Saturday, January 5, 2013

Gun Control: A Personal Statement

As usual, I am late to the game, but clearly the Sandy Hook shooting has touched a chord with a lot of people in a way that the Gifford shooting, the Aurora theater shooting, the Sikh temple shooting, and countless other mass shootings have not.  And after any sort of gun control had been written off as a hopeless cause and political poison, suddenly the question is becoming askable again, whether some types of firearms, particularly the ones for killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible, have any place on our streets.

On the one hand, it should not be so hard to see why.  A grown man mowing down helpless school children sets off an outrage factor that no other mass shooting can equal.  And yet . . . And yet what first interested me in gun control, and what touched off the whole culture war over it in the 1990's, the militias training for armed rebellion, Timothy McVeigh blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building, and so forth was a remarkably similar incident -- the Stockton schoolyard shooting.  In 1989, a mentally unbalanced drifter took a military semi-automatic assault rifled, modified it to fully automatic, and positioned himself by a school yard in Stockton, California and started mowing down school children.  He fired 106 rounds in three minutes, killing five children and wounding 30 others, before turning his gun on himself.  My reaction at the time was one of outrage.  Why were such firearms permitted on the streets?  What legitimate reason could there possibly be in peacetime for a civilian to fire 106 rounds in three minutes?  How could anyone disagree with banning the gun that mowed down a yard of school children?  What controversy could there possibly be?

I soon found just how wrong I was.  Up till then, arguments on gun control (at least to the extent I was aware of them) were about handguns and their utility for self-defense and did not invoke any strong reaction from me.  But mow-down weapons were a different matter altogether.  And over and over, people kept making the argument that the more military, the more lethal, the firearm, the stronger the Second Amendment protection because the whole purpose of the Second Amendment was to allow armed rebellion against an oppressive government.  I read the Federalist Papers, which NRA advocates often quoted and found their quotes at least somewhat out of context.  Yes, the Federalist Papers do affirm the right of revolution in three places, but they far more frequently denounce "insurrection," "rebellion" and "sedition."  The Constitution, after all, was written in the wake of Shays' Rebellion, and at least partly addressed the need for a stronger central government to deal with such rebellions.

Yet ultimately, there was not a lot of push-back against the overall argument, except that private guns would be no match for tanks and helicopters.  Gun enthusiasts formed private militias and trained in the woods, preparing for armed rebellion against the federal government.  Yet the argument over these private armies was mostly over whether they contained white supremacists.  The suggestion that maybe, just maybe, private armies had no place in civil society never even came up.  Well, an assault weapons ban passed, but the gun lobby was radicalized.  From then on, any sort of gun control was deemed political suicide.  The gun lobby had the momentum.  Concealed carry law, shoot-first laws, and many others were passed with little opposition.  Democrats gave up on the issue.

And, in fairness, at the time of the Stockton shootings, drug gangs were terrorizing our inner cities, fighting for turf and randomly spraying in drive-by shootings.  Crime has gone down since.  Our inner cities, though high-crime, are no longer war zones.  A major source of pressure for stricter gun laws has ebbed.  I had given up, quite frankly.  And now this.

I hope some sort of common sense gun control measure passes.  I hope some sort of reasonable ban is passed on high-caliber, high capacity, rapid fire firearms, making clear that guns whose only purpose is mowing down maximum numbers of people have no place in civilian society.  But I am not hopeful. I saw what happened last time, even with a grown man mowing down school children.

One thing at least gives me hope.  This time the arguments of the gun enthusiasts will be answered.  I have seen many such answers thus far.  That will be the subject of my next post.

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