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On guns, gun control, death and what to do

June 15th, 2014

Another week sees another shooting in America, and another flurry of gun control argument that will go nowhere. There’s not a whole lot of sense in attaching a link to a specific shooting, because there’s so bloody many of them. In fact, random gun violence is such an established part of the American way of life that there is even a Wikipedia page listing school shootings in the US — and it’s sobering reading. So far this decade — so that’s in the last five years or less — there have been over 90 episodes of gun violence, just in America’s schools, leaving over 90 people dead. And that tally only counts the number of deaths directly due to gun violence in schools. It doesn’t take include such atrocities as the night in July 2012 when a dozen people were murdered in a cinema in Colorado, or the recent killing sprees in Las Vegas, or Santa Barbara, or…there are simply too many to list.

Americans have, let’s be utterly honest here, a bizarre fascination with guns. It’s unhealthy, and it leads to the most ridiculous doublethink. Guns don’t kill people, goes the standard refrain, people kill people. But when you’re reduced to this level of sophistry to justify maintaining a gun-law status-quo that sees death after death after death, then you have to start to realise that there’s a weakness in your position. No, guns don’t kill people — of course they don’t; they’re inanimate objects incapable of such an autonomous act. Yes, people kill people — but people do find it considerably easier to kill people when they have access to guns to do it with. There’s a reason why guns — automatic weapons, if possible, thank you very much — are the weapon of choice for your typical mass shorter: they’re efficient, they’re effective, they kill lots of people very, very dead, at a distance, in a short time. Bows and arrows, or even crossbows, can be deadly, but they’re less reliable, less efficient — clearly there’s a reason why they’re not popular among mainstream mass-shooting aficionados. You can’t — really, seriously, you can’t — shoot someone without a gun. Go on, try it — go and stage your own mass shooting without any guns. You’ll find it awfully, terribly difficult. So no, guns don’t kill people, but they do make it so very much easier.

So let’s get rid of guns in America. Why not? Other countries have done this quite effectively — Australia’s one place that’s usually trotted out in this context, but there are other models — and it’s time for America to do the same. The process is quite simple. First — and you do this now, today, immediately, not after some grace period, some opportunity for rogue tossers to stockpile — ban the sale of all handguns without a licence which can only be obtained after a very, very long vetting process (such as the one followed here in New Zealand), and with an extremely good reason why you’d need one. This goes a very long way toward stopping the steady flow of more guns into general circulation. You also require a licence, and again vet applicants thoroughly, for rifles and shotguns. And, as a general rule, there is no good reason — none, none at all, none whatsoever — why a member of the public might need a military-style automatic weapon. Over the next six months, you implement an amnesty, during which all firearms and unlicensed rifles, shotguns and automatic weapons can be turned in to the police with no penalty whatsoever. These guns are then destroyed — not simply decommissioned or rendered inoperable, but in fact destroyed. By all means offer a bounty for each gun surrendered — it would be a small, a trivial, price to pay for the lives that would be saved. At the end of the amnesty period, the simple possession — not the firing, or even the carrying — of an illegal firearm would be in itself a criminal offence, one which should carry a hefty sentence. There — gun control, done right.

But of course this will never fly in America. Gun ownership has gone beyond merely being politicised — it’s fully a fetish, a rather embarrassingly widespread fetish among an increasingly large section of the populace. And it’s getting worse — the latest trend is toward open carry — the practice of walking around in public with the largest, most phallic gun to be found. But why would one need to take a rifle to a restaurant? Why would one need to walk down the street with a rifle on ones shoulder, unless one intends to shoot it? There’s clearly some form of compensating going on here — Freud would be either laughing or weeping (and, probably, sucking his thumb and calling for his Mummy, but that’s another story altogether).

