Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bending the Bill of Rights

I had more trouble finding the right words to open this post than for any other in recent memory. Looking at the other articles that mention the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, opinion writers evidently and understandably feel obligated to voice their outrage at the killings and engage in some kind of emotional contest over who feels worse about it. It feels disrespectful not to express emotion. It certainly feels unnatural. Our feelings about this are why we're writing. I understand that these writers could explain their emotional response to the shooting and find themselves incapable of containing the terror I'm sure they feel. I could have followed the same path here. I may have been able to open this blog with an eloquent, respectful and emotional introduction, but it would have felt dishonest. I am emotionally distraught. I don't want to experience the nausea and chest pain I felt the day those children died. I won't be emotional here. I can't.

Immediately after the massacre, most Americans didn't have the wherewithal to take up the mantle for or against gun control. In the ensuing weeks, however, virtually every newspaper has crowned the front page with articles on gun control. The President has publicly announced his intention to push through legislation that limits gun ownership. Gun statistics have been popping up in partisan propaganda, encouraging me to fend off false data on Facebook, forums and conversation (Only Factcheck.org published an accurate and fair analysis of the gun debate). Statistics hardly matter at this point. The argument consists almost entirely of emotional extremes, with gun-control advocates unleashing an impenetrable wave of outrage with single-minded disregard for data and gun-rights advocates who ferociously fight to maintain their right to own military-grade hardware and view the latest surge for gun control as an affront to their freedom and short-sighted contempt for the second amendment.

This isn't an idle argument. Legislation determining the fate of gun ownership in the United States waits for the dust to settle. Several gun control advocates support a bifurcated, holistic approach to guarding against gun violence, which prevents the sale of firearms to the emotionally disturbed and also restricts access to everyone for the most lethal weapons. For many, the mass slaughter of kindergartners was more than enough to approve limitations on gun ownership and allow sharing of sensitive medical information about those who've shown violent tendencies. I oppose both measures.

It's difficult to separate law-abiding citizens with potential anger issues from dangerous, homicidal medical patients, yet it seems that many are willing to limit the rights of innocuous groups to hopefully prevent the criminally insane from committing atrocities. Inefficacy aside, we cannot limit a person's rights because they are mad about something, whether about how unfair the world is or just having gone through a divorce or had a death in the family. We do not get to limit a citizen's rights based on his or her attitude. People are entitled to anger and are free to seek out mental health expertise to alleviate emotional distress without risking legal persecution. Shortly after the Columbine shooting, because I had always worn a black trench coat and drew violent pictures, I was pulled from British Literature by the school counselor. My sketchbook was seized. My mental state was evaluated. They interviewed my parents and teachers (who universally loved me, luckily). I never fought anyone. I never stole anything. I never threatened anyone. They had no viable reason to confiscate my property and subject me to a mental evaluation against my will. But they did. And perhaps this is exactly the sort of thing that would prevent me from legally purchasing a firearm for protection in the future if new measures are taken to limit gun sales. I still believe in the best in people and haven't murdered anyone despite remaining angry about the ordeal to this day.

Since then, I've been an advocate for student rights and a defender of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. I hate when people suggest we legislate the acceptability of unreasonable searches and seizures and it happens constantly. Citizens have an inalienable entitlement to privacy that is incessantly threatened by those who think sharing the secret emotional vulnerabilities of individuals with public organizations, such as schools, is for the greater good.

A few days after the Sandy Hook attack, the political right launched a preemptive attack against gun regulation by placing the blame of gun atrocities squarely at the feet of mental illness. Philip Terzian wrote the most obvious attack in his Weekly Standard Article, In the Presence of Violent Psychopaths (I'd link it, but it's behind a paywall). In it, he states:

For if you consider the perpetrators of recent incidents of mass murder—the Newtown tragedy, the subway killing, the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the 2007 horror at Virginia Tech—the one common thread is their self-evident insanity. To be sure, not all people with mental illness are violent, and not all violent people are insane. But we seem to tolerate the presence of psychotics in our midst, and regard their occasional explosions as a cost of liberty.

