Monday, January 12, 2009

A Society of Guns

Two recent events spurred this post. First, I read this story in the Salt Lake Tribune, and others like it, which show a rise in gun sales, despite a faltering economy, leading up to Obama becoming President. Second, I ran into a friend recently who was given a handgun for Christmas from his father-in-law. This is about the last person on earth who I would voluntarily own a gun and we had a good laugh about it. Soon after giving him the gun, the father-in-law sent my friend an article about a kid who got drunk and went home to the wrong house. The mistaken kid was banging on the door trying to get in when the home owner shot and killed him. The kid was unarmed. The father-in-law sent my friend this article as an example of why gun ownership was good.

Here are some thoughts. First, the Democratic Party has (sadly) taken gun control off the table since it proved to be a political loser for Al Gore. There is little or no threat of gun control during an Obama administration and a Democratically controlled Congress. So all of these people spending their hard-earned money in a rush to beat out new gun laws are are chicken littles or crying wolf or some other appropriate allusion.

Second, let me state that I have no real problem with guns owned for certain types of hunting. In my mind, there are two types of hunting. There is hunting for food and hunting for sport. I don't think I can criticize hunting for food, especially if used in a program like Hunt for the Hungry which donates the meat to the poor. Hunting for sport, for me, is a little more problematic. When I see a beautiful animal, a creation of God, I don't wish I could put a bullet in its heart and mount it severed head on my wall. I also think about the animals hunted to extinction, or near extinction. The passenger pigeon, for instance, once numbered in the billions and flocks would take hours to pass over head. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in 1914. In Africa, trophy hunters have brought certain rhino species to the brink of extinction, and there are countless other examples. On the other hand, hunters have been some of the leading land conservationists, which I appreciate, even though the ironic motivation for the conservation is so they can continue to kill the animal being conserved. In any case, though hunting is a mixed bag philosophically and theologically (eat meat sparingly and, yes, I'm pointing a finger at myself, too), I have no real outrage for gun owners using their guns for hunting.

The problem, of course, is widespread ownership of handguns and assault weapons. To get the pesky Second Amendment thing out of the way, here it is in its entirety:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

The language is unclear as to whether the right to bear arms is limited to a "well regulated Militia" or whether anyone has that right. I imagine most people don't realize that the second amendment has that clause related to militias and simply know it as "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." So those are the lines of the legal debate. A recent Supreme Court decision leaned toward affording Second Amendment rights to individuals by striking D.C.'s total handgun ban, but did not make any decisions as to a state's hypothetical ban on firearms. I think if you showed the amendment to your average sixth grader she would come to the conclusion that the right to bear arms is linked to militias. It is hard to just argue the clause "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" right out of the amendment.

So the legal arguments are interesting, and it goes much deeper, but I'm more interested in the policy and the underlying arguments for gun ownership and gun control. Handguns and assault weapons, as far as I can tell, serve only one practical purpose: killing other human beings. That is a huge problem for me. The streets are flooded with guns and, no coincidence, violence. Of course there is no practical way to get all these guns off the streets, but we could begin that task if we wanted.

There are as many statistics and studies out there linking guns to violence or lack of violence as there are guns in the United States (hundreds of millions). Some statistics show that you are more likely to kill a person (usually a family member) by accident than in self-defense, while some show that a large number of murders and violent crime are averted because of guns used in self-defense. Some statistics show that countries with very restrictive gun laws (e.g. Japan, UK) have much lower murder and violence rates than the US, while others show that countries with very lax gun laws (e.g. Switzerland, Israel) have very low violence and murder rates. Some studies show that American kids are at particular risk of gun violence and accidents, while some show that American kids are more safe because of guns. In sum, just drop the statistical arguments. They will say whatever you want them to say and there is probably a nugget of truth in them all accompanied by outright bias.

This is not about statistics, this is about our culture and our values and what we choose to emphasize. This is about changing our mindset from seeming outright eagerness to use a gun against a hypothetical threatening person to finding a way to reduce violence and crime in the first place. Crime is often linked to poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of education. What if we put a real effort into avoiding crime at the front end instead of at the back end? What if, as a society, we decided to improve our public school system, particularly in inner cities and other poor areas, and give those kids a real chance to succeed instead of making sure we could carry a concealed weapon? What if we focus on making college affordable for every kid that wants to attend instead of making guns available to anyone who walks in the store with a drivers license?

