Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Guns, Part II

IN PART ONE of this series, I began my discussion of gun control by saying that I have some real ambivalence about the issue, based in part on the makeup of my extended family — how it is divided between mostly rural folks on my Mom’s side and Dad’s far more urban side of the family.

As someone who has feet in both camps, I see an awful lot of mythologizing about guns from both the pro- and anti-control sides of the debate. A gun, in and of itself, is intrinsically neither a Destroyer of the Innocent nor a Magical Totem of Manly Power. It is a machine — receiver, firing pin and primer, all working together to push a bullet down the barrel at high velocity. So, I don’t think the problem has merely to do with the existence of guns.

I do, however, think that some reasonable controls are necessary and wise. It is worth mentioning that there are already gun control measures in place, and (aside from a few fringe militia types and assorted other gun fetishists) these controls are relatively uncontroversial and supported by a consensus of citizens across the political spectrum.

For example, it is illegal for most people to own a machine gun in the United States, and I and most other people think that’s a very good thing. Machine guns are designed to do one thing: kill large numbers of people or threaten them with death. I can’t think of a good reason for a civilian to have one. No one needs that much firepower for personal defense, and if anyone does then it can reasonably be said that he probably needs to work on his people skills. And no one needs a machine gun for hunting — if you need to spray the woods with hundreds of rounds to get a buck, then I think you need to hit the firing range more often.

More to the point, a machine gun in the wrong hands can very quickly produce casualties on an industrial scale – the prospect of an Adam Lanza (the Sandy Hook gunman) with full-auto weaponry is more than any reasonable person can bear to contemplate. So there is a consensus that weaponry explicitly designed for military use ought not to be generally available.

This principle needs to be expanded beyond the obvious: The only place I’ve ever needed a 30-round magazine was for the M-16 I was issued by the Army. I’ve never needed one for hunting or target shooting. The day I need 30 rounds to get a deer is the day my rifle will become a conversation piece rather than a tool for hunting. I can’t think of any valid reason for ordinary citizens to have a magazine holding more than five rounds. I also can’t think of a valid reason to oppose mandatory background checks for gun purchasers, nor can I come up with a reason a mentally unstable person should have a right to possess a gun.

But for me, there is another factor in play here, a factor not often mentioned in debates over gun control. I’m speaking of the situation on the ground in places like Richmond and East Oakland. It has been said that a nation can be judged best by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens; I would say that the people in our poorer neighborhoods are our most vulnerable population, and the daily existence of people in the Flats in Richmond is beset by violence and the desolating grief it causes.

The cheapness and plenitude of guns has been a large contributing factor to this situation. I’ve talked to many people in my old neighborhood and in other places like it, and a story I keep hearing from older people there is how the violence has escalated in the last 30 or 40 years. Gangs have existed in one form or another probably since cities have existed, but within living memory of some old-timers, those gangs settled differences with their fists and — when everyone’s arms eventually grew tired of throwing punches — from negotiations between factions.

The easy availability of guns has destroyed the old order, mostly because guns can bring a terrible (but illusory) finality to conflicts, but also because killing someone raises the stakes for everyone involved. Getting a beating will usually result in humiliation at worst; the prospect of being killed means everyone is fighting not just for abstractions like honor and respect, but for their very survival. It also means that the cycle of retaliation can have no real end. Mohandas Gandhi said that “an eye for an eye soon leaves everyone blind.” Answering death with death brings only more death.

I think asking, “How do we find a compromise that will be acceptable to both hunters and the professoriate?” is not enough; I think we also need to ask, “What can we do to deal with the terrible situation in our poor neighborhoods?” The answer to that question is very complex, but I think removing guns from the equation is an essential ingredient so we can buy time to de-escalate conflicts and address the deeper issues that afflict our most vulnerable citizens.

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