He defends the indefinite detention of the mentally ill, as was done in the 1960s, even though the vast majority of the detainees were, by his own admission, non-violent. The United States legal system already faces serious problems from its zealous determination to incarcerate more people than any other country by a wide margin. Schools are administered more like prisons than learning institutions. Now, Terzian wants to detain even more citizens. For a country that flaunts its freedoms, we have an obsession with detaining people in as many ways as possible.  Terzien and his supporters want to limit the rights of a large group instead of finding a more efficient way to deal with a problem. The government leaders continue to find ways to round up people who inconvenience them. They've found ways to round up innocent Muslims and innocent Latinos, now it's proposed that we round up innocents with mental deficiencies, a cruel solution for those deserving compassion.

Mental wards were closed down because of poor conditions, ineffectiveness, and, more frighteningly, they held people against their will after subjective diagnoses. Wrongful confinement was a well-known problem even back in the 1800s, yet it persisted all the way into the 1970s. In that decade, Mississippi and Georgia had to create state laws making it felonious to confine sane people to asylums. Despite improving ways to identify and treat people with chemical imbalances, insane asylums persisted through too much of the 20th century. Now, we have political pundits proposing the reinstatement of horribly failed policies and a majority of Americans support proposed legislation that will widen the parameters to deny freedoms to citizens who have done nothing wrong.

Those in favor of gun control place confidence in what they believe is a "common sense" position: less guns equals less violence.  The facts do not support the claim, but nonetheless, the leaders of the movement commit to the colossal undertaking of constructing an appealing narrative, bending stats and ignoring data. If they would submit to reality, they would see the enormous amount of data showing that guns do not make people more violent, they don't cause more crime, in fact, they reduce it, and stricter gun control fails to curb violence because guns were never the catalyst in the first place. An argument thrown around lately is that guns make a killer more efficient. Interestingly, a study from 1968 shows that knife attacks are more lethal than gun attacks, although someone can't attack with a knife from afar. Sadly, killers who want to be efficient use bombs. The Oklahoma City Bombing killed 168 people and injured over 600.

Accidental gun death is a frightening prospect, I'll agree. I cannot be in a room with people who show off their guns unless I trust them implicitly. I shouldn't worry, though. So few people die from accidental gun deaths that it is statistically negligible. More people die from choking.

Despite an increased number of guns in the hands of American citizens, we have less murders than at any time in the past fifty-three years, and with only occasional variance, it continues to fall. More people die from infection than from gun-related homicides.  More people die from falling. More people drink themselves to death every year than die in shootings of any kind.


Some insist that the United States is the most violent country in the world, however, our murder rate is ranked 104th. That does not even include government violence on its people. It does not include war and largely ignores genocide. If we look at rape statistics, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, Australia and others have a higher rate of attack than the United States. This isn't to say that the United States doesn't have a violence problem. We do. But it's not a gun problem. Unarmed assaults vastly, vastly outnumber armed assaults.

The oft cited 30,000 gun deaths in America per year includes suicides. The majority of gun deaths (17,000+)  are suicides. Yet, gun-control advocates claim that removing guns will lower the suicide rate. There is a stunning naiveté required to claim that someone who decides to end everything that is and ever will be, suddenly will be dissuaded from ending it all if a firearm isn't near. If guns were banned, we'd see a major increase in carbon monoxide-related deaths, not a decrease in suicides. It doesn't matter, anyway. No one is trying to ban shotguns (yet) and they are the easiest and quickest way to kill one's self. Including suicide statistics in gun control debates is the most egregious misrepresentation of facts by gun-control advocates spinning their agenda. In the past week, these statistics have been included in gun control talks on The Daily Show, NPR, The Washington Post and surely many others. For this, more than anything, they should be scolded.

