Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Common Sense and Common Nonsense

So this is Sarah Palin's idea of common sense: guns equal spoons. It would be easy to dismiss Palin as a right-wing fringe lunatic who has been relegated to frothing up her word salad on Fox Fake News until her contract runs out and the national embarrassment ends. But her infantile gun-spoon photo went viral on Facebook, with more than 65,000 people reposting it in just a few days as if to prove that those silly liberals may have book learning, but they fall short on common sense. "Guns don't kill people," they say. "People kill people. Spoons don't make you fat--that's just common sense. Next thing you know, liberals will want to ban cars or garden rakes because someone could use them to kill someone else. Those silly liberals."

Let me ask Sarah Palin and her reposting fans this question: Which item would you give to a ten-year-old child so that she could eat her chicken noodle soup, a spoon or a loaded handgun? Still think there's no difference? Still think your nonsense is any kind of common sense?

We may not always share the definition of common sense, but we do have common ground. The first idea we share is that I have no interest in taking basic guns away from reasonable, law-abiding citizens. I grew up on a farm and helped feed my family by hunting as a teenager. I also understand the concept of owning guns for self-protection. The vast majority of liberals I know share that same understanding. Only a tiny percentage of people actually want guns eliminated from America or even believe that such a thing is possible. "Liberals are trying to take everybody's guns!" is an inaccurate generalization that shouldn't be part of an honest discussion of the issues.

The bottom line is that we all grieve for the victims of the Aurora tragedy, and all reasonable people want to keep guns away from people who use them irresponsibly. Without getting too far into the politics at this early stage, there is one thing we know for sure. The assault weapons ban that Republicans let expire would have either stopped Holmes (and Jared Loughner before him) from getting their weapons or at least made it much more difficult.

Common-sense laws about extremely dangerous weapons are the minimum we can do as a reasonable society, but the far-right Republican Party and the gun lobby have made it impossible even to have a grown-up conversation about gun laws. As soon as anyone talks about gun laws, the NRA board rants about how Obama is coming for everybody's guns and attacking the Second Amendment. (Guess what? Obama is the Commander in Chief of the strongest military force in the history of the planet. He's got access to plenty of firepower. He has nukes, for crying out loud--he doesn't need anybody else's guns.)

Here's a fun experiment to try with a someone who thinks guns and spoons are pretty much the same thing. Ask the person to tell you what's in the Second Amendment. The likely response is that it says Americans can have any gun they want. Then show them the actual text of the Second Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." The Second Amendment is actually about the government being able to muster a civilian fighting force at a time in our history when guns were single-shot muskets, and our young nation had no standing army.

The kind of twisted thinking that translates an amendment focused on how the government can protect the nation into a free pass for assault weapons is common among gun extremists these days. The NRA officially opposes detailed background checks to keep mentally ill people and people with violent histories from buying guns. The organization even opposes making it illegal for people on the terrorist watch list to buy guns. That would make a great bumper sticker in an alternate universe, wouldn't it? "Another Patriot in Favor of More Guns for Terrorists!"

The executive vice president of the NRA thinks that the fact that Obama hasn't tried to enact gun control laws is proof that he'll try to enact gun control laws in his second term. There are even people who think that Obama is trying to create some kind of one-world-government plot to take everyone's guns. And I actually heard today that some nuts are saying that the Aurora shooting was staged by the government to create anti-gun feelings in the public (similar to the "fast and furious" fake scandal drummed up by ignorant extremists and carried on by shameless Republicans in Congress). That's a very high level of delusional thinking.

These kinds of paranoid, reactionary responses make any kind of progress on gun safety next to impossible. The good news is that large majorities of everyday gun owners and even NRA members don't agree with their extremists leaders. People who support basic, reasonable gun rights should be offended and embarrassed that their political and organizational leaders are taking such a counter-productive stance and making all gun owners look unreasonable and even crazy by association. The extremism has to change to help get what we all want--guns as far as possible from the hands of irresponsible and dangerous people.

Another kind of delusional thinking involves the ideas that laws that limit access to dangerous guns are the problem, that slacker gun laws could have actually prevented the Aurora tragedy. Everything would have turned out better if only there had only been more guns in that theater, more armed citizens, more good guys with guns to stop the bad guy. On a simplistic level, I can understand why some people might think that way. We all want to believe that we can make a difference and do good in the world, and sometimes that impulse for doing good morphs into a hero complex.

