Those of you who know me know that I am generally opposed to increased gun control. I find the status quo acceptable, though certainly imperfect. I have examined my views in the wake of yet another mass shooting, and I haven’t changed my mind. I’ll try to look at the inevitable slew of legislative proposals at the state and Federal levels with an open mind, but I’ll remain cynical. I believe gun control will remain primarily a cultural issue (rednecks vs. urbanites), and a distraction from a real Leftist agenda. I suspect some sort of Federal law will be passed, and I doubt it will do anything to make us safer, but it will increase the price of some guns, and benefit those who had the foresight (or crazy compulsion) to horde away whatever weapons or magazines are grandfathered in. I’m not making a pro-gun argument here, though I may do that in the future. I’m making an anti-gun-control argument. This issue is interesting in terms of role reversal – usually it is the Right asking for authoritarian solutions to social problems and defending the erosion of individual civil rights.
True advocates of gun control want to ban all, or nearly all of the tens of millions of guns that are currently in circulation. Ain’t gonna happen, at least not in the next few decades. The more incrementalist advocates want to ban “Assault Weapons.” This is a nebulous category. The previous Assault Weapons Ban focused primarily on cosmetic features http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Assault_Weapons_Ban . This resulted in the sale of dorky looking rifles which could legally accept large magazines, as long as those magazines were manufactured before the ban took effect. People on both sides of the issue generally agree that the 1994 AWB was a farce. I’m trying to avoid statistics in making this argument, but I will say that “Assault Weapons” are used in a very small percentage of crimes and murders, and that the U.S. murder rate has generally declined before and after the AWB. I will not deny that they seem to be a weapon of choice for mass shootings, which constitute a very small percentage of gun murders overall, but are especially horrible and newsworthy.
We also have the Title 18, Chapter 44, Section 922(r) law, which I can’t even begin to fully explain, but which basically outlaws imported “Assault Weapons” unless they have a certain number of U.S. made parts. This was primarily a measure to protect domestic gun makers from cheap imports, disguised as gun control. The argument was made that “gangs” (we know what that’s code for) were buying these cheap guns. Under 922(r), many people unknowingly own guns which may actually constitute a felony, because a certain part is imported, rather than U.S. made, though that part makes no functional difference. Naturally, these laws aren’t really enforced, but what if they were? In addition to these Federal laws, many states, including Connecticut, have more restrictive regulations on magazine capacity, mandatory registration, etc.
The most prominent current legislative proposal for gun control comes from California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was also the author of the original 1994 AWB – http://www.diannefeinstein2012.com/news/2012/07/feinstein-presses-for-assault-weapons-ban/ . In fairness to Feinstein, she experienced the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco. However, as Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, she has been a steadfast supporter of the Patriot Act, FISA, all sorts of domestic surveillance, indefinite detention without due process, Extraordinary Rendition, as well as all of the constitutionally and morally dubious CIA drone strikes, and probably other bad stuff that we don’t want to know about. Dianne Feinstein is no pacifist hippie nor friend of civil rights, but a super-wealthy authoritarian national security hawk. Interestingly, she also, at least at one time, legally carried a concealed handgun in San Francisco. Her new proposal would go much further than her previous one, banning the transfer of existing magazines and weapons that fall into the chosen categories, which might include most semi-automatic handguns, as well. Presumably, those individuals who have these weapons and magazines can keep them until they die, at which point they will be turned over to the authorities, or something. Sort of a very long-term “cold, dead hands” policy. Of course, person-to-person transfers of firearms or magazines are impossible to regulate, so it will be impossible to say whether a person had a certain item before the ban went into effect, or whether he purchased it from someone in a cash transaction the day before, unless you catch him in the act of the transaction. For this reason, her proposal would require registration and conditional licensing of all existing “Assault Weapons” and a fingerprint database of their owners, as is currently required for fully-automatic machine guns (yes, they are legal, just very expensive and difficult to obtain). She has apparently proposed increased funding for the BATFE for this purpose. Ultimately, however, to be effective, any gun control policy will have to be confiscatory.
