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“The Voice Of My Own Doubts”: The Conservative Case For Reforming America’s Sick Gun Culture

Yesterday, a man in Virginia murdered two people on live television. The news media exploded into a predictable shouting match about gun control, mental health, toxic masculinity, and the “politicization of tragedies.” There was also a new twist this time around, a debate about whether it was appropriate to share or broadcast the horrifying video of the killings. And then the killer uploaded his own video of the shooting.

At this point, a voice asserted itself in my conscience. It has become the voice of my own doubts about America’s gun culture. It was Irish-accented and belonged to a friend of my father’s. “But what about the guns?” he asked, looking at me gravely. “You must know.”

Almost any American who travels abroad and talks about politics hears something like that. Often in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone. In the rest of the world, it’s all they have to say: “What about the guns?”

I’m a conservative. I have friends who have guns. I’m convinced by some of the arguments for an armed citizenry. I told that Irish voice that his own country was freed from British rule by guns. That the number of privately owned Irish guns was of paramount concern to British ministers in the 1910s and 1920s, and that this was good evidence that an armed citizenry is a defense against tyranny.

I pointed out that because so much of America is rural, citizens need means to defend themselves and their property when the armed authorities are far away from them. I noted that America would face insurmountable obstacles in trying to confiscate guns, as so many Americans believe they are a necessary defensive measure against violence. I also observed that the same belief was held just a few hours up the road from him, in Northern Ireland, and that’s why Great Britain has considerably relaxed gun laws there compared to the rest of the country.

With the easy confidence of an American-Irish nationalist, I told him that the reason the Falls Road neighborhood wasn’t burned down again was three letters long: IRA. They had guns.

That was enough to not only impress my interlocutor, but to also silence him on the subject. But my conscience has been talking at me ever since. And on days like yesterday, it is screaming: What about the guns? I have no answers, but I have some doubts about our gun culture that American conservatives should consider:

An armed citizenry is not the same thing as an armed consumer public

In America we have background checks to prevent certain criminals from owning guns. It’s a system that presumes good citizenship on the part of everyone who has not been convicted of a crime. But not having a criminal record is a very different thing from being a responsible citizen. The only test most people have to pass to gain access to weapons of exceptional lethal power is this: Do you have enough cash or credit?

That’s not enough. Classical republican theory restricts arms ownership to those it deems responsible enough to uphold public order. Our system of guns as a consumer good, and our democratic presumption of good citizenship, puts guns into unsteady and untrained hands.

Making sure a person is qualified to own a gun is something responsible societies do. Many families, gun clubs, and organizations like the NRA do the work of training responsible, conscientious gun owners. It’s plausible that some kind of mandatory socialization in gun clubs for potential gun owners would be a good first step at preventing gun violence. It’s more plausible than simply wishing for more ‘good guys with guns’ at every possible location for a tragedy. As things stand, this constructive, social gun culture does not encompass the totality of gun owners; gun shops certainly don’t inquire about your sociability and training.

I know what conservatives are thinking: “So you think the government has the power to disqualify citizens from gun ownership?” The government will prove terrible at this task, and it defeats the purpose of an armed citizenry. And to be sure, I don’t want a government that can put a gun owner in prison for having the wrong politics. And of course, this power of restricting guns — like restricting the franchise to “responsible, invested citizens” — echoes a historical tie between gun control and racist efforts to confine blacks to a lower status. And yet, we still ought to consider stronger guarantees of responsible gun ownership. Perhaps tests that aim at qualifying the character of a gun owner, rather than searching only for a criminal disqualification.

Increased firepower among citizens is leading to an arms race with the state

There are plenty of horror stories about cops getting geeked-up in discarded military gear to deliver a warrant or make a drug arrest. They kick in a door, throw a flash-bang into a crib, or shoot to death an innocent unlucky enough to be holding a television remote that looks like a weapon. The militarization of the police has many causes, including our drug policies and federally subsidized military-grade equipment. But it is also the case that cops in America expect to go into gunfights, and naturally they want the bigger gun. Countries without as wide access to guns don’t have such heavily armed or fearful police.

American may be more violent precisely because we have guns

We’re often told that Americans are just more violent than other people, and that’s why we have so many guns. And I agree, to a point. But the truth might be the other way around, and conservatives should make generous allowances for the pre-rational or the anti-rational in our politics. Our tools and our physical surroundings shape our self-conception and our intentions. A beautiful church sanctuary reminds us of the transcendent and sends a hush over us. A well-appointed room may cause us to stand straighter. And training with a hand gun, an object designed to kill other human beings, causes us to imagine situations in which we might kill another human being.

