Category Archives: Tucson Shooting

Size Matters

On Talk of the Nation yesterday (16 February 2011), Stephen Hunter–novelist, film critic, and firearms enthusiast–was a guest to discuss proposed regulations on handgun magazine capacities.  Hunter was refreshing as he was the only voice that I’ve heard on NPR who actually knew the vocabulary and thinking of gun rights supporters.  I participated in the comments and got into an argument with someone identified as Bob Potter, who kept trying to get me to say that I supported private ownership of things like land mines, weaponized anthrax, and nuclear bombs.

The conversation reminded me of a song that I remember from my childhood, “That’s About the Size of It,” from Seasame Street.  If you don’t recall it, go have a listen here:

The point of the song and the problem with Potter’s responses to me is the matter of perspective.

Since I do encounter the question of why I don’t support allowing private citizens to have nukes from time to time in the arguments of gun ownership opponents, it seems that this kind of reasoning needs a response.

My answer is that size matters, as does legitimate usage.  Let’s dispose of the easiest one first:  nuclear weapons.  We are well acquainted with these bombs, whether we lived during the Cold War or are aware of the dangers of nuclear terrorism.  They produce tremendous explosions and deposit poisonous by-products over huge areas.  It’s obvious that they present a unique order of danger that goes far beyond any other device created by human beings.  But danger is not the magic quality that makes something worthy of being banned, even while it is a factor.  Why ought nukes be illegal for me to own?  There is no legitimate use that I have for one.  I can’t use one in any safe manner, and I can’t use one without harming innocent people.

How about conventional explosives?  Here, the answer isn’t obvious.  A stick of dynamite could be exactly the right tool for removing stumps or rocks from a field.  Fireworks, used with some caution, are a joy during holiday celebrations.  Fertilizer and diesel fuel have legal uses that have nothing to do with blasting.  There is a danger in the mass and indiscriminate effect of explosives, and for that reason, I do see the need for regulation in this case–regulation, but not an outright ban.

Take another dangerous item in modern society:  tobacco.  There is no safe dosage in any form, and smoking in the presence of others creates poisonous secondhand smoke.  Should we ban tobacco?  Absolutely not.  A smoker can use the substance in privacy without harming anyone else or can use it in enough open air to disperse the harmful gases.  We each have to make our own assessments as to how much life we owe to others and how much we can rightly use for ourselves.  The State of Arkansas recently passed a smoking ban on government properties, including state college campuses, and I see that as excessive.  Someone who smokes in a car or in a designated area–a properly ventilated room or an outdoor pavillion away from the entrances, for example–does me no harm.

The questions here are how much danger does the object pose and how many legitimate uses are there for it.  The more of the former and the fewer of the latter that exist, the more regulation makes sense and meets the needs of the individual in a society.

So what about small arms, in other words, weapons used by one person without the support of others?  There is some play in the definition of the term, but we can explain what it means by examples:  handguns, carbines, rifles, shotguns, knives, swords, and bows and arrows.  (I don’t include grenades and missle launchers [see above].)  What about them?

The danger that these weapons pose is one-on-one.  They are used by one person against one other person at a time.  (Yes, bullets can go through one target to another, but the point generally remains.)  A firearm that is fully automatic (firing rounds until the trigger is released) can spray a lot of lead, but again, the effect is small in number.  In addition to this practical limitation, the vast majority of gun owners never use rapid fire to harm innocents.  Outrages such as the one that happened in Tucson are so rare as to be extraordinary.  Most gun owners are responsible, and even more of them want to stay out of prison.  Yes, firearms deaths every year are too high, but if you check the numbers as I did in an earlier article, you will see that they are small, compared to other common dangers, including tobacco.

There are also many legitimate uses for small arms.  Even the Brady Campaign recognizes sport shooting as acceptable.  Their attacks are against weapons that have “no legitimate sporting purpose.”  But sporting doesn’t just mean hunting or paper target shooting.  Some of us enjoy popping soda bottles on the range.  Some of us just like the noise that rapid fire creates.  Nothing is wrong with any of this, so long as we have a safe backstop for the bullets.  Shooting is fun, and that’s a safe usage.

Some people use firearms to gather food.  I do realize that most Americans get their daily sustenance from the grocery store, but there are still many who need a gun to put food on the table.   On this site,

I read a claim that Indians in the American Southwest are an example of this.  The writer argues that a semiautomatic carbine like the SKS is an effective deer-hunting tool and can also be used against feral dogs.  Someone who belives that killing animals is always wrong can argue against this particular position, but if you eat meat or wear leather, the question that we’re actually debating is who will do the killing.

