Monday, January 07, 2013

My Last Post about Guns (Here)

As I mentioned earlier, we visited my family in Arizona for Christmas. My parents had tried to lay in enough supplies for us, but my kids have prodigious powers of milk consumption- we ran out on Christmas morning. Therefore, we stopped to buy more milk at a convenience store on our way home from our big family Christmas celebration. I pulled into the parking lot, and my husband got out to go into the store, leaving me and the kids in the car listening to the Yo Gabba Gabba CD Santa had brought us.

Not long after my husband walked into the store, another man walked in as well. He was wearing a handgun, holstered above his left hip. This is perfectly legal in Arizona and the man was not acting in a threatening manner, but I still had a strong instinctive reaction. My heart rate went up, my hand went to the key in the ignition, and then to my phone in the console next to me. My mind raced through scenarios and what the best reaction to them would be.

And then my husband bought the milk, and came back and got in our car, and we drove away. Nothing happened, but it left me sad and a little shaken.

No doubt that man felt safer with his gun strapped to his side. But he made me feel less safe, and statistically, he made my husband less safe.

That man may well have been a reasonable, careful person, with an even temper and good judgment. But I had no way of knowing that. Arizona law allows anyone who can legally own a gun to openly carry it in public places. In fact, Arizona law allows anyone who owns a gun to carry it concealed, too, without a permit. There is no requirement for licensing. There is no requirement for training. You can be a terrible shot. You can have a short temper and poor impulse control. As long as you aren't a felon, mentally ill, on parole, or an undocumented immigrant, you can own a gun and carry it openly or concealed. Basically, the rest of us just have to trust the gun owners, because we have no rights to request that they provide us with any proof that they should be trusted to carry a gun in public.

This does not make me feel safer. 

So this is the trade that gun advocates demand I make: for their right to feel safe, I trade my right to feel safe. For their right to carry a gun, I trade my right to live in a country that regulates potentially dangerous things based on data about what leads to a safer society.

I know that gun owners have various reasons for wanting to own guns, and I actually agree that most of these are legitimate and should be protected. I want people to be able to own guns so that they can hunt. I recognize the right to own a gun for self-protection, even as I personally look at the data and decide that my family is safer without a gun in our home. I even recognize the right to shoot a gun just for the fun of it- but I think that perhaps that fun can be had at a shooting range rather than in unsecured public places. 

You see, I have a reason for wanting to keep guns out of public places, too, and my reason is backed up by multiple studies showing that guns make people less safe, not more safe.  I know that guns are powerful and people are unpredictable, and that no one has perfect judgment. In fact, one study found that many of the supposed uses of guns in self-defense would actually be ruled unjustified by a judge.

And so, I prefer California's gun laws. Here, you need a permit to carry a gun. Here, you must pass a test and obtain a safety certificate before you are allowed to own a handgun. There are restrictions on the purchase of semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines. I feel safer here. And again, the statistics are on my side. People still have the right to own a gun. But that right no longer completely trumps my rights.

Perhaps this is an example of our federal system of government working as intended. People like me, who feel safer with more restrictive gun laws, can live in states like California. People who want more permissive laws can move to states like Arizona.

Except it seems that the gun advocates are not willing to let that stand. The NRA pushes for laxer laws everywhere, even in places where the clear majority of the population prefer stricter laws. They fight against limits on magazine size. They push to make it easier for people who have mental illnesses to regain their rights to own a gun. In 2011, they helped defeat a California-style ban on high capacity magazines in Connecticut. They fight regulations that even the majority of their members support, such as requiring a background check before every gun purchase. They claim that they are advocating for the rights of gun owners, but I suspect they are really advocating for the bottom lines of gun manufacturers. They hide behind the second amendment, but read meaning into it beyond the words. (Go read the second amendment if you haven't before. It says we have the right to keep and bear arms, not the right to keep and bear any type of arms we want, without restriction.)

And of course, I think about the children, who are so often the victims of gun violence and accidents, but have no say about where they reside. Surely there should be some national minimum standards, probably looser than California's and tighter than Arizona's.

