In this blog, I will aim to parse the gun violence issue. I thought to do so because I came across a compelling essay by Nicholas D. Kristof entitled “How to Win the Gun Control Argument.” I then went to go look it up by name in a Web search, and guess what popped up in the #2 slot? An article from the exact opposite perspective entitled “Winning the Gun Control Debate”. That is obviously enough to give one a headache. However, wisdom is the ideal guide to analyze the competing claims, complex issues, and difficult aspects of the gun control/gun violence social problem that currently plagues us. Next to the opioid epidemic, I would say that gun violence is a massive concern for American society – as it is for New Zealand, Norway, and every other country, practically. We live in difficult times, and at their worst, humans are basically clothed chimpanzees with semi-automatic rifles.
In the book Toward Wisdom, the late Copthorne Macdonald wisely clarifies this phenomenon, and it gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to gun violence or any other thorny and contentious social problem. Namely, “Most situations deserve to be viewed from many perspectives. Any one perspective on a situation – even if it is a totally valid one – reveals just a fraction of the truth. Additional valid perspectives will reveal more.”
Be careful as you proceed. As the management professor Michael A. Roberto cautions:
Most individuals do not examine every possible alternative or collect mountains of information and data when making choices. Instead, most of us draw on our experience, apply rules of thumb, and use other heuristics when making decisions. Sometimes, that leads us into trouble. As it turns out, most individuals are susceptible to what psychologists call cognitive biases – decision traps that cause us to make certain systematic mistakes when making choices.
Cognitive biases encourage one to approach contentious social issues from a certain perspective. Typically this isn’t good. At least, ideally, one can be very honest with oneself. Second, one can doubt one’s favored perspective. Here are two quotes that illustrate these points:
“The omission and the emphasis [in history books] are not accidental. They’re not oversights. What is emphasized and what is omitted represent the values of the historian or the recorder or the person who is telling about these facts. It represents the present values, the thinking going on today in the mind of the people recounting all of this.”
“I suppose you could write a biography of Hitler and talk about his remarkable achievements in Germany. He solved the unemployment problem, erected autobahns, there are some marvelous architectural achievements to his credit, he brought order. There’s a whole list of wonderful things that Hitler did. I suppose we could concentrate on this and just mention it in an offhand way, Oh, yes, by the way…
Those are strong arguments by the estimable historian and author and civil rights leader Howard Zinn.
Without further ado, let me try to share the flavor of this debate and show how wisdom is our only hope:
Tom McHale, the gun control opponent reflected on the horiffic act of public violence known as the Las Vegas mass shooting, in which a diabolical man quietly packed heavy firepower into his hotel room and opened fire on the peaceful citizens attending a music concert below. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Absolutely appalling. And interestingly, the FBI could not find a motive in this awesome example of firepower used for evil. “Why the mad dash to policy ‘solutions?’ No, seriously. Why is there always an instant knee-jerk reaction to impose gun control measures after any significant attack involving guns?”
Here are Nicholas D. Kristof’s opening lines: “Tragically, predictably, infuriatingly, we’re again mourning a shooting…even as the drive for gun safety legislation has stalled in Washington. Polls show that nine out of 10 Americans favor basic steps like universal background checks before gun purchases, but the exceptions are the president and a majority in Congress.”
Right off the bat, you can see where each is going. Structurally, McHale’s anti-gun-control piece is straightforward, whereas Kristof’s pro-gun-control article is more dialectic and nuanced and panoramic.
McHale continues to show his cards with snarky lines such as: “Yeah, I know, there’s a deep-seated political agenda at play that seeks any and all opportunities to advance the cause. I get that.”
Kristof’s piece is dialectic in this way: he italicizes some of the counterarguments to his points, creating himself a straw man to dispatch. It’s not as cynical as McHale’s approach, though it might seem a bit off-putting to some. Here is an example: “You liberals are in a panic over guns, but look at the numbers. Any one gun is less likely to kill a person than any one vehicle. But we’re not traumatized by cars, and we don’t try to ban them.” His response is then a fairly strong and reasoned argument:
It’s true that any particular car is more likely to be involved in a fatality than any particular gun. But cars are actually a perfect example of the public health approach that we should apply to guns. We don’t ban cars, but we do work hard to take a dangerous product and regulate it to limit the damage.
