Putting it Out There, or An Attempt at Common Ground on Guns

5 01 2017

This morning, I finished reading an article by Lisa Miller in New York Magazine, an account of a project that brought together people from the extremes of the gun control v. gun rights debate (a woman who watched her daughter be shot to death in a mass shooting and the man that facilitated the auctioning of the gun George Zimmerman used to kill Trayvon Martin, for example). People were paired up with an ideological opposite, and they told each other their stories. Then, in an attempt at “radical empathy,” each person presented their partner’s story to the rest of the group as though it was their own. Instead of “She saw her daughter shot,” it would be “I saw my daughter shot.” Instead of “She was being stalked,” it was “I was being stalked.” It’s an interesting experiment and a worthwhile read, and it got me thinking about my position on the issue – thinking about the places where both sides have common ground that is often ignored, or at least doesn’t get explored in earnest. I’m going to approach this from my side of the argument, of course, but I’m also going to try to acknowledge and explore opposing viewpoints to the best of my ability.

I believe the right to bear arms is important. There’s a reason it’s the second explicit right added to the Constitution. The experience of the Founders gave them ample reason to enshrine it in our law and culture. I have no desire to “take everyone’s guns away,” and even if I did, I don’t believe an outright ban would be at all practicable. Any such program would be the kind of tyrannical government overreach that many gun rights advocates cite as central to the need for an armed citizenry.

That said, I do believe that we need to establish greater control over access to guns. Some people would argue that any control is inherently unconstitutional, but I disagree for two reasons. First, the first amendment is absolute in its protection of free speech, yet we understand that certain kinds of speech are potentially dangerous and are therefore criminal – the famous example of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, or directly exhorting a crowd to violence. Second, the second amendment speaks of the right to bear arms in the context of a “well regulated militia.” I’m not suggesting that gun ownership should be contingent upon being part of some kind of organized body, but the words “well regulated” have meaning and provide (to my mind) ample room for reasonable control over gun ownership.

I understand that proponents of gun rights see any attempt at control as a slippery slope, and I don’t discount that. At the same time, though, everyone, from the leaders of Everytown for Gun Safety to the leaders of the NRA, acknowledges that there are people who should not have access to guns, and that those people frequently get guns anyway, with terrible consequences. That seems beyond argument. Unfortunately, that typically means that the argument then just goes somewhere else, and that important piece of common ground gets lost, but we should remember that it’s still there. The most ardent supporter of gun rights would likely agree that Adam Lanza shouldn’t have had access to the guns he used at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If you believe that Sandy Hook was a hoax, I don’t think there’s any point in further discussion, but I’ll still offer other arguments – Omar Mateen should not have had access to the guns he used. Syed Farook should not have had access to the guns he and his wife used. Elliot Rodger should not have had access to the guns he used. James Holmes should not have had access to the guns he used.

I know that people argue that each of those incidents was a hoax, a false flag operation, but it’s not like I couldn’t list many, many others, and at some point, isn’t that just a way of avoiding the common ground? Is it really that unreasonable to say that in our society, there are people who should not have access to guns? If you can’t acknowledge that starting point, you should stop reading now.

Still with me? I hope so.

If we can agree that there are certain people who should not have access to guns, it seems reasonable that we have a lot of evidence to support the assertion that under our current laws (or their enforcement), some of those people are still acquiring them without serious difficulty, and that the end result is horrifying. If we can agree on those points, we get to the real crux of the thing – what is it worth to us as a society to prevent those horrifying results?

I’ve been hung up on this for a while, this notion of what we’re willing to trade. It started with John Scalzi’s “The Cinemax Theory of Racism” and grew from there. Scalzi talks about Trump voters who fervently (and even rightly) insist that they’re not racists having to confront the fact that they were willing to trade any anti-racist convictions they may hold for something else Trump was offering. There had to be a “yeah, but” for the several instances where he either refused to offer a full-voiced condemnation of the worst of his supporters or (far worse) amplified their voices tremendously and then acted like he had no idea they were despicable. “Yeah, he retweeted antisemitic garbage from openly racist sources, but he’s going to bring our jobs back.” “Yeah, racist groups are actively campaigning for him in a way they haven’t in decades, but he’s going to repeal Obamacare.” There had to be a trade-off.

I take issue with those particular trade-offs for a lot of reasons, but they did get me thinking (not particularly originally) about the fact that all of society is one big trade-off. At some point in the distant past, two or more early humans came to the realization that things would be easier overall if they started working together. That initial decision was a trade-off. Losing some part of the freedom of being on one’s own was worth it to gain something from working together. It was worth it to share the spoils of the hunt if the hunt itself was a little easier or more likely to succeed because two hunters were involved. It was worth not getting to go wherever you want whenever you want because going with a group made it less likely that you’d be attacked and eaten by wolves. It was worth not being able to take whatever you wanted because it meant that others were less likely to take whatever they wanted from the stuff you considered yours. Safety, security, and prosperity were judged to be worth certain trade-offs.