Doing this constantly makes us more likely to “see” a situation in which we could take lethal action. It may cause us to perceive more danger in the world than actually exists. Mentally unsound people are obviously much more likely to lose themselves in this kind of self-induced paranoia, but a stable person should be aware of that pull on their subconscious intentions as well.

It is this intuition about human nature that makes me recoil instinctively from certain guns, often marketed as “tactical,” which are designed to look sinister and appeal to young men who spent a lot of time in their adolescence playing Counter-Strike.

Firearm-related deaths are one of the only truly “exceptional” things about America, and that’s embarrassing

There are lots of places on Earth where you can make a prosperous living. There are lots of modern commercial nations. In history there have been empires that bungled through the Middle East like we do. And there are lots of countries that are torn by disorder and violence that are caused by an absence of state authority. America is really the only nation that is orderly with an almost unchallengeable state, and yet has a gun-death rate similar to much poorer Latin American nations experiencing low-grade civil wars and disorder.

Yes, many of our firearm-related deaths are suicides. But our firearm-related homicide rate is noticeably higher than every comparable industrialized nation. And furthermore, there seems to be a strong correlation between reduced access to firearms and a reduced rate of suicide.

None of these lines of thought has carried me all the way over to Mike Bloomberg’s side. Gun crime, like all crime, has been receding for most of my life. I recognize that most of the proposals made by gun-control groups in the aftermath of a tragedy would have done little to prevent the tragedy in the first place. I admire most of the gun-owners I know, many of whom have politics that are on the left or are outright radical. I have thought of purchasing weapons and training with them myself and I would regret the loss of my ability to do so. The concept of an “armed citizenry” makes sense to me, from my reading of history. And I think responsible citizens have a right to defend themselves against each other, even with guns. The results of preventing them from obtaining firearms lawfully can also be deadly and unjust.

But overall, the results in this part of the American experiment are not encouraging. If the Virginia killer did not have easy access to guns, if his scheme for murdering his former colleagues had to be accomplished with knives, hammers, or a home-made explosive device, the truth is that those murders would have been much less likely to occur. Conservatives who generally support the idea of an armed citizenry should let that thought sink in.

 

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week, August 27, 2015

August 27, 2015 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Deaths, Gun Lobby, Gun Ownership | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Right To Be Free From Guns”: Those Who Want To Live, Shop, Go To School, And Worship In Gun-Free Spaces Also Have Rights

Advocates of a saner approach to guns need a new strategy. We cannot go on like this, wringing our hands in frustration after every tragedy involving firearms. We said “Enough” after Sandy Hook. We thought the moment for action had come. Yet nothing happened. We are saying “Enough” after Charleston. But this time, we don’t even expect anything to happen.

What’s needed is a long-term national effort to change popular attitudes toward handgun ownership. And we need to insist on protecting the rights of Americans who do not want to be anywhere near guns.

None of this should mean letting Congress off the hook or giving up on what might be done now. So kudos to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) for saying on Tuesday that they are looking for ways to bring back their proposal that would require background checks for gun sales. In 2013, it failed to get the needed 60 votes and won support from only three Republicans besides Toomey.

Lest anyone doubt that gun-control measures can work, a study released earlier this month by the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University found that a 1995 Connecticut law requiring a permit or license contingent on passing a background check was associated with a 40 percent drop in gun homicides.

But as long as gun control is a cause linked to ideology and party — and as long as the National Rifle Association and its allies claim a monopoly on individual rights arguments — reasonable steps of this sort will be ground to death by the Washington Obstruction Machine.

That’s why the nation needs a public-service offensive on behalf of the health and safety of us all. It could build on the Sandy Hook Promise and other civic endeavors. If you doubt it could succeed, consider how quickly opinion changed on the Confederate flag.

My friend Guy Molyneux, a progressive pollster, laid out how it could happen. “We need to build a social movement devoted to the simple proposition that owning handguns makes us less safe, not more,” he told me. “The evidence is overwhelming that having a gun in your home increases the risks of suicide, domestic violence, and fatal accidents, and yet the number one reason given for gun purchases is ‘personal safety.’ We need a public health campaign on the dangers of gun ownership, similar to the successful efforts against smoking and drunk driving.”

