Thursday, January 3, 2013

193. Gun debate should not wait

The tragedy in Connecticut is as difficult to understand as it is to write about. There is no shortage of opinion, and I hesitated to offer yet another one. Emotionally charged issues are dangerous and I often feel that objectivity increases proportionally with time. However, this issue-and the many issues within--have struck a chord with the American public, and considerations and decisions on the subject are being fast-tracked.

Considering the number of mass shootings in the last few years, I think the conversation is overdue-and I completely agree with President Obama in that we don't need six months of research--which only gives interest groups time to work feverishly to contaminate the process. This is a time to use the emotion of the tragedy to initiate change.

In considering the number of mass shootings over the last couple of decades, there are a number of questions:

What are the underlying issues that are inspiring the mass shootings? Why are gun-related deaths more prevalent in the United States than other countries? Is it born out of our culture and history with gun violence? Is it a lack of mental health issue identification and treatment? What about economic issues and might it be an act of retaliation or desperation? What role does the accessibility to guns play; would criminals get them anyways? What about the media attention afforded to killers--where they are instantly infamous and their lives, and their complaints, shared with a national audience? And what about precedent--and those who follow the blueprint created by those before them? Finally, what about movies and video games, and the glamorization of violence?

For now, and in the midst of the most recent aftermath, the debate on gun ownership seems to occupy center stage.

My father was a gun collector and I grew up on a farm, where we were not a stranger carrying shotguns. Before I knew my way around the world, I begged to go hunting with my father. I always respected guns, and had a waning interest as time went on--but my father had many types of guns, including military--type assault rifles. He, like many Americans, would certainly protest any limitation on gun ownership.

On the surface, I am not against guns. I believe in the Second Amendment--even if it is worshipped out of context. The Second Amendment created the right to bear arms, as a measure to protect citizens against a number of then aggressors--but it does not define, nor could it anticipate, modern weaponry. For example, nobody has the "right" to arm themselves with five nuclear bombs that they keep stored in a work shed. Thus, the issue is not about a right or measure of liberty, but rather of degree. What do Americans reasonably need to protect themselves?

The reaction of Americans is an interesting dichotomy. One segment of the population is turning in their guns at a record pace; another is purchasing them as quickly as possible. Fatefully, the recent shootings happen to come on the heels of the re-election of President Obama and the already propagated fear that he would act to either make gun ownership more difficult or ban assault weapons altogether--or even take away all guns. The overreaction, while not surprising, carries some preposterous ideology, assertions and opinion.

While I support a ban on assault weapons (because I do not understand why people need the ability to fire a couple hundred shots per minute) I think the issues are much deeper than just gun ownership. Japan, for example, has very strict gun ownership laws and, not coincidentally, one of the lowest number of gun-related deaths. But ownership laws have their limits in the United States, not only because of the Second Amendment, but also because of our culture. And while each tragedy is individual and we do not know whether any measures or precautions could have prevented them, it does not mean we should not analyze and consider policy changes that have been successful in other countries.

It is here that is perhaps the most discouraging and upsetting aspect of this tragedy. Due to political interests, constraints and ignorance, we have to wait until disaster either strikes or is inevitably pending in order to engage in the difficult conversations. We have to wait until we are approaching the fiscal cliff, cleaning up after another storm of the century, or suffering from another mass shooting before we can consider negotiating across the aisle and with our powerful sacred cows. Media pressure and public opinion seems to oscillate just enough to assure nothing changes. And, it almost seems that we have to wait until legislatures have expended every shred of self-interest before change can happen.

There have been about 30 mass shootings since Columbine. If we were going to do something to try to prevent them, shouldn't it have happened by now? Let's not wait another 12 years to make changes. And while there is nothing anyone can probably do to ensure that it never happens again--doing nothing will certainly assure that it does happen again.

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