I believe that humans are social animals. I think that we didn’t really have a choice in the matter – our brains are set up in a way that makes most of us need the company of others to keep us sane. That meant that some kind of society, and thus some kind of trade-off, was inevitable. Regardless of whether it had to happen or not, it did happen, and we flourished. Society led to surplus. Surplus led to leisure. Leisure led to culture and intellectual advancement, down through the ages until I’m smacking little chips of material derived from petroleum pulled out of the ground thousands of miles away, maybe even from under thousands of feet of water, to cause tiny marks to appear on a glowing panel in front of me, marks that instantly convey meaning to me and millions, maybe billions of other people (how many people can read English) who might see them when I cause them to be sent through a thin strand of metal, on to a thin strand of glass, possibly up into space, and into a machine that just waits to send them back out as soon as anyone asks to see them.

I can summon fire and clean water and my choice of cold or hot air at the touch of a button. I can talk face to face with people literally on the other side of the planet. I can travel distances in hours that once took months. I can freaking fly. All of these things descend from the original agreement between Ug and Gerp that yeah, they had something to gain from tolerating each other’s company. Ug thought Gerp smelled bad, and Gerp thought Ug had one of those faces that just desperately needed a punching, but they both put it aside, and before long, they were reaping the spoils.

Obviously, all of this talk of Gerp and Ug is in service of saying that we need to trade something to realize a common goal. The question is simply the proportions of the exchange. I understand an absolutist stance, that any reduction is too much. I won’t even say that such an understanding is “wrong.” I disagree with it, but I don’t have any guns, so no freedom I’m directly using is reduced, and that influences my thinking. Still, I think (and polls have indicated) that when presented with the equation in those terms, most people (including most gun owners) would agree that some reduction of freedom is an acceptable price for fewer of the wrong people having access to guns.

Ah, but there’s the rub! Who gets to decide what determines right and wrong? Giving anyone that power creates the potential for abuse. Sure, you can say “those with a diagnosed mental illness shouldn’t have access to guns,” and it seems reasonable right up until “wanting a gun” is termed “mental illness.” Or maybe “having any misgivings about the government” is an illness. Or maybe “wanting a gun” is fine, but “wanting 3 guns” isn’t. I believe that Dylann Roof shouldn’t have had access to guns, but he has said in court that he is not mentally ill, and while it’s comforting to believe that anyone holding that much hate must be mentally ill, it’s possible there’s nothing in the DSM-5 that fits him – should he have been denied access to guns? It isn’t hard to imagine restrictions being twisted to deny access to perfectly sane, safe people, and if one of the reasons to have guns is to keep the government in check, giving the government any control over who has access to guns becomes problematic.

These things are true, or at least reasonable. I think the idea that an armed populace would be able to stop a despotic US government doesn’t hold up to reality, but I understand it. Still, we have to be able to have the conversation. There has to be some honest exploration of what everyone seems to agree is a problem and a discussion of what can be done to mitigate it. Maybe we need a full court press on the issue of mental health, as the NRA suggests. What shape does that take? Is it just greater funding for mental health screening and facilities? Who pays for that? Does it suggest that some kind of mental health evaluation should be part of the process of getting a gun? If we agree that some or all mental health issues are cause for concern, do we create a database of people with mental health issues? What are the privacy issues involved in such a thing? Who has access to it? Once on it, how can a person be removed from it? What about mental illness that manifests after the person has already obtained a gun? Does it suggest a need for recurring evaluations? Who performs those evaluations?

If the solution is universal background checks, who determines what constitutes a red flag, or worse, an absolute bar to getting a gun? What protections can we put in place to ensure that those protections aren’t continually ratcheted up to the point where people who are no threat aren’t allowed guns? If this system is truly universal, it would apply to person-to-person gun sales or gifts – how can privacy be guaranteed when anyone looking to transfer ownership of a gun would need access to background information on anyone else? Is there a privacy issue inherent in having such a list maintained by government entities?

I don’t have answers to these questions that will satisfy everyone on all sides of the debate, or even a majority of people. I do believe that the answers are out there, and I know what makes sense to me – universal background checks that include some kind of mental health component, mandatory training, and periodic reevaluation – but I understand and respect why people would reject that. Maybe any gun control scheme could be subject to periodic review by an independent body staffed by equal numbers of advocates of gun rights and gun control. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the current climate, in which we seem to agree there’s a problem but can’t talk at all about potential solutions without immediately flying to the extremes, leads to inaction that guarantees the problem will continue. I don’t want that. I think most people agree with me on that point.

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