population is thus condemned to a lifetime of mandatory pacifism and compulsory victimhood – unless of course an individual victim submits to the culture shock and socioeconomic trauma of moving elsewhere.

(2)-Anyone who doubts the intention of the Washington state anti-gunowner cult to impose the same NYC sorts of restrictions here should review the 1994 Youth Violence Act, which but for Gov. Mike Lowry's item-veto would have permanently and retroactively disarmed anyone who had ever been in any mental-health treatment program of more than two weeks duration, including all forms of out-patient therapy.

(3)-Because criminals are by definition law-breakers, no amount of legislation will deter those who are determined to act illegally. Therefore to outlaw firearms ownership or to prohibit possession of various types of firearms is to disarm only law-abiding people. While violent crime rates are relatively low at the moment, history tells us the burgeoning socioeconomic hardships imposed by the irremediable death of the American-Dream economy will soon produce an epidemic of need-driven theft and robbery that has no peer in our national experience. This combined with the continued downsizing of police departments and/or their conversion to paramilitary organizations tasked primarily with the suppression of dissent leaves any citizen of the 99 Percent ever more undefended. (Meanwhile the One Percent is ever more zealously protected by the police, the military and the growing legions of mercenaries hired as bodyguards.) Thus – again – the legitimacy of the claim forcible civilian disarmament is in fact the imposition of mandatory pacifism, the creation of an involuntary equality of mandatory victimhood: a perfect precursor to creation of a universal slave mentality.

(4)-It is disingenuous to describe forcible disarmament as a liberal/conservative issue. The Civil Rights Movement would not have succeeded in the South without the armed protection provided by the Deacons for Defense. My late father, privately a lifelong Marxian, was also a life member of the National Rifle Association. Moreover – though in today's United States the Left is mostly a pseudo-Left (not only lacking in ideological discipline but as savagely anti-intellectual as the Teabagger Right) – there is a strong Leftist argument for the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment. To wit: that forcible civilian disarmament now – amidst the nation's permanent transition back to a slave-and-sweatshop economy owned and operated by an increasingly well-guarded aristocracy – robs the 99 Percent of its ultimate means of self-protection.

(5)-While Mr. Berger is to be applauded for noting the “irrationality on both sides of the gun debate,” he fails to report on the arrogant, often fanatical hatefulness that motivates the anti-gunowner cult. As the late Jack Newfield noted in a series of Village Voice reports c. 1968-1973, the conflicts of the Vietnam Era shattered forever the New Deal coalition of Working Class and petite bourgeois that had moved the U.S. away from its slave-and-sweatshop roots toward a more humanitarian socioeconomic order. The primary cause of that never-to-be-healed schism was – as I can personally attest – the hatred and contempt with which the Vietnam Era's draft-exempt elite viewed those of us who, because of our Working Class socioeconomic status, had no choice but to serve in the military. Nor did the intensity of hatred diminish after the U.S. was driven from Vietnam. Instead the elite – that is, the petite bourgeois who identify with the One Percent – refocused its class-war animosity on other attributes that seem to define Working Class membership. The most obvious of these attributes is firearms ownership. That's why in today's world the firearms owner has replaced the Vietnam-era soldier, sailor, Marine and air force member as the standard target for elite (i.e. petite bourgeois) hatred.

There are other issues here too. One is how the (pseudo) Left that weeks ago was rightfully denouncing the president for his (predictable) post-electoral turnabout from Obama the Orator back to Barack the Betrayer is now predictably proclaiming his sainthood. Another is how – particularly when the seemingly infinite wealth and political energy expended on this newest forcible disarmament campaign are compared to the paltry sums ineffectually exerted on behalf single-payer/public-option health insurance or the Employee Free Choice Act – it becomes obvious today's Democratic Party is nothing more than the forcible-disarmament wing of the single RepublicRatic Party that rules the nation for the One Percent. In this context we should all be asking what purposes – including that of obscuring looming presidential betrayals on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps – the forcible-disarmament controversy truly serves.

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't find the NRA's ad despicable at all.

The President's children deserve and get strong protection. So do the various Washington elite with children at Sidwell, the people who hire armed guards, but they want to ban the guns for everyone else.

The same people who want to ban school choice and charter schools for everyone else, put their kids in elite schools, which they deserve. I just have a problem that they want to deny the opportunity to everyone else.

And that's precisely what they're doing when they take your money, as taxes, don't provide a good school with that money, when a parent could have used that money to get better education independently.

When a public official wants to do one thing with their children, and prevent you from doing the same, then the children are fair game, and that applies to either side.

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

To clarify, not the children themselves as fair game, but the parent's choice about the children.

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate


"People who dismiss guns often have the privilege on not having experienced a direct threat. Once you or your family have been threatened, your perspective can change."

In 1984 at a convenience store on Capitol Hill, a guy walked in with a rifle and ordered me and others onto the floor. No shots fired.

In 1988 at a grade school in suburban Illinois where my mother was teaching, a woman walked in with three handguns. She shot six kids, murdering one.

In 2012, one of those murdered at Cafe Racer was an acquaintance.

And, yes, Knute, you can bet my perspective has changed. There are now some 280 million guns in this country. Enough to arm each of us over the age of five. Gee, you think that's enough? Once a gun is legally purchased, it is in the wild: it can be sold, legally or otherwise, or stolen. All without accountability. There is no such thing as gun control in this country. Each of us each day is at risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's the way it's going to stay until we reduce the number of guns.

Each and every gun owner in this country claims to be responsible. It's beyond time for gun owners to own up to that claim by annually registering their guns. Given the damage that guns cause, annual registration fees should cover both the system and pay for some of that damage. Once we account for the legal guns in this country, perhaps we can reduce the number of illegal ones.

Dewams

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 2:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Predictably the gun fanatics arise casting their condescending spite on those with the temerity to simply ask for a calm, rational look at all factors contributing to gun violence...

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 2:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Mossback, for a level-headed and fair-minded analysis of the situation. The world is not by nature a safe place, and overreaching attempts to make it safe usually have offsetting downsides. I don't think for a second that banning rifles that look like assault weapons (as real automatic rifles have been strictly controlled since the 1930s) is going to do a damned bit of good. But I do think that more effective background checks, combined with a willingness to institutionalize the dangerously unstable, could do a lot to make the world marginally safer. And marginally safer is the best that a rational person can hope for.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I have been reading Mosttback for years. Whatever quibbles I would have voiced were well taken care of by "lorenbliss". For those of you who think primarily in terms of the Seattle area, there are many ardent gun rights supporters in your midst. Washington Ceasefire has about 5000 members; there are nearly 400,000 Concealed Pistol License holders in the state. A whole lot of the latter are in your Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Posted Fri, Jan 25, 9:15 a.m. Inappropriate

dcfreiboth - indeed.

The rational discussion anticipated is the one Piers Morgan has done on several occasions.

Posted Sun, Jan 27, 8:01 p.m. Inappropriate

lorenbliss - I didn't know about the "anti-gunowner cult." Where do I sign up?

Is it as well-funded as the NRA?

argus

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