I originally published this diary in response to the mass-shooting in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater. Until yesterday, not much has changed insofar as public demand/acceptance is concerned when the topic of gun control arises. Discussion by national figures and the political class has been nonexistent. Will the Newtown Tragedy be enough to change that?
At the risk of once again incurring the ire of the anti-gun-control posse here at DK, I am republishing this today. I hope that whatever attention it draws is focused more on positive steps that might be taken to lessen the frequency of violent death of innocents at the hands of twisted individuals. I think a start is to change the narative to one of gun safety as opposed to gun control (as suggested by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, (D) New York, on Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC this morning).
With a couple of minor edits, the diary is as published in August. Before most of us had heard of Newtown. Or the location of the next massacre.
In case after case of gun violence unleashed in some public place, the question of gun control is sure to come up in media reports. Constitutional issues are raised. Comparisons to other western and developed countries are made as regards the number of gun related crimes, mass shootings and the like. An examination of the causes of the violence, both as a society, and as to the particulars of the case in question, ensues. Conclusions, to say nothing of solutions, are seldom forthcoming.
The question of why this country can't achieve real control over guns and gun violence has been percolating in my head since the theater shootings in Colorado. Then the Sikh Temple shootings. And the shootout at the Empire State Building.
The easy response is to point to the NRA and/or its right-wing mouthpieces. While they are certainly not without blame, it is the large percentage of the American population that owns and likes guns that lies at the root of the problem. Without the constituency of millions of gun owners, the NRA and its influence in our government would wither and die in short order.
Instead, I think the answer lies in selfishness and perceived risk.
Most of us climb into a car on a daily basis to get to the places we need to go. We know there is risk involved, but we make the mental calculation, consciously or not, that the risk is small enough to ignore, and go about our daily business. It is easy to ignore or forget the risk of another (inattentive) driver running a red light. However, as weather conditions deteriorate, we reassess the risk, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Heavy rain, wind or snow can empty the roads. The majority of people conclude that the percieved risks of travel in bad conditions outweigh the benefits. This is considered rational behavior and I would not argue the point.
Consider this hypothetical situation; a man is an avid hunter. He owns several guns and uses them regularly for hunting and target practice. One might expect him to oppose any additional gun control measures, and, since this is my hypothetical, he does. Then suppose that he finds out that his next door neighbor also owns a number of guns but is involved in gang activity, or he has displayed serious mental instability, or has violent tendencies. The equation changes and the hunter is now, quite reasonably, in favor of some gun control. He may only want gun control for his neighbor and not for himself, but it is still gun control.
So how does this calculus of perceived risk and selfishness pertain to gun control legislation? Very simply put, the American people, as a group, repeatedly decide that the risk posed by ready availability and widespread distribution of guns in our society is low enough to disregard in relation to their desire to either own guns themselves, or to allow others to do so. To put a somewhat finer point on it, they decide, over and over, that the risk to them and/or their family is low enough to be acceptable.
How many news reports or news-magazine programs have shown video of people "shocked that something like this could happen here". To them, the risk is supposed to be confined to inner cities, or neighborhoods where gangs fight over turf, not their quiet street or small town. They are shocked because they realize that such an event can happen near them, and that their percieved risk was lower than the actual risk. Purely in terms of assessing risk (and I am by no means an expert on probablility), aside from the reality of the event proving that such a thing can happen in their neighborhood, they are largly correct in thinking that such an event is no more likely to occur again than it was prior, and the risk posed by guns slowly becomes acceptable again. They are aware that the risk of injury to others is just as great as it was to themselves, but attach significantly less wieght to that fact.
To my knowledge, no one in any position of national influence or power has advocated a total ban on firearms in this country. Most rational individuals would decide that that was too extreme a measure and would shout it down. On the other hand, many of those same individuals probably support the prohibition of guns in places like schools, churches or movie theaters. First off, there is no rational reason to have a gun in those venues. Second, and I think most important, people would perceive a much greater risk to themselves and their families.
It is this return to old patterns of thought that makes me believe, if there weren't enough evidence already, that for a large segment of the population, "selfish" considerations trump societal considerations (see; Republican Party). Risk to self and/or loved ones is assigned a higher priority than risk to others in the society at large. It is both ironic and tragic that a relative disregard for society's risk can lead to more occurances and therefore actually increase risk to them personally.
I realize that some gun control opponents would take issue with my reasoning when I mention the lack of valid reasons to carry a gun into an inappropriate venue. I have heard it argued that if patrons of the Colorado movie theater had been armed, they could have stopped the shooter before he had done so much damage, thereby decreasing risk. I think that this argument is without merit. The accounts of this incident which I have read have indicated that the shooting only lasted for two or three minutes. Witnesses have also said that at first they thought this was some kind of prank.
How long would it have taken for an armed movie patron to realize that it was not a prank, and kill the bad guy? Consider the other factors. It’s dark, there is a lot of confusion, other patrons are running for their lives, and the shooter is wearing body armor. That is the situation with ONE armed patron fighting back. Now consider the consequences of some number of individuals firing their own guns in the crowded theater. How many people get caught in the crossfire? How many concerned citizens shoot other concerned citizens thinking they are bad guys, too? In such a scenario the risks to an average patron in that theater would have gone up considerably.
Imagine the consequences if some law abiding citizen had succeeded in killing the shooter. Police would have found his car and determined his identity and place of residence. How many cops and neighbors of the shooter would have died as a result of triggering the booby-traps in the shooter’s apartment? Is it still worth the increased risk to allow guns in places where they are currently prohibited? I say no.
I have heard gun control advocates argue that keeping guns out of the hands of malicious or unstable individuals would eliminate gun violence. Quite true, but explain please, how do we do that? If such a thing were possible, there would be no need for any other gun controls. If we could identify everyone malicious or unstable there would be much less need for a lot of laws.
Until the gun lobby can bring its uptopian fantasy to fruition, real strengthening of this country’s gun control laws will have to wait until the majority of the population perceives the risk to them of not doing so to be unacceptable. How bad things would have to get to shift the equation remains unknown, but I am not optimistic.
Update; Early comments make clear to me that I was less than 100% effective in getting my point accross. I do not advocate the elimination of guns from American society. Further, what gun controls may or may not be appropriate, current or future, is a debate that needs to take place with, in my opinion, a fuller understanding of how individual decisions are made.
Do I favor more/better control of guns? Yes, but what those controls consist of is not the point of this diary.
I am fully aware that the process of assessing risk this diary is about is applicable to any number of other human activities. Lets just please be realisitic about how we, as individuals and as a society, are arriving at our decisions.