A Few Bullet Points on American Gun Culture

I’m a gun owner. I hold a concealed pistol license in the state of Washington and I own a pistol and a rifle, which I have taken reasonable and prudent steps to keep locked up and safe when they are not in use. Although I have not taken a formal gun safety class, I have had firearms training and have taken steps to ensure that my family is also provided with training. My kids have enjoyed the carefully supervised events when they have been taken shooting by myself and other qualified adults.

I’ve had some thoughts stirring around for a while on the topic of America and the 2nd Amendment, but it wasn’t until today I pulled them together enough to start the process of writing a blog post.

Note 1: I’m going to do my level best to be polite and respectful to all parties, regardless of their political position on this subject, and I request that all commenters do the same. People crossing the line of civility may get a warning or I may just delete their comment, depending on the severity.

The Ground Rules

Today, on Facebook, one my friends posted this picture:

Who knows more about the Constitution?Figure 1: Constitutional law qualifications
(can’t find the original source for this, if you know please let me know?)

As you can imagine, this prompted (as do almost all gun control threads on the Internet) a barrage of comments. Sadly, these types of discussions tend to quickly be dominated by one of two vocal extremes:

  • The gun enthusiast (pejoratively known as the “gun nut” or “right-wing whackjob”), who often gives the impression that she won’t be happy until she can personally and privately own any weapon system ever made, up to and including ICBMs, aircraft carriers, Abrams tanks, and F-22 Raptors. She is typically, but not always, aligned with the more extremely conservative side of the political spectrum
  • The gun worrier (pejoratively known as the “gun grabber” or “bleeding-heart liberal”), who commonly and frequently opines that mankind will know nothing but a wretched existence devoid of any light, joy, or hope until every last physical instance of, drawing of, reference to, or even the mental concept a of weapon is wiped from existence. He is typically, but not always, aligned with the more extremely liberal side of the spectrum.

Note 2: if you fit into one of these two extremes, I will give you good advice: stop reading now, and move on. You won’t like what I have to say; I refuse to validate your unreasonably narrow and exclusionary viewpoint. I won’t let other people call you names should you choose to ignore my advice and comment, but I will redact your extremist attempts to redirect a civil conversation into your own flavor of lunacy. Be warned – my blog, my rules. You want to post your own screed? Go burn your own storage and bandwidth to do it.

Almost immediately, a good point was made: while Obama’s credentials are accurately stated, this picture attempts to make a point through blatant use of stereotypes. We know nothing about the gentleman in the red box – he might also be an Ivy League Constitutional scholar, or a distinguished judge, or even a talented and knowledgeable amateur scholar. We don’t know and we’re not told. This is the good old “guilt by association” propaganda ploy – if you like big scary guns, you’re probably ignorant just based on your appearance. Not a great way for liberals to make a point.

At the same time, conservatives are guilty of blatantly false propaganda too:


Figure 2: One of these things is not like the other
(found on
rashmanly.com)

Really? A democratically elected (twice, now, even!) federal executive, in a country with some of the most extensive checks and balances, who for at least half of his time in office has had to deal with a Congress (you know the branch of the government that actually makes the laws) controlled by his political opponents, is magically a dictator on par with some of the worst tyrants of recorded history? Because his biggest political acts have been to try to keep our country from plunging into a hyper-inflationary depression, to make sure poor people have access to medical care, and to try to maybe do something to reduce the number of innocent people killed by guns in this country every year? Remember, this is the President who pissed off many in his party because he didn’t bother to dismantle many of the incentives put in place by his predecessor.

Note 3: Don’t even think of heading to the “Democrats just want to take away guns and Republicans are protecting gun rights.” Remember the assault rifle ban that expired in 2004? The one that was enacted in 1994, which would have been during the (Democratic) Clinton administration? The one that was lobbied for by Ronald Reagan?

Finding Middle Ground

Okay, now that I’ve unilaterally declared extremes off the table, let’s dig into the meat of the original graphic – which is the fact that Obama has a background in Constitutional law, so unlike many politicians and political wonks, he might actually have a more than passing familiarity with some of the issues involved.

Obama is using executive orders to make changes within the framework of existing law, as well as working to introduce legislation to accomplish additional goals such as reintroducing the expired assault rifle ban. Some of these changes are likely to be polarizing, but outside of the echo chambers and spin factories, there’s actually a large amount of support for many of these proposals – and this according to a poll of 945 gun owners conducted last July by Republican party pollster Frank Luntz, before the events of Newton. After Newton, support for stricter laws on the sale of firearms has increased overall, including increased support for passing new laws although support for renewal of the assault rifle ban is still just shy of a majority. Yet somehow, any discussion of changes provokes an immediate, hostile response.

It’s also inevitable to see someone trot out the argument that since cars kill far more people, we need to regulate cars. Um, hello? We do. Car manufacturers have to regularly participate in studies and make changes to cars to reduce the deaths because of cars, and over the decades, it’s worked. We do the same thing for other forms of violence — we study it, and we make intelligent changes to reduce the impact. But the current climate and talking points (such as the historically inaccurate charge that gun control led to the Holocaust) have kept us in a virtual standstill on dealing with gun violence of any type.

Thanks to a careful and prolonged lobbyist and political spending campaign by the NRA and the gun manufacturers, we don’t even have credible research that would tell us why American gun deaths are so much higher than comparable nations. Let me be clear; the NRA does a lot of good, but they are a human institution and over the past couple of decades, they’ve transformed themselves from a simple society to promote scientific rifle shooting to a lobbyist organization. At times, I think this dichotomy can at times drive the NRA leadership out of sync with their members’ concerns and lead them to try to drive policy and dictate their members beliefs rather then represent them.

