Change II

When I started writing that last post, I didn’t really know where I was going with it. I had many, many thoughts swirling through my head, and I needed to start organizing them. What emerged in my mind was a 3-part response to the shootings in Connecticut. For simplicity, I’ll label them gun control, mental health, and caring. They all overlap and interact, but for the sake of discussion, I chose to separate them. Part one was about caring. Part two is about gun control. I may end up writing part three on mental health eventually; that one will be harder for me to write.

Gun control; such a taboo subject. For politicians, even mentioning it is to risk losing the next election. Oh, sure, some kids get shot, we mourn, and all the politicians all go on TV and talk about the tragedy. They might even hint at the mental health aspect of gun ownership, but they sure won’t come right out and call for sweeping reforms to our gun laws.

Or will they?

The subject has come up more in the last week than it has in a long, long time. Even conservative gun owners are starting to admit that even they see a need for change. Maybe, just maybe, we can finally have a calm, rational discussion about gun control.

First and foremost, let’s be clear on one very important issue: the Constitution is subject to change. The Second Amendment gets thrown around a lot in these conversations, as if the Constitution is some sort of stone tablet that can never be altered. If we think about this for even a brief moment, the fact that we’re discussing an AMENDMENT means it’s not permanent. Legally, we could write a new amendment that invalidates the Second.

I would argue that the Second Amendment doesn’t make much sense in our current world. Two hundred years ago, a well-regulated militia meant something very different than it does today. Now, we have a well-regulated militia. It is comprised of the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and hundreds of different police forces. The government will not be calling on the citizens to help defend the state. Personally, I would be fine with seeing the Second Amendment go away.

I think we’re still a long way from invalidating the Second Amendment, but perhaps we can clarify and refine it through some more specific legislation. Let’s look at some of the common arguments against gun control laws.

First up, there’s hunting. Living as I do in Minnesota, I am well aware that hunting is still a huge part of many people’s lives. Some do it for sport or tradition, but for many, it is a part of their lifestyle. I am not a hunter, so I’m no expert, but the way I understand it, no one hunts with a handgun or an assault rifle. A semi-automatic weapon is a convenience, but by no means is it a necessity. A high-capacity magazine is essentially useless to a hunter. So, let’s say whatever new gun regulations would need to make exceptions for hunting.

Closely related to the hunting question is that of sport. Some folks just want to go to the shooting range and sharpen their skills. They want to learn to use a variety of firearms just for the sake of the experience. This is fine, but I think these situations need to be highly controlled and regulated.

There are legitimate reasons for gun ownership. I haven’t heard anyone calling for a wholesale ban on all guns. Those of us in favor of gun control want stricter regulations. We want bans on certain types of weapons. We want licensing and training and background checks and mental health screenings. None of these things would prevent a well-informed, rational, healthy individual from owning a gun for a legitimate purpose.

Then there’s the idea that if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. There’s a lot of truth in that statement, but it’s pretty narrow. My thought is that if we outlaw guns, it’ll be a lot easier to identify outlaws with guns. Heroin is illegal. If you are caught buying, selling, making, transporting, possessing, or using heroin, you are breaking the law. No license, class, or background check will change that. If all handguns were illegal, then anyone caught buying, selling, making, transporting, possessing, or using a handgun would be breaking the law. Right now, a violent drug dealer could go get a conceal/carry permit, purchase a completely legal handgun, and carry it around, and there would be no legal reason to stop him. So yes, if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns, but then we’ll have a perfectly legitimate reason to arrest those outlaws.

Some have made the argument that we don’t outlaw lighters because of arson, and we don’t outlaw cars because of drunk drivers, so why outlaw guns because of mass shootings? Again, there is some truth here, but it’s still very narrow. Lighters are very useful: you can use them to light a cigarette or a candle or a campfire, that’s their purpose. You can also use them to burn down a building and collect the insurance, but that was never the intention. An assault rifle capable of firing multiple rounds every second with a high-capacity magazine has one purpose: to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time. If you have an overwhelming urge to own an assault rifle, I can only assume that’s your goal.

The drunk driving argument is actually an argument in favor of gun control. In order to drive a car, you have to take a test and get a license. You have to prove that you understand the basic traffic laws, have decent eyesight, and don’t suffer from any medical condition that would impair your ability to drive. Infractions of the traffic laws can impact your ability to keep your license and continue to drive legally. We put up stop signs and traffic lights, we paint lines on the road, we require brake lights and headlights, we impose speed limits. In short, we legislate and enforce car control. Can’t we do the same for guns?

Another popular argument is that if the teachers were armed, these tragedies could be prevented or at least ended sooner. If an armed homeowner gets robbed, they can fight back. If you carry a gun, you can defend yourself against a mugger. All the facts and statistics show that this is simply not true. You can choose to accept or ignore these facts; I’m not likely to change your mind.

I do find it ironic that those in favor of arming the teachers are generally those who oppose spending money on education. They don’t want teachers to make a living wage, have a manageable class size, or have the books, supplies, and equipment they need to teach our children. These folks expect them to dig into their pathetic salaries to buy pencils and chalk, but would happily send them all to firearm training and buy them a shiny new revolver.

