Friday, February 15, 2008

guns and society

I realize this is in poor taste, but when I found this graphic, I thought it apropos:

Americans are, generally speaking, a gun-loving people. Many folks own more than one gun. Most gun owners are scrupulous stewards-- they store their guns safely, they teach those close to them how to handle guns properly, they harbor no pathological obsession with firearms. Many, if not most, of these gun owners are fiercely protective of their right to bear arms. Many, if not most, believe that having a gun on their person increases their chances of surviving an armed encounter. Many, if not most, will contend that reducing the availability of guns (e.g., restricting their purchase, banning them outright, etc.) can hurt only law-abiding citizens; illegal acquisition of firearms will continue.

I don't think the issues in the massive debate over the preponderance of guns in American society are all that clear-cut. We can see truth at both extremes of the central debate: (1) a society with zero guns cannot, logically speaking, have gun violence; and (2) being unarmed when an armed person opens fire significantly reduces one's chances of survival (assuming one is competent in the use of firearms). Reality, of course, isn't so simple. In a country like America, it would be impossible to reduce the number of guns to zero, and there is ferocious debate over whether such a move is even desirable. Guns are here, and they're readily available. There is also ferocious debate over the veracity and interpretation of gun violence statistics, many statistics of which get lumped together in various and sloppy ways in the heat of argument: stats on suicide by gun; domestic violence involving firearms; accidents at home or on the job; the cause and outcome of firefights with the police; the role of guns in holdups, individual murders, and mass killings.

This last is of particular concern to me, given the spate of mass murders in the US since the beginning of 2007. I see that yet another mass killing just occurred, this time at a university in Illinois, leaving six dead (five victims plus the gunman). Because many gun rights activists claim that the state of affairs would improve if only local shops and authorities enforced whatever gun laws are already in place, I feel it is time to ask: How many of these mass killings would, in truth, have been stopped by simple enforcement of current laws? Another way of phrasing the question might be: What if a given mass killing could not have been prevented by means of waiting periods, background checks, etc.?

I ask these questions with no particular agenda in mind. I don't consider myself either a pacifist or anti-gun. I have no desire to see guns banned; in fact, I agree with my father that knowing how to use a gun, should one ever plop into my hands, could mean the difference between life and death. (I currently don't know how to use a gun, and my parents keep no guns in their house, as far as I know.) But my question is meant to focus on the reliability of the system in place. If the system is theoretically good but enforcement of the system is inconsistent, then it doesn't really matter how good the system is, does it? The consequences of lax enforcement are as undesirable as the effects of a poorly conceived system.

In later blog posts, I hope to examine some recent examples of mass murder in light of the questions I'm posing.



Anonymous said...

One argument of the gun rights camp that I find difficult to dispute is this: laws regulating the acquisition and possession of guns are only going to affect those who follow laws in the first place. More simply (and as more commonly stated): Outlaw guns, and only criminals will have them.

This is an over-simplification, of course (since most gun regulations don't seek to outlaw guns entirely), but I think there is some truth to it. While some petty criminals may find it more difficult to obtain firearms, anyone with a decent amount of power, influence, and connections will have no problem. So the best case scenario would be that only powerful criminals would have guns. Realistically speaking, though, you can buy a gun on the street for relatively very little cash, so I'm not sure how many criminals would be inconvenienced by gun regulations.

That's part of the problem: the amount of guns out there that are already circulating illegally. Even if a gun is originally sold through legal channels, it can later be stolen, lost, etc., and once the gun enters the underworld it doesn't matter how it first entered the market--it is now being distributed illegally. What do we do about all these guns?

But you've addressed the specific issue of school shootings, and most of the perpetrators of school shootings aren't criminals (at least before the fact) and might not have access to the guns that criminals would have. I guess what we need to know is where do all these guns used in school shootings come from in the first place? If a majority of guns used in school shootings have been purchased by the individuals who used them, then I think we can make a strong argument for a waiting period. If not, though, then it doesn't matter how the guns were originally sold. All that matters is that the shooters somehow got their hands on them, and the blame shifts not to those who sold the guns, but to those who bought them and failed to take care of them properly.

And if the guns were purchased by the shooter, how far in advance were they purchased? Regulations or no, it would be very easy for someone to purchase guns well in advance of a criminal act--unlike crimes of passion, school shootings are usually not spur-of-the-moment events. They are generally planned for quite some time, and purchasing guns in advance could easily be part of that planning. Unless part of the background check on prospective gun buyers included extensive psychological evaluation, I can't see how we could stop them.

