Despite not being sure why anyone needs an assault weapon to do anything but shoot near-endless streams of bullets–into the sky, at a deer (good luck picking lead out of your meat), or at a crowd of people–to me, it doesn’t look like a ban on assault weapons will occur anytime soon.
But the focus on assault weapons and high capacity magazines perhaps has missed the point–gun violence is a sad quotidian fact of our daily lives, whether we recognize it or not. The last year has been full of mass shootings, times when crowds of unsuspecting innocents are fired into, injured and murdered. The greatest reaction to any of these shootings has been the one in Newtown, Ct. Perhaps it was the senselessness of the violence–very young children being murdered–and this senselessness is placed against the backdrop of “anywhere America.” Such an event feels like it could happen in our own towns. Perhaps the unpredictability, both of the actual tragedy and the fear that this could unpredictably affect us, our own lives, our children’s lives that has created an enduring public furor (there has been an unprecedented number of news articles citing “assault weapons” and “gun bans” since the shooting–eclipsing any news reaction to any other widely publicized shooting in the US [looking for article I read for citation] showing an endurance of the issue in the media [though perhaps this effect is due from a confluence of factors]).
I see no reason assault weapons or necessary, and personally I don’t see any need for them to be available to citizens. Furthermore, because they serve no more utility than to (a) either shoot lots of bullets really quickly for fun (which having played plenty of Doom in my childhood and having shot a few guns myself, I totally understand the glee…), or (b) shoot a lot of bullets at someone or someones with intention to kill, I believe they should be illegal.
Okay, so I’ve said my piece on that. Assault weapons, in my opinion, should not be legal.
The arguments to the counter tend along the lines of
1) Resistance to the oppressive state (usually followed by that Jefferson quote that intimates that the tree of liberty is watered by blood)
2) to protect oneself and his/her family from the ambiguous other
3) Because individual freedoms, including owning guns, are paramount.
Here’s where I find fault with arguments 1 and 2 – they’re not empiricist and ignorant of reality.
Treating these concerns seriously, How many times has possessing a weapon (1) been of any use resisting the “government” and (2) probabalisticly (pun!) reduced the risk of gun violence a person and/or his/her family faces? Yesterday, Wayne LaPierre stated that:
“Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families”
This dangerously assumes that weapons will only be used against extra-family threats – to protect the family – and is completely ignorant of the numbers of suicides and intra-family murders (domestic violence or otherwise) that occur with with legally bought weapons.
The third line of argument relies on individual rights–something I ardently support. In support of this rhetoric, gun advocates offer that cars kill people (incredibly sadly true), the flu kills people (valid), choking on pretzels kills people (scary), people kill people (yup) and so on, and because these things aren’t banned, assault weapons (and guns in general; yes, my argument drifts, what’d you expect?) should not be banned. First, this logic is faulty: it doesn’t pass the “this item has any express utility other than killing” test. As far as I understand, no one buys a car with the aim of inflicting violence. Few buy pretzels in case they have have to protect their family with one. But legality and paternalistic government action aren’t solely about individuals rights–if owning guns for the shooting bullets glee factor was safe and didn’t kill people–I’d be totally down. Hell, I’d be in line for a car-sized box of ammunition. But legality and paternalism aren’t always based on individual rights. It is illegal to drive drunk because it is dangerous. There are fines for not meeting sanitation requirements in the food industry (which are admittedly low standards) because this is dangerous. In reality, there is not great Pareto optimal solution where gun owner’s individual freedom rights are satisfied while public safety is successfully maintained.
Of course, in response to this, I can only imagine the “but the criminals have illegally bought weapons and that’s what we’re up against.” This is true. There are plenty of criminals with illegal weapons. However, despite the terrifying psychological availability of a group of ski-masked marauders kicking in your front door and opening fire on you in your footie PJs–the reality is that this risk is pretty low. Incredibly low, actually. Exacerbating the availability of such events is that they do happen–occasionally. Hence the NRA selling-point stories: “if only I’d had my gun.” The flip-side of this discourse, however is hearing from those who either had guns and never had to use them in self-defense (boring story) or had guns and the accessibility of that weapon was a contributing factor to violence that occurred within their own home or personal sphere. Secondarily, and I’m still looking for the data to back this one, the likelihood that an illegal gun is used on “you” (you, my likely white, suburban dwelling reader…), is low. Incredibly low, actually.