Then there’s self defense.  Here again, we have to ask whether gun ownership opponents believe that it is my right to defend myself against violent attack.  A pacifist can make the argument that firearms ought to be banned, although to be consistent, that person must oppose the military and police having such weapons.  But if you believe that self defense is legitimate, while you oppose tools that make such defense practical, I have to wonder about your sense of realism.

Apply again the test that I named above:  dangers and uses.  The dangers of small arms are few, and the rightful uses are many.  While I believe in the right to own, carry, and use small arms on the basis of natural human rights, what I am claiming here is that there is also a good utilitarian argument for them.

The question now is what we believe about human beings.  Are we generally good and trustworthy, with a few bad actors, or are we fundamentally evil?  Advocates for democracy must believe the former, and broad acceptance of rights and freedoms is necessary for a democratic society.

Quick, Ban Knives!

Have a look at these articles:

In summary, yet another wacko went on a spree, killing four and wounding several others.  How did he do it?  Did he use one of those terrible firearms that turn ordinary decent human beings into monsters?  No, he used a kitchen knife and a car.  This event raises two points, and I imagine that regular readers can predict what those are:

1.  When a wacko decides to commit murder, he will find a way.  New York City has some of the strictest laws in the country to regulate weapons, and yet this nutjob pulled off his spree as effectively as the one in Tucson did.  Perhaps Carolyn McCarthy, U. S. Representative from Long Island, ought to add automobiles and knives to her list of evil objects that she wants to ban.  Of course, we then will have to limit ourselves to going only to places within walking distance, and cutting steaks will be a challenge, so we’ll subsist on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches (except that peanuts are also evil).  As I’ve written before, we can’t legislate safety.  We can make laws about responsibility.

2.  The law-abiding citizens of New York, as mentioned above, are restricted in their access to effective tools for self defense.  The state imposes its own set of burdens, and the city is worse.  The victims of this spree were apparently unarmed, as most people living in that region are by law.  At many points along the way, an armed good person could have put a stop to this.

I suppose that I’m sounding like a broken record (or scratched CD?) these days, but some things have to be repeated for enlightenment to come.

Tucson, Again

I was going to move on from the subject of the Tucson shooting, having said my piece on it already, but a friend sent me this link:

and there’s too much there to leave alone.  The article gathers together much of the nonsense that is the push for gun control.

The author, Richard Cohen, declares the nation’s gun laws to be insane in his first paragraph.  That is our only point of agreement.  I can buy a book on-line; I can buy a bottle of liquor in any state in the Union (except Utah?), but I can only legally buy a gun in my state of residence.  I can drive on any public road in the country, thanks to my Arkansas driver’s license, but my carry license is only honored by those states that have a reciprocal agreement with my state.  That’s thirty-seven, so far, and the trend is in the right direction, but imagine if California didn’t allow me to drive within its borders.  I don’t suppose that what I’ve named is the kind of insanity that Cohen meant, though.

His article jumps immediately into explaining what his definition is:

“The American culture, the American gun culture, insists on a constitutional right to bear arms – even concealed weapons such as a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun capable of doing immense damage.”

Indeed.  That, among much else, is exactly what we insist on.  Those of us who support carrying a concealed handgun do so because we want to be civil.  We don’t necessarily oppose the open-carry movement, but we accept that some people are disturbed by the sight of a weapon, and we’re willing to keep ours hidden.  We support semiautomatics because they are effective tools for self defense.  So are revolvers, depending on the circumstances.  Handguns, as Jeff Cooper pointed out many times, are weapons that a person can wear always.  It’s the weapon that we have on our persons when an emergency arises.  If we know that trouble is coming, we either get out of Dodge or fetch a rifle.

Cohen heads on to say that the shooter in Tucson wasn’t asked any questions when he bought his Glock.  Um, when was the last time that Cohen went gun shopping?  For every firearm that I have bought from a dealer, except for my blackpowder revolver, I’ve had to fill out a form that asks me whether I’m a drug addict or illegal user, a felon, a stalker, and other such nefarious types.  Lying on that form is a crime–a felony, if I recall correctly.  In Tennessee, I then had to wait around while the store owner called in for a background check to verify my answers.  (In Arkansas, those of us with a carry license are spared that.)

Loughner passed that check, apparently, and as much of an outrage as the shooting was, I’m glad that he passed.  I don’t, absolutely don’t support what he did, but at the same time, I don’t want the government having lists of citizens who might do something wrong in the future.  Remember that Ted Kennedy somehow got on the No-Fly list.  If the government is going to take rights away from the citizens, it must act in the open and according to due process.

