Saturday, December 15, 2012

Call me a Flip-Flopper. But I have Reconsidered and Altered my Position on Guns

I've been remarkably consistent in my views on guns over the past few decades. Essentially, it has boiled down to the following statement, which I had posted in more places than I can count:

I support your right to own a gun. Any gun.

The Constitutional fact that Americans have the right to be armed aside, I fundamentally believe (as a liberal) that you have the right to read, download, drink, smoke, have sexual activity or whatever as you please as long as you are not harming someone else by it, and therefore also to buy what you please (and if it is a gun, then buy it.) In fact, until recently the debate on guns has been moving further and further to the right, where without changing a single position, I had gone from guns being one issue where I generally agreed with the right (when the debate was about registration and limitations on ownership) to where I was more likely to agree with the left (when the debate had moved past that to trying to force guns into more and more places like public buildings and private businesses over the objections of the business owners.) I summarized this several months ago in this post: The Debate on Guns has been Changing.

Recently though, in light of a spate of deranged gunmen killing large numbers of people, the debate has been moving back the other way. And in theory that would move me back to where I had been focused, against any new restrictions. To restrict individual rights, I believe in a high bar.

That bar has been reached. The slaughter of first grade children at an elementary school yesterday has been the point at which I have to reluctantly agree that the harm to society caused by allowing the ownership of a particular category of weapons-- assault weapons with clips capable of firing large numbers of rounds before reloading, and in rapid succession-- outweighs any good reason one could have for owning one.

And the fact is, this weekend was only a third as bloody as it could have been. In the past 48 hours you didn't read about another school shooting in Bartlesville, Oklahoma because of a brave student informant and an alert school administration, nor about a massacre in a hospital in Alabama this morning because of two alert hospital staff and two police officers, three of whom were wounded but who stopped the gunman before he could shoot anyone else.

Let's consider the arguments against restricting large capacity clips one at a time.

If everyone was armed, then they could take out the shooter before he kills more than a few people. This argument presupposes that people are armed every time they go out in public (because you don't expect someone to walk into your classroom or into a movie theater or into your place of worship and begin blazing away.) Besides, people always assume that if they were armed they would win a shootout against a random gunman. But would they? Yes, they might (repeat might) have the element of surprise, but that would only last for a moment. Keep in mind that these shooters have lately been wearing full body armor, and are likely armed with a much nastier weapon than what most people have for self defense. So unless you could get an exact head shot with a pistol (difficult even for a practiced police officer) just having a gun for self-defense might not be adequate. Further, the random shooter would have the advantage that most people might be deterred if, for example, there were people between them and the shooter or behind the shooter, for obvious reasons. But a deranged gunman wouldn't even care about that. SO IT IS VERY POSSIBLE, that the result of an armed citizen during a random shooting would instead of stopping the gunman, only provide him with another weapon and some more ammunition.

Further, if everyone was armed, then that would indeed mean everyone. Including people with a short temper. If we consider that scores of people are killed in arguments (especially domestic violence situations) for every person killed by a random shooter, we can see that having everyone armed would probably not be such a great idea after all.

So-called 'gun free zones' aren't. It is certainly true that if someone wants to walk past a sign advising them they can't have a weapon on the premises while armed to the teeth, the sign won't reach out and slap them. However, the truth is that weapon-free zones do work, in preventing law-abiding people who get angry while there from using a firearm. Many years ago, while I was teaching a college class in Albuquerque, an angry young man blew up in class, threw a pencil (hard) at another student (luckily she ducked and it missed,) screamed obscenities at everyone in the class and stormed out of the room. Luckily he did not have a gun at that moment, because if he did I would not be a bit surprised if he had used it. For that matter, Jared Lougher, the Tucson shooter, is by now well-documented in the problems he had in classes at Pima Community College. However, every time he lost his temper on campus, he was at that moment unarmed. In other words, he was complying with the 'gun free zone' rule when he came on campus. Nobody plans or expects to lose their temper. But, the fact is that many people do. Gun free zones may not do anything to stop someone who carefully and methodically plans to go on a rampage, but they do stop the much more common hothead who follows the rules until he (or she) loses control.

There are too many assualt weapons out there already for a ban to do any good. In the short term, this is probably true. And I'm not advocating that the government go around and pick up guns that people bought in good faith, believing that they should be legal. However, over time the supply of clips for such weapons (i.e. 30 round rapid fire clips) would diminish. I also don't support the registration of guns (because fundamentally it is still not the government's business how many guns you own or what kinds.) But limiting what new kinds of weapons one can purchase is not a restriction on anybody's freedom (after all, we all agree that you can't own a howitzer and keep it at your house) and starts to work the problems out of the system.

Why should we prevent responsible people from owning weapons when the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who would never think of killing someone else? Again, the right to own a weapon is on very firm Constitutional ground. However, what would the vast majority of American gun owners need a 30 round, rapid fire clip for? If you are that bad of a shot that you need 30 rounds then maybe you need to improve your aim. The point is, that the potential harm from a few people outweighs the desire of people to have a weapon which is frankly not useful for hunting and was invented for only one reason-- military style weapons which are useful for killing a lot of people at one time.

The United States was borne out of opposition to tyranny, and having military-style weapons helps prevent its return. Yeah, I know. That argument is out there. And I concede that our government has gone way past where I feel comfortable in terms of spying on us and restricting our rights. And in fact, I've made exactly that point. However, it's hard to see how having assault weapons on the streets answers this. For one thing, rights disappear a little at a time, and often when the folks out there complaining about 'tyranny' aren't even looking (for example, did any individual rights disappear between the end of the Clinton administration and the start of the Obama administration? Of course they did. So how come the militia 'movement' went into hibernation for eight years and said hardly a word, even though rights that get taken away remain for all future administrations to use and abuse? The truth is, that assault weapons would only be useful if tyranny was imposed all at once and provoked an actual civil war (some folks do in fact predict a full out war against the Federal Government.) But in that case, it's hard to see how a Glock 19 would come in very useful against a Predator Drone anyway. In other words, let's not go there. What they have done though is allow criminals to outgun the police. And the police after losing officers all over the country, have spoken out against them.

So what about the NRA? Don't they hold Congress in an iron grip and make sure anybody who challenges them on guns will face a well-funded and well-organized challenge the next time they run? No, not anymore, or at least not any more than they will anyway. For one thing, the NRA held their endorsed candidates liable for a budget bill last year, an investigation of Eric Holder, and several other bills that had nothing to do with gun rights. For another, the NRA did spend heavily to defeat propositions that were on the ballot in several states and those propositions passed anyway. Finally, in the wake of Citizens United, in which both sides and their allies were well into the billions of dollars in spending this election, the NRA is just another Washington funding source, but not the largest, or even close to it. Citizens United has in effect defanged the NRA because no matter how much it can raise from its members, it's now competing with billionaires who can write a check in a moment that can match its fundraising for a year. That's not to say the NRA isn't still important (for one thing it is still a bulwark, or will be if it gets back to focusing exclusively on gun issues) against those who actually do want to get rid of all guns, as well as the good work it does in terms of pushing training in the proper use and storage of weapons (because it is still true that far more people, and especially far more children, die from gun accidents than from someone intentionally shooting them.)
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