Sunday, January 6, 2013


I don’t much want to write about the school shootings in Connecticut, except to express sadness and deep sympathy.

Yet the issues are important and much of the public commentary is silly.

I don’t claim to have The Answer, or perhaps even any answers.

But I doubt that you solve any problem by listening closely to a lobbyist organization dedicated solely to maximizing sales of a line of products.  If I were tasked with combating the obesity epidemic, I’d listen politely but skeptically to lobbyists for the fast-food or soft-drink industry.  I wouldn’t expect the tobacco industry to devise the best plan to keep smokers from dying unnecessarily from cancer.

Even so, I thought the NRA might say something reasonable, when it promised a major contribution to the discussion.  There should be a sensible middle ground between banning all guns (unconstitutional and probably unwise) and avoiding any serious regulation.  Predictably (though I’d been too dumb to predict it) the NRA contribution was a plan that would increase gun sales without in any way decreasing the odds that nut cases will obtain assault weapons and try to massacre people.

The NRA says we should post armed guards in schools.  I’m not sure whether that would help or hurt, but it might be worth discussing, in combination with other actions.  But that was all the NRA suggested.

A retired high school principal I know in Vermont posted this response: “Columbine had an armed guard on duty; Virginia Tech had an armed police force on campus; and Fort Hood is an army camp.”

One local letter-writer recently pointed out that you can’t keep these things from happening, so that the best course is to trust in “the One who loves us.”  I’m all for faith; but if I were mourning a child killed at random, I’d be a little insulted by the suggestion that I could have avoided the tragedy by having more faith.  (Reminds me of the victorious athletes who credit God for their win – as if the Seattle Seahawks were somehow more Godly than the San Francisco 49ers.).

Others have suggested that if school days still started with prayers, the problem wouldn’t exist. But the shooter in Connecticut wasn’t in grade school.

Another letter suggested arming school principals.  I thought back to my mischievous childhood.  Most of what the school authorities locked up we got into.  The school principals I knew?  I shudder at the thought of them trying to fire guns with any accuracy.

I can’t see it. If the principal carried a gun all the time, s/he’d spend more time preventing some angry kid from grabbing it than s/he would on education.  Kids who resent overbearing authority might be less truculent around a gun-toting principal, but the gun wouldn’t make them more listen to listen to him or her with receptive hearts.  Besides, kids can drive you crazy.  I’m glad I didn’t have a gun when I was working with tough kids from Harlem, because they or I might have used it.

Driving my cab one night in New York, when a bunch of people in the cab were robbing each other, I noticed that the most nervous guys in the cab were the three with the guns.  The next most nervous were the two who’d just had their guns taken away from them.   I was the calmest, and gunless.  If I’d had a gun I’d have pulled it.  Maybe I’d have managed to kill someone before getting killed.  Whoopee!

I know people who own many guns and are calm, knowledgeable, and prudent.  Riding in a pickup truck near the Mexican border with a friend who had a holstered gun on his hip, I asked what kind of gun he had – to which he replied “Which one?” and itemized the seven or eight he had in the truck, and what each was for.  I can’t imagine him misusing a gun, or being careless.

I don’t think Prohibition is the answer, even if it didn’t implicate U.S. Constitutional issues..  Prohibition might make sense if we’d started that way, and could limit guns as effectively as Japan does; but it just ain’t gonna happen.  Guns are everywhere.  Also,  I’ve occasionally had my life threatened.  I would feel less comfortable if I could not buy a gun if I decided to.

On the other hand, I’m tired of seeing powerful lobbyists tie our hands in regulating industries and activities that need regulation, whether those are Wall Street banks, polluting industries, or gun manufacturers.
Friends who hunt say the NRA was once useful but is now just an industry mouthpiece.  If the NRA interprets the 2nd Amendment to preclude any meaningful regulation, .maybe the popular majority should not only make sensible regulations but introduce a constitutional amendment.  Not to ban all guns, but to give us elbow room to try to correct a crazy situation.
Passage of an amendment seems unlikely, because of the powerful lobbyists against it; but people once laughed at proposed amendments to let women vote and prohibit alcohol.


[ The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 6 January, 2013. ]

         After writing the foregoing column, but before its publication, I had several interesting conversations with friends on the subject.
         One asked me about "originalism" -- the fetish of particularly conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justices such as Scalia for determining what the framers had in mind in the late 18th Century.  My friend opined that if constitutional provisions could properly be read in that way, then the Second Amendment simply protects the right of each and every citizen to own . . . a musket or flintlock.  The framers of Amendment No 2 surely did not contemplate assault weapons.
          Another noted that when folks wanted to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, many Republican leaders, such as Speaker of the House John Boehner, stated that although perhaps there might be a First Amendment right to do so, it was not "the right thing to do" to insist on that right.   My friend suggested asking Mr. Boehner whether, under current circumstances, insistence on the Second Amendment might be "not the right thing to do."
           A third -- a Viet Nam veteran and a gun-owner -- commented: 
 "A rational set of regulations would make owners fully responsible for the use and the security or their firearms.  You are responsible if a crazy person uses your gun.  Except for the hunters and those who have actually shot people, our culture has lost appreciation of the killing power of firearms and the lack of effective regulation helps to perpetuate the problem.  My experience in the armed services leads me to believe that they do not have this problem because their training, discipline, and strict regulations reflect, more fully, the danger involved in using firearms.  But the mass murders we have experienced in recent years are fundamentally a social problem, greatly magnified by the lethality of the weapons used.

"The right to bear arms and gun regulation are not mutually exclusive and the Supreme Court cannot make them so.  I believe the courts' decision was intended to assert the individual right; and having done so, completely failed to establish any standard of review.  Scalia is an ass, but let's face it, the D.C. gun law had fatal flaws -- basically you could have a gun, but you couldn't use it for self-defense -- and rather than trying to improve the law after the courts' decision; they just gave up.  I would like to see morelegislation before burdening the constitution with what may be unnecessary clarification of the 2nd amendment.  Put the effort, rather, into making better law and doing it aall levels of government.  For instance, I see no reason why Las Cruces should not ban possession of firearms outside the home.  It wouldn't be the first time a western town had done so.  If the populace wants to argue about whether or not they should be allowed to carry guns in town; let's have that argument.  If the courts say that our ordinance is unconstitutional then clarification of the constitutional right is needed.

"I have read a good deal about gun control in the Sun News lately that is sensible and useful.  Personally, I believe semi-automatic weapons are dangerous to public safety and are totally unnecessary, even for personal defense, and that if they are not banned outright, ownership should carry a very heavy burden of responsibility including training, certification, and registration as well as regular re-certification.  Law making, alone, is not sufficient to remedy our problem with gun violence, but it is necessary, and it should include the repeal of laws contrary to the  promotion of public safety such as stand-your-ground immunity anywhere but in the home.  

"We have too many very deadly weapons available to anyone who wants them.  Our culture permits the conditions that make it possible for the kind of mass murders we are suffering, and it is going to take a long time for that to change.  . . .  I do hope serious discussion will continue and that effective national legislation will be passed soon.  At the least, assault weapons should be banned and all the loopholes to registration of firearms should be closed, not because it would solve the problem, but because it would show support for sensible changes that need to be made."

My own thoughts on the subject are evolving.  It's easier to see the absurdity of extreme positions on both sides than it is to outline with full confidence a course of action that would be lawful, wise,  practical, and effective. 


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