Whenever I hear a gun advocate expounding about his rights, I wonder what he thinks about my rights, and about the rights of the victims of gun violence.  What about the rights of the people who have lost loved ones? How did our inalienable rights to life and the pursuit of happiness get overlooked based on a dubious claim to the liberty to have unrestricted gun ownership?

I have been making an effort to listen to the voices of the gun advocates, and I am trying to keep an open mind and respect their views. If you count yourself among the people opposed to stricter gun regulations, I respectfully ask that you do the same for people like me, and for the people who have been hurt by gun violence. The Campaign of Mayors Against Illegal Guns has posted a moving series of stories from people touched by gun violence on their Demand a Plan website, and Slate has posted an interactive page showing gun deaths since the Newtown massacre, using the @GunDeaths twitter feed. Go and read the stories. Keep an open mind about the studies showing the risks of guns, and join in a civil debate to help find a set of laws that protect everyone's rights. Do not let an advocacy group funded largely by gun manufacturers speak for you.

We should remember that the founding fathers were great men, but they were just men. The Bill of Rights is not the infallible word of God, it is the product of the debate and compromise the occurred in this country at the time in which the Constitution was written. It arose from the specific concerns of a specific time. The founding fathers themselves recognized their fallibility, and the fact that the challenges faced by the nation they were birthing would change. They explicitly granted us the right to amend the Constitution, and if We the People find that the second amendment no longer meets our needs, we could decide to attempt to form a more perfect union and write a new amendment that better fits the challenges we face.

Americans are rightfully respectful of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and we are loathe to make changes. But we could change it, and we could do it without resorting to the sort of violent fight against tyranny that some gun advocates argue requires they maintain their military-style weaponry- because the founding fathers provided peaceful means for us to protect our liberties.

Personally, I would hate to see it come to that. But I hate our gun violence death toll more, and I am a data driven person, so I accept that our gun death toll is higher than the toll in other similar nations because we have more guns. I find the example set by other nations' response to mass shootings instructive. The only tyrannical threat I see is the one from a vocal and well-armed minority that refuses to even discuss this issue with the rest of us. Like them, I honor our founding fathers, but my reading of that time in our history highlights compromise, not dogmatism.

I have only just started the research and soul-searching I feel this issue deserves, but my basic opinion has not changed. I have yet to find another credible solution to the problem. I find the NRA's school security proposal laughable. At a time when we're cutting and cutting education budgets, we're going to come up with the money to guard our schools in a way that would be meaningful? No, even before people started pointing out that there was an armed police officer stationed at Columbine High School on the day of the mass shooting there, it was obvious to me that this proposal was theater, meant to distract us from the debate and not to advance the discussion.

I still tear up every time I think about the children in Newtown, and their parents. The obituaries of those children are indeed beautiful and inspiring, but no parent should have to write such a thing for such a reason. I still think that we owe it to those children to figure out how to stop this madness, and then we should turn to the victims of earlier shootings and apologize for not figuring it out earlier.

And yet, there are signs that we are already returning to our complacency. Many people- probably even some of you- just want to drop this discussion and move on. It hurts to think about it, so I don't blame people for wanting to think about other things instead. I do not want to forget about this issue, but I also do not think I should continue to discuss it here. The little group of readers I have here are interested in other issues that also mean a lot to me. I want to keep this site about parenting, working, and life in general. Therefore, I've decided to move my further thoughts on guns elsewhere. If you're interested in following me there, send me an email. I've removed the direct link I had here when I first posted this, but will still provide the info on the new site if asked via email.

I hope some of you will follow me over to my new site and/or Twitter feed. Regardless, I appreciate you reading this post, and as always, am open to comments and discussion here.


  1. Sonia4:45 AM

    This is a flawed analogy, I know, but this debate about gun ownership reminds me of the 19th century debate about the spread of slavery. Much of the country was content to let it happen on a state-by-state basis as each new state came into the Union. But there were some die-hard supporters of slavery who rejected that compromise and eventually forced a federal ruling (the Dred Scott Case in 1857, for the history nerds out there) that pretty much allowed slavery to exist wherever a slave owner decided it should (the Supreme Court ruled that a slave transported across state lines to a "free" state remained a slave).

