Tag Archives: guns

The Only Thing You Need to Read About Guns in America

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is Erik Larson’s ‘The Story of a Gun‘, from 1993.

He traces one small-scale school shooting (ew what a yucky phrase) back to the shooter, retailer, manufacturer and, ultimately,  culture that created it.

What’s most fascinating about the article is how it tracks the constituents we don’t often hear about. The company that manufactured the gun. The store that sold it.  The background check that asks would-be gun buyers ‘are you mentally ill?’ with a tick-box. The understaffed and overstretched regulators.

I’m sure—I hope!—a lot of  the specifics are out of date (Does the ATF have more than 400 inspectors by now?), but it’s a chilling demonstration of how gun manufacturers and sellers have gotten off the hook for America’s violence problem.

To be a gun dealer in America is to occupy a strange and dangerous outpost on the moral frontier. Every storefront gun dealer winds up at some point in his career selling weapons to killers, drug addicts, psychos, and felons; likewise, every storefront dealer can expect to be visited by ATF agents and other lawmen tracing weapons backward from their use in crime to their origins in the gun-distribution network.

One must be a cool customer to stay in business knowing that the products one sells are likely to be used to kill adults and children or to serve as a terroristic tool in robberies, rapes, and violent assaults. Yet gun dealers deny at every step of the way the true nature of the products they sell and absolve themselves of responsibility for their role in the resulting mayhem.

Guns used in crime are commonly thought to have originated in some mythic inner-city black market. Such markets do exist, of course, but they are kept well supplied by the licensed gun-distribution network, where responsibility is defined as whatever the law allows.

If you were trying to reduce car-accident fatalities to zero, you’d definitely make driver’s license requirements stronger, obligate people to take more driving lessons, prove their eyesight, etc. But you’d also make sure every single car had airbags, you’d require manufacturers to prevent ignition unless seat belts were fastened, you’d make dealerships confirm that every car buyer knows how to drive. You’d also change the way you build roads, and how you patrol them.

I know gun manufacturers and retailers aren’t free from restrictions, aren’t entirely ignored in the debate over gun control. But reducing gun crime doesn’t mean you take the guns away from everybody who owns one. It means you prevent guns from being made, and from being sold, in the first place.

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Self-Defense Is a Weird Argument for Owning a Gun

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In this dialogue between Ta-Nehisi Coates (take away all the guns!) and Jeffrey Goldberg (give everybody a gun!), much of the argument hinges on this hypothetical:

let me ask the Augustinian question: Let’s say you’re in the mall with me, or another friend, and a psychopathic shooter is approaching us, AR-15 in hand. In this situation, my life is at stake, as well as yours. I’ll ask the question again: Would you want a gun in hand to help keep us alive, and to keep the strangers around you — each one a human being created in the image of God (I know you lean atheist, but you get my point) — alive as well?

We’ll get to the other questions later, but this is important: In the situation I just described above, would you rather have a gun, or rather not?

I know NRA types think that when you say ‘I would rather have a gun’ in this scenario, they’ve won the argument. But I don’t think they actually know what argument they’re making.

It’s a bit like someone asking you ‘If you were to stumble upon a black cobra, would you rather have a mongoose with you, or not?’

I would like to have a mongoose with me in that situation (and many others, obviously). But what is that an argument for? That I should own a mongoose? That everyone should?

Personally, I would rather live in a society that minimizes black cobra attacks than one where I am required to take care of a vicious rodent to survive. Just seems more efficient that way.

I can’t think of other political arguments where  an extreme, once-per-lifetime scenario is used to justify everyday behavior. ‘If an air conditioning unit fell out of a sixth-floor window and was hurtling toward you, would you rather have a steel parasol, or not?’ 

If I was in the mall and a dude was marching toward me with an AK-47, sure, I might want one of my own. But so what? If he was driving toward me in a tank, I might want one of my own. If he was flying toward me in an F-16 I’d probably want one of those too. These scenarios all equally irrelevant. The real question is, do I want a lethal object in my home, in my bedroom, on my hip every single day on the off chance that such a situation might occur?

We’re all used to this argument in America because the NRA talks loud and carries a big stick. But the ‘more guns’ people aren’t interested in keeping you safe, they just want to feed the cobras.

