You watch that C-SPAN feed this week? Shit got crazy up on Capitol Hill…
House Democrats led a sit-in at the Capitol building beginning Wednesday at 11:30 am and running for 25 straight hours. Democratic Senators came and joined in support, Elizabeth Warren brought Dunkin. Their intention was to force the House of Representatives to bring forth a bill on gun legislation for a vote, presumably one of the four (or Collins’ fifth option) that was voted down in the Senate on Monday. Those four measures, two proposed by Republicans and two proposed by Democrats dealt with particular pieces of the gun control debate, from closing background check loopholes, to the not-as-simple-as-they-appear “no fly, no buy” measures that coordinate with the nation’s various no fly and terror watch lists. All four were rejected along nearly perfect party lines despite a CNN poll this week that says a large percentage of Americans are in favor of some “common sense” gun measures: 90% supported universal background checks (I know, most places make you do some kind of check, we’ll get back to that in a moment), 87% supporting measures that would prevent felons and those who are mentally ill from getting a gun, and 85% supporting a “no fly, no buy” initiative. Yet even in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando or the many others so recent, we remain stubbornly entrenched in our views, with so little room for movement between the two sides.
In the wake of this type of terrible event, as the phenomenon becomes frighteningly common here in the United States, many of us scramble for answers, with questions and debates about where blame should lie and what solutions might exist towards prevention of future such tragedies. Here in the United States, of course, the discussions surrounding gun violence, gun ownership rights, and what impact legal restrictions can and will have are nothing new. The right to bear arms as outlined in the Second Amendment to our Constitution is passionately protected by a large portion of our citizenry, while the intention and language of said Amendment is the subject of its own debate within the context of modern weaponry. What exactly is the definition of “a well regulated militia” and what bearing does that phrase have on the Amendment as a whole? Many would say that the principle at the center of the Amendment and the right itself is defense against tyranny, believing that an armed citizenry cannot and will not be overtaken by tyrannical rule. For many it also represents a spirit of personal independence and self-reliance, a drive to protect what is yours. All of these are noble principles advocated by the pro-gun crowd. That self-reliance bumps up against societal safety when taken to a particular extreme, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
The point is that this is an important dialogue worthy of a sophisticated and evolved citizenry, debating with our fellow Americans deep social issues of personal responsibility, freedom and prevention of tyranny, and how we perpetuate notions of violence. And while that dialogue does take place in smaller pockets, on a large scale the two sides simply retreat to familiar and fervently defended stances with no movement made toward compromise. As I mentioned, three of Monday’s Senate votes failed along perfect 53-47 party lines, while the bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy aimed at closing the “gun show loophole” gained an additional 3 votes from Senate Republicans. In my opinion, each side of this debate has valid criticisms which we should accept and use as a basis for compromise. On the political right, there are two great notions which comprise much of the argument. 1. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and 2. None of the measures proposed thus far would have had a specific impact on any of the recent tragedies (Omar Mateen was not on the no fly list, for instance). The first is an age-old cliché that argues for personal responsibility but I think understates the deadly nature of firearms. Guns have one solitary purpose, to kill, and when we passively move past that we skew the debate. I think perhaps a more accurate phrase would be “Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people”.
The second point, that the proposed legislations don’t actually address issues that relate to any recent tragedy, is, I think, the more pressing one for the present dialogue. Many critics argue that making background checks truly universal, including trade shows and private sales, is redundant given that, they claim, most places perform a background check anyway. The “no fly, no buy” and related measures rely heavily on several different secret government lists, opening a litany of civil right issues while contributing little in the way of practical results. And even an assault weapons ban (which I’ll get to in a moment) wouldn’t have affected the 2015 Louisiana movie theatre shooting, Dylann Roof’s shooting in Charleston, 2012’s Wisconsin temple shooting, or the 2011 Arizona shooting involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, all of which were perpetrated using only handguns.
From the political left, the biggest outcry is that we are solitary among industrialized nations in our gun violence and yet we refuse to look at that problem objectively. Mass shootings seem to be growing in frequency and yet the same CNN poll shows that more than half the country (52%) believes “Shootings like the one in Orlando will happen again regardless of what action is taken by government and society”. It’s the refusal to accept such a fatalistic view that leads to events like the #NoBillNoBreak sit-in, a refusal to walk away for summer vacation before doing the work of addressing the concerns of the American people. For the record, I was a strong supporter of #NoBillNoBreak, even though I believed its chance of success was painfully low. For my money, I will take action and activity from our elected officials over the gridlocked inaction of Congress’ last decade. Trying to encourage debate and discussion on an issue of importance to many Americans displays an encouraging ambition even if the details are lacking.
The other giant criticism from those on the left concerns the role of the NRA in framing and eroding our national dialogue on firearms. Though many would like to cling to the NRA’s status as a “private gun ownership club”, they are anything but removed from the political process, regularly funding congressional candidates, overwhelmingly Republican and often with stunningly high amounts. And they contribute sizably more in the form of Super PAC’s donations to the national party and party committees and efforts like stopping ballot initiatives.
