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.
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A sculpture outside the U.N. headquarters in New York

Somewhere between fearing guns and fearing those around you, there is a healthy respect for weapons. Knute Berger will meet you there.

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.

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.

Back in 2000, I went through an NRA handgun training course with a group of gays and lesbians, put on by an organization then called Democrats for the Second Amendment. I wrote about it for Seattle Weekly, and I came away with a couple of impressions. For people who can find themselves as society's punching bags, learning about guns and having a gun can be profoundly empowering. Owning one can make you less afraid, the same way a lock on the door or an alarm system does.

I also learned that being trained to use a gun, just as a person has to pass tests or take driver's ed to get a driver's license, is an important step in the process of de-mystification, of turning the gun into a tool. The NRA has a great training program; fortunately you don't need to be a member to take it.

If I were czar, I'd require any gun purchaser to prove they had taken a certified gun safety course. I might even require some kind of gun fee to help fund the mental health system or even gun insurance to cover gun-related losses, damage and liability. I also think society has a perfect, constitutional right to regulate what kinds of guns are in the civilian market-place.

One would hope that rationality about guns will prevail, or will be re-asserted, in Washington, D.C. and Olympia, on both the left and right.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.