Debating Guns on the Margins


We have a Second Amendment in this country that guarantees the right to bear arms.

But it’s not a right to bear military assault rifles. Control of the kinds of weapons citizens may keep, as long as those regulations fulfill reasonable public ends and are not too broad, would be constitutional. The right to bear arms is not absolute; the Second Amendment itself is the one right in the Bill of Rights that is qualified—it mentions “a well-regulated militia” and the need to defend the United States.

The First Amendment, in contrast, simply says “Congress shall make no law” that abridges freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly and the power of the people to petition government.

800px-First_Amendment_to_the_U.S._Constitution

First Amendment text, Philadelphia, from Wikimedia Commons by Zakarie Faibis.

Yet, even the apparently unqualified rights of the First Amendment sometimes have to be balanced against other rights. For example, speech that is used to commit fraud, to extract money from victims under false pretenses, is not legal expression even under our Constitution.

This weekend saw horrific mass shootings in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio. Right now, I’m watching a pretty good MSNBC two-hour special on these shootings. Inevitably, it raises the question of gun control, and equally inevitably, it will take time before anything is done.

Well, we saw today a sharp contrast between presidents. Teleprompter Trump showed up to give one of his carefully correct, robotic speeches. Once during the speech, he said the nation must condemn white supremacy (note that he didn’t personally condemn it, he left that work to the nation). But he didn’t acknowledge that his own anti-immigrant language clearly seemed to be embedded in the motives of the El Paso shooter.

And he blew some regular Republican smoke, blaming:

• Violent video games. I’m no fan of violent media, and don’t like glorification of violence in games, movies or any entertainment. It feels like we humans have not learned much since bear baiting in medieval times, or the gladiator contests of ancient Rome. But the link between media violence and violence in life is not that clear. We’ve had years of social science on this point. Violent shooters do indeed seem to like violent video games, but the reverse is not true. Most gamers who play first-person shooter games are not violent people at all. As children in the 20th century, we were not corrupted by Road Runner cartoons, and today most gamers can distinguish between fantasy and real life. So no, Mr. President. Awful presidential racist language may contribute to violence, but not fantasy video games. I don’t want to let them off the hook—I am perfectly comfortable attacking violence or misogyny in games—I just don’t think trying to pin El Paso on that scapegoat works.

• Mental health. Just, no. Granted, a mentally ill personal may be violent—but that’s like saying sharks are dangerous. They are, but shark attacks are not a great threat—they are quite rare. A mentally ill person snapping and going on a rampage is a false cultural fear. There is a sickness of the soul that may lead to violence, but sickness of the mind is not so associated with it. Stop stigmatizing mental illness—and besides, if you are so concerned about this false link, how about better mental healthcare in general? I can agree that would be a good thing, even if I think it’s not really part of this particular public policy debate.

Besides those tired old smokescreens, on Twitter, President Trump found a new cause of mass shootings. It was done by the “Fake News.” I don’t know how that link is supposed to work. Like so many of Trump’s random tweets, it means nothing.

Contrast Trump’s lame statement with former President Obama’s statement today:

obama

The former president is a writer who can use words powerfully. The current president barely can read a teleprompter script and makes things worse whenever he goes off script.

Another point about these mass shootings: Where was the good guy with the gun who would stop it? It’s a fantasy. The good guys with guns who stopped the Dayton shooting (after too many had died) were trained police, who can’t be everywhere all the time. Amateurs with pistols are not a solution, and in fact can be part of the problem because too many gun deaths in this sick society are by suicide.

So, what is to be done?

First, let’s quit blaming the scapegoats. Let’s get the CDC to research gun violence as a public health problem. Let’s ban assault rifles, without taking lawful guns from citizens. In the long run, we can have a debate about the Second Amendment, but for now, nobody should pry anything but weapons of mass killings form anybody’s fingers. For now, lets Make American Great Again by putting back in place reasonable gun regulations that were repealed, and let’s go further. Universal background checks are something I would think most gun owners could endorse.

Second, elect Democrats. Enough is enough. As a country, we should be done with the current, fake GOP and done with the influence of the NRA. Not all Democrats are great on this issue, and electing Democrats is not in itself a complete cure—but it’s a key first step. True conservatives are pro law and order, and mass shootings are not lawful and don’t contribute to order. We need the GOP to suffer some horrific defeats to prompt that party to do some much needed soul searching. I look forward to the day when there is an effective Republican Party that deals with reality, doesn’t traduce science and can be a true conservative counterweight to the Democrats. That party does not exist today.

Third, call racism for what it is. Racism is ugly, irrational and deeply embedded in American culture. Mexico is not “sending” anybody. Anti-Hispanic rhetoric has been a feature of Donald Trump’s demagoguery, as well as casual attacks on African Americans. I say enough. In the Depression, to its shame, the U.S. even rounded up American citizens and deported them to Mexico in a racist act of racist times. (I know, I know, Hispanic or Mexican are not “races,” but the attitudes that led to this action was still racist in its nature). Trying to overcome racism is one of the longest arcs of American history. We’re not there yet, and Trump’s racist rhetoric is part of our dark past, not our better future.

Fourth, stop the religious bigotry on both sides. No, putting “God” back in schools, the protestant Christian God who dominated public discourse in the 1950s, is neither desirable nor legally practical—and it’s not an answer to this problem. As a Christian, I resent other Christians who are so bigoted and narrow-minded that they think a particular brand of Christianity should be promoted by government.

No. Freedom of religion is important to religious people of all types. We get to worship as we choose, and that is a right I hold dear. It also allows a person to be free from religion, should they so choose. On this matter of religion, government should have no role.

And, on the other hand, please, there is nothing wrong with “thoughts and prayers.” They can be empty, if they don’t motivate action, but for people of faith they are important, and sometimes in tragedy they are all that can be inadequately offered at first.

I share the frustration with politicians who offer thoughts and prayers and stop there—vote them out. I did pray in the wake of the shootings this weekend. I don’t apologize for that, nor should I have to. If you weren’t motivated to speak with your God, fair enough. If you want politicians to go beyond offering empty thoughts and prayers, I am with you.

But many social movements that have led to change had a strong prayer component. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was, among other things, a preacher. So was Bishop Desmond Tutu. Prayer can be a powerful binding force that helps unite people behind needed social change.

Anyway, it has been a depressing weekend and day. Throughout the weekend, I had that horrible “not again” reaction. Today, the president left me feeling cold, as he so often does.

But even if we are discouraged, we cannot be disengaged. The fact that change is not quick and easy is not a reason to avoid acting for change.

Thoughts and prayers for more sane public policy. Plus, please, action and votes.

1 Comment

Filed under Freedom, History, Journalism, politics

One response to “Debating Guns on the Margins

  1. Carolyn Sternowski

    so well put
    thank you, Joe

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