The facts were on the side of those who battled the tobacco companies, and they are just as compelling here. When we talk about guns, we don’t focus enough on the reality, reported in the 2015 Annual Review of Public Health, that nearly two-thirds of the deaths from firearms violence are suicides. Yes, people can try to kill themselves with pills, but there’s no coming back from a gunshot to the head. Those in the throes of depression who have a gun nearby are more likely to act on their darkest impulses.

Nor do we talk enough about accidental deaths when children get their hands on guns, or what happens when a domestic argument escalates and a firearm is readily available. The message is plain and simple: Households that voluntarily say no to guns are safer.

“The best way to disarm the NRA rhetorically is to make the Second Amendment issue moot,” Molyneux said. “This is not about the government saying you cannot own a handgun. This is about society saying you should not have a gun, especially in a home with children.”

Molyneux says his approach “does not imply giving up on gun control legislation.” On the contrary, the best path to better laws is to foster a revolution in popular attitudes. And this approach would finally put the rights of non-gun owners at the center of the discussion.

“Those of us who want to live, shop, go to school, and worship in gun-free spaces also have rights,” Molyneux says. “In what way is ‘freedom’ advanced by telling the owner of a bar or restaurant they cannot ban handguns in their own place of business, as many states now do? Today, it is the NRA that is the enemy of freedom, by seeking to impose its values on everyone else.”

The nation could ring out with the new slogans of liberty: “Not in my house.” “Not in our school.” “Not in my bar.” “Not in our church.” We’d be defending one of our most sacred rights: The right not to bear arms.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; The National Memo, June 29, 2015

June 30, 2015 Posted by | Background Checks, Gun Deaths, Gun Violence, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Oops, He Did It Again”: After S.C. ‘Accident’, Perry Downplays Gun Issue

About a year ago, following a mass shooting in Santa Barbara, California, Joni Ernst was asked whether it was appropriate for her to air TV campaign ads in which she pointed a gun directly at the camera. The right-wing Iowan, who went on to win her U.S. Senate race, replied, “I would not – no. This unfortunate accident happened after the ad.”

It’s true that the murders happened after the ad, but to call the killing spree an “accident” seemed like a poor choice of words.

Today, the word came up again, this time in reference to the massacre in Charleston. Right Wing Watch highlighted Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s remarks to Newsmax this morning:

[The former Texas governor] said that the president is trying to “take the guns out of the hands of everyone in this country.”

“This is the MO of this administration, any time there is an accident like this – the president is clear, he doesn’t like for Americans to have guns and so he uses every opportunity, this being another one, to basically go parrot that message,” Perry said.

Reality tells a very different story. First, President Obama has never even suggested Americans shouldn’t own firearms. There remains an important difference between safeguards that are consistent with the Second Amendment and a knee-jerk assumption that any and all safety measures are attempts to “take the guns out of the hands of everyone in this country.”

And second, I can think of a lot of words to describe the mass shooting in South Carolina, but “an accident” isn’t a phrase that comes to mind. {Update: see below.]

In the same interview, Perry acknowledged that the Charleston murders were “a crime of hate,” but then turned his attention to, of all things, drug abuse.

“Also, I think there is a real issue to be talked about. It seems to me – again without having all the details about this – that these individuals have been medicated and there may be a real issue in this country from the standpoint of these drugs and how they’re used.”

It wasn’t altogether clear who the GOP candidate was referring to when he mentioned ‘these individuals.”

* Update: Perry campaign aides say the former governor misspoke; he meant to say “incident,” not “accident.” That certainly makes more sense. That said, Perry was also wrong in his characterization of the president’s position and his argument that drug abuse, but not guns, ought to be part of the conversation is difficult to take seriously. This isn’t, in other words, just about the unfortunate use of the word “accident.”

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 19, 2015

June 23, 2015 Posted by | Gun Violence, Mass Shootings, Rick Perry | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“If Not Now, When?”: Charleston Church Massacre Is Yet Another Wake-Up Call For Gun Control

This will be short. I am tired of politicians and pundits telling us after horrible gun tragedies that now is not the time to confront our “gun problem.”

Many of us remember when John F. Kennedy was murdered with a mail-order rifle; Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by an easily-bought Remington .30-06 rifle; and Robert F. Kennedy was killed with a cheap handgun. That was a half century ago.

We have watched as gun violence has continued to consume us as a nation. And yet, our leaders do not act; our culture does not change. The National Rifle Association and other groups, pardon the expression, have a gun to our heads.