This is where I have a real problem. How will these laws be enforced? They will be enforced by law enforcement, of course. We’ll need more law enforcement, a lot more law enforcement. At the Federal level, we’re looking at the BATFE. They’ll need more funding, more everything. There will be sting operations and entrapment (look at how the FBI catches “terrorists”). At which communities will these efforts be targeted? Probably not rich white folks. Local law enforcement will doubtless get in on the game, too. They’ll need more toys, more people, more money, and they’ll get them, because giving money to local law enforcement is bipartisan Nirvana in D.C., especially after 9/11. It’s tough-on-crime and pro-government-employee-union all at the same time. Every police department will need a heavily armed “Assault Weapons Task Force.”
For some idea of how the Feds might deal with illegal firearms, consider the Waco Siege of 1993 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_siege . I’ll certainly not defend sociopathic cult leader David Koresh, but I will condemn the ATF and FBI who initiated a militaristic siege of the compound, resulting in the deaths of 76 people, many of them children. This, of course, was part of the rationale behind Tim McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing (19 children under the age of six killed). McVeigh may well have bombed something anyway, but you see my point.
We have a bad history with prohibition. Our current War On Drugs has resulted in entrenched interests on both sides. We have the huge, heavily militarized DEA and ICE bureaucracies on one side, and we have the heavily militarized cartels on the other side. It’s a horrible symbiotic relationship. Prohibition keeps prices high, and ensures jobs for all sorts of federal and local cops. HSBC, one of the largest banks in the world, just got a little slap on the wrist for blatantly laundering money for the Sinaloa Cartel, arguably one of the most violent criminal organizations in the world. The violence in Mexico is out of control. The money goes to Wall Street, pretty much unhindered. Our politicians are happy to pass laws regulating the private behavior of individuals, but refuse to enforce laws regulating nakedly criminal behavior by large financial institutions.
We incarcerate black and brown people at a far, far higher rate than white people for crimes that white people commit just as often. Our criminal “justice” system is completely out of control. We have by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Many of our prisons, including juvenile facilities, are now private, for-profit operations. This is a vast, cruel, expensive, and irredeemably racist system. Of course, many people caught in this system, especially children, suffer from mental illness which goes untreated or poorly treated. This system puts broken, hopeless, unemployable young people back on our streets every day. It is completely indefensible.
We also have a bad history with violence. The U.S. was basically founded upon a genocide (how many children?), and hasn’t backed away from its policy of violent world domination since. We accept all sorts of state-sponsored violence as some sort of unfortunate accident. In December of 2008, most U.S. politicians were steadfast in their support of Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. According to the conservative estimate of the Israeli Defense Force, 89 children were killed in the space of three weeks. Other estimates of child deaths are far higher. The U.S. supplied many of the weapons for this attack, and replaced the ones that were expended. White phosphorus, a horrendous (and illegal under international law) incendiary chemical weapon was used on civilians, including children. Going back further, we have Madeline Albright’s notorious 60-Minutes interview on 1990s U.S. sanctions against Iraq, which were estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 500,000 children http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4PgpbQfxgo (see FAIR’s take on it here http://www.fair.org/extra-online-articles/we-think-the-price-is-worth-it/ ). Where was the wall-to-wall angst then? Where was the “Something Must Be Done!”? The catalog of international horrors is endless, and goes back centuries, so please don’t think I don’t care about the ones I haven’t mentioned. The Vietnam War, for instance, was pretty tough on the wee ones.
I believe that people on both sides of the gun debate are primarily motivated by fear. Those on the pro-gun, mostly right-wing side are afraid of social disorder and want to protect themselves with guns. Those on the anti-gun, mostly left-wing side are afraid of social disorder and want to be protected from people with guns, especially when horrific violence occurs in suburban enclaves that are supposed to be safe. The NRA’s asinine call for two federally-mandated armed guards in every school may permanently cement their irrelevance in any sort of national debate. The Right has little to offer here. They love to harp about individual freedom, but we threw the Constitution out the window after 9/11, if not before that, and we heard hardly a peep, until the recent Libertarian, Ron Paul surge. The Constitution is marginally relevant, at best. Most gun rights advocates are opposed to true health care reform, and aren’t really interested in discussing mental health care. They support virtually any overseas military adventure to “defend our freedom,” and could give a damn about the 4th Amendment until somebody comes looking for their guns. We have become a nation of small, fearful people, and we accept the slow, steady erosion of our rights.
