There is a reflex to narrow the scope, to zero in on a single aspect of an issue and make it the problem and so, in addressing it, the solution.
As Americans we want the quick fix; we’ve been encouraged (despite the duration of our war for independence) to view it as our birthright, one born of forcing the issue. We have a tendency to view compromise a weakness and nuance an annoyance. The result is that these days a political position has to fit on a bumper sticker to be embraced – and effective. Where in the cowboy rhetoric of our culture do we situate moderation of individual rights and civic responsibility?
Perhaps it is understandable that a country born of the gun has a hard time setting it aside. Do we need to entirely? Is that what gun regulation requires? I don’t think so. Most people I know who support gun control are not interested in banning all guns; they are concerned about the accessibility of assault weapons with extended ammunition magazines, the type capable of inflicting the level of destruction we witnessed in Newtown. Yet the slippery-slope yelps of the NRA argue that to limit one aspect of gun ownership is to limit all.
Full Disclosure: I own a gun. I am a woman who lives alone and I am aware of a higher degree of vulnerability, so the gun is for protection. I have a .38 caliber revolver with a blue sheen to the cold steel. It’s a stout weapon and I shoot cowboy loads to reduce the kick; it gives me greater accuracy. Prior to the .38 I owned a .22 caliber llama: light, slim, compact. But I have grown to distrust automatics – they seem eager somehow, or just too easy, to shoot. The revolver, on the other hand, requires – for me – a Zen-like attention as I cock, aim, and fire. I don’t think it is a bad thing to take time before pulling that trigger, even at a target on the practice range.
I own a gun for protection and it extends a sense of safety (however brief or false) but it is an article that carries a psychological as well as a physical weight. To own a gun is to admit that one day you might have to use it. Or that one day it might be used against you. Guns don’t have a sense of loyalty.
The evidence of that is all around us. But the reaction seems to be, consistently, to reach for more guns. Open-carry laws are proliferating, as are a rash of laws allowing guns on college campuses. Since Newtown, I have heard people calling for security guards at school entrances. And while schools guarded like prisons, roped in concertina wire, will certainly teach our children something, it is perhaps not exactly what we might expect or like.
Wayne La Pierre, the head of the NRA and a man so viscerally paranoid that he finds ominous threats in inaction (he used President Obama’s first-term passivity concerning gun control as fundraising evidence of a second-term planned aggression), lays the blame not on the proliferation of high-powered weapons but at the media’s embrace and exploitation of violence – and a lack of guns in classrooms (Arizona, bolstering its resume for official “crazy state” status, rushed to propose legislation to arm teachers in response).
For those who think more guns in trained hands will solve the problem, I remind you of Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, a military base filled with weapons and personnel taught to use them: 13 dead and 29 wounded after Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a killing spree in 2009. For those of you who would argue that the area of the base attacked was vulnerable as a “gun-free” zone (weapons carried only by security personnel), I’d ask exactly what you had in mind for our schools: shoulder holsters for teachers? Does anyone else think that the introduction of weapons on school property has the potential to increase the risk of injury to children? Or recognize that a “gun free” zone on a military base is evidence of a level of gun control within an institution that is the epitome of defense?
As the CEO of the NRA (the lobby arm of the gun business), La Pierre has suggested that a reasonable solution to the Newtown massacre is the registration of every mentally ill person in the United States – this from the man who believes that mandating registration of guns and gun owners is a violation of fundamental constitutional rights. Does anyone else see a profit margin being protected?
For those of you who might agree that a federal database listing every individual classified in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (which includes paranoia, Mr. La Pierre, but also autism, depression, ADHD and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) would prevent further carnage, I’ll remind you of this: Major Hasan was a psychiatrist at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Ford Hood. He entered his own workplace carrying the FN Five-seven semi-automatic pistol and the nearly 400 rounds of ammunition (in 20- and 30-round magazines) that he would use in his assault. He would not have been on such a list.