We do that through seatbelts and airbags, through speed limits and highway barriers, through driver’s licenses and insurance requirements, through crackdowns on drunken driving and texting while driving. I once calculated that since 1921, we had reduced the auto fatality rate per 100 million miles driven by 95 percent.
A fairly strong counterargument to the idea of regulating guns – what advocates of guns would characterize as unfair restrictions on the sacrosanct 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, part of the vaunted Bill of Rights. Whether it is meant to allow citizens to carry semi-auto weapons in public, or even own them, is a critical point. Perhaps when the Founders referred to a well-regulated militia they were thinking about war with England or Spain, and were thinking a family having a musket on hand. But that is probably somewhat beside the point.
McHale asks these questions, and leads to what seems like a withering attack on gun control efforts: “The gun control debate question always starts from a premise of ‘fixing the gun issue.’ It’s never, ever about how to address the broader issue of people with bad intentions. How do we know this? When similar attacks happen that don’t involve the use of a gun, there is never a similar cry about implementing common-sense restrictions on assault trucks, cans of gasoline, and whatever else a terrorist or homicidal maniac chooses to use. Have we already forgotten the Nice France attack that was even worse than this one, but done with a truck?”
As you can see, McHale’s side of the debate believes that wisdom lies not in removing guns from the hands of law-abiding citizens.
Are you getting the feeling this is a fairly complicated issue? Me too.
Gun restriction evidence: A review of many studies
From that article, these are the stand-outs:
- It usually takes major legislation overhaul – not just one new law – to see significant change.
- Restricting access to guns and their purchase is associated with reductions in firearm deaths.
- Individual studies need to be better executed and planned in future to get more convincing results.
I think there is a slight discernable pattern to this MAP showing which states are the most dangerous when it comes to guns. Obviously population, gun restrictions, urbanization, poverty, gloomy weather, and so on play a role. Where I live, in Charleston, the notorious sociopath Dylan Roof massacred a dozen African American worshippers in a church because he was a violent white supremacist. This is part of the seroius issue with domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorists are whites who are pissed at the government or immigrants and are masters of scapegoating and zenophobia. As the recent shooting in El Paso shows, the gunman drove ten hours to El Paso, a border town, to kill Mexicans with his powerful weaponry.
As SafeHome.org writes: “Similarly, some states have more issues with firearms than others. The South, in particular, is a consistently high-risk area for firearm violence, while California and much of the Northeast have per capita rates that pale in comparison. However, some states with strict gun laws, such as Illinois, can still have significant rates of gun deaths, while states with extremely lax gun legislation, such as Arizona, aren’t quite as high on the list as you might expect.”
We should not ignore the elephant in the room: the NRA. HERE is a piece about the devolution of the club into a highly suspect lobbying machine.
This is one of McHale’s strongest arguments; it has prima faciae validity for sure: “…[Observe] the universal truth that there are, and always have been, evil people who will choose to inflict harm on innocents. [Should we honestly consider] restricting truck or fuel “rights”? …As a society, no matter how many laws we make and how many things we ban, we can’t stop every person everywhere who quietly plans to inflict harm.”
There are also two other powerful points this side makes: 1) “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” That is indisputable; be they cops or persons carrying a concealed weapon, a public massacre can only be stopped by the pressure another armed individual can bear.
The question then becomes: do accidents and murders happen when many folks carry guns? Yes. Does it prevent muggings and such when states allow law-abiding citizens to carry? Yes, I think so. So that all kind of comes out in the wash.
I also don’t think that it’s common for other citizens to be able to use a firearm to interrupt a mass shooting. It’s usually cops or raw heroism that does it.
Another aspect of this debate involves Americans’ love of weapons. Read about that in this Vox ARTICLE.
The second point that gun rights supporters make that I can sympathize with is the fact that bad guys almost never give up their firearms when laws require it. What tends to happen is that law-abiding citizens give up theirs, and criminal types keep theirs or buy them on the street. It’s a strong argument against gun control. We already have 300,000,000 guns in this society. Japan is a different country, culturally, but it has very few guns and hence very few gun murders. It still has some murders, and of course, suicides.
As a concealed weapons permit holder in the State of South Carolina, I can agree that if I gave up every weapon I own, I would then be defenseless, and totally reliant on the police to a) show up, b) not kill me in the process, and c) that the gunman doesn’t do the same.
