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Thursday, August 09, 2012

America's "Gun" Problem

I've said before that shared consensus reality is a lot more complicated than most of us admit, and that our personal point of view probably contributes as much to what we perceive as "what's really going on" does. That's why the following two statements both seem true:

A) Guns don't kill people, other people do.

B) If you want to kill a bunch of people, a gun is a more convenient tool than a stick.

I'll get this out of the way now, and say (almost verbatim) what has been said over and over for the past few weeks: my most true and heartfelt sympathies go out to the victims of the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado; and the Sikh Temple victims in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and their families and loved ones. These are the most stupid, pointless tragedies I can imagine. I can't imagine the hell these folks must be going through. In fact, call me overblown and melodramatic, but my heartfelt sympathies go out to everyone and their families everywhere, for all time, that have ever been killed by a gun. What a horrible, pathetic, worthless way to go.

But I've lived around guns all my life, and I've never been threatened by one. As a child I was shy and somewhat fearful of the world, but I was never afraid of guns, probably because I saw them every day (my dad's collection of antiques) and when I was old enough, I was taught to use them safely. I was on my high-school rifle team (imagine! loaded guns in the hands of teenagers... in a high school... safely!) and was the team captain when I was a senior. I'm a good shot. We were the league champions. I have participated in historical reenactment (a large component of which is the shooting and appreciation of antique firearms) for years. When my father died I inherited the cream of his collection (much of which he sold to buy me musical instruments, Goddess bless him!) and have delighted in its pleasures ever since. 

Antique muzzleloaders - relatively unthreatening to almost everyone - are my cup of tea, but I have close friends who are into assault rifles and tiny, highly-concealable handguns, and one acquaintance who has a license to own and shoot fully-automatic machine guns. These are all good people, responsible people.

Still, I'm not willing to debate that guns are incredibly dangerous... they're supposed to be. With the possible exception of flare guns, they're specifically designed to kill something. Apparently somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 people die by the gun in America every year. (That's a very rough estimate based on a bunch of different websites I looked at. I've done no original research in this area, and could be - in fact I probably am - a little "off" with this number. Furthermore: that's not just murders, but also accidents and suicides.) (Also: my numbers may be slightly off, but downplaying that this occurs is one of the places the gun lobby goes wrong, for my money...)

There's millions of words worth of debate about the second amendment, but for me what it comes down to is that it says the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Yes, my fellow pinko-commie-gay-atheists like to point out that it also says "well-regulated militia," which implies both organized (and presumably state-sponsored?) militia groups that are, in fact, regulated. But to my way of thinking "the people" trumps the admitted ambiguities.

But I also think it's important to recognize and admit that there's already regulations in place limiting what armaments I can possess. I can't legally own a bazooka. I can't legally own an atomic bomb. So it's been established and upheld that there are limits even to the 2nd amendment.  

Besides, it's almost a moot point in this political climate. You might convince me that we'd all be better off without guns, but you'll never convince me - at least not this year! - that we'd be able to actually make it happen. Fear and ignorance rule the land, people. This is a country were gun sales go up after a mass murder. This is a country where the Texas school board wants to discourage critical thinking. This is a county where evangelical Christians think Barack Obama (who's not from here, you know...) is going to institute Sharia Law. This is a country where poor people approve of spending their tax dollars to bail out banks that are showing billions in profits but won't approve universal health care for everyone because it might lead to "freeloading" or a state-funded abortion or "death panels for grandma." This is a country where a huge proportion of the population believes that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs, and in the literal existence of angels. Get it through your heads, my fellow pinko-commie-gay-atheists: these people are never going to willingly give up their guns.

And I'm not sure that I want them to.

