Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook

It is difficult to bring up the idea of gun control without being labeled as “reactionist” given the recent Sandy Hook Tragedy; and there is merit to that label. However, I feel that it would be a far worse fate to ignore what we are faced with and use naivety and ignorance as a shield. Gun ownership is a constitutional right and as such any steps to alter or limit it must be approached with the utmost scrutiny. Personally I resent the fact that society wishes to portray any opinions on this issue into outlier groups of either “ban all guns” or “law-abiding citizens have the right to own any weapon the military does” I will admit that I find myself trapped between these two extremes so I decided to do some research.
The first item on the list was assault weapons. This is a widely misunderstood classification that some would use to encompass any semi-automatic firearm. This is much too broad. For my purposes, I apply the “assault” designation to AR-15 type rifles primarily developed for military applications and/or firearms utilizing magazine capacities in excess of 30 rounds (most handguns are about half that). My decision to do this is based on their growing role in spree killings and the likelihood of their use to mitigate said spree killings.

In the past year alone these weapons have played a prominent role in the random killings in Colorado, Oregon, and now Connecticut. I can only assume that they were chosen for their ability to deliver maximum casualties with minimal reloading. While these attributes are invaluable in combat environments, they should not be readily accessible to the general public.

Many reading this will immediately throw up their hands in exasperation and reply that blaming guns for murder is like blaming McDonalds for obesity. As insightful and constructive as it is to compare weight-management to the slaughter of children, this is an unsustainable and insulting metaphor. The primary purpose of a firearm is to inflict damage on something that had parents, the primary purpose of a mass produced cheeseburger is to generate profit through the delivery of empty calories.

Let me re-iterate that I am not in-favor of banning handguns, hunting rifles, or shotguns. Quite the contrary, I believe removing assault rifles from the equation will create an even playing field for the law-abiding citizen while retaining the intent of the second amendment. After all, how many licensed gun-owners are going to be toting a Bushmaster .223 when they swing by Bed, Bath, and Beyond or catch the 9:30 showing of The Hobbit? As it stands we are asking brave members of the general populace to intervene in a situation where they are increasingly out-gunned.

The first counter-argument to this is, “We did this assault weapons ban thing already and results, if there even were any, were negligible.” There is value in this observation, but the 1994 ban was largely symbolic due to a gaping loophole that allowed for the resale and ownership of assault weapons and high capacity magazines manufactured before the ban took effect. This meant that the 1.5 Million “banned” weapons and 24 million “banned” high-capacity magazines already in private circulation could still be easily acquired and legally owned until manufacturing resumed in 2004.

The second counter-argument is, “Crazy people will kill innocent people one way or another. Criminals don’t obey laws.” Again, this should not be easily dismissed and there is plenty of empirical evidence to substantiate this viewpoint. However, we do have the ability to limit the tools with which an unstable person can express their anger. In the three cases I referenced above the assault weapons were either legally-acquired by the perpetrator or stolen from an acquaintance who had legally acquired them. The shooters used what they used because they had access to it. I truly believe that had these individuals been given access to a nuclear weapon or a missile battery they would have been just as likely to use them and most reasonable people can agree that private citizens do not have the right to own or brandish these weapons.

Firearms are not the source of human violence, they are simply the most effective apparatus widely available to violent humans at this point in history. It is also somewhat misleading to compare America to European countries with tighter gun restrictions because it glosses over a far more complex set of underlying factors. For example, Great Britain averages .25 gun deaths per 100,000 residents while the United States averages 9.2. Because the UK has some of the most restrictive gun legislation one might be quick to create a simple correlation and believe suffocating gun laws will fix the issue.

The truth is that gun violence in the UK continues to decline even as gun ownership rates rise and disregarding legislation, they have always had lower gun violence rates per capita (and it isn’t even close when it comes to spree killings.) In fact, the United States has hosted 61% of the world’s deadliest mass shootings of the past 50 years and our closest competitor is Finland. The cause is rooted much deeper than gun laws, but while we continue to endlessly bicker over slippery-slopes and our ability to effectively participate in a theoretical insurrection, actual innocent people are dying.

After a lengthy discussion with friends, I realized that I might even be willing to heavily regulate, register, and tax all assault weapons thereby placing them in a different class than a deer rifle or a handgun, but what I am unwilling to do is dismiss any course of action that can reasonably be expected to save the lives of children or the teachers and administrators that protect them.

The second item on this list was school security. Some in Texas have called for licensed teachers and school administrators to carry handguns while at school. I have some concerns about this as well. Since 84% of all public school teachers are female that means there is a high likelihood that these firearms will not be carried on their person (purses, drawers, etc..) and being married to a public school teacher I know that it can be difficult to supervise 23 children at once so there is a possibility of a student getting their hands on one and hurting themselves or someone else. This would inevitably lead to a lawsuit against the teacher for contributing to the death of a child through negligence.

The only case I could uncover of an armed school official intervening in a spree killing was the 1997 case of Luke Woodham who stabbed his mother to death with a knife before taking a .30-.30 with him to his Pearl, Mississippi high school and shooting 9 classmates (killing 2). The vice-principal retrieved his handgun from his truck and confronted Woodham after Woodham had gotten back into his car to leave the scene.  

I have often wondered why these public school shootings tend to take place in small rural or suburban communities. Newton (30,000 people) Bart Township, PA (3,000 people) Columbine, CO (25,000) Chardon, OH (5,000 people) were all sites of recent school shootings with multiple deaths. Why aren’t these occurring as often in inner-city schools located in areas with much higher overall crime rates? Is it greater security at the school? Police presence? Have they armed the tenured staff?  

The truth is that, for whatever reason, more and more Americans are choosing random killings as a manifestation of their anger.  Some believe the list of culprits encompasses everything from violent video games to media coverage to the deterioration of the nuclear family. There is probably some legitimate culpability to be found in all of these, but not all the blame rests with any one of these. We are broken people reaping the harvest of a broken world, but when it becomes overwhelming I remember this quote:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

For those who wish to discuss the “This is what we get for keeping God out of public schools” nonsense or other religious aspects of the tragedy, I suggest you read Rachel Held Evan’s insights here.

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