Guns N’ Illness: Part 1

My stance on school shootings is that there is no problem with gun violence in schools, so nothing needs to change and everything is just fine…

…says nobody.

Much the same as I did in A Non-Crazy View of…”Obamacare”, I like to open a discussion with something absolutely everybody agrees on: There is a problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal or conservative or Christian or atheist or whatever — all of us agree there is most definitely a problem. We Americans are united on this conclusion. Isn’t that some good news to open with?

With this common ground established, then, let us respect in each other that we only differ on how to solve the problem. That’s ok. Disagreement is good. Disagreement and debate are how we sort through multiple partial solutions in order to reach a more complete, truly effective solution.

Because there’s a lot to discuss here, I’ll restrict today’s entry to the liberals’ solution of gun control. Next round, we can talk about the conservatives’ focus on mental illness.

Before moving forward, I want to get an unfortunately necessary disclaimer out of the way so that the discussion can’t be derailed by the distraction this truth brings:

Partisan Politics is Broken

Yes, there are clearly and unquestionably Republicans who’s successful bids for office were thanks in large part to the National Rifle Association (NRA) lining their pockets. This means the politics on the public stage get bent toward the moneyed interests of the NRA instead of the interest of constituent voters (regardless of how much the two align or don’t). The Democrats have the exact same weighted dice in other arenas. Politics on the public stage is largely the voice of money and, depressingly, more theater than problem-solving.

This post is not about that, because to discuss/debate topics on that foundation is an exercise in futility and exactly why Facebook debates on such topics run about in endless, exhausting circles. Instead, what this post is about is how we can start to collectively address this problem ourselves. Despite the reality of moneyed politics, we do still have some degree of influence on our representatives, and that influence grows stronger the more locally you focus. You might not have the ear of the President, but you can much more easily pester your City Council or local school board.

With this in mind, when I talk about conservatives and liberals, I’m not talking about Paul Ryans and Nancy Pelosis. I’m talking about you. I often find that Democrats and Republicans I meet in person are far more nuanced and thoughtful than their talking head counterparts on TV. In other words, and more so than ever under our current President, I regard public, media-covered politics as theater and everyday engagement with people around me as reality.

You with me, liberal and conservative friends? Then with that out of the way, let’s engage this topic properly.

They’ll Just Do It Anyway

So I’m going to begin approaching this aspect of the topic by establishing a presupposition: With laws, we are only ever reducing the probability of violence, not removing it. To expect there to come a day in the foreseeable future where every single last person is guaranteed to never harm children en masse on school grounds again is an exercise in the absurd. Instead, we try to make it harder to accomplish the goal of shooting up a school so as to reduce the frequency of such incidents. For now, that is the best we can do, but that alone is a pretty darn big step forward. Fair enough? So keep this foundational idea in mind as we trudge through this muddy water.

First, let’s address the extremes. “Making guns illegal will only ensure that only the bad guys have guns” is a short-sighted, ridiculous argument, unless you’re an anarchist. By that logic, murder should be legal because murderers are criminals by definition and will thus break the law and murder anyway. But no, that’s not how laws work. Laws are not made based on an assumption that criminals will obey them. That’s not why we pass laws. Instead, the idea is that the harder it is to get (certain types of) guns, the more hoops the would-be shooter has to jump through, and hopefully, ideally, this rise in difficulty will prevent some from succeeding. Yes, criminals can use the black market, but not every criminal has ready access to the black market. The black market is harder to access than, say, Wal-Mart.

Let me stress again: The idea is not that a new law will make “criminals” stop because now it’s illegal. It’s about manipulating probability by raising the difficulty.

Good Guy With a Gun

This is an interesting argument, and I have to confess it appeals to me on some level. This is a curious reverse solution of the liberals’ pitch for tighter gun control in that the conservative argument is to arm more “good guys” so they can fight back. This shouldn’t be wholly dismissed; concealed carry training and better yet, veteran police officers and soldiers with experience bring some real defense to the table. Returning to the idea of manipulating probability, it makes sense that this could serve as a deterrent, again “raising the difficulty” and hopefully weeding out some would-be shooters.

There is, unfortunately, a problem with this: Defense by its very nature is a reactive solution. A police officer or trained civilian cannot spring into action until after something has happened. Awesome as our defenders may be, they are not clairvoyant, and some police officers will caution you that police don’t show up typically until after the crime occurred. We do not live in the world of Minority Report. What this means is that an armed response is a response to something that has already happened — at earliest, a would-be shooter pulling out his gun, but more likely (as was the case with last week’s shooting), they cannot respond until after one or more innocent people have been slain.