I'd give up mine - I really would - if I thought my example would make any difference or do any good, but it seems like if we're going to have legal gun ownership in America, I'm exactly the type of person we want owning them: I'm law-abiding, I'm safe, I'm responsible. I don't even own the type of guns that liberals think "look scary," that is: the sleek, black, pseudo-military-type "assault rifles," even though I think it's my indisputable right to do so if I wished. If the president of the NRA publicly gave up his guns that would really be something, and would really make the news, and might be a possible example of altruistic sacrifice for the common good we could all look up to. Anybody out there think that's going to happen?

Michael Moore, the pinko-commie-gay-atheist that gun owners most revel in hating, recently posted a thoughtful blog on his website, wherein he tacitly admitted that though guns are a problem they might not be the problem. Go read it; I don't want to misrepresent what Mr. Moore is saying, nor do I want to deny that it seems indisputable that Mr. Moore would approve of at least somewhat more severe gun control laws. But the way I read his essay is this: We don't have a gun problem as much as we have a violence problem. Americans are fearful, and we're really good at killing stuff. It's in our culture, and maybe if we fixed some of the other problems like (for instance) race relations and economic inequity our violence / gun problems would fade away, or at least diminish. 

However: many liberals need to stop pretending that every gun in the hands of every citizen, as well as every media depiction of a gun, or violence perpetrated by a gun-wielding person is going to destroy the most basic fabric of our lives. Just stop it. Other countries have (per capita) almost as many guns as we have and they don't behave like slavering dogs. Other countries watch just as much violent media as we do and don't mass-murder each other. The guns may make it easier, people, but they are not, in and of themselves, the problem.

On the other hand, if the NRA (National Rifle Association) would stop pretending that a 13-year-old gang-banger with an Uzi in south-central L.A. was the same thing as a hunter in Montana feeding his family with a Winchester, and stop acting like reasonable limits to the amount of firepower we could privately amass in our basements was some totalitarian conspiracy to take away great-grandpa's musket (unfired for seventy years) hanging over the family fireplace, I'd send 'em some money and carry their card. As things are, I will not.

In 2000, the book "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture" by Michael A. Bellesiles, Ph.D., was published by Alfred A. Knopf. Bellesiles argued that what we call America's "gun culture" didn't exist in colonial America the way the romantic myths proclaim, and that it didn't rise until after the Civil War when tens of thousands of surplus factory-made guns found their way into the hands of the population.

I bought the book in first edition and read it. (I'm man enough to read the literature of my philosophical opponents.) Knowing history the way I do, something seemed fishy to me, but I figured: "This guy's a Ph.D. and he's done tons of research... hmmm. It sounds weird to me, but... I'll give him the benefit of the doubt."

The book won the Bancroft Prize for writing about American history, but it's the only case of the prize ever being revoked. As it turns out, Bellesiles made most of the stuff up. Anti-gun activists felt horribly betrayed. Fellow historians felt betrayed. Bellesiles disputed the findings that questioned the veracity of his book, but he nonetheless resigned his professorship at Emory University. Knopf did not renew his publishing contract.

In his dishonesty, Bellesiles did monstrous harm to his cause, and gave false credence to tons of wingut whackos and ammunition (if you will) to his opponents. 

Yet, on average, 25 people a day in America die by the gun.

We need to be honest about what's going on, y'all. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

No More Name-Calling From Me

Here's the thing: I'm comfortable being liberal. I think "I'm right." And I think that given a bit of research and a long and thoughtful debate, I'd convince most of you that you'd be better off as a liberal, too. However... I understand that not everybody feels that way. In fact, I understand that some of you reading this probably literally think I am damned and hell-bound for the things I "believe." It saddens me a bit to know this, and I can't really claim to "understand," but I grudgingly accept that this is the way the world works.

Personally, I'm not revolted so much by poverty as I am that the poor are more and more likely to be treated like untouchables. I'm not revolted so much by the rich ruling class as I am that they seem to think it's their right to rule, and the rest of us should be happy, uncomplaining servants. I'm not revolted so much by ignorance as I am that the ignorant insist that intellectuals are "elitists." I'm revolted not so much by the magnitude of some of our problems as I am that many of our problems aren't being solved because the solutions may take away some power or money of a vested interest. Most of all, I'm revolted not so much by people that disagree with me as I am that the disagreement is often so petty and mean-spirited. 