Given their obvious self-interest in growing the weapons industry, how can our national debate on the issue possibly be open and objective with the NRA weaved all throughout it like a cancer? How can we possibly expect that elected officials who regularly accept large campaign contributions (and again, about 90% of them Republicans) would do anything but represent the interests of this Big Business? NRA lobbying has kept the CDC from being allowed to study gun violence as a public health issue in the same manner that they do for auto accidents for instance, which gives us a comprehensive and thorough look at the impact these phenomena have on society.
So just how the hell do we progress? How do we go about understanding and addressing the societal issue of gun violence while protecting a right that many view as central to American liberty?
To begin, I think a couple “common sense measures” would be helpful to move us beyond our stagnant stalemate:
- Close the “gun show loophole”. Yes, many critics make the claim that it doesn’t really matter because most trade show vendors perform a background check already. But making it law instead of just guiding principle should be easy for both sides to accept and I feel should have passed on Monday.
- Have the CDC study gun violence, not just mass shootings but all gun violence, as a public health issue, providing a baseline of information for the effect guns have on American society. Information is power and depriving ourselves of it is foolish.
- Let’s begin to look at guns similarly to how we look at cars. Both are tools with immense, potentially fatal, power and yet we regulate one much more heavily that the other. As a society we are able to agree on the value of driver’s licenses, driver training and tests, and national vehicle registration all as measures to make us safer, happier, and healthier. And while firearms have no intention beyond their primary purpose (cars are meant to transport you places, their fatal potential is a by-product) we submit them to lesser regulation and scrutiny.
I also believe that a renewed assault weapons ban is totally appropriate. The term “assault weapons” tends to bring the blood of many on the political right to a boil, given its somewhat ambiguous nature. An assault rifle refers very specifically to fully-automatic weapons which are nearly banned in the U.S. due to laws in 1935 and 1986. The category of weapon targeted in previous and proposed assault weapons bans generally refer to semi-automatic rifles initially designed for combat like the AK-47 and AR-15 and its ilk. AR does not stand for “assault rifle”, by the way, it stands for ArmaLite Rifle, the original company to manufacture the gun before selling the rights to Colt in 1959. Semi-autos are “one pull, one shot”, as your pro-gun friends will be quick to point out, but the rate of fire, reload mechanism, and the available modifications (bigger barrel and/or receiver, milspec triggers, scopes, grips, etc) separate this class of firearm considerably from what many consider to be ordinary “home defense” weapons. Like many Americans, I don’t believe that these weapons have any need or purpose in U.S. homes and streets.
But these are only a place to start and, truthfully, their practical effect is probably pretty minimal on the scourge of gun violence. We are culturally sick. It has become the new American stance to be glutinous, sex-obsessed, violence-obsessed, and xenophobic, giving the finger to the rest of the world that we couldn’t identify on a map (go ahead, tell me what countries border Syria, I’ll wait). That’s us! We let our kids play Call of Duty at age 6 and then wonder why they (and we) have an unhealthy and uninformed love of guns. Hip Hop music, arguably the country’s most popular genre over the last decade and half, uses guns and violence as basic vernacular in an often disassociated way. And I am both a rapper and video gamer so my criticisms aren’t pointed very far from my own door. We as American citizens need to take an honest look at these character elements and decide to be better, or at least less willfully ignorant. We need to better understand marginalization within our society and why, coupled with issues like mental instability or political radicalism, is leads to a greater level of gun violence than any other place on Earth.
A common argument clung to in the wake of these mass tragedies is that “the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most alarming principle to emerge in the new gun era. I support gun ownership and the right to carry for personal protection. When that personal protection turns into policing and protecting the world around oneself (i.e. George Zimmerman), it makes a subtle but distinct change into vigilante justice. That testosterone-y, aggressive, eager-for-a-fight mentality too often mars the image of responsible gun ownership. When we become a country that is ok with heavily-armed groups of citizens patrolling our streets, choosing to station themselves as protection they themselves have deemed necessary against terrorism, we are starting down a quick road to anarchy. I’m not the most yay-police person but they are indeed who I want patrolling and protecting our streets, trained, uniformed, armed, and with a responsibility towards their job and purpose rather than personal credo. I just want them to do a better job of it and stop killing POC’s. But reforming the police is a separate topic for a different day. My point here is that despite my concerns about the police, I certainly don’t prefer the vigilante justice of the Wild West advocated by many. When you’re gun-to-gun it’s just about the quicker draw.
Noble principles are often lost in the heat of debate. 90% of Americans are against banning firearms altogether so the argument that Obama and Hillary and others on the left are trying to take away our guns is a fallacy (except for Pelosi, you’re right not to trust her). Often demonizing weapons with which they are mostly unfamiliar, the gun regulation movement can sometimes find themselves stalled by their own inability to answer criticisms of the practical results from proposed measures. Many on the right are responsible gun owners (not “gun nuts”) open to dialogue about their proper role in our society, a debate very much worth having. But firearms are instruments of death only and the right to possess them shouldn’t be taken lightly, dismissively, or universally.
So maybe, just maybe, can we all just talk about this for a minute?