So I think at bottom, we have, due to a history of war-making, institutionalized racism, major divisions politically since Day 1, and a huge wealth disparity, got ourselves a little problem! Part of this is simply the nature of humanity; Dutch Renaissance humanist extraordinaire, Desiderius Erasmus, puts it this way: “Whoever heard of hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?”
Martin Luther King, Jr. shows the exacerbation of this when humanity develops greater and greater technological capacity, which is almost completely contrary to wisdom with this quote: “Our technological capacity has outrun our spiritual development; we have guided missiles and misguided men.” In fact, Alfred Nobel was notoriously a proponent of dynamite, assuming it couldn’t be used for evil. The inventor of the automatic machine gun, stupidly, thought that in doing so, he would be clearly demonstrating the futility, absurdity, and barbarity of warfare. Hiram Maxim should have read Homer’s Illiad. “These are the instruments that have revolutionized the methods of warfare, and because of their devastating effects, have made nations and rulers give greater thought to the outcome of war before entering…. They are peace-producing and peace-retaining terrors” the New York Times reported him saying in 1897.
Fast-forward to the time of fast-food and robots and nuclear weapons. Social media only inflates and inflames the problems in this country. I wish there wasn’t so much urban decay, drug addiction, poverty, and racism. Clearly, the folks who do the mass shootings – disgruntled, angry, lonely, extremists with little conscience and a lot of firepower – are “mentally ill”, dangerous, and not suitable to have access to weapons of mass destruction. Yes, they may use a knife or a bomb, but often what they use are handguns and assault rifles with high-capacity mags. They can get these weapons very easily at gun shows or if they don’t have a documented history of dangerousness. Most are white, and, they are virtually all males.
Read of the role of white privilege in the gun debate HERE. A snippet:
“Carrying a gun in public has been coded as a white privilege. Advertisers have literally used [it] as a way of selling assault weapons to white men. In colonial America, landowners could carry guns, and they bestowed that right on to poor whites in order to quell uprisings from ‘Negroes’ and Indians. John Brown’s raid was about weapons. Scholars have written about how the Ku Klux Klan was aimed at disarming African Americans. When African Americans started to carry guns in public – think about Malcolm X during the civil rights era – all of a sudden, the second amendment didn’t apply in many white Americans’ minds. When Huey Newton and the Black Panthers tried to arm themselves, everyone suddenly said, ‘We need gun control.‘
Who are these shooters? “According to research, those with mental illness — about 18 percent of adults, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation — are no more likely to commit violent acts. But the fact remains that when you look at the modern era of mass shootings — including but not limited to the recent horrific events in Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida — there are certain common mental health factors and motives that define the mind of a mass shooter, according to Alan J. Lipman, Ph.D., J.D., professor at the George Washington Medical Center and founder and director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C. In most cases, these troubled individuals have an obsession with guns and killing. Dr. Lipman, who is an expert on the psychology of violence and has been following cases since 1998, said that most mass killers fall into three categories. They can either have one or a combination of these traits.” ~ Sheryl Kraft
Read about the three classifications and more on this perspective HERE.
Gun control opponents point out that violence in society is down, so why “take guns away from law-abiding citizens when it’s really about mental health?” As a retort, consider this: recently, there has been more than one mass shooting a day! LINK
Hillary Brueck makes this solid point, lest we think that “mental illness” is a truly accurate term to describe why public shootings occur: ‘We must recognize the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds,’ Donald Trump said, adding, ‘mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.’ However, research suggests that second point is bogus. Mental-health issues are not predictive of violent outbursts: Although as many as one in five people in the US experience mental illness every year, people with serious mental health problems account for just 3% of all violent crime.”
Violence is hard to control due to the base rates and the difficulty in predicting who in this huge, free society will act out violently – and when, and where. This ARTICLE shows that mass shootings are indeed rare, and we do know that other things such as opioids might be more dangerous per se, just as driving a car is less frightening but more dangerous than flying at 30,000′. But, are becoming more lethal and more common.
We can, and should, do a better job helping those individuals who are classifiable as either dangerous or volatile or likely to offend. Like most quintessentially American problems, such as the outrageous cost of health care, it’s not rocket science; we just lack the will to focus on tested and viable solutions. It’s typically not in the best interests of the powers that be for the society to do so. It might cost them what they value most: money.