Unfortunately, many of these people seem to have had their most meaningful life experiences while playing video games or watching action movies. They don't understand real life. In a video game or action movie, the good guy pulls his gun and takes out the bad guy, just the way God intended. But the harsh reality is that the more likely outcome finds that the good guy with the gun would shoot innocent bystanders instead of the perp, or another good guy with a gun would shoot the first armed good guy because he thought he was the bad guy. (That almost happened at the scene of the Gabby Giffords shooting when the only armed citizen came a fraction of a second from shooting the unarmed man who had taken Loughner's gun.)

Considering Holmes was wearing body armor, and the Aurora theater was dark, loud, filled with teargas, and crowded with fleeing people, more guns would have just made things far, far worse.

No matter how pure the motives or brave the heart, real life is not a video game or action movie. I, for one, don't want to live in a hair-trigger country where everybody carries guns and thinks they're going to be some kind of hero--where bullets could fly at the slightest provocation, and the difference between the good guys and the bad guys isn't always as clear as we wish it could be.

One effort that actually might help in determining who has the potential for committing acts of atrocity like the Aurora shooting is mental health assessment. If proper mental health care were as readily available in America as guns are, we'd be a far better place. Perhaps Holmes would have been flagged by the system early enough to prevent his crime. Holmes was already identified as showing signs of a mental problem by the owner of a gun range where Holmes applied for membership just a month before the tragedy. If a psychological layman such as a gun range owner spotted red flags, then a psychological professional certainly would have.

A friend told me today that gun laws wouldn't have stopped Holmes, so we should just abandon gun laws and focus exclusively on mental health assessment. I can understand that impulse considering how the extreme right has made gun laws almost a forbidden subject for discussion--even in the wake of gun tragedy. 

My friend may be right that restrictive assault weapons laws wouldn't have stopped Holmes. He may have used his explosives to kill people in that theater if he couldn't get guns (although he had the explosives and chose the guns for what he did in the theater). He may have illegally obtained his assault weapon even if the assault weapon ban hadn't been allowed to expire by Republicans in Congress (although the ban would have certainly have made it harder for him to get his assault weapon).

Of course, no precaution is perfect. Door locks don't keep out all intruders, yet we still lock our doors because that keeps out most would-be intruders. Sunblock doesn't prevent every fraction of damage from ultra-violet radiation, yet we slather it on our kids all summer long because it helps to protect them as much as we can. 

Likewise, no law is perfect. No law, including gun restrictions, would ever stop all gun crimes. I don't think any reasonable person would ever say that any law is 100% effective. People jay-walk all the time despite anti-jay-walking laws. But our laws help to protect us. And our laws do more than simply control behavior. Our laws reflect the values of our society.

Drug laws are a good subject for comparison. The fact that heroin is illegal doesn't mean that no one can get heroin. But no one suggests legalizing heroin (except Ron Paul, who sometimes seems like a good candidate for that mental health assessment mentioned above). We continue to make heroin illegal for two reasons: 1) The fact that it is against the law does actually prevent some people from trying to get heroin. 2) Our society values keeping people away from dangerous drugs, and making heroin against the law reflects that value.

Minimal common-sense gun laws (such as the assault weapons ban) do help prevent violence by making assault weapons harder to obtain. But, more importantly, common-sense gun laws reflect the societal value that guns can be dangerous things that need to be handled responsibly for the good of everyone. Isn't that a value we all share?
Despite the antics of the NRA and what we hear in the mainstream media, most Americans want common-sense gun laws. If events like the Aurora and Giffords shootings don't facilitate an adult conversation about enacting those common-sense gun laws, then what will? If people are misguided enough to compare a gun with a spoon and not recognize that such a comparison is blatantly insane, then how can we ever prevent guns from falling into the hands of people who will become the next terrible news story?


1 comment:

  1. I agree with your vision, but it's a funny thing about laws. Already are laws against killing people, regardless of what you use. Laws against Rape and Robbery too. The 'law abiders' like me, don't do these things, but I can't speak for everyone. I am a second generation shooter and gun owner. I see guns like someone sees a 50's Chevy. A fine piece of workmanship. Even assault Rifles are lovely to see and shoot. I am a true gun nut.
    I won't compare guns with spoons however.
    I'd like to see some kind of "heads up" when people buy guns, but not sure what that is?
    There is also a huge black market of guns where crooks as well can buy anything, no questions asked except 'where's the money'. Laws are never going to stop guns unfortunately, and until I know they have stopped abstract violence 100%, I will keep my guns.


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