Finally, there’s what might be the oldest argument of them all: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Once again, this is true, but incredibly narrow. Guns don’t kill people, but they make it a lot easier for people to kill people. If an individual makes the decision to go an a killing spree, would you rather see that person carrying an assault rifle and hundreds of bullets in high-capacity magazines or a single-shot hunting rifle that takes a few seconds to reload? Or a baseball bat?

I try to keep an open mind. I try to look at the arguments of those who disagree with me and consider them. If I can present a solid counter-argument, I will, and if I can’t, I try to rethink my position. I can’t promise I always succeed, but I try. I’m willing to concede that my stance on gun control is probably a bit extreme and more than a bit to the left of center. I’m quite willing to accept some compromise between what I personally see as ideal and the current state of things. I am not willing to accept that the current state of things is working. This country is in desperate need of stronger gun laws.

 

I would like to add a thought here about technology. We are living in an age in which condensing databases should be relatively easy. All 50 states should have databases of drivers’ licenses that talk to each other. Those databases should talk to those of social security and unemployment and welfare (and citizenship, but that’s a whole other discussion). There is no reason we can’t begin to create and maintain a flexible, widely compatible database of gun ownership. Technological implementation should not be a factor in any of these discussions.

Change

My head is still spinning from the shootings at Sandy Hook. I have an overwhelming need to vent, to rage, to cry, to scream, but I don’t have the words. I thought that if I waited a few days, maybe the words would come, or maybe my feelings would fade. I don’t know anyone in Connecticut and I don’t have any personal connection to the events. Once the initial shock wears off, I’m sure I’ll file this away in my brain with all the other school shootings.

But I can’t. Maybe this was one too many. Maybe it’s because this time, the victims were so young. Maybe it’s because this time, I just happened to be online when the news broke, so I could watch it in almost real time. Maybe it’s because we just finished a particularly nasty campaign cycle, and I still see so much impotent anger.

Maybe it’s because I’m tired of feeling impotent, and so are a lot of Americans.

Liberals can rage against the Tea Party for being closed-minded, and the Tea Party can rage right back at the liberals for being lazy hippies. Republicans and Democrats can do nothing but rage at each other. Everyone knows the system doesn’t work, and everyone has a strong opinion about who is to blame: the other guy.

Whether it’s the Federal budget, a dysfunctional Congress, intrusive airport security, gas prices, childhood obesity, or home foreclosures, it’s a problem that was caused entirely by someone else. Politicians never say, “It’s my fault.” Lobbyists never say, “We caused this.” Americans never say, “We asked for this.”

No one wants to see 10% unemployment. No one wants to see manufacturing shipped overseas. No one wants to see little Chinese kids working 16-hour days for pennies. But, everyone wants a 50-inch flat panel television for only a few hundred bucks. See the connection? We asked for it.

The housing bubble? We asked for it.

A deadlocked Congress? We asked for it.

More frequent severe weather events? Endless war in the Middle East? High-fructose corn syrup in everything we eat? Yeah, we asked for it.

No one wants these things, but when we make unrealistic demands of ourselves, each other, and our country, these are the side effects. We want everything faster, cheaper, bigger, and better, and we want it now. We don’t want to save for it, we want it on credit. If the whole thing comes crashing down around us, we’ll just blame someone else.

I believe most people are generally kind. I believe most people want the world to be a better place. I believe most of us try to do the right thing all the time. Well, most of the time. Well, sometimes. It’s hard. It’s hard because the right thing can be hidden. It’s hard because the effect can be so far removed from the cause. It’s hard because we’re up against advertisers and lobbyists and peer pressure and job demands and bills. It’s hard because that new Android phone is really cool, and who cares where it’s made or what they did to get the minerals for the battery?

We need to care. We need to care about the homeless. We need to care about factory conditions in Malaysia. We need to care about student-to-teacher ratios. We need to care about fair trade. We need to care about reduce, reuse, and recycle. We need to care about genocide. We need to care about the 2.5 million Americans in prison. We need to care about abuse in all its forms. We need to care about the mentally ill. We need to care.

Every day, every one of us needs to make a conscious decision to make the world a little bit better. Pick up a piece of trash. Hold the door open for someone. Praise a child for something. Turn off a light. Take a walk. Take a break. Take a breath. Take responsibility. Imagine 300 million Americans doing the same thing. Imagine seven billion humans doing the same thing.

You might think this is all a bunch of tree-huggy liberal nonsense. You might chuckle at the irony that I’m typing this on a brand new laptop. You might think you’re already doing enough. You might read this and think it doesn’t apply to you. It’s that other guy. He’s the one not helping. You might be right, but you might not.

We may never understand what drives someone to pick up a gun and start shooting. We will never be able to prevent all tragedies everywhere. I do feel pretty confident that our odds would be a lot better if every school was fully staffed with well-paid, well-educated teachers. We would catch more instances of mental illness earlier if preventive health care was affordable and accessible. We would accomplish more if we were all working for everyone’s benefit.

None of this is easy or fast. Change will take hard work, discipline, and time. And money.

And it will take everyone. Even you.