But the use of the “you,” the “other,” in the pro-gun discourse is fascinating. I can help but think it’s somewhat race-based. Take another LaPierre gem:
“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals”
This comment heavily assumes that there is a necessarily distinct and separate set of people that commit crimes with whom there is no overlap with law-abiding gun owners. The reality is there are tons of non-law-abiding gun owners (with both legally and illegally procured weapons), and a preponderance of violence occurs among this group. It’s as if fears of inner-city violence have crept into the gun-owner psyche. Without the data to further support this point, I’ll stop there–but it’s certainly an interesting avenue of inquiry: where do these fears/concerns come from among people who are statistically unaffected by the vast majority of gun violence in the US? Where do racial concerns and matters of economic marginalization in the post-industrial American economy fall into this? I digress (hate that phrase).
Further presenting a problem with LaPierre’s statement is that he assumes these groups of law-abiding and non-law abiding gun owners can be easily divided. A quick trip back to the killing (or murder) of Trayvon Martin in 2012 reveals how murky this is. And why is it that after almost every high-press coverage shooting in the US, the debate quickly diverts from the interlocutor of death, guns, and focuses on the mental health of the individual in question. “Why wasn’t this predicted? Prevented?” is the common question. “They should’ve seen this!” Here’s what Martin Seligman, head of the American Psychological Association responded to that in an op-ed in the Washington Post where he’s careful to distinguish between “crazy” and “evil”:
“I am all for more funding for mental-health care and research — but not in the vain hope that it will curb violence…I have found that drugs and therapy offer disappointingly little additional help for the mentally ill than they did 25 years ago…there is zero promise that any developments I am aware of will help curb the violence that mentally ill persons commit…on restraining or rehabilitating evil people, the past record and future promise are even more dismal…no development that has much reduced recidivism or violence…I conclude from all this that progress in reducing violence through either helping the mentally ill or curbing the impulses of violent, non-crazy people will be very slow in coming, perhaps even fruitless…Crazy people and evil people can commit mass murder, and they always do it with guns. Our society’s only real leverage, at least in the near term, lies in reducing access to guns.”(wapo.st/Vr4smT)
While I’d debate him a bit about his point in predicting high-risk offenders (sadly based on past offenses, for the most part). He makes the point that pinning murder on “crazy” is pretty fruitless. Good luck predicting it. Driving home the point, is the fact that mental health problems only account for about 4% of violence in the US (see the American Journal of Psychiatry article on the issue here: bit.ly/XpTUWu).
Shooing away gun violence as a matter of mental health is also ignorant of the fact the word “gun” is used to describe a form of violence. Guns kill people. The argument that people kill people is true. But between the years 2004 and 2011, only 6% of the total 112,654 homicides were committed with hand-to-hand style violence. How what percentage of this number was inflicted by guns: 67%. And perhaps that’s being generous – there are a number of homicides where the weapon is unlisted (note that all this and the tables below come from FBI UCR Data).
So, here we have a few tables I put together – not much/any analysis going on here. Just the summary statistics, because for this argument, I think this speaks for itself.
Returning to my initial points about assault rifles, assault weapon ban advocates may be sorely disappointed to see that data doesn’t really back them up. Yes, rifles, some of which are assault weapons do kill people. But if we’re going to eat up around half of this homicide pie together, it appears handguns are the answer. So here’s the kicker question: is asking just to ban assault weapons too soft of an ask?
While I concede that a successful ban on assault weapons is highly unlikely, and more, a ban on handguns, or particular handguns even is even more unlikely–the citizens of the US have proven themselves unworthy of owning such weapons. Either we lack the training, intelligence or judiciousness on how to use, when to use, why to use guns–or there is something inborn in the cultural stresses of American life that turns us disproportionately violent. Perhaps as philospher Georges Bataille posited, we need some baseline level of activity–at times violence and witnessing horror and evil–to keep ourselves, as a society, occupied. Perhaps the US isn’t experiencing enough daily trauma, so we create our own. But frankly, I call bullshit. The social scientist in me is curious why we have such high levels of violence for a nation that is otherwise so well off. The gleeful gun shooting kid in me wouldn’t mind firing a few rounds into the sky. But the citizen in me has a serious problem with our unfounded fears, our obsessions with individualism and our recalcitrant sense of recreation being justifications for the perpetuation of senseless violence in this country.
And sadly, when I talk about violence, I’m talking about the violence that worries “you” (as previously and uncomfortably defined). It takes the killing of white children and people we see as innocent to motivate us to the level of public outcry and serious debate. It takes an insane, gruesome and highly visible act to catch our attention because it affects “us” those who hold the reigns of power and who have the resources to push for change that, thanks to a corporate financed political system, will never come. But what of the voiceless people? The ones whose plights are so daily so common they don’t even make the news. It appears that what matters most is not the violence that’s happening in this country, but the way the public reacts to it that drives any significant responses to it. Such solipsism, obsessive self-concern and individualism, myopia and reactionism–these aren’t the causes of the violence, but they’re why we’ve failed to do anything about it.