    Now, I am NOT equating gun owners with slave owners, and I was hesitant to leave this comment for that reason. But, based entirely anecdotally on my Facebook feed, I can see the debate about gun ownership becoming more than a debate about gun ownership -- supporters of a totally unregulated market for firearms are trying to frame the debate in terms of personal liberty and over-reaching government, not merely about "the right to bear arms" (as the debate about slavery became framed as a fight for states' rights by the southern states).

    So Cloud, I agree with you. People have a right to own guns, and carry guns. But I think a national debate about what TYPE of guns, and the proper relationship between gun ownership and background checks & firearms safety training, is a perfectly legitimate and necessary conversation.

    1. That is an interesting point/observation. It does seem that the fringe of the gun advocate side has gotten more vehement and entrenched. Or maybe we just have more chance to learn what they really think, thanks to the internet? The National Review article arguing that the 2nd amendment protects people's right to own military grade weapons because it is about enabling an armed insurrection was a fascinating look into a point of view that is completely alien to me. I am no constitutional scholar or historian... but I do sometimes want to send these people copies of Hobbes' Leviathan, with the part about life without government being "nasty, brutish, and short" highlighted. But then I think that this sort of Hobbesian dystopia is precisely the "end game" people like that fear, so they've probably read it (or a summary of it) and come to a very different conclusion than I did!

  2. Yes, Cloud, I find your federalism argument persuasive (in essence, move to CA if you cannot abide AZ's gun laws). It also sounds like you're saying 2nd Am. rights are not really all that "fundamental" after all - and I'm with you for reasons I'll explain after the jump.

    I think we need to determine which governmental actor ought to regulate firearms. We have three candidates -- (1) federal courts using some policy-laden “balancing” test while pretending that they understand firearms and law enforcement best practices; (2) Congress, using mostly the commerce clause; and (3) the States, using their reserved powers. If we focused on sensible federalism policy, then is it not obvious that the right answer, as a matter of sound federalism-and-rights policy, is (3)? After all, we are driven by a bitter cultural divide on guns, a divide that paralyzes Congress whenever it confronts the issue. Option #2, therefore, seems hopeless. I also understand the theory that states’ regulation of speech and voting rights need to be monitored to preserve democratic fluidity from the tyranny of some local actors (See the entire Civil Rights Movement). But is there some other sensible functional theory to explain why we should distrust the states from regulating firearms? I don't think so. So then HOW do we change the way the states regulate firearms, given the entrenchment of the well-funded, popularly-supported, political scorecard-wielding NRA? That, to me, is the central question.

    On the fundamental right question, we know that in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), SCOTUS ruled that the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual right to keep and bear arms unrelated to militia service. At the state level, 42 states already guarantee individuals the right to have guns in their state constitutions. Post-Heller, the Second Amendment now applies more broadly, but gun rights more generally were secure long before this decision.

    Gun advocates love to cling to their simplistic arguments from originalism. That said, any good theory of the 2nd Am. has to take into account the militia. What we have to ask is what was Madison and those who voted for the Second Amendment in Congress and in ratifying the Bill of Rights trying to do with that amendment? The Bill of Rights as a whole was adopted to alleviate fears over various provisions of the new Constitution. The powers over the state militias granted to Congress were of special concern: Madison didn't want to diminish those powers, but he wanted to minimize the concerns raised over them. What to do? Madison's solution is a simple one-- protect the individual right to keep and bear arms. By doing that, the states would always have recourse to an armed population from which to draw a militia, even if Congress exercised its authority over the militia and Federalized them.

    Even assuming that the Heller Court got it right that individual armed self-defense is a "fundamental right," perhaps the greatest difference between the other "fundamental" rights (speech, religion, assembly, etc) incorporated is that the former has a rich history of regulation. As early as late seventeenth century England, we see gun control debates not too different from what we argue today: essentially how to draw the balance between collective security and individual liberty. This regulation was not limited to England. The American colonies had gun regulations well before the adoption of the 2nd Am., and continued well after it. Some laws even restricted people from using their militia arms for anything but militia service. Thus time, place, and manner restrictions at the state are valid both from an originalist understanding and as a practical matter - at the state level, that's where the real change is likely to happen.