It seems to me that promoting gun ownership to forestall crime, whose root is found in deeeper societal ills, is like telling a lie to cover up a previous lie that people are on to. Or, and I'm really dishing out the similes now, it is like if you decide to get a tattoo, and it turns out really crappy and ugly. So you go back and have a little more decoration added to cover the original mess, but that's not quite right, either, so you continue the process until the next thing you know you have tattoos unicorns and def leppard lyrics and names of ex-girlfriends and countless other things covering 90% of your body.

Throwing guns at crime (or any other societal problem) may have some benefit, but those guns also add to the crime. So crime goes up and we decide to add more guns to non-criminals, but then criminals find it easier to get guns, and so forth. Next thing you know we live in a society replete with guns, with very little control over who has them and how they use them. I don't want to live in that society. I want to live in a society where we find solutions at the root of the problem as opposed to at the fruit.

Gun ownership is a symptom, I believe, of a society that has given up on finding answers to the really hard problems and is instead happy to find the easy short term fixes, ignoring the fact that they do long term harm.

We should be a society, especially as Mormons, that value life and justice and mercy above all else. We should not be afraid to search for the hard answers and difficult truths, and I believe one is that guns and violence go together always and that justice and mercy and real-life opportunities to improve one's life at the beginning are the answers, not more guns.


Iliana said...

Ick Jake. A symptom?! Such an idealist to think violence and crime can be solved at the front end if only we think about it hard enough. It boils to individual choice. Good public schools, equality, affordable college, the end of poverty. All good good things. And we should work towards those. But if you haven't noticed the world isn't what it used to be. Not saying it can't be again, but it is different because people are different. Values have changed, morals have changed, mindsets have changed, and, sorry to be so "mormony", evil is rampant. A person who has been brought up in a home where good education was available, morals were taught, etc, can still and do still end up making violent choices. I pray that our government will always allow every law abiding citizen the ability to own a gun for whatever reason. Those who want a gun seeking out violence will find one whatever the means. And those seeking one out to defend, protect, or even hunt, should be allowed such a right. And where are you getting this, "there won't be any gun control under Obama" stuff? Though I don't read scholarly journals or law books, I do read and watch and from what I've seen, it seems somewhat inevitable. I'd like to know your sources. And I love how you throw around what Mormon's "should" do and be like. You hate it when more conservative Mormon's throw "shoulds" around at you. We "should" be kind and forgiving and turn the other cheek, etc, but owning a gun does not strop those qualities from us. I know I'm not a lawyer so this sounds like a kindergardner, but again, I couldn't dissagree more. But I am excited to one day see your wood floors! That was a good gift for Jamie!

Jacob S. said...

I never said thinking about it hard enough solves the problem, I said we would be better doing something at the front end instead of trying to feel safe with more guns. And I never said we could rid the world of crime altogether, but that it is more sensible and more effective than, again, more guns. You are right about the Mormon's "should" thing, I'll be more careful in the future. And we'll invite you up to see the floors, anything has to be better than the green tile with black grout we have now.

Zach said...

short time reader, first time commenter...

i agree that hunting for sport seems rather pointless. I remember speaking to a man on my mission about how he was able to get his 12point buck while driving down the road near Prescott, AZ. He saw the elk off to the side of the road, pulled over, and shot three times as it darted into the trees.... didn't really seem that sporting to me.

Making gun ownership illegal will control violence as much as making pot illegal controls the amount of weed smoked in our society... or making abortion illegal controls the amount of abortions. There might be a slight statistical reduction, but until (as you said) there are some more fundamental cultural changes we couldn't really count on a significant drop in the amount of violent crimes.

Josh said...

Jake, I've always known you and I were very different, but I've always been able to laugh about it. I can't force myself to believe that you honestly think the language of the Second Amendment is "unclear." How much more clear could it get? You have studied enough of the English language to understand it.