For the record, I guess you could say I'm pro-gun. I won't be marching in NRA parades or anything, but I was brought up with guns and have fired various and assorted firearms. My father is an NRA firearms instructor, and I have received very strict and severe training in the use, handling, and storage of firearms (probably more strict and severe than necessary--although my father would say there is no such thing). That being said, I think it's a problem that so many people have such easy access to guns, and I'm not sure that the answer to the problem is to arm everyone in America. Unfortunately, I think it may come down to personal responsibility--i.e., something that cannot be legislated.

Just a few random thoughts... tossing them out there.

Kevin Kim said...

Your thoughts are much less random than mine. Thanks for focusing the discussion.


Anonymous said...

This is a subject that I have thought about a lot but am too lazy (or too much of a wuss) to post on my own site. So thanks for the opportunity to put some thoughts out there.

I like the addition of the pic, by the way. It wasn't there when I first commented, but I think it really makes everything much clearer.

I'm looking forward to the follow-up posts.

Anonymous said...

“Police were on the scene within a few minutes …” How often have we read that line after a shooting? Do you understand how many shots can be fired “within a few minutes”? Unless law enforcement were actually there in the classroom when this happened there is absolutely nothing - I repeat nothing - that law enforcement could do except stretch out that yellow tape after everyone is dead. Law enforcement, in this situation, is reactive, not proactive. Law enforcement clean up the scene and discover clues, not prevent the shooting from happening.

Illinois does not allow the carrying of loaded, concealed weapons in the state. Despite repeated efforts by the gun lobby to legalize concealed carrying of guns, the fear mongers has been instrumental working with Illinois residents to prohibit the carrying of loaded, hidden handguns in public. What the fear mongers forgot to tell the Illinois legislators is that criminals don’t obey the laws, leaving all the law-abiding student unarmed and easy prey. If a concealed carry law could save the life of just one innocent student it would be worthwhile.

The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence has recommended that the Illinois General Assembly make immediate and sweeping reforms to the state’s gun laws. Can someone tell me what law would have prevented this shedding of innocent blood?

Under state statute, no guns are allowed inside schools or on school grounds, unless carried by on-duty law enforcement personnel (who apparently were nowhere around). But did the shooter obey these state statutes? Did the state statutes against having a gun at school deter in any way the shooter from killing innocent people? From what we’ve seen the only people that actually obeyed the state statutes are the ones that are dead.

Gun free zones are attractive to criminals because no law abiding citizens will be able to stop them from taking hostages or killing. Criminals have great incentive to do their crimes within gun free zones. Gun free zones are the safest places for criminals. Gun free zones are the deadliest places for law-abiding citizens. Gun free zones increase gun crime. When well meaning but misguided individuals ban guns at one location or another they are recklessly and negligently putting your life at risk and are giving you a false sense of security.

What gun-control advocates fail to grasp is criminals, by definition, do not follow the law and therefore any attempt to keep them from carrying a gun into a given establishment will fail, often with tragic results.

Anonymous said...

Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

One benefit of a large well-armed population is that the odds of the U.S. being invaded, or suffering a military coup, are nil. As much as I hate these sick lone gunmen going off on the innocent, the numbers of their victims are extremely small compared to those who control the military and use it against their unarmed citizens (North Korea, Cuba, and other oppressive regimes across our planet).

In a perfect world, we can talk about love, peace, and arms reductions all we want, but as long as money and power continue to corrupt, we will always be at the mercy of the next crazed dictator wannabe (or religious fanatical leader) bribing a military to do their bidding at a tremendous cost to the unarmed and passive citizenry.

If the U.S. were to make obtaining weapons more difficult, or outlaw their sales, I'm sure China (or another arms dealing country, like France , Russia, Italy, or Bulgaria) will gladly fill the void of providing illegal weapons to any criminal in the U.S. willing to pay.

Right now in parts Africa, and Texas (, people don't need guns to do their murdering and mayhem. Also, strange that South Korea hasn't done more to get rid of one of their main murdering culprits, the common household fan. You would have thought that their sales would have been outlawed as they did with guns. How many more must die at the silent blades of these cooling wonders? Or, have fans (with no voice of their own) taken the rap for smart murderers and poor police work here in South Korea.

Anonymous said...

I agree that people that aren't “all there” shouldn't be allowed to own guns, but they can still use cars as instruments of death ( Also, if people happen to believe in Greek, Roman, or Norse gods, does this make them mentally deficient and subject to not being able to carry? I know from my own experience that many who worship Yahweh and Allah are rather off in their thinking. Some of these enlightened beings actually believe the world is less than 10,000 years old.

I don't even think an out-of -this-world alien invasion could unite this messed up planet, as too many believers of different gods wouldn't be able to believe their eyes or fathom the reality that they've spent countless years being brainwashed by their respective cults.