Monday, December 7, 2015

Violence, fear, guns and our common life

"Chi-Raq," Spike Lee's new movie, begins with a map of the United States outlined in guns. Its release poignantly coincides with last week's shootings at a community center in San Bernardino, California. Following so quickly on the Planned Parenthood clinic shootings in Colorado Springs, not to mention the terror attacks in Paris, the latest killings appear to have rekindled anxieties about violence in America. How will we respond? Early indications are that the American political system remains mired in old rhetoric and rigidly defined positions. Can we even respond at all?

President Obama addressed the country Sunday night, in an effort to assuage public fears of terrorism and gun violence. He promised to "destroy ISIL," which is what one might expect him to say despite the elusiveness of the goal, and provided details of military, diplomatic and intelligence efforts to counter terrorism. On guns he called for barring purchases by people on no-fly lists, as well as an assault weapons ban; not unreasonable, but not much impact.

I have never owned a gun, and have no plans to purchase one. So I have at best an outsider's perspective on the role they play in American life and culture. I also don't spend much time worrying about being the victim of an armed assault. At the same time, I recognize the risks that people face are real, and that fear can be as destructive as an actual attack. I'm pained by the high surliness-to-logic ratio of a lot of the discussion. I'm skeptical that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses individual gun ownership at all, much less protects it to such a degree that precludes regulation (see Spitzer for what details there are on the amendment's murky history).

This much I do understand:
  • Fear, of the other, or of random violence, is a natural human reaction. Fear is also political currency, and can be exploited if people are willing to have their buttons pushed (as too many are, alas). But the physical and fiscal realities of the 21st century continue to thrust us together. We can't afford to build walls high enough, or roads long enough, to keep us in our respective safe spaces. And while hoping that "a good person with a gun" would pop up and stop a bad guy is understandable, it amounts to nothing more than wishing for a less awful outcome, while overlooking the risks that gun entails at the times when it's not interrupting an assault. (The Cedar Rapids Gazette today reports a rising number of firearm thefts from vehicles.)
  • Some Americans own a lot of guns. There are by some estimates more guns in American than people. But despite occasional reports that gun purchases are increasing, driven by fear (of violent attack, or of governmental gun control), the proportion of gun-owning household holds consistently at about 35-40 percent (Morin, "Gun Ownership"). Most Americans own no guns. All those American guns are in relatively few hands.
  • The level of gun violence in the United States is exceptional, and not in a good way. New York Times analysis of American news databases found over 300 mass shootings--defined as shootings that left four or more people injured or dead--so far in 2015. Some get a lot of attention, like the ones in San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and Chattanooga, but a lot goes on outside the media spotlight. But here's the thing: 462 killed by mass shootings in 2015 is barely 1.5 percent of our annual total of gun deaths. According to the National Safety Council, there were 31672 deaths in the U.S. from firearms in 2010, a typical year, more than half by suicide, with a substantial minority by homicide. (The enemies aren't all without.) No other developed country, including Switzerland with its high rates of gun ownership, is even close to this level of gun violence (Lemieux). What are we doing wrong?
  • The National Rifle Association isn't helping. Neither are the Republicans, nor for that matter are the Democrats. The NRA is in a fix, albeit one other interest groups can only envy. Since adopting its absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment in 1977, it has emerged as a political force so powerful it has swept all before it. Like other interest groups, it is in essence a business, which can't sustain itself in a world that has all the gun rights it will ever need (Godwin). Hence the overblown, perpetual crisis rhetoric, with "confiscation" always right around the corner unless we keep up the fight. Because of the political universe the NRA has helped create, the Republicans are offering no helpful policy solutions, while the Democrats offer only tiny incremental policies--barring gun sales to those on terrorist watch lists, for example--that seem mostly oriented to finally getting a victory over the NRA, however small.
  • We can only address this problem in conversation. The solutions aren't going to be easy, and they're likely to be complex. They need to take account of the fact that guns are small and easily transported, making municipal regulations impracticable and even state regulations difficult to enforce. They need to take account of a variety of interests: concerns for self-protection; access to materials for hunting or collection; fears generated by openly armed individuals; the dangers of proliferation. Most of all, to accomplish any of this, we need to learn how to listen, how to exchange ideas, and how to work towards solutions that advance our complimentary interests (Fisher et al). Non-negotiable demands are not conversation. Calling people nuts or ignorant is not conversation.
  • Gun policy needs to evolve. A perfect comprehensive policy is unlikely to emerge all at once. We need to be able to respond to research on approaches to gun violence--which means there needs to be research on gun violence. The federal ban on research by the Centers for Disease Control is absurd, not to mention paranoid, and should be lifted at once. Then, as in any other policy areas, policy needs to change in response to what is and isn't working.
The vast majority of guns in the U.S. are owned by men.
Men are also somewhat less likely to support gun control.
P.S. One reason I so much admire the work and message of Parker J. Palmer is his enduring belief that the conversations we need to have can occur, that obstacles to having them can be overcome with persistence. I aspire to that level of optimism. Given the rut this issue is stuck in, and how well surliness has worked for the N.R.A., it's hard to imagine getting from here to there. But what's the alternative?

EARLIER POSTS: "Rights and Our Common Life," 26 August 2015; "A Gathering of Spirits in Cedar Rapids," 28 July 2013

 Stephen J. Dubner and Steve Levitt, "How to Think about Guns: Full Transcript," Freakonomics, 14 February 2013,
 Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (Penguin, 2nd ed, 1991)
 R. Kenneth Godwin, One Billion Dollars of Influence: The Direct Marketing of Politics (Chatham House, 1988)
 "Gun Ownership in US on Decline,", 11 March 2013, [citing data from 2012 General Social Survey]
 Sharon LaFraniere, Sarah Cohen and Richard J. Oppel Jr., "How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur? On Average, Every Day, Records Show," New York Times, 3 December 2015, A1, A23
 Frederick Lemieux, "Six Things Americans Should Know About Mass Shootings," IFL Science, 5 December 2015, [author is a criminologist at George Washington University]
 Rich Morin, "The Demographics and Politics of Gun-Owning Households," Pew Research Center, 14 July 2015,
 Robert L. Spitzer, The Politics of Gun Control (Chatham House, 1995)

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