Face it, you have a belief that you can somehow stop bad people from doing bad things by punishing everyone. Explain to me why I - a law abiding citizen that has no mental health issues - should not be able to own whatever firearm I want. What gives you the right to take that right from me? Don't try to tell me that it isn't a right either, I already explained that I know you read very well and that I know you understand the Second Amendment for exactly what it is. If I am wrong and you are really this ignorant, I suggest you research the things actually said by those men brave enough to fight tyranny for this country's birth. here are a couple teasers:

1."No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government"

-- Thomas Jefferson, 1 Thomas Jefferson Papers, 334

2."The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference - they deserve a place of honor with all that's good"

-- George Washington

3."As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives [only] moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion to your walks."

-- Thomas Jefferson, writing to his teenaged nephew

This has gone on much longer than I intended it to. I did want to say, however, that you are again either ignorant or just bending the truth in saying that "gun control" is not a serious issue for President-elect Obama. If he weren't considering the overthrow of the Second Amendment, why would he want Holder as Attorney General.

Now, to end, I'll leave you with another great quote...

"I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."

-- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787

Jacob S. said...

Josh, it's been far too long. I checked out your blog and your family looks great.

This is obviously a sensitive issue and I do not think there are any right answers. I do not think the language of the Second Amendment is as clear as you claim. It is one sentence long and contains the clause "a well regulated militia." You can't just ignore that clause, and it does muddy the waters.

Also, guns and gun ownership were different in the days of the founding fathers. They could not have imagined the advances in firearms that we see today. They purposely wrote a Constitution with broad language that could be adapted to a changing society.

I respect your right to own guns. I know you and trust that you are a responsible gun owner. But our opinions about the virtue of gun ownership differ, obviously. And it's not a reason to throw around insults or anything, it is a subject of legitimate debate that intelligent people can have: what is the role of guns in our society and what is the most appropriate way to ensure freedom and safety? Like every other difficult issue we face, there has to be discussion.

Finally, if we get to a point where our government is tyrannical and oppressive and violent against its people, and peaceful political reform has become impossible, I promise I'll show up at your door fully armed and ready to go.

Now, Zach, I understand that practically we can't just take everyone's guns away, and that there are violent people in the world no matter what weapon they hold in their hands, and that not everyone obeys laws, but the laws we pass reflect the values we hold as a society. We can't just say, "we've had these anti-murder laws on the books for centuries and people are still murdering, lets just give up." If we believe something is right, and if a majority supports it, then we have to at least try. A society is great when it stands up to adversity even against all odds and tries make a positive difference. Or something.

Josh said...

Jake, I guess the word ignorant is an insult. I appologize, it was not meant as a personal attack. You don't understand things from my POV, and I don't probably don't understand yours either. Let me share with you.

I was 13 or 14 when I saw my first illegal handgun. An aquaintance pulled it on me on my way to school one morning. He put it to my temple and, with a very serious look, told me he was going to kill me. After what felt like a year, and was probably only a second or two, he pulled the gun away and laughingly said he was just kidding and that it wasn't even loaded. I had looked down the barrel, it looked bigger than a cannon, and I had nearly wet myself. The next year I was bullied into hiding a very compact pistol in the inside pocket of my coat during school, because someone was afraid their locker would be searched. That pistol was used later to shoot up a house and shoot out several street lights. I began to have very ill feelings toward guns and didn't see a purpose for them - when I lived in Utah, I was not a hunter, and despised the sport I didn't understand.

Then, I moved. Living in Idaho, I was mostly bored. There wasn't anything to do that really interested me. I met a few friends at the new school and soon I asked them what they did for fun; they went hunting and fishing. My first few hunting trips turned out to be the most spiritual experiences of my life. I often say that moving to Idaho saved me from an awfully disappointing life/death. I was headed down evil paths in Utah, but moving and, I believe, learning to hunt, saved me.

I am a person that stringently believes in gun safety and control. By gun control, I mean controlling the gun. It's a tool after all. I teach my children gun safety, I know they wouldn't dream of touching a firearm without my presence, and I've taught Tommy good gun control - he's really a good shot. What I'm trying to say is that I believe that learning to shoot responsibly teaches more about responsibility than any government school ever will. I believe that hunting should be a family tradition. I've only killed one big game animal in my life, the hunt is about so much more to me.

