The horrific events in Newtown, CT, have prompted powerful emotional responses. They run from the President’s sober Monday night speech of sympathy and his summons to do better, to a Las Cruces city councilor’s self-centered public announcement that “perhaps” he took the deaths of these children “personally” because he had been an elementary school teacher. Almost everyone and every group, including, belatedly, the NRA, claim sympathy for the slain children, their families, and their community; and to emotional distress and moral outrage at these events. My concern is that emotional self-indulgence will become a substitute for action.
Although I am pleased that many politicians, more on the Left than the Right, have expressed sadness and shock, I remain suspicious of their convictions and the courage thereof. I shall wait to see if they vote for legislation which outlaws assault weapons—those capable of rapid firing and using multi-round clips—and conversion kits for civilians. I expect that most federal representatives will make the obligatory statements of compassion or revulsion, and then mumble pieties, mangle issues, or maneuver to impede reforms reducing the capacity for mass-murders.
New Mexico’s Senator Tom Udall’s statement on the Newtown massacre is a model of non-committal blandness. District 1 Representative and Senator-elect Martin Heinrich’s statement does not exist; silence from one with an A rating from the NRA is no surprise. District 2 Representative Steven Pearce’s statement more specifically indicates the compassion and confusion which characterize personal and political responses, respectively:
Now is the time to mourn the lost, comfort those affected, and draw close to our families and communities. In the wake of such tragedy, it is tempting for politicians to blame our laws, or seek a quick legislative fix. I welcome a discussion of federal policies and politics, but at the appropriate time. Simply, new gun regulations will never change the sickness and depravity that drive someone to murder school children and teachers.
Pearce devotes 19 words to the personal and social aspects of the tragedy, 55 words to its politics—his game which he has begun playing to defeat reform—, and not one word to the issues. In criticizing politicians who think that mass murders might be amenable to some legislative remedy, he assumes that national problems lack legislative solutions. Yet he wishes to delay discussion of “federal policies and politics” until “the appropriate time”—code words for “not now,” that is, “never.” Pearce’s approach: keeping shooting first and asking questions later. He kludges distinct ideas in the last statement; although he is partly right that gun-control regulations cannot change human nature, certainly not overnight, he is totally wrong that their purpose is to address human deficiencies instead of access to especially dangerous weapons.
Pearce’s statement implies, as all issue-avoiding, reform-rejecting politicians (and self-serving therapists) will argue, that people, not assault weapons, kill people; that the efforts should focus on detecting and deterring potential perpetrators of these outrages; and that controls would violate the Second Amendment. So we shall await detailed studies so that we can have all the data and theories so that we can debate their reliability or relevance so that we can dissipate energy and urgency so that we can do nothing. And the sanctity accorded the Second Amendment will protect it from scrutiny.
This argument, like so many, is weak or wrong on both facts and principles. Its radical flaw is to focus on only one part of a complex system of weapons abuse, the gunman or, very rarely, the gunwoman. First, it ignores that rampages, though they occur everywhere, usually cause few casualties elsewhere because they rarely involve assault weapons. The Norway massacre is the exception which proves this rule. Second, it addresses only those known to be minors, felons, or emotionally or mentally disturbed people. It either ignores that others may deliberately or inadvertently provide access to such people, or urges efforts to identify and deal with people who may (or not) become perpetrators. The Newtown massacre was possible because a mother’s registered guns were available to her disturbed son. Moreover, this approach would accept government intrusion into the lives of a large, but ill-defined number of people whose minds and motives, and whose relationships with others, are largely unknown and unknowable. It assumes expanded government power to thus operate—ironically, because Second-Amendment advocates of assault weapons emphatically fear government power.
Such misdirected remedies create a further irony. In rural areas, people divide between those who live in trust of their neighbors and have no weapons for self-defense, and those who live in fear and want weapons for that purpose. In addition, such areas supply the strongest Second-Amendment advocates of assault weapons because they fear state or federal government infringement on their liberties. They believe that they, perhaps with others, can protect themselves and their families with these weapons. They fantasize that a family arsenal or group arsenals of AK-47’s can hold off the police, the FBI, or the armed forces—or, if not, that they and their families can die in a noble fight for freedom. Those who believe these distortions of reality identify themselves as potential murderers who may need to be investigated and treated to prevent harm to themselves or others, or help to others to do harm.
Arguments against any gun-control measures rationalize a political paranoia which perceives an imaginary threat to freedom and disregards the real threat to human lives. Conservatives endorse such perceptions as a matter of politics; the paranoids are their voters, the NRA their backers. A few years ago, they effectively protested a government study of domestic terrorism because they knew that it would expose their base as potential terrorists or insurrectionists. It does not help that liberals who seek to control assault weapons by removing them from civilian hands are self-deluded to think that the deranged and their enablers can be effectively addressed by ignoring irrationality, debating word choices (not “gun control,” but “gun safety”), and compromising on matters of life and death.
The argument also shifts from the weapons which especially, if not uniquely, make massacres possible, to Second Amendment justifications for civilian possession of such weapons. Both sides respect an amendment which has long out-lived its usefulness, no longer serves a rational purpose, but survives as a slogan presuming an unqualified right to “keep and bear arms.” When the Second Amendment was drafted and ratified, it had one purpose: to allow citizens to have arms, when governments, state or federal, were weak, small, or remote, to form militias in defense of their homes and communities from foreign troops or hostile Indians. Modern national defense forces, including state-based national guards, render even “well-regulated” militias obsolete. (Self-organized groups of armed paranoids qualify as men’s’ clubs or mobs, not militias.) The right to “keep and bear arms” to serve in militias is verbal, not real.
The Second Amendment is a fossil from colonial and frontier days, but bogus histories of its purpose try to give it new life. For instance, local revisionist Brian Hart claims that “the founders understood that…the Federal Government, being comprised of individuals, can break the law. Using deadly force IS legal and expected if the Federal Government refuses to obey the people and the law.” The first assertion is true but trivial, and is remedied in courts. The second is absolutely false. The idea that “using deadly force is legal and expected”—where legal? by whom expected?—is hallucinatory. The founders did not approve the Second Amendment in 1791 to justify insurrection, when, just years earlier, as they gathered to write the Constitution, federal troops suppressed Shay’s Rebellion. Historical revisionism or amnesia reflects and fuels irrational fear and encourages paranoia to defend weapons commonly involved in massacres of children and women. But it cannot revise or forget that long before the dawn of history, societies protected themselves, and, most fiercely, their children and women (indeed, mammals have always done so; earlier species did not).
The arguments against assault weapons of mass deaths are cogent and should be compelling. Nevertheless, I expect little or nothing of legislative consequence in response to the murderous rampage in Newtown. Those more concerned to conserve guns than lives will resist legislation; those who oppose what they call the culture of death will find ways to promote it. Meanwhile, reformers will dissipate their energies by focusing on many things in addition to the one thing which can and should be done: save lives by removing assault weapons from civilian hands—period. Save the hand-wringing, the soul-searching, and the mind-mending for another day—no, not never.