Friday, January 18, 2013

Guns, Fear, Tragedy, and Misdirection

So much debate and discussion has arisen out of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary. Everyone is appalled at what an individual could do to defenseless children and needless to say, we wish that it could have been prevented.

While listening to or reading various media reports, many observations were made. Both sides are passionate but almost everything sounds like it has some sort of spin on it. The discussion is being steered down understandable but often misguided trains of thought. We need to sort this out thoughtfully and logically.

One of the most common aspects of this discussion is fear: Fear of having to worry about murder and crime in general, fear of being stripped of the right to defend oneself, and fear of just having to worry about the presence of guns in general.

While listening to a radio broadcast (Democracy Now, I believe) that was discussing the issue of guns, the discussion kept coming to points about gun violence and the need to do something in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. They discussed how New York's governor was implementing tough gun control in his state, limiting clips to 7 rounds and banning assault rifles, etc. They talked of how the NRA was spreading the fear that the government was going to"take all their guns" and how it was unfounded. The day before (on perhaps that same radio program) a caller spoke of cautionary tales being spread about how Hitler (and I believe they were saying "socialists" in general) had a policy of taking guns too. That caller was implying that it was a laughably silly claim because Hitler had simply banned pistols and gave licences to rifles for varying periods of time. He then went on to say that the caveat there was that if you joined the party, many of those restrictions went away so in reality, socialism gave guns out like candy. Now I can't personally verify this recount of history but it was apparent that the caller and host were in agreement about the silliness of worrying about gun control and how that in any case, it should take a back seat to protecting our children and citizens in general. Multiple remarks were made with negative connotation about how gun lobbyists were stirring fear up to keep filling gun maker's pockets and keep their high salaries. Language like that, especially when piled on and repeated is a red flag. Isn't referring to "rampant" mass shootings frequently also fear-mongering? Isn't placing so much emphasis on protecting our children from gun violence in particular also appealing to fears?

It is absolutely true that guns are dangerous and it is absolutely true that they can be used for harm. It is also absolutely true that guns themselves are impartial and perhaps most importantly are not the most likely thing lives will be threatened with. Vehicular accidents, disease, terrorism, and even depression all pose threats. One primary reason Sandy Hook means so much to us now is that it was an extremely rare occurrence in that the perpetrator targeted defenseless kids much younger than his peers and took them so quickly. But prior to that incident, usually when you hear of innocent kids being killed it is by desperate, estranged, or mentally ill parents. They were drowned, strangled, drugged, burned, or stabbed. When we think of all the horrible things that can happen to children or us in general, there are so many more likely things that would take our lives. I say all this not to be morose but to state plainly how guns are not nearly the sole face of violence and posed danger. It is entirely natural to feel the sting of the instrument that has been tied to several recent events but it is naive to hear "protect the children" and decide to remove and option for doing just that.

That being said, guns are dangerous and deserve to be handled with the utmost care. Most are of course designed to harm either in hunting or personal defense and as such it needs to be taken quite seriously. People need to take great personal care to ensure that they know when they are appropriate to use and how to keep those that may not fully understand the risks and responsibilities away from them. There need to be common-sense safeguards that we are diligent in enacting and maintaining.

Our nation's independence was won by armed militia and as such there is a deep tradition of self-protection and having the option to fight back against governmental oppression. There are arguments about how hand-held weapons are irrelevant against governments today given all the technology and massive firepower but clearly this too is a naive statement. For starters, even with massive advantages in weaponry, it is not politically advantageous. As we can see in Syria, using overwhelming force against internal opposition is highly frowned upon. Regular battle in smaller scale of course rages on. There is a reason there's only been nuclear deployment in one war in history. It's a very last resort and typically it isn't something you'd self-inflict. Likewise, rolling Abram tanks down residential streets or using a bunker buster on someone's basement is likely not something a government would want to have attention drawn to. There are huge issues of legitimacy that could unravel entire structures of diplomacy. Everything is held in balance with guarded trust.

While it is understandable that people would like to protect their freedoms and some small fragment of anonymity or privacy, it is also fair to want to screen those who would purchase weapons for registered mental health flags. There should also be a transparent non-partisan review process in place to combat abuse that would unfairly flag individuals or conversely and dangerously clear others.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that, just like with the banning and regulation of guns, gun ownership isn't a magic bullet for safety and governmental accountability. We are being polarized when the solution is in the middle, holding predominant peace in the tension. The key is in having the option and availability to be weapon-free but also the option to bear arms. It should be a personal choice. There is danger in both knowing everyone is armed and in knowing no-one is armed. Not knowing prevents assured planning but that concept is often reviled nearly as much as the heinous acts of violence. We want to know, we want to plan, we want to think we have it all figured out. That is the downfall.