We’re treated to statistics provided by the Brady Campaign that claim that “more Americans were killed with guns in the 18-year period between 1979 and 1997 (651,697) than were killed in battle in all wars since 1775 (650,858).”  That’s about 36,000 a year during the period.  Other sources put the number at something like 26,000.  At the same time, some 40,000 individuals died each year on the highways.  About 400,000 died of tobacco-related diseases yearly.

What we see here is the way that statistics are weak arguments.  The death rate given is about one to three persons in 10,000 in America each year.  Tobacco deaths are about one in 750 per year.  The firearms deaths also lump all kinds together, self-defense shootings, police shootings, and suicides along with accidents and homicides.  A homeowner who puts down a would-be rapist is statistically the equal of someone who commits murder with a firearm.  A person who choses suicide as opposed to lingering in the pain of cancer is counted along with the teenager who kills himself when his girlfriend breaks up with him.

The author sees these numbers as a reason for adopting restrictions on access to guns.  He observes that constitutional amendments can be “repealed and then reworded,” suggesting that we ought to be allowed long guns only.  But he admitted that a long gun was used to kill John F. Kennedy.  I have to wonder if Cohen would be satisfied with restricting me to rifles and shotguns.  Once the amendment process begins, the urge to take away more and more could be irresistible.  Let’s recall, though, that the only amendment to restrict the rights of Americans was the Eighteenth–in other words, Prohibition.  We know how well that worked.

The article does discuss Loughner’s possible motivations, recognizing that “the mind of a madman is a bog. It’s easy to get lost.”  There’s the answer.  In a free society, on rare occasions, a crazy person will commit an outrage.  That’s the risk of a free society.  A police state, by contrast, is what we would have to accept to remove guns from this country.  Here’s another number to consider:  200,000,000.  That’s the estimate of how many firearms are privately held by U. S. citizens.  Do you really want your government to demand that we turn them in just because one lunatic did something outrageous?  Do you really believe that we would turn them in?  Do you also believe that if Loughner had not been able to get a gun, that he would have given up?  He could have rented a panel truck and caused similar carnage.

Life is dangerous, and that fact makes it more interesting.  Almost ten years ago, I heard a call to make jet fuel non-explosive, in the belief that the Twin Towers wouldn’t have fallen if that had been the rule.  Of course, jet fuel is jet fuel precisely because it’s explosive.  With it, we can travel the world.  A small number die in airplane crashes and attacks, but most flyers get where they’re going without harm.  The same is true about firearms.  The vast majority of gun owners abide by the laws.  We have no need for an idiot’s veto that will accomplish nothing worthwhile.

Tucson Shooting

The shooting of Member of Congress Gabrielle Giffords and others over the weekend (8 January 2011) was an outrage. That being said, the response from the talking heads in the media is just as I expected it to be: Limit speech, and limit guns.

Let’s take a step back and see things for what they are. This was the act of one insane person. That’s all. The commentators are whining about the inflamatory rhetoric from right-wing politicians and talkshow hosts, but we’ve had loudmouths for as long as we’ve been human. We’ve had crazy persons who have done stupid things for just as long. Thankfully, for most of our time, both types have been limited in number and effect. Every once in while, antisocial types are able to cause great harm, but good people usually hold back the flood.

What must good people do? Several members of the audience at the shooting tackled the shooter before he was able to reload. Passengers on Flight 96 brought down the airplane, rather than allow the terrorists who had taken it over to strike Washington. American soldiers, along with those of other Allied nations, defeated Germany and Japan in World War II. Violent solutions aren’t the only way, though. Think about all the good people in Eastern Europe who brought down the dictatorships of the Communist Era by simply refusing to obey any more. Think about the people who fought for civil rights by sitting down where they weren’t supposed to.

The problem comes when good people grasp at bad answers out of desperation. Consider the following statement, written by one Robert Menzies on the On Point comment page today (10 January 2011):

“I hope Americans will come to the realization that limits on free speech and gun ownership may need to be enacted so that the average citizen can be protected from the lunatic fringe or the mentally ill that are prevalent in every society.”

Have you read a scarier thought in a long time? Advocates for First Amendment rights don’t typically worry much about the Second Amendment, but notice how Menzies uses the same reasoning to attack both cherished rights.

There are two possible responses to fear. One is to seek protection, a childish running to mamma’s skirts. That’s what those who wish to sacrifice rights for security are doing. The better answer is to stand up, shout “Stop!” and sometimes fight like hell. The shooter was stopped, and now he’s in custody. He’ll go through the court system, and I hope that he gets an appropriate punishment.

There are times that we must accept that freedom and rights bring risk with them. Sometimes, we are harmed by being free. But how much greater the harm will be if we sell our rights for safety.