Enough with the Excuses, Part 8: TBD

So, to summarize the past week or so of posts from the Machine on this topic:

  1. No, we shouldn’t just accept that mass shootings have to be a part of daily life in America
  2. Blaming mental health issues is at best a reason for tighter control on access to guns, and at worst a diversionary tactic
  3. If anything should involve the frustration of red tape, it’s access to mass killing machines
  4. Feral hogs have done very little to counter our increasingly efficient technology for shredding them
  5. The people who scream most loudly about the Government wanting to oppress us were actually the first ones to strike, and the Government showed tremendous restraint in response
  6. The reason throwing more police at the problem doesn’t work is because mass shooters have easy access to lethal firepower
  7. Americans really love guns, far more than any other nation in the world

It remains to be seen how successfully Congress will be able to implement the agreement in principle that was achieved last weekend. We can all be cautiously optimistic about that, but even if they are 100% successful, the plan falls considerably short of where things need to be. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution here, and that’s because gun control is one of many issues that has become so partisan nobody can even remember why.

It’s unfortunate that common sense issues like gun control become political, because general political conversation is more polarized and vitriolic than ever. One could argue that “communication” mechanisms like Facebook and Twitter have made this far worse than it used to be. The value of direct human contact and communication cannot be overstated. We become more disconnected and more likely to be hateful to one another when we are not face to face in the same room. When somebody is just a Twitter handle, for example, it’s easy to duhumanize them. Just like when we are driving – we don’t see people, we see cars, and so we say things we would never say directly to another human being right in front of us.

Congress used to be a level above all this, which is why compromises were possible up to even a couple of decades ago. Long-standing members of Congress in particular had learned how to deal respectfully with their colleagues even when in complete disagreement. But now we have people like Boebert and Taylor-Greene who bring the worst kind of Twitter-fired hatred into the conversation, and who openly embrace their roles as divisive forces to feed their narcissistic egos. With this kind of evilly hot temperature even in the halls of our democracy, is it any surprise there is more anger and violence in our nation than ever? And guns make that so easy to act upon.

Hopefully some measures will be enacted to move us closer to where we need to go. But truly getting there will require a fundamental change to the way Americans on opposite sides of issues relate to each other. To that, the Machine does not have a solution as yet.

Enough with the Excuses, Part 7: Lower the Temperature

Over the weekend, no doubt inspired primarily by this blog, 10 Republican Senators agreed in principle with a plan to implement some form of increased gun control in the United States. The plan doesn’t address everything it needs to address (e.g., why can you trust an 18-year-old with an AR-15 and not a beer?). Nor has it been codified into actual language as a bill (where the wheels could easily come off, and there isn’t much time to get it done). But if this plan were to become law, the Machine is reasonably confident it will save lives, and any such progress is better than nothing.

Why is it so hard to make any progress on this issue? Another one of the common themes with gun control opponents is that going after the guns is not going to help in the end, because people will find a way. Of course, there is significant overlap between these folks and those who have a completely opposite approach to laws surrounding abortion. As the Machine has noted before, a certain party is apparently much more concerned about your well-being before you are born than after.

But let’s talk about the premise that going after the guns is not the right approach. If you look at various studies of gun-related death rates vs any particular definition of “how tough are the gun laws there”, it’s not always obvious that there is a correlation between the two. Some studies show that states with tougher gun laws have fewer gun-related deaths per capita, while others show the opposite. Part of the problem there is the subjectivity of “tougher gun laws”. It’s fairly easy to game that by breaking it into categories such that the relative weighting of any one particular kind of gun control skews the results toward whatever one wishes to see. It’s also fair to note that some urban areas have more crime in general, so their respective states will suffer more gun-related deaths even if the laws are stricter.

But perhaps our biggest problem is simply the sheer number of guns in the United States compared with anywhere else. Consider, if you will, an oven. What happens when you turn it on? Heat goes in, and it gets hotter. What happens if you turn it from 300 degrees to 425? More heat goes in, and it gets hotter still. Not a mind-stretching concept. Now suppose you’ve got a country with a half a million guns in it, and you double that. Would you expect the number of shootings to go up or down? Well, here’s what’s going on in the real world: the number of civilian owned guns in the United States is 120.5 per 100 people (yes, on average, each of us owns more than 1 gun). That is over 3 times as high as the next country on the list (Serbia). Meanwhile, among developed nations, the United States has over 4 gun-related homicides per hundred thousand people, the only developed nation with a figure over 1 (in fact most are below 0.5, and over half of them are less than 0.25). If you want to raise the temperature, pour in more heat. If you want to increase shootings, pour in more guns. It’s not any more complicated than that.

Gun control opponents will argue that making guns illegal (which by the way is not what anybody with influence is seriously advocating) would not keep them out of the hands of criminals. Well of course not, because there are a gazillion guns in this country. Guess who’s not upset about that at all? The companies who make guns. A company loves nothing more than demand for their product.

One conclusion here is that gun buy-back programs and events fulfill a critical need right now. But perhaps an even broader conclusion zeroes in on something much more difficult to change: our collective consciousness as Americans. We put a greater per capita demand on guns than any other country in the world, much less any other developed country. We need to begin valuing a number of things more dearly (or even as dearly) than we value our right to own and use guns. On that front, we have clearly lost our way. We’ll conclude this series of posts with ideas on how we can find our way back.

Enough with the Excuses, Part 6: Fear Itself

So of course, there is one kind of response to mass shootings that gun makers love: throw more guns at the problem. There are two levels to that “solution”: have those guns attached to more police officers, or basically give everybody who works at the school a gun. If recent mass shootings are any indication, neither of these will work.

One element of the aftermath to the Sandy Hook shooting was the rise of the School Resource Officer (SRO) across the nation. First of all, what a depressing statement. But second, there are many problems with this approach. A recent episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” delved into that. What I’ll only repeat here is that there was an SRO onsite when the Parkland mass shooting happened, and that person did not enter the school. Fast forward to Uvalde, and as many as 19 officers (not even SROs) did not enter the classroom where students and teachers lay dying or under threat of being shot. It would seem that expanding the police presence at a school does not have much impact in the end.

To understand why, you have to think about what’s really happening here. Police officers are not RoboCops. They are human beings with all the same inner workings as anyone else. It seems beyond question that somebody should have done something in each of these