    1. Hmmm, maybe I convinced you better than I convinced myself! I'm not sure I really like the idea of leaving gun regulation to the states, but I *am* starting to think it might be the smartest strategy for people like me. I am truly still reading and thinking on this issue, but I lean towards some minimum national rules that are more than what we have now, with states innovating beyond that. I think it would be interesting if a state tried out the insurance idea, for instance, and then we tracked what happened to gun violence rates.

      As I said above, I'm no constitutional scholar, but my reading of the 2nd amendment and the Heller ruling makes me think that there is room for useful regulation. I don't really consider gun ownership a "natural" human right like free speech and the like, so I think that the right to own guns is one that the polity has granted to individuals, and is therefore one that the polity can regulate- which is why I think that if the 2nd amendment truly did stand in the way of reasonable regulation, we could and should change it. I don't think it should come to that, though.

    2. Oh, and I'm researching the various gun regulation advocacy groups (including Gabby Giffords new one!) to see which one I think has the most effective approach. I have some money to donate thanks to an end of year bonus. I think some of that will go to one of those groups. I think the way we counter the NRA is to remove their effectiveness as a threat to the reelection of anyone who angers them, and they way to do that is probably via a counterbalancing PAC.

    3. Leaving firearm regulation to the states and funding a contra-NRA-style PAC are really the only viable strategies. Plus, the McCarran-Ferguson act already leaves insurance regulation to the states.

      Recall how the states have successfully undermined the fundamental right to privacy announced in Roe v. Wade - it's a very useful analog. States create burdensome time, place, age, and manner restrictions on the availability of abortion services, pass laws that help drive abortionists out of business, privilege the rights of abortion clinic protestors over those of patients, etc. It's a wildly effective strategy whenever SCOTUS and the federal courts are not on your side.

  3. thanks for this. I will definitely follow you on that site, as I'm also trying to do something after the newton massacre. I love the points that you made -- our founding fathers were just men, who made decisions based on the situation at that time, before the creation of high-powered assault rifles, and the existence of amendments meant that they knew ideas / laws can and should be changed.

  4. Another great post. Thank you for writing it while others seem to be moving on, which worries me. I will follow your new Twitter feed and blog.

  5. I'll definitely follow your writing there and am glad you decided to create the site. Thank you for letting us know about it.

    I'm really angry right now (as you are, I think) and not, perhaps, in the best place to be receptive to discussions of gun rights, something I'm not tremendously prone to being sensitive to anyway. When you say in your reply to Sonia above that, "The National Review article arguing that the 2nd amendment protects people's right to own military grade weapons because it is about enabling an armed insurrection was a fascinating look into a point of view that is completely alien to me," well, yes, me too, in an abstract sense. But it is also beyond me in the contemporary world (not the one in which the 2nd amendment was written and passed) that anyone could reasonably believe that protecting people's right to own weapons is essential to enabling an armed insurrection, but that protecting people's unrestrained right to own and operate vehicles is not equally essential to that same end -- and yet, we don't protect that right (nor, for the record, am I suggesting that we should). You know, the tired tirade about how is it that we manage to restrict vehicle ownership, access, and operation but cannot accept the same for guns. But really -- if we want a free citizenry able to rise against oppression -- do we really think that access (just) to military-grade weaponry would suffice? And if not, why the focus on that one thing (or is it possible that ensuring the possibility of armed insurrection isn't really what motivates the vast majority of supporters of unlimited rights to own and operate guns)?

    I didn't phrase that very clearly. Sorry, I'm still spitting mad, and sad, and horrified, even though rationally I know there was little new (beyond the tragic concentration of a group of very young victims in a single place) at Sandy Hook.

  6. zenmoo8:17 PM

    Thanks for the link to the article about the Australian experience post-Port Arthur. It was interesting politically in that the Prime Minister at the time was a conservative and very newly elected. I have vague memories of the gun buy-back - one of the interesting things I didn't realise was how many guns were handed in voluntarily and without compensation (only 'banned' assault type guns were eligble apparently). I have to say, I do know people who have guns at home here - but they are either farmers or police officers.

  7. Thanks, Cloud. There’s an entire family (save the gunman) dead now in New Mexico because his parents kept a home arsenal and kept it in a “closet” rather than a gun safe.

    I feel the same way you do about people carrying guns. It makes us all less safe.


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