Friday, December 21, 2012

Gasoline and Matches

My heart broke last week when I heard about the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. My daughter is the most precious thing in the world to me, and I can't imagine what it must have been like for these parents to send their babies off to school on a morning like any other, to only have them not come home again. I cry when I think about it. I cried again on Monday, when I dropped the baby off at her school and got a letter explaining the security protocol in the wake of the tragedy.

"We keep the doors locked."

This morning, when the baby and I were leaving the condo on the way to school and work respectively, a guy got in to the elevator, holding at least three guns, and several duffel bags. I can only imagine what was in the bags -- ammo, more guns? Instinctively, I pulled the stroller closer to me, away from the guns. What would have happened if this guy was angry, violent, unstable? We would have had no defense.

We live in a world where merely riding in an elevator puts my daughter at risk. How are such things even fathomable? And, perhaps more importantly, how are such things preventable?

Whatever it is that we're doing isn't working.  But what, exactly is it that we're doing? The conservatives/Republicans/pro-gun-advocates and the liberals/Democrats/anti-gun-advocates are busy calling each other names, lying to the people, ignoring the facts, ignoring reality. No one is talking about compromise or trying to find solutions that can and will work in real life.

The NRA just held a press conference where they said all sorts of ridiculous things. That the Newtown tragedy was the result of violent video games, and that guns are not to blame. That what this country really needs is a database tracking the mentally ill -- not, for argument's sake, a database tracking gun owners.  There should be armed police officers in every school. That the cure for gun violence is more gun ownership and less regulation. I could go on, but it makes me ill to think about it.

And, almost simultaneously, there was another mass shooting taking place, this time in Pennsylvania.

Almost everything said in the NRA press conference makes my head spin because it defies logic and reason -- and statistics. There is no statistical link between violent video games and gun violence. (Note: there is, however, a link between violent video games and being desensitized to violence.Countries with stronger gun regulations have less gun violence. More guns means more gun violence. And, compared with other developed countries, the United States is particularly violent.
"Violence begets violence." --  Martin Luther King, Jr.
To be fair, I am not a particularly strong advocate for guns. Back in the days when I used to write with more regularity, I wrote about how, a billion years ago, in my last semester of law school, I worked as an intern in the office of the public defender. When I was working there, defending my clients against various misdemeanor charges, many of my friends were interning on the other side, in the State Attorney's office, and several of them thought that I needed to get a gun, or at least learn how to fire a gun, for my own safety. But I resisted. I was scared of guns in general, and wary that just by my having a gun, I would be able to protect myself. At 5'2" (in shoes) and (at that point in time) 115 lbs (soaking wet), if someone wanted to overpower me, they probably could, gun or no gun. In my mind, rightly or wrongly, the consequences of letting them get my gun were worse than my not having one at all. (Note: according to the statistics, I was probably right.)

I also wonder about the mix of guns with violence and instability, the sort of things that people don't talk about in public. But I know about that too. I have siblings, and one of my siblings had a difficult adolescence. That sibling was angry and unhappy, and often threatened violence. It was in the days before Columbine; in the days before such things were even thinkable. But there it was: many times, my sibling threatened to stab me in my sleep, threatened our parents the same way, threatened to hurt others, threatened self-harm. We all came out of it okay, thanks to therapy and the fact that adolescence does, eventually, end, and whatever it is or was seemingly became more manageable in adulthood. But when I think about it -- which I try not to -- I am glad that my parents didn't keep weapons in the house. In a rage, a gun would have made it too easy for something awful to happen. Instability, mental illness, violence -- they might be gasoline, but a gun is the lit match.

So, we're back to the guns and the violence, and whether there is anything we can do about it.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." -- Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, Dec. 21, 2012.
I heard him say that during the press conference and I chuckled. It may be true, but you know what?  It's much easier for the good guy to stop the bad guy if said bad guy doesn't have a gun in the first place. The statistics maintain that keeping the bad guy from getting the gun is likely to stop the fiasco before it starts: "Making crime even a little bit harder made it much, much rarer."

Given the opportunity, I would want guns to disappear from the earth, or at least the country. But that's wishful thinking: guns are legal, abundant, and, as my husband said to me, "You can't put the genie back in the bottle."

That's not to say that I think all guns and gun owners are bad. For example, I don't necessarily agree with hunting for sport, but I know avid hunters, and, with the laws as they are, I have no problem with them having guns. The hunters I know are responsible gun owners. They bought their guns legally, they know how to use them, and they keep them safely locked.

Responsible gun owners know that the "right to bear arms" is not absolute:
 "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."  -- District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008).
(Note: I don't necessarily agree with the majority in Heller; I tend to think that Scalia's interpretation of the Second Amendment's language and meaning is a little tortured. But it is the law of the land, and it at least represents an acknowledgment from our most Conservative Supreme Court justice that the government can, in the right circumstances, enact reasonable limits to gun ownership.)  Responsible gun owners realize that, with any right comes responsibility: they are not the ones buying crazy insane assault weapons, high capacity magazines, and bullets designed to tear through body armor. They are not the problem.

But what about the Newtown shooter? His mom acquired the guns legally, and shot them as a hobby. But was she a responsible gun owner? In my view -- based on the "facts" as we've learned them -- no. Forget the number or type of weapons, or the size of the magazine. She taught an ostensibly mentally unstable kid how to shoot, and did not secure her weapons from him, or at least didn't secure them well enough. She dropped the lit match on the gasoline.

And for other recent mass shootings? All of them, legal. The gunman in Oregon borrowed his weapon, which was legally purchased. The Colorado theater shooter stockpiled his guns and ammo legally. The Virginia Tech shooter got his gun from an online dealer.

This country is between a rock and a hard place. We have a society where mental health issues are stigmatized and often left untreated. We have lax gun control laws because the Second Amendment allows for gun ownership, subject only to undefined (and largely un-enacted) "reasonable" limitations. We have a weapons market that permits guns to be obtained legally obtained and used in increasingly horrific, violent crimes.

We can't ban 'em, and we can't control 'em. Gasoline and match.