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The Dangers of Politicization

In the wake of the Arizona shooting, Stephen Budiansky makes the analogy between guns and cars:

We have made a reasonable social decision, I think, that the benefits of the automobile outweigh its harm; yet that has not prevented us from honestly acknowledging its harm and the perfectly plain fact that how roads and cars are designed and regulated have an enormous impact on death and injury, completely apart from human volition. (Per capita auto-related fatalities are today half what they were in 1950; deaths per vehicle-mile have dropped sixfold, almost entirely through technological modifications.)

Yet only when it comes to guns do people attempt, usually furiously, to deny that anything but individual responsibilitymatters, as I mentioned the other day. If we are ever to have a real discussion on this topic, we need to begin with the simple admission that guns — like drugs, medicines, cars, power tools, ski helmets, and every other piece of technology in the universe — can be built and employed in ways that are inherently safer or ways that are less safe.

The real difference between gun control and auto safety, it seems to me, is that one is politicized and one is not. You can discuss auto safety in detail because you don’t have to spend your time debating the broader principles of how far the ‘freedom to drive’ extends.   Changes in policy are not seen as an assault on fundamental values or a slippery slope toward governmental tyranny (if you’re a gun-nut) or indiscriminate violence (if you’re a pacifism-nut).

If gun control wasn’t politicized to the degree that it is, it could be discussed and regulated at the detail rather than the principle level, with the full participation of gun owners, gun manufacturers and gun opponents. If you accept good faith on all sides, of course no one wants guns to be unnecessarily abundant or unsafe. If the NRA wasn’t a de facto political organization, I’m sure they would have great insight into the factors that increase and exacerbate gun violence, and how to rally gun owners behind preventing them.

A number of other issues suffer from the same politicization-imposed mass blindness, immigration being the most prominent. The details of immigration policies, including their actual economic and social impacts, can’t be discussed honestly or in detail because they’ve become signifiers for a larger debate. You want to relax immigration rules because you don’t care about falling domestic wages! You want to tighten immigration rules because you’re a racist!

But once you get into the details, of course no one is advocating for open borders. And of course there are impacts of immigration that need to be prevented and mitigated. But we’re so busy debating the principles we don’t share that we forget the details we do.

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‘After All These Years, All We Are Sure of is the Insufficiency of Explanation’

That’s a line from The Virgin Suicides. I can’t remember if it’s from the book or the movie or both, but I always think of it whenever a tragedy like last week’s in Arizona strikes in the United States.

The media and politicians have spent the week since the shooting of a Congresswoman and 19 others in Tuscon doing what they do best: Engaging in unfounded speculation disguised as informed debate.

Little beyond rumor is known about the shooter. Trolling his various internet profiles and interviewing his acquaintances hasn’t yielded many concrete conclusions beyond ‘wow, what a disturbed young man’. And we already pretty much knew that from his actions.

Much of the speculation has centered on the role of ‘the political climate’ in his act. It’s no secret that political polarization and overheated rhetoric are at a perceived apogee in the US, and people like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party have been blamed for encouraging the kind of ‘give me my country back!’ rhetoric that could inspire someone to take up arms.

The problem is, there’s no evidence linking the shooter with any of this rhetoric. It doesn’t appear he listened to talk radio, attended Tea Party rallies or engaged at all with radical political rhetoric of either stripe.

It’s probably true that political figures need to tone down their rhetoric. But this particular shooting doesn’t appear to be evidence for that.

Incidents like this highlight what is maybe the greatest weaknesses of the American media: There’s just too much space to fill. A tragedy of this kind has a lot of unknowns, and little new information comes out on a daily basis. Nonetheless, the TV stations have to fill up 24 hours of airtime, and the newspapers have to fill a chunk of their front page every day until public interest wanes. The only way to do this is to present nonstop speculation and rumor, which, like all gossip, impersonates fact the more it is repeated.

The days and months after the Columbine school shootings, for example, were papered with ‘debates’ on violent video games, neo-Nazis, goth culture, Marilyn Manson, and the ‘trenchcoat mafia’, all of which were blamed for the rampage.

Months and years later, though, none of these things appear to have exerted any significant influence on the shooters. The closest thing to an explanation we have is that the shooters were a psychopath and a manic-depressive, respectively.

Whenever a sudden tragedy strikes, I wish the media could simply release a statement saying ‘Understanding this week’s events requires a great deal of factual detail and analytical expertise. Until we can gather the information required to separate fact from fiction, we will not be publishing any information on the killer’s background, motives or influences. We will publish conclusions when they are warranted by the amount of available information.’

The media marketplace being what it is, however, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. The least we can do for now, though, is accept that information is likely to be incomplete for a long time to come. And explanation will always be insufficient.

 

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