As you can see, I believe there are many reasons to own a firearm, or several in most cases. I believe, too, that not everyone should, and I'm not against more stringent background checks, nor against a requirement for doctors to inform the FBI (I'd say the BATFE, but I think that agency is a joke, and a HUGE waste of tax money) of patient mental health issues. I am against any law restricting the ownership of ANY firearm to law abiding citizens. I still think the founding fathers were clear. I don't see any reason why someone who doesn't own any firearms, or ever even shoots for fun, should tell those that do so responsibly, that they can't. Just because someone may not understand why someone else may want to own and shoot, for instance, an "assault weapon," does not give that person the right to say that weapon should be illegal.

The path of "gun control" is very slippery, my friend. It is one that has stripped nearly every firearm from the hands of responsible, law abiding citizens, in places like UK, Australia, and Canada. It has been shown, although some reports are very skewed, that the banning of firearms did nothing to dissuade violent crime in these places. Instead, in England, for example, violent crime with knives and knife-like instruments has increased.

Now, I'd like to ask you, as a man educated in the laws of this country, why do we continue to pass laws making life harder for honest hard working, true-blue Americans, and easier for the scum. Do you realize that there are two former Border Patrol agents serving prison sentences for firing on an armed, drug smuggling non-citizen on US soil? Do you realize that, if a person were to break into your home and somehow get injured, you could be held liable by a court? We, as a country, are apparently more worried about whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to marry than we are with the energy crisis. We are more worried about our neighbor with a truck full of guns and targets or dressed in camo carrying a shotgun, along with two bags of duck/goose decoys, out to his truck than we are about countless people illegally crossing our National Borders bringing drugs and guns with them.

Most non-hunters/non-gun-owners, don't care about the issue. It is only brought to life by extremists. I will be the first to say that some folks should not own a gun. However, most proponents of "gun control" believe that no one should. That's probably why I was harsh in my earlier response, I hate that belief!

Josh said...

Jake, I read the original post over again. A symptom of a society that has given up? Gun ownership? Something that has been valued since before this county, this society, even existed?

The logical symptom of giving up is welfare, universal health care. I don't support these things, and another reason this Presidency scares me is that I know he will institute them. Socialism exists because people give up, because they so fully depend on the government to sustain them.

I believe that we live in a terrible society, a weak society, one where lazy people will always dominate. If you want to get out of that, less government is the way, not more. Don't blame legal gun owners, even those that own "assault weapons," for the laziness of those who won't live in society. They will always live above society, and whether or not guns are legal, will always use violence to do so.

To get past this, end welfare, end illegal immigration, support the death penalty, and support legal gun ownership.

Jacob S. said...

Well, obviously we are going to disagree on this. I see a country where more than 95% of people who want to work have a job. A country where those who have try to help those that don't have and/or can't provide for themselves (there are inevitably some that game the system, but better to help those that genuinely need it and get a few abusers along the way than to do nothing at all).

As for guns, one last comment and then you can have the last word if you want it. A was thinking a limited analogy might be to drugs. There are some people who can use drugs recreationally and not hurt anyone else or cause crime or the like. They have a good argument that drugs should be legal. Unfortunately there are other people that abuse drugs and harm other people and cause crime. As a society we say no drugs for anyone to avoid the latter problem.

With guns we see many people who use them responsibly, like yourself. But with certain types of guns there is a segment of society that uses them for violence and crime. It is not wholly unreasonable for society to say we don't want handguns and assault weapons out there to avoid the latter problem. Those guns are singled out because handguns are easy to conceal and use for crime and assault weapons can be used for mass carnage.

Your point about England almost proves my point. There will always be violent people, but would you rather they have knives in their hands or a gun?

Finally, as for the Constitution, it reads, in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." No law. And yet there are plenty of restrictions, all of them reasonable and enacted for a greater societal good, on the freedom of speech (such as obscenity, defamation, incitement to crime, etc.) and religion.