Perhaps the largest irony of the current gun-control climate is that pretty much every new “Assault Weapon” and high capacity magazine has been snapped up by panic buyers. Prices on used guns and magazines are at completely absurd levels. Untold thousands of these guns and magazines are suddenly gone from warehouses and are loose among us, along with millions of rounds of ammunition.
So here’s what I, as a lefty populist (with increasing anarchist tendencies), think we should do instead of focusing on gun control:
I want real universal, single payer health care, including universal access to mental health care and drug/alcohol treatment. Those of us who have dealt with public schools, trying to get an IEP, trying to get basic mental health support for our kids, know how difficult this is. Rather than two armed guards in every school, I want two mental health professionals and/or social workers armed with masters’ degrees or better (these people have largely been cut from our neighborhood school). There are millions of “Assault Weapons” in this country, but very few mass shootings (I know, one is too many). Most of the shooters are young white males with documented mental health issues, some of whom were literally begging for help. I’m open to some sort of measure that prevents mentally ill people from legally buying weapons, but we’ll have to be really careful. Some recent veterans who sought mental health services from the VA found themselves unable to buy a deer rifle, even though they posed no threat, because the VA, being a Federal agency, shared their list with the NICS people who do the firearms background checks.
Let’s end the War on Drugs to help pay for some of that mental health care.
I want to hear more kicking and screaming about the murder of children everywhere. I’m sure we’re all against the murder of children, and it’s happening every day, all the time, all over the world, often funded by our tax dollars. If we can take some message from the unfathomable darkness of the Newtown massacre, I hope it is this. Every life matters, not just American, suburban white kids. Some kids may have made the poor choice to be born in bad places, but we should still care about them. People on the Right tend to use words like “evil” and “monster” when discussing the Adam Lanzas of the world, but what do we call those who calmly weigh the deaths of thousands of innocents against their geopolitical ambitions?
Toward this end, I want to dismantle the American Empire. We spend more on our military (which is to say guns, really big guns) than most of the rest of the world combined. We have eleven hideously expensive Carrier Strike Groups, each one of which is the match of most small countries’ entire armies and air forces. I think we could maybe get by with two or three Carrier Strike Groups. We can continue to back off of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can start slowly closing down the hundreds of bases all over the world. We can tell everyone that we’re really sorry about the last 150 years or so. We can stop consuming so much oil and other resources. Hell, we could even reduce the ole’ nuclear weapons stockpile.
If we could get half of this stuff done, I would grudgingly turn in my deer rifle (sadly, I don’t have an “Assault Weapon,” by current definitions) and arm myself with a musket or perhaps a sharp stick.
My inner Noam Chomsky tells me in his gravelly old-man voice that I’m full of shit, I’m dreaming. Maybe so. But those of you who are eagerly jumping on the gun control bandwagon are also dreaming. You ask the government to make you safer, but look at that government! Look at how they made us “safe” after 9/11. We cannot be safe. But we can be better people. Better individuals. A better society. When we ask for gun control, we ask for yet more authoritarian enforcement, more bureaucracy, more police, more prisons. I’m asking for a more compassionate, but more difficult approach. As those of us who live in Portland are well aware, we have made mental health a law enforcement problem with tragic results. Mental health care is everybody’s problem. I challenge you to find a person who’s life hasn’t been touched in some way by mental illness. Democrats have a lot of political capital right now, and they should spend it wisely.
Again, I suspect that some sort of gun legislation will be passed, because it’s easy to do, and politicians love an easy win with a lot of opportunities for grandstanding. The NRA will complain, but, ultimately, the gun industry will survive largely unscathed, and this, not individual rights, is the NRA’s real concern. A ton of media attention will be focused on the issue, Climate Change will continue to be ignored, Wall Street will continue to run amok, the social contract of the New Deal and the Great Society will continue to die by a thousand little cuts. Likely this legislation will be ineffective in reducing violence, and if it is actually effective in removing guns from circulation, it will require Draconian and expensive enforcement measures, money that could save more lives elsewhere. Mental health care will get some lip service and not much else. A lot of (mostly) white, working class men will have even more reason to vote against their economic interests.
Maybe you really hate guns. Maybe you’d really like to poke those rednecks in the eye. Understood. I’m asking you to consider the costs, and the alternatives. If you do feel strongly enough to call your representatives in support of gun control, please also call them regarding mental health care, endless war, increasing wealth inequality, and all the other issues that continue to make us such a troubled and violent society.