Adam Lanza might have been included in La Pierre’s proposed database but there is no guarantee that it would have stopped him. Adam never purchased a weapon; he didn’t have to. He took his mother’s guns. Although we can’t know what was going through his mind, of course, there are some telling aspects that stand out for me: the rage evident when he shot his mother in the face with one of her own guns; the fact that he then went to the school where she volunteered, perhaps to exact retribution from children he felt received something that he didn’t.
How do we prepare for that? What database can we set up for the unpredictable that doesn’t preemptively punish people already suffering from the pain, stigma and isolation of emotional and mental issues?
We need a conversation in this country about guns: about our fear and our fascination. We need one about our acceptance of violence as a solution to problems (individually and socially). We need to talk about gun control in the language of gun safety and civic responsibility.
We need a conversation about mental health, one which addresses the stigmatization of emotional and mental problems that keeps issues hidden and those suffering isolated, imprisoned, or both (the incarceration rates of the mentally disturbed are high and disheartening).
We need a conversation about health care that incorporates mental and emotional issues. We have to address the plight of people who seek help for problems (their own or a family member’s) only to be denied treatment. Or be referred to law enforcement. Or be over-medicated and/or misdiagnosed because the stigma associated with a diagnosis of mental illness often induces an inverse relationship on our ability to gather information regarding onset, environment, and predisposition to disease. It is difficult to expand our knowledge if people are afraid to come forward and ask for help for fear of being branded, institutionalized, or experimented on. And the complexity of the human brain means that sometimes the very prescriptions that are issued to heal us make us worse by working together in unpredictable ways to exacerbate an issue (recall the warnings that antidepressants have the potential to increase suicidal thoughts and actions in teenagers).
We need a conversation about our fringe populations, our fraying social fabric, and the increasing sense of being simultaneously crowded and isolated on a planet made smaller but more accessible by technology. We need one about safety, and about individual rights and responsibilities. We need a conversation about our civilization: both the idea of it and the reality.
These conversations are interconnected. They do not stand isolated, immune from influence.
I have read several essays online lately that seek to open these conversations, to investigate the interconnections between individual and social issues, identity, and the horrible weight of human potential for violence against others. One woman writes of her experience raising a brilliant and sometimes violent young son (“I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”) and another of being such a son (“I was Adam Lanza”). Both essays seek to bring home a truth we often would rather deny: that we are all vulnerable to being damaged and to damaging others. Guns just make it easier.
Arming everyone in the United States won’t reduce gun violence. It won’t make us safer, because a gun doesn’t choose who will fire it, or when, or where: people do that. And writing in the New York Time’s philosophy forum The Stone, Firmin DeBrabander, an associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, argues that an increasingly weaponized populace actually makes us less free.
In “The Freedom of an Armed Society,” DeBrabander maintains that “an armed society is the opposite of a civil society” – the definition of “civil society” being distinctly different from the “polite society” that gun rights advocates contend results from armed citizens. Debrabander points out the conundrum: such a courteous society is one born of fear, not freedom. Freedom itself becomes a hostage of an armed society because “Liberty entails precisely the freedom to offend.” But the impulse of free speech, one of our most basic rights, is stifled in the presence of an armed adversary (be it a despotic government or an inconsiderate neighbor).
The very presence of a gun, DeBrabander contends, issues a threat that shuts down conversation. He recalls the protestor who appeared armed at a 2009 town hall meeting about President Obama’s health care initiative, and describes how the presence of a weapon altered the dynamic of what should have been a public forum for examination of the issues, conflicts, and disagreements surrounding the inflammatory topic of “Obamacare”:
“[…] no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate – though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech – and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free[…]”
More guns – in classrooms, movie theaters, shopping malls – won’t solve the problem of violence in our country. And arming every citizen won’t ensure our liberty – it will, in fact, restrict free speech with the threat of violence and end any conversation before it can begin. The ancient Athenians, the inventors of social democracy, regarded debate as an essential element of a civil society. What will we call this when can no longer swallow the term civilization?