When threats to our society confront us we act: Trans fats are banned because they have harmful health effects; smoking is prohibited on planes, in restaurants and in public places; air bags and seat belts are mandated because they save lives; billions are appropriated to combat terrorism, which is deemed a threat to our nation.

But where is the courage to embrace control of guns? Where are the common sense solutions that nearly every other civilized, developed nation has put in place? Why have we not responded to this threat, to this reality? If not now, when?

We can grieve and act at the same time. We can mourn and call for solutions to our gun problem, to our racial problem, all at the same time.

In 2013, the Congressional Research Service determined that there were 78 incidents of mass shootings over the past thirty years killing 547 people – incidents such as occurred at Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and now in Charleston.

That same year, Pew Research Center reported that 37 percent of American households have guns, and that there were between 270 and 310 million guns in the United States, nearly one for every man, woman and child.

We acted in 1968 to pass gun control legislation. We acted under President Bill Clinton. But not nearly enough time, effort or courage has been exhibited by our leaders or our citizens to confront this problem.

We are terrorized by our own love affair with guns. It is long past time to get over it. It is time to recognize that acts like the Charleston massacre should change attitudes and change laws. The longer we wait, the more people will die.

 

By: Peter Fenn, Political Strategist and Head of Fenn Communications; U. S. News and World Report, June 19, 2015

June 20, 2015 Posted by | Emanuel AME Church, Gun Control, Gun Violence, Mass Shootings | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“House Republicans’ Safety Plan For Amtrak”: Videotape The Next Derailment Rather Than Prevent It

Last month, following the derailment of a train in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured hundreds, Amtrak ordered the installation of inward-facing cameras on locomotives that serve the Northeast Corridor. And on Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House passed a transportation spending bill that provides $9 million for inward-facing cameras in all cabs to record engineers on the job. The funding was added without objection from anyone in either party.

The cameras might have bipartisan support, but what they won’t do is prevent the next train accident. They are only useful when a crash has already happened. “Inward-facing cameras are very important for determining the reason for a crash afterwards,” Tho “Bella” Dinh-Zarr, the vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate committee Wednesday. And in the meantime, for all the Republican protests that money for rail safety wasn’t an issue in the May derailment, the House’s spending bill denies funding that very well could avert the next disaster.

In all, the transportation funding measure cuts Amtrak’s budget by $242 million from the last fiscal year, and gives Obama $1.3 billion less than he sought for Amtrak grants. By keeping the Federal Railroad Administration’s safety and operations account flat, the bill is “denying resources for additional safety inspectors and other improvements,” according to the administration. “The requested funding for passenger rail service would help bring Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor infrastructure and equipment into a state of good repair.”

David Price, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that sets annual transportation funding, has also criticized the bill’s cuts: “As we learned from the Amtrak derailment last month in Philadelphia, these cuts can have clear, direct consequences for the safety of our transportation system. … [C]utting funding certainly isn’t making our transportation system safer. How many train derailments or bridge collapses will it take before the majority agrees that we must invest in our crumbling transportation infrastructure?”

Shoddy infrastructure isn’t specifically to blame for the May derailment, but shoddy infrastructure still might be the reason for the next derailment. As industry experts note, U.S. rail has one of the worst safety records in the world because of how little it spends on its rail networks.

When a reporter asked House Speaker John Boehner about Democratic protests over Amtrak funding cuts, he called it a “stupid question.”

“Listen, they started this yesterday: ‘It’s all about funding.’ Well, obviously it’s not about funding—the train was going twice the speed limit,” Boehner said.

But it is about funding.

One concrete way for the government to help improve rail safety with spending would be to provide funding for Postive Train Control—which very well could have prevented the May derailment, as the technology can automatically slow or stop a train in the event of human error. Full implementation of PTC has been delayed for a host of reasons, including the complexity of the technology and syncing it with existing infrastructure. But money has also been an issue, especially for the cash-strapped public commuter agencies that are charged with funding and implementing the system. In their statements, both Obama and Price criticized the GOP for denying federal funding to implement Positive Train Control.

And Robert Lauby, the associate administrator for safety and chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration, said “cost is certainly a factor” during Wednesday’s Senate hearing. “We feel that the federal government has a role in funding this PTC improvement.”

If the funding levels in the House bill become law, that won’t happen for at least another fiscal year. But at least we’ll have the next crash on videotape.

 

By: Tim Starks, The New Republic, June 10, 2015

June 15, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, House Republicans, Infrastructure, Transportation | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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