At this point, I think its obvious that some sort of changes need to be made. The USA has a gun homicide rate that is 4.5 times higher (or more) than other G-8 countries. When confronted with these facts, many people respond with talking points about how countries that have enacted gun control laws see a rise in crimes such as violent assault (Australia is a frequently featured talking point). However true these points may be, I can’t help but think that’s an invalid comparison. If I were to be the victim of a crime, I think I would rather be injured rather than outright killed. I would rather that my stuff got stolen than lose my wife or one of my kids. But overall, the crime rate in the US is dropping.

Like many Americans, I’m in favor of extending background checks and doing more to ensure that people with a history of violent mental illness and misdemeanor violence have reduced access to guns. Without comprehensive studies, I’m not convinced that renewing the assault rifle ban will actually help anything (are extended magazines actually useful in genuine self-defense scenarios, or would regular magazines do the trick?) But there’s a number of potential steps I’ve thought of that I’ve seen no discussion on:

  • I’m disturbed by the fact that when I take a free CPR or First Aid class, I have more stringent requirements than I do for my CPL. When I get CPR training I have to demonstrate that I am up-to date in my training and technique and recertify every year or two at the most; when I applied for my concealed pistol license, all I had to do was not currently be a felon and I get a five year license. Different states have different requirements; maybe it’s time to get a more consistent framework in place that requires more frequent check-ins and more frequent training?
  • While we’re talking about training, let’s hit another popular talking point: that armed private citizens are likely to stop mass shootings. While there are incidents of gun owners (typically store clerks) stopping an attempted robbery, the private citizens that have stopped instances of mass shootings all turn out to be private or off-duty security personnel who have substantially higher levels of firearms training than the average citizen (such as the Clackamas Mall shooting in Portland, OR).
  • One of the claimed benefits of having less restrictive firearms statutes is crime reduction. More armed citizens, it is said, equals lower crime. However, in order to have this kind of deterrent effect, don’t the criminals have to either know that people are carrying, or at least have a reasonable suspicion that people are carrying? Concealed carry would seem to be counter-productive; open carry would actually allow criminals to know what they’re about to get into. Is American culture ready for open carry? Again, this is an area we’d need more research on.
  • What about on-site gun safe inspections as part of the permit approval process? If one of the big concerns is people getting inappropriate access to guns, we should be making sure they’re being appropriate stored and locked away.

There’s a horrible patchwork of laws in place and there are some loopholes that should be closed, as long as we can do so without heading down the path of a guns registry. Come on, yes there are some screwballs who want to take all guns away, just as there are some screwballs who think that they should be able to own fully operable RPGs and tanks and fighter jets. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, although not in the same part of the middle, but we can’t even have a realistic, reasoned discussion on this because the people who benefit financially from the status quo make sure we can’t.

At this point in time, we can’t have a meaningful conversation on what the “well-regulated” clause in the 2nd Amendment is supposed to mean. All of our other liberties have been slowly and carefully re-interpreted over time – sometimes overly so, usually with corrections in the long run — as the times changed and as the nation changed and (yes) as we saw the fruits of some of the Founders’ mistakes. They were human; of course they made mistakes. They knew they would make mistakes and that we would have to adjust for situations they could never have foreseen. And yet, a strict reading of the 2nd Amendment is somehow off the table for even reasonable discussion? Why must we hew strictly to the Founding Fathers’ intentions in this one area when we willingly ignore them in other areas? (Check out what they had to say about professional politicians, lobbyists, and a two-party system.)

So, yes, sometimes it takes a Constitutional scholar to understand not only the original context of our Constitution, but also remember that the Founding Fathers always intended this Constitution to grow and live and adapt as our country did. It’s time for us to open the doors to a reasoned discussion on all areas of the 2nd Amendment, including the precise definition of which weapons it makes sense to allow citizens to have and what sorts of controls might be prudent to put in place to balance the right to self-defense with the reasonable safety of those around us.

2 Responses to A Few Bullet Points on American Gun Culture

  1.  

    This is a really reasonable post and a nice read after all of the non-sense being spouted on the rest of the web. The only point I would take exception with is your last one. While I agree with the sentiment of the point, those other opinions (professional politicians, lobbyists, and two parties) weren’t explicitly written into the constitution. They held those beliefs but they weren’t part of the contract. The statements of the second amendment are specifically written though which means we live with them until they are explicitly changed..

    Yes, the constitution was meant to be a living and fluid document…the process of changing it is specifically laid out within it. I’m concerned when anyone believes we can just “reinterpret” what it says or what it’s intent is. There is no question that the founders were interested in an armed citizenry for the purposes of maintaining liberty and defeating tyranny. Self defense and hunting are not mentioned anywhere in the amendment but a militia (a clearly militant group) is. If the sentiment has changed, or the document is not longer able to keep up with the current reality, then we need to modify the constitution…not just reinterpret it. Allowing the government to change the rules, because of a change in definition, is a very scary path to go down regarding the document that is supposed to be the contract between the people and their government.

  2.  

    Interpretation is constant and ongoing with every other part of the Constitution. This is what the judicial branch is *for* — to interpret the laws. Making a constitutional amendment is one extreme of how our living document changes.

    There are other aspects of our freedoms that *have* been re-interpreted over time yet were as explicit (or not) as the 2nd Amendment. I just don’t see any reason why the right to bear arms should be somehow fundamentally and magically immune to this process.

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