Monday, January 14, 2013

Mass murders and gun control

My previous post described the changing face of tourism in Hawaii. Two additional observations merit comment. First, I see more homeless people here now than I did twenty years ago. The high cost of living causes many people in Hawaii to struggle financially and the temperate climate and generous welfare benefits make Hawaii more survivable for the homeless than many places in the other forty-nine states. The increased number of homeless people accentuates the disparity between the wealthy 1-2% who vacation here and the other 98-99% of the population.

Second, Oahu now has several shooting ranges where tourists may fire assault weapons and other firearms. Paid representatives distribute flyers in the heart of Waikiki for the several ranges, competing for tourist dollars with those distributing flyers for luaus, dive trips, and luxury shopping. The existence of these firearms galleries feels strangely incongruous in the land of aloha.

I’ll bet I have seen a dozen or more people advertising the shooting ranges. Not one of them solicited me or my partner. In fact, I did not see any of them solicit a Caucasian. All targeted Asians, perhaps to include anyone identifiable as Russian. I’m willing to bet that economics rather than racial prejudice motivated this profiling.

On the one hand, the existence of the shooting galleries highlights the second amendment’s stipulation of the right of individuals to own firearms and laudatory American entrepreneurialism.

On the other hand, the firearms galleries underscore the tragic gun culture that permeates American society. In London, fifteen years ago, I had parishioners who feared traveling to the United States because they believed that gun play – featured in gangster movies and Western TV shows– occurred everywhere much of the time. Although those fears were irrational and wildly overblown, the United States has far more mass murder than does any other developed nation:

Since 1982, there have been sixty-two mass murders in the United States. During that thirty-year period, there have been only three times—1983, 1985, and 2002—when the country made it from January 1st to December 31st without seeing such an incident. Last year, there were seven. (“Joe Biden and the gun control debate,” New Yorker, January 2013)

So some businesses make lemonade out of lemons, promoting tourism among Asian visitors, at least in part, as an opportunity to participate in our gun culture by legally firing weapons banned or severely controlled in their own country.

We have a problem with firearms in the United States. In Switzerland, which requires universal military service, most adult males have at least one firearm readily available. Yet murder rates are exceptionally low and mass murder is almost unknown. The American fascination with firearms, desire for immediate action, and frequent failure to exercise adequate self-control (the widespread abuse of alcohol is another manifestation of this third factor and one that compounds the problem with firearms) combine in a lethal cocktail that annually leaves more Americans dead from homicide and suicide than do car wrecks.

Can you picture Jesus, the prince of peace, carrying – even owning – a weapon? I can’t. However, I can picture him weeping, as he did when told of his friend Lazarus’ death, each time someone is killed by a firearm. What can we do?

First, we need to de-glorify guns. A gun does not make anyone a bigger, better, or safer person. Guns have a few practical uses, e.g., safe hunting. The military and some police also sadly need weapons to carry out their duties. But de-glorifying weapons could constructively begin with eliminating most police SWAT teams. These over-armed teams often unleash excessive firepower and bring an unhelpful urgency to situations, e.g., once the police have corned a suspect(s), police can apprehend the suspect(s) by allowing hunger, thirst, and lack of sleep to take their toll over several days rather than conducting an assault. Similarly, the military could eliminate armed guards for all four star officers except those actually in combat zones. Religious leaders, celebrities, the media, politicians, and others can all publicly and repeatedly speak and act in ways that de-glorify guns.

Arming school teachers or other staff, even assigning armed police officers to schools, is not the right answer. Such moves perpetuate the gun culture and, because these individuals will rarely receive sufficient, ongoing training to fire accurately only at real killers when under pressure, are likely to increase rather than to reduce the number of fatalities and wounded. More guns and more armed people will never change our gun culture.

Second, we should ban the sale to civilians of ammunition (e.g., hollow point rounds) and magazines (those that hold more than two or three rounds) that have no civilian use. Realistically, given the number of weapons owned more by individual Americans (more than in almost any country, including both Iraq and Afghanistan), imposing controls on ammunition and magazines is more likely to have beneficial results than is attempting to ban certain types of weapons.

Third, better background checks and waiting periods will help (though not entirely succeed) in keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted felons. States that have implemented these policies consistently have lower firearm fatality rates than do other states.

Fourth, we need to shift the political debate from politicians perceiving that gun control is the proverbial third rail of politics and therefore competing with one another for endorsement by the National Rifle Association to a public debate on the merits of striking the second amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms. The historical rational for the right – a defense against tyranny – is anachronistic today. The twenty-first century dependence of Syrians, Libyans, and others on foreign military assistance to overthrow their dictators amply illustrates that point.

I, for one, do not want to live in a nation in which private militaries are legal. Nor do I want to live in a country in which private citizens may own fighter jets, bombers, tanks, missiles, machine guns, and other implements of modern warfare. The idea of a militia armed with rifles defeating a tyrant’s armed forces is a romantic, anachronistic fiction and no longer a reality as it may have been in the eighteenth century.

The recent slaughter of school children and teachers in Newtown, CT, affords opportunity for us to act. Simply rehashing old ideas, most of which have proven ineffectual, is unhelpful. We need to acknowledge that we have wrongly glorified the gun and then take positive steps to build a safer society.


Ted said...

A good start on a difficult and touchy subject. I would include other issues concerned with gun violence. I'd include many types of mental illness not currently against the current Federal laws and those who commit crimes involving alcohol or other drugs. What about those involved in domestic disputes? We have several deaths each year from the participants and also the police who try to intervene.
Why should any gun fire more than 3-5 rounds of ammunition without reloading? I doubt many animals can be killed with an AK-47 or similar types of gun as after each shot the barrel rises. The sporting community wants high powered rifles for their sport. What sport is it to stalk and shoot your quarry from several hundred yards and not give the animal a chance? If we were hungry I could understand; but don’t call yourself a sportsman.

George Clifford said...

Ted, Thanks for the comment and suggestions. I absolutely agree on the foolishness of selling guns that fire more than 3-5 rounds without reloading; I'd argue that 2 or 3 rounds should suffice. High powered weapons do not inherently require large magazines; the combination of large magazine and high power does create a more "macho" image and ma make the gun more attractive to potential purchasers. said...

I agree with both of you. As I see it, the big problem in tackling this issue is the National Rifle Association's well funded lobby in the U. S. Congress. I have no solution to this except a better funded lobby to the contrary. Whose vote is for sale? seems as though they all are! WOW! This from a rigid conservative!


George Clifford said...

Ford, Thanks for the comment. It's a sad commentary when the votes of every politician appears to be for sale.

David S said...

A thoughtful and well reasoned comment on an emotionally charged subject. In reality, we cannot control guns, but we hopefully can reduce gun violence through a variety of approaches. One suggestion: While expanding background checks and adding waiting periods are an aspect of reducing the number of guns in the hands of persons whose mental state is precarious, we recognize this will not identify those who have not come into contact with the mental health system or the court system. Currently we require mental health screening for many occupations, including that of ordained clergy in many faith traditions. Perhaps we should also require a mental health clearance from a licensed professional as a prerequisite for purchase of a gun or the issuance or renewal of a concealed carry permit.

George Clifford said...

David S., Good idea on making the mental health check a positive step rather than simply noting the absence of problems in the record.