It’s thus critically important that while this is a solution, it is a solution that minimizes the body count after the fact; it does not prevent the attack.

One may argue, however, that such a solution would also serve to deter. Who is going to open fire with armed security present, or better yet, armed civilians all around? This question overlooks the ongoing pattern of these shootings: they are murder-suicides. An attacker who goes in ready, expecting, and even desiring to die is absolutely not going to be deterred by anyone else being armed.

I know a number of people with concealed carry licenses, and I do feel safer around them. They know what they’re doing, are well trained, and have a real, deep compassion for defending innocents. This should not go ignored, and while I do not believe the “good guy with a gun” is a solution unto itself, I am open-minded about it being a component of a larger solution.

Note: I am omitting from this discussion the idea of everyone being armed willy-nilly. It should be obvious that responding to an active shooter by starting a Michael-Bay-style gunfight is only going to introduce friendly fire to the mix. This helps no one. Instead, I am willing to be open to not so much the idea of the “good guy with a gun” but the “very well trained professional good guy with a gun”.

There is nonetheless a grave risk inherent to this solution: even trained humans make mistakes. Innocents can still be caught in the crossfire. Again, remember, I am framing this as manipulating probability, and this is one variable in that equation. We are balancing the probability of an armed attacker along with the probability of an armed responder’s ability to spring into action without making severe mistakes.

The Liberal Solution: Gun Control

I want you to keep one core idea in mind as you consider the liberal approach to this topic: liberalism is based on the root word “liberty”, so a liberal more often than not tends to seek solutions that preserve one’s liberty. You may find this contradictory in the current context since gun control is obviously restricting liberty, but the key here is to recognize the catch 22 at play: the liberty to own whatever guns one pleases vs. the liberty to live free of the threat of violence.

The liberal is faced with the dilemma of trying to restrict one liberty to preserve another liberty, thus weighing one liberty as intrinsically more important than the other.

There is a myth I want to clear up here: some conservatives have long feared that liberals want to take guns away from everyone. This is incorrect and a misunderstanding that really spread like wildfire during the Obama years. Liberals do not want to take all guns away from all people. Yes, there will always be exceptions, and I’m sure there are some on the far-left fringe who do want to go that far, but they are not representative of mainstream liberalism, at least here in the U.S.

Instead, the liberal typically wants to tighten the boundaries on gun ownership. This usually means banning weapons that are designed to kill multiple targets in a short amount of time, i.e. automatic and/or semi-automatic weapons. The liberal is thus largely uninterested in your shotgun or hunting rifle mounted in the back of your pickup truck. This is a common misunderstanding of the liberal approach, but pause and consider for a moment: you don’t have any old-timey pictures of an AR-15 mounted in the back window of your pickup truck, do you?

The liberal is usually only interested in the type of guns that keep appearing in actual mass shootings. I would ask that regardless of your own views, that you at least give them credit here that if nothing else, on the surface this seems to make sense, at least to the layman. If “Object A” makes an appearance every time a bunch of people are gunned down, then there’s some logic to turning one’s attention specifically to “Object A”. The liberal thinks that if automatic rifles can be removed from the open market, then our would-be shooters — at least those without shady backroom connections — are left to open fire on groups of people with their shotgun or hunting rifle, which likely isn’t going to yield the same result.

(Note: There is some important discussion going on out there about how certain types of weapons are severely misunderstood by laymen, especially the AR-15. This is beyond the scope of this post only because I can only cram so much into one post at the moment. I ask instead that you grant some empathy and if nothing else, understand the layman’s point of view for the time being. Of course, this nuance does need to be addressed in full, though I doubt I’m able to do the topic justice myself.)

They’re Coming for Mah Guns!

So now what do we conclude? Is it time to implement some restrictions on gun ownership? If so, how far do we go with implementing restrictions, and how much is too much?

There’s a lot more to discuss here, so let’s pause here and digest what’s on the table at this point, then return to this topic in the next installment. I want to address other dimensions of this debate such as mental illness, the liberty of the responsible gun owner, the American-specific concept of a self-governing people necessarily being a self-armed people, and possibly other factors I may have neglected thus far.

For now, I hope I’ve made the case that no matter how you decide to approach this topic, there is no clean, simple, easy answer. We need to get away from constantly villainizing each other and instead at least recognize that though we may be on radically different paths toward a solution, we are all trying to find a solution. We all care about this. We all want to fix this. Let’s not forget our common ground.