And these micro-phallused rifle-fondlers claim, curiously, to have not only the law, but the Constitution of the United States of America even, on their side. The proof-text they love to cite to demonstrate that they have the absolute right to tote any and all offensive weapons at any time, in any setting, for any reason they fit, is the intriguingly-punctuated Second Amendment to the Constitution: 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. I don’t intend to even bother trying to argue the exact meaning or original intent of the text of the amendment — finer, more obsessive minds than I have spent a long time doing the very same thing, and got nowhere. The usual rationale for second-amendment gun fetishism is that guns are essential to enable citizens to protect themselves from a despotic government, but that’s not really convincing anyone any longer — the Fourth Amendment, the one that’s supposed to protect Americans against illegal search and seizure, has been utterly abandoned at every airport in the land; the First supposedly protects freedom of speech and assembly, but free speech zones are increasingly whittling away at this freedom — but to date the Second Amendment and its devotees have yet to bear their arms as a well-regulated militia and water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants

So get rid of the Second Amendment. The Constitution is treated by many Americans as sacred writ, as inviolable, as a perfect and sanctified document handed down by its Framers from on high. But it’s not — it’s a deeply flawed and in some places downright ugly document, appearing as it does to define a black man as three-fifths of a person. That’s why it has been amended — because, clearly, it has needed to be amended, updated, modified, changed, as realities and the understandings of those realities have developed over time. The Second Amendment itself, after all, wasn’t even part of the original document, but was added two years later as part of the Bill of Rights. So revoke it, repeal it. There’s precedent — the Eighteenth Amendment, banning the sale or importation of alcoholic drinks, and ushering in the start of Prohibition, was ratified in 1919, only to be overturned by the Twenty-first thirteen long, dry years later. Prohibition didn’t work, the Volstead Act and the Amendment based on it were seen to be flawed and unnecessary, and a second Constitutional Amendment was passed to undo the damage done by a prior amendment. The process exists.

But it won’t be used. So we’re left with an utterly bizarre situation whereby a young man — and it’s usually, indeed almost always, a young man, and typically one with mental-health issues; increasingly it’s a young man with publicly-discussed mental-health problems — can carry an arsenal of weapons into a cinema and start shooting until a dozen others are dead. And if you try to have a sensible discussion with a gun-fetishist about this, the usual answer is that a good guy with a gun will be sufficient protection from a bad guy with a gun. But this kind of shallow, fantastical wild-west thinking simply won’t work. Let’s try to imagine how it would play out in the cinema shooting I’ve just mentioned. The film starts, the room is dark, and suddenly a Bad Guy pulls out a gun and starts shooing. In Gun Fetish World, a Good Guy With A Gun stands up, proclaims “Don’t worry, everyone — I’m a Good Guy With a Gun,” he aims, shoots a single bullet clean between the eyes of the Bad Buy, who falls dead. Everyone else in the cinema cheers, they raise him up on their shoulders and parade him through the car park of the multiplex where he is lauded as a hero and awarded an medal. That’s the fantasy. The reality is likely to be much, much messier. Bad Guy stands up and shoots, and then Good Guy With A Gun stands up and shoots at him. Remember, the room is dark — there’s no guarantee that GGWAG will hit his target. So now we have two people shooting. The rest of the audience have no way of knowing whether the second shooter is in fact a GGWAG, or simply another Bad Guy, so another GGWAG tries to shoot the second shooter. We now have three shooters, and, presumably, total mayhem. And, it seems fair to assume, no way that this can possibly  end in anything but tears — three people shooting guns in an increasingly panicked environment, and, in all likelihood, more about to start shooting. And this scenario even assumes that any GGWAG would even be able to attempt to shoot the Bad Guy. In reality, most people find it very difficult to shoot another person. So insisting that everyone has the right to carry as many guns as they can lift doesn’t actually protect — on the contrary, what it does serve to do is put the means to do massive damage in the hands of the mentally unstable.

There is a use for firearms. Hunting is an entirely reasonable, sane and sensible use for a rifle or a shotgun, and there is no reason for a blanket ban on them. There is, obviously, a case for regulating them — a car, driven badly, can be a deadly weapon, and so drivers are strictly licensed, so why not machines whose sole purpose is to kill? There is, on the other hand, no case to be made for the general public to own — and certainly not carry — handguns. Ban them. Just do it. Please. Now.

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