Ainsley Hayes and Sam Seaborn and Guns, or You’re Using It Wrong

9 01 2013

Like so many liberals, I’m positively giddy that The West Wing is now available to watch instantly on Netflix. Last night I watched the first episode featuring the White House’s token Republican, Ainsley Hayes. I always liked Ainsley. I liked her struggle over working with “the enemy” eventually being trumped by a belief in duty to country and her recognition that the other side isn’t the enemy – they’re just people with a different point of view trying their best to make things better. The West Wing usually did a good job of explaining opposing points of view even while clearly stating that those points of view aren’t really wrong, but don’t really matter, either. Ainsley’s ridiculously slimy Republican friends were perhaps more simplistic and one-dimensional than they could have been, but they only show up in the one episode, and she gets to speak her mind pretty regularly, so it’s all cool.

During her debut episode, Ainsley happens to find herself in a room with Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman while waiting for a chance to tell the Chief of Staff that she won’t be taking the job that she’s been offered. She came onto the White House’s radar by soundly thrashing Sam on a talk show, so it’s understandable that they don’t warm up to each other right away. They start arguing about their political beliefs, and the topic turns quickly to gun control. Sam becomes quietly enraged and makes it clear to her that she really shouldn’t be talking about gun rights in the presence of a man (Josh) newly back to work after narrowly surviving being shot by white supremacists. Sam tells Ainsley that her opposition to gun control isn’t about freedom or public safety – it’s that some people just like guns. She fires back that Sam’s pro-gun control stance isn’t about freedom or public safety either – it’s just that he doesn’t like the people who like guns.

And thus did I come to my point.

I hadn’t watched that episode in a while, and I was surprised at my reaction to it, especially as I’ve seen it several times before. I immediately said aloud, “That’s not true.” I can’t really comment on Sam’s true motivations for his belief, as he is a fictional character and didn’t explain himself further. I can say that Sorkin’s characters’ views align with mine a whole lot of the time, so it’s fairly safe to say that Sam and I think pretty much alike on this issue. Or we would, if he, you know, existed. I can also say that I don’t believe in gun control because I don’t like the people who like guns. Hell, to some degree, I like guns. I appreciate their design and the ingenuity that evolved them from simple, slow, cumbersome and inaccurate to something approaching elegant. I also find them somewhat terrifying, which, I think, is a very appropriate component of any relationship with something designed expressly to wound and kill. I even like going to the firing range, though I do it very infrequently and am a pretty terrible shot. I don’t know that I’d ever be comfortable with a gun in my home, but I’m open to discussion about it. Several members of my family own guns, and I like them just fine. For me, it’s not about not liking the people who like guns. It really is about public safety. If I had to boil it down to being about people, I guess I could say that I don’t like the people who don’t respect guns, the people who don’t have some component of dread in their relationship with them.

In a way, this gets back to the argument that all tools can be deadly if used a certain way. That’s true, and there’s a dread that should be present when using certain tools. Take the band saw, for example. When using a band saw, it’s appropriate to be aware that it’s a very dangerous beastie, and being incautious with it could lead to severe harm for the user and/or anyone in the user’s immediate vicinity. Approach band saw use with proper respect. At the same time, the band saw was not designed to hurt or kill. If it is hurting or killing, you’re using it incorrectly.

Same with cars. Gun rights advocates argue that cars kill more people than guns and facetiously ask why no one is arguing for a ban on cars. There’s two points I’d like to make about that.

First, very few people are seriously calling for a ban on guns. People may mention that as an ideal, but any pragmatic person knows that such a thing is politically unfeasible, and, more importantly, completely impossible in practical terms without blanket house-to-house, property-to-property searches that would be a logistical nightmare that could never survive the inevitable (and completely justified) 4th Amendment challenges. It can’t happen. There are too many guns already in circulation. That train left the station a very long time ago. Any attempt to truly ban guns would be the kind of government overreach that gun rights advocates speak out against, and that’s not what I want, and I really doubt that it’s what the overwhelming majority of gun control advocates want.

Second, if a car is hurting or killing people, it’s being used wrong. Its sole purpose, moving people and stuff around, does not involve hurting or killing. If hurting or killing are happening, it’s mechanical failure or operator error. Still, cars can kill. To minimize the risk, they have to be regularly inspected for compliance with safety standards (well, not so much here in Georgia, but elsewhere), and drivers have to prove competence before they can legally operate a car on the public roadways. That seems perfectly reasonable, and no one seems to be seriously calling for eliminating inspections and licensing requirements for cars, so why are similar requirements for guns so fiercely shouted down? Most, if not all, of the people I know who like and/or own guns would pass the necessary tests with flying colors. They respect guns and know how to operate them so as to minimize the dangers involved.

The NRA frequently argues that the solution to mass shootings and other gun crimes isn’t more laws, it’s better enforcement of the laws that are on the books. After the Auroras and the Sandy Hooks and the Columbines and Virginia Techs and the Milwaukees and the Websters, gun rights advocates argue that the issue is one of mental health, not gun ownership. To some degree, they’re right. There’s a lot to be argued about the types of guns that are legal – I read a piece by a gun rights advocate that essentially said the AR-15 and its relatives are lousy for home defense, given its less than maneuverable size and issues of overpenetration of targets, and also argues that needing a semiautomatic for hunting means you’re a lousy hunter, and those are valid points. Still, the issue of mental health is a valid point, too. Also, the NRA’s insistence that existing laws need better enforcement is, at its heart, an acknowledgment that there is a problem involving guns in our country. Both of these arguments are tacit admissions that we have a problem involving guns, and that the root of it lies in people who should not have access to guns getting their hands on them. In that light, it’s important to mention that in so many of these mass shootings, the guns were legally obtained.

So even gun rights advocates are openly admitting that people who shouldn’t be allowed guns are getting them, very often legally. To argue that such a situation requires no remedy is, to be blunt, nuts. Flat out nuts. We recognize that a car, used improperly, can do terrible harm. Guns, used properly, used for exactly their purpose, have killed countless innocent people. We regulate cars. We test drivers. Given the way people drive, we should probably test them harder and more often, but at least we test them. What’s so odious about proving that you are responsible enough, capable enough, and mindful enough to own and use guns safely? Why is it such a terrible idea that getting guns should be a bit more difficult? Not impossible, mind you. Just more difficult, requiring a greater dedication and diligence on the part of the would-be owner. More chances to screen out the mentally ill. More chances to catch straw purchasers. What’s bad about that? Yes, there’s the constitutional argument that that is an infringement on the people’s right to bear arms, but the 2nd Amendment provides ample gray area. Saying “You can have a gun (or guns) once you demonstrate to the society at large that you’re not going to be a menace” falls well within the meaning of “well-regulated militia” as far as I’m concerned. I’d like to hear your arguments if you feel I’m wrong about that.

I don’t dislike the people who like guns. I dislike the people who fail to appreciate and demonstrate the proper seriousness guns deserve, and I think our legal relationship with guns fails to instill and reinforce that seriousness in those who would be gun owners. I believe that fixing that, making the process of gun acquisition more difficult, will help prevent unsuited people from obtaining guns legally and will slow the supply of guns to those who are not and should not be allowed to obtain them legally. We will never completely stop gun violence, just as we can never completely prevent car accidents (and band saw mishaps). We can take reasonable steps to limit the inherent risk while still protecting rights of gun ownership. Where’s the harm in that?

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