Some have proposed firearm registration and something called a "universal background check," a concept that has drawn wide support. However, most people don't know what it entails. Universal background checks require private sellers to do background checks on anyone who buy their firearms, including personal acquaintances. This would include gifts. I'll not dwell on the fact that my personal acquaintances should never be able to check my credit and skip right to the impracticality. There is simply no way to implement this plan without a national registry. Registration and universal background check are synonymous. Support for firearm registration plunged when a New York Newspaper released the names and addresses of firearm owners in New York. Some of the firearm owners were hiding from abusive ex-spouses and, fearing for their lives, bought firearm protection. It also encouraged burglary, showing exactly which houses could be robbed to obtain firearms or which residences were incapable of offering lethal resistance (as a side note: the newspaper, fearing the overwhelming negative reaction to their stunt, hired armed guards to protect them). Not least of all, a list like that has been, and almost certainly would again be, used as a list of "potential threats." No one fully appreciated the consequences of "collecting names" until this fiasco.

A popular target of gun-control has been the conceal and carry laws, such as the one in Missouri, that allows law-abiding citizens to carry a concealed firearm. An early argument against it proposed that having ready access to weapons at all times would lead to impulse slayings. That turned out to be false. People who legally carry concealed weapons are thirteen times less likely to commit crimes. Gun-control lobbyists insisted that crime would go up. It hasn't. Crime has fallen in states with conceal and carry options. Gun-control advocates have been scrambling to avoid crediting the drop in violence to the conceal and carry laws, but the data contradicts them.

Gun-control advocates tend to behave as if the government of the United States is a force for good that will always exist and accuse people who prepare for the worst as delusional nut-jobs. The media only interviews the delusional nut-jobs, so it's easy to make the association. I'm unsure why the left wing of the political spectrum believes the United States is impervious to the domestic erosion that has claimed the identity of many great nations. The national media interviews boisterous, paranoid, gun-totin' whackjobs who are incapable of spouting anything more interesting than "Hitler took the guns and look what happened." We don't have to flash back to World War II to find detrimental subjugation of an unarmed public. Just recently, public demonstrations from defenseless Iranian citizens ended with violent police response. The democratic movement against tyranny and corruption was crushed because the citizenry didn't have guns. Such a threat is not imminent in the United States, but private firearm ownership is not an unreasonable safeguard. The way anti-gun advocates portray gun owners validates the suspicion that they simply don't like people who like guns. However, the current leaders in the NRA are not helping their own case.

No matter the animosity building on each side of the debate, there are forms of gun control that both sides agree on. We all agree that firearms should not be sold to criminals or kids. Nor should they be sold to previously institutionalized mental patients. If someone has a documented drug addiction, they shouldn't have access to guns. Certainly stalkers shouldn't have hand guns. With the exception of collectors or historians, we mostly believe that people shouldn't have rocket launchers.

Those are all laws. In the past ten years 700,000 gun applicants have been denied based upon this criteria.

We can all agree that raising awareness about gun violence could be beneficial in prompting more responsible firearm behavior. It will not affect mass shootings by the mentally disturbed, but it could help with inner-city violence. Some community groups and non-profits in Kansas City have been experimenting with this concept. Raising awareness about irresponsible drug use and alcohol consumption has greatly reduced drunk driving incidents. Raising awareness about domestic violence has saved the lives of many children and spouses. We should be exploring options to reduce the cultural influence that encourages violent behavior. No, not video games or movies. They are scapegoats of the political left, who don't understand the difference between free expression and inciting crime. We're talking about a community that nourishes belief that violence can solve real-world problems, that might is right, and a news-media system that promotes paranoia and hopelessness in the real world. These things have a much more detrimental effect on the minds of youth, not some literary invention. Focusing our efforts on exposing the flaws and lasting consequences of supporting violent behavior will likely have a more lasting effect than abridging our rights.

1 comment:

  1. For many, the mass slaughter of kindergartners was more than enough to approve limitations on gun ownership and allow sharing of sensitive medical information about those who've shown violent tendencies.

    ReplyDelete