We all delude ourselves about this stuff. All of us - left and right - see our country through rose-colored glasses and think that everything would be fine if "those people" would just be like us. Well, the truth seems to be that the more we're all "like each other" the worse things keep getting. And not only that, but it seems to me from a five-minute cruise through "The Facebook" that the traits we're more and more likely to share are screaming fits of shrillness, our demonizing (sometimes literally!) of those who don't agree with us, and our snotty, mocking, superior tone when we talk about how great "people like us" are. 

But from now on, I refuse to publicly demonize those who disagree with me. Not only am I sick of it, but it doesn't help my arguments one whit. These people are my fellow human beings. I might not like them personally, I might not want to spend time with them, but I'm going to assume that they have hopes and dreams and loved ones just like I do, and even if I personally abhor all they stand for. The United States Supreme Court Justices that passed "Citizens United" are wrong in my opinion, but they're not "Satan." Barack Obama's failure to do some of the things he said he would (try to) do doesn't make him "Hitler." Mitt Romney not releasing his tax forms and spending more money on his wife's horse than most people I know make in ten years doesn't make him a "fascist." Satan is Satan (or would be, if he existed); Hitler was Hitler; fascists are fascists.  

This doesn't mean I'm not going to defend myself if attacked - verbally or physically. Much to my minor embarrassment I recently allowed myself - in a moment of weakness and despair - to be drawn into a ridiculous Facebook "flame war." It was pointless and stupid and a waste of time, but still - I was personally attacked as "sexually retarded" because I happen to think antique guns look cool. I snarled back, then I "unfriended" them. That oughtta change their mind. Good grief, how ridiculous, and what a waste of time. Even to this very moment I respect that person's right to think whatever they want of me, even to the point of sexual retardation, but for Goddess' sake, keep it off a public forum. It doesn't help anybody, people, especially the person doing the yelling.

I'm belabored by the impression that one of this country's ideals is that as long as I'm not hurting somebody else, I ought to be able to do whatever I want. I'll happily extend that to everyone else; in fact, I think everyone else already has that freedom, whether I extend it to them or not. That includes calling me names, since that doesn't hurt me in the slightest; however, it ain't gonna make me think you're right if you call me "sexually retarded" while you're disagreeing with me about whether or not it's "appropriate" to post a photo of an antique pistol on Facebook. (A photo that I didn't even post, by the way! In fact, it made me want to post one...) 

I refuse to cave in to fear, even if it's the fear that my fellow man will banish me from civilization. From now on, I am not going to be embarrassed to say what I think is right and true. If I see dishonesty I will call it out for what it is. If I think somebody is professing a belief or attitude that is not only self-defeating but may hurt others in its process, I'll probably call their behavior "stupid." When it comes to corporate interests (they are not people, I don't care what anyone says) I will be the most rabid attack dog you can imagine, if and when I see them hurting humanity or getting preferred treatment over actual human beings. I am going to have lower and lower tolerance for outright criminal behavior - from purse-snatching all the way to international war crimes - that hurts the person or property of a non-consenting other. But as I read recently, preventing you from oppressing others is not oppressing you

Geez, people, this is as simple as "my-right-to-swing-my-fist-ends-at-your-nose" stuff we all learned in grade school. Healthy debate is the lifeblood of any true democracy, and I'm more than willing to engage in debate as long as we can all behave ourselves. I'm even willing to pre-emptivly admit that in any deep and meaningful debate, emotions are apt to get a thorough stirring, and bile may rise and tempers flare. Right. I got it. Emotional release is as healthy and necessary as the debate itself. But not in public. "You're ugly and your mamma dresses you funny" doesn't help either of our arguments. I'm dropping it. Everybody else should, too.


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