“The American people are conditioned by network T.V., by local news, to believe that their communities are much more dangerous than they actually are. For example, here in this community, crime has decreased every year for the past eight years, yet gun ownership – particularly handgun ownership, has been on the increase.”
“My grandfather bought me my first NRA membership when I was young, and I have the same pride he and many Americans feel at being responsible gun owners, becoming excellent marksmen and joining in the camaraderie of hunting. We are Americans and we like to be the best; we should never lose this trait. The AR-15 is an excellent platform for recreational shooters to learn to be outstanding marksmen. Unfortunately, it is also an excellent platform for those who wish to kill the innocent.”
As this repugnant and violent VIDEO CLIP of Trump speaking shows, the kind of leadership we are currently enduring is a far cry from what we deserve. This white-supremist, narcissistic fraud, is, like the Emperor Nero, ruining the Republic while serving his own best interests. It is in our best interests to dispath him in one (non-violent) way or another. He is, however, indicative of the major social problems that gun control would only scratch the surface of. These are hard times, my fellow Americans. We are two minutes to midnight, so to speak.
What we ought not to do is subtract the right to self-protection or recreation from the stable, law-abiding class of Americans. We must drastically increase mental health treatment and primary prevention efforts. It will take a lot of money to deal with this growing social problem if we want to get to the root of the problem – why some folks want to act out violently against nameless, faceless victims, or why they hate others of a certain type. It will involve jobs, education, health care, mental health care availability, and of course, money. We have to either get busy trying common-sense solutions and deep social repair mechanisms before we become a dystopia like Mad Max or a modern-day Wild West.
I worry that America, like Rome, is having critical difficulty solving problems. There is a tremendous wellspring of creativity in this country, but for a few reasons, we don’t seem to be able to mobilize successfully. Partisan divisions, the interests of the rich and powerful, and social media companies are knotting up potentially useful changes to society. Change scares those who love guns, love money, love the legalized system of bribery that marks politics here, and who are insecure about minorities and immigration. It all adds up to, for example, phenomena such as the N.R.A.
“[Civil Rights Movement leader] Medgar Evers met all the criteria for courage. He did not carry a gun and refused bodyguards. He was a man of peace and urged against violence in retaliation for violence. He loved Mississippi, and his goal was to rid his home state of the racism that had defined and devastated both blacks and whites. His commitment to the dangerous work he was doing cost him his life [shot to death] at age 38.”
We have been to the moon and back; we eradicated polio; we spend $200 million to make Hollywood blockbuster movies. We have to imitate other countries and get our shit together in many areas, not the least of which is the growing cancer of mass shootings. The good people of America must not let weasels like Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump, or extremist PACs and counter-cultural movements like the NRA or the Aryan Nation, dictate what we the citizens can do to combat a salient and mostly solvable social problem. It will involve both gun control and 2nd Amendment freedoms. This will take wisdom. Ω
Both parsing the problem and solving the problem will take wisdom. Only a society that is sclerotic to the point of inaction, partisan to the point of constant misunderstanding, and brain-addled to the point of making money its god could fail to solve solvable social problems. We have no viable reasons to assume that America is above the consequences of its actions, or inaction. It is folly to believe that no changes can be made to society; that social problems are an immutable consequence of the dark side of human nature. Human nature is what it is, but issues such as mass shootings, the political power of N.R.A., and an increasing suicide rate are manifestly socially-constructed and function according to the laws observable by social science. Thus, to say that gun control is the solution we need is akin to pointing out that medicine is the solution we need for illnesses; it is technically true, but is woefully bereft of context and nuance.
As Paul A. Boghossian clarifies: “To say of something that it is socially constructed is to emphasize its dependence on contingent aspects of our social selves. It is to say: This thing could not have existed had we not built it; and we need not have built it at all, at least not in its present form. Had we been a different kind of society, had we had different needs, values, or interests, we might well have built a different kind of thing, or built this one differently. The inevitable contrast is with a naturally existing object, something that exists independently of us and which we did not have a hand in shaping.”
Phenomena that are amenable to social science and which are in large part socially constructed can be observed, reduced, and ameliorated. The necessary elements include proper leadership, popular will, proper funding via taxes, and the wisdom to suss the critical aspects out carefully and creatively.
“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
Keywords: gun control, gun violence, mass shootings, 2nd Amendment, mental health, public violence, wisdom, peace, gun control