As older generations pass on, we've grown up in a largely stable global environment. There have been threats of war and wars that have raged on but our western societies have largely remained intact. We are familiarized with freedom and flowing information and the idea that we are evolved civilizations who are now in some stage of the progression to utopia. The danger is in having too much confidence in our perceptions and capabilities. More and more I see attempts to revise and re-write histories and yet it seems that we ignore the common thread of humanity which is of course fallibility. It never ceases to amaze me how we can barely understand each other now and yet we make bold assessments of how well we understand people long gone.

It can be said that both of the two dominant sides of this gun control debate are both misguided and fearful. That said, I'm sure that many in both camps have noble intent. They both want to protect loved ones, the method is what differs. Greatly limiting firearms through law restricts freedom, owning extremely dangerous weapons affects the feeling of safety and comfort for those not in possession of them. There are clearly widespread effects to both sides and that's why there must be balance that is perpetually held in check from sliding too far in either direction.

I recently solicited thoughts and comments from friends in Australia who currently have pretty tight regulation on firearms. They had a massacre in Port Arthur back in 1996 that prompted their change in national gun laws. Most were quite happy with their overall feeling of safety since the stricter regulations and had no major qualms. Some weren't as comfortable, though for varying reasons. One issue that came to light was the subjective and potentially nonsensical cut-off points for the regulations (caliber, barrel length, action) that opened the door for bureaucratic encroachment on matters it might not fully grasp. Another pointed to the need for specifying the discussion on "guns" to fully automatic assault weapons and the like (of which, that commenter stated there was obviously no need). It is worth noting that many were still enthusiastic about using guns in sport and hunting but the general sentiment was one that didn't understand the American need for guns as protection. There was (of course) also some questioning of both side's statistics relating to what did/didn't/doesn't happen before and after the restrictions were introduced, thereby emulating the debate of the efficacy of restrictions that we have here in America. Australia is a pretty laid-back country in general and so the prevailing attitudes reflected in my informal polling are likely pretty indicative of the sentiment of the majority opinion. Of course the issue of arms is one that has many facets both in national attitude and political positioning so what's right for one nation may or may not be right for another.

Most of these recent incidents are committed by young alienated men and their psychology is almost always at the forefront. The "lone wolf" is by far the more common class of perpetrator. Experts say that they are also one of the the most difficult classes to track and preemptively intervene with. Massive media coverage of these events is even likely to inspire other copycats who want to emulate or surpass the tolls of events they hear of. So what can be done? How can we prevent barely traceable individuals from committing horrific acts and is it really containable within gun regulation? Would we be like the little dutch boy and simply fix one problem while causing another in an attempt to stop a relentless and mobile threat?

There are of course root causes for the evil that rears it's head from time to time and I'm convinced that as much as this discussion is about safety and defense, it's also all a red herring. Guns ultimately aren't an infallible protector and not having them around doesn't make us safe. What is at stake is the freedom to choose what you do.

There is a distinct difference between a healthy and knee-jerk reaction. The first learns from past mistakes, inspects the whole structure and makes comprehensive improvements addressing the root of the problem. The latter throws on specific patches without or before inspecting the core structure. The root of the problem of violent acts is selfishness and evil. Mental health issues are an inroads for evil to travel but mental health is an inexact science. Thankfully there is some discussion about how to care for those that do suffer from mental illness but it has been given a back seat to gun control when the opposite would probably be more helpful. The bottom line there is that people need to be accountable and responsible to each other. Whether it be shielding a troubled child from view or consequence or just not safeguarding weapons carefully enough, there have been failures on both sides.

I believe that we all want to live without fear but the best way to that point is to have an infallible object of trust. Self, government, and guns are not infallible. We will always have something to fear on this planet (or beyond) if we allow ourselves to be too closely tied to it. I just feel more safe with freedom because it leaves options open; restriction leads to exploitation with time.

While writing this, a news conference was being broadcast with the president speaking on the this very topic. President Obama sounds sincere in his speeches and desire to protect our children but this desire to push significant legislation through so quickly does not seem wise. The issue is not as straightforward as it sounds because protecting our children looks different to different people. His comments seem to assert that we can protect children by addressing guns. Our nation was founded on the concept of allowing people freedom to pursue life and liberty differently within the construct of the union. Unilateral pushes that erode some of the traditional obstacles to power grabs have to be looked at closely and carefully. If the legislation simply mandates the issues be decided state to state that is better but of course that also means citizens need to take a renewed interest in their local politics.

So the debate rages on. What will happen will happen and time will tell which fears are founded or not.  If history is any indication, we will inevitably make many of the same mistakes we've made before and eventually correct them until the next generations forget again, thinking they're impervious. This issue highlights the incredibly subjective nature of our perception of safety and why it makes sense to me that we have different states and nations. People should have the freedom to choose and global consolidation of policy is a slippery slope we probably don't have the full perspective to grasp.

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