29 July 2012

Utopia and Guns, Again

My post from last year on "Utopia and the Gun Culture" has gotten some attention in the wake of the horrifying shootings in Aurora, Colorado.

Most of what I have to say about guns, I said there. Here, I'll mainly link to a few recent writngs of interest and add a bit of comment at the end.

First, if you're curious to know more about the labyrinthine federal and state laws regarding firearms, the ATF has guides to federal (PDF) and state laws. (For a general overview, there's Wikipedia: federal, state.)

Here's a perfect example of useless utopian thinking: "A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths". Such articles are a waste of time.

For more on the deep issues and why utopian thinking is a waste of time, see Timothy Burke's post "Don't Bring Policy to a Culture Fight".

For a good exploration/demonstration of the difficulties of drawing any useful conclusions from statistics about guns, crime, and violence, see the discussion at Ta-Nehsisi Coates's blog on this post.

For an example of at least an attempt at some conversation without too much stereotyping, name-calling, and knee-jerking, see the comments on this Daily Kos post.


The New York Times has been running a bunch of op-eds about guns and gun control. The best one I've read is "A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate" by Jack Healy. I don't think there's a lot of chance of getting any of the ideas there brought to reality any time soon, but most seem to me to be good ones to work toward. I especially like this idea:
Gun-control supporters need higher-precision instruments than the federal assault weapons ban in their arsenal if they want legislators to discuss and debate their proposals instead of dismissing them. A law requiring membership in a shooting range or a gun club for bulk purchases of ammunition or extended magazines would be a reasonable start.
Lots of people have been aghast at the amount of ammo James Holmes stockpiled. I wasn't. I have friends, some of them not even self-proclaimed gun nuts, who have far more than that. Competitive shooters in particular will buy in bulk whenever possible, because not only can ammo prices be hugely variable, availability can be a problem: there are plenty of times when certain calibres are virtually unobtainable. If you're a regular shooter and find a deal on a bunch of ammo, you stockpile. It's neither paranoid nor nutty; it's practical.

But Jack Healy's proposed law requiring membership in a club or with a shooting range is brilliant because it means most of the people who would want to responsibly buy in bulk could do so, and it discourages the sort of people who want to hide their activities or who are especially anti-social. We know that James Holmes applied to a shooting range and then didn't continue his application after leaving messages that unsettled the owner. Had Healy's law been in place, Holmes could not have legally bought so much ammo. It might not have stopped him from killing people, but it would likely have stopped him from killing and wounding so many.

We're unlikely to see even such reasonable adjustments to our gun laws, though, for many of the reasons Timothy Burke pointed out. I'd just add profit motive to all that — as I said in my original post, the NRA and the manufacturers profit tremendously from paranoia. Any time there is a panic about potential new laws, NRA membership goes up, donations pour in, and people buy lots of guns. This is why, even in the absence of any actual legislation, the NRA stokes the fires of any anti-gun conspiracy anyone could ever imagine. Even if the majority of the membership says, "Oh please, stop being ridiculous," at least a few people will freak out and either buy guns or send a donation (or both). Boss Wayne LaPierre doesn't pull in roughly a million dollars a year from the NRA for nothing.

To my mind, Mayors Against Illegal Guns has some good proposals for reasonable, practical steps that can be taken to reduce gun violence. Though the NRA (surprise!) doesn't like them, the organization has made a generally good-faith effort to be practical and to bring in ideas from a range of perspectives.

Reducing gun violence doesn't only require intelligent, pragmatic regulations; it requires a holistic approach that includes addressing mental health issues (at least half of all gun deaths in the U.S. each year are suicides), coming to terms with the manifold factors influencing crime, and seriously considering how such things as, for instance, having the highest incarceration rate in the world and being in the midst of perpetual war affect national violence. I suspect we'd see far greater reduction in violence in the U.S. if we sought to make rehabilitation the central goal of our justice system, if we sought to seriously reduce income inequality, if we reduced our military presence generally, and if we didn't lead the world in military expenditures, arms production, arms transfers, nuclear forces, etc. (As George Carlin once said, "We like war! We're a war-like people! We like war because we're good at it. ... And it's a good thing we are; we're not very good at anything else anymore!")

While daydreaming about getting rid of all the guns in the U.S. is useless utopianism, I do have hope that we can get beyond the politics and stereotyping, that people of different experiences can talk to each other, and that we can reduce the number of people killed each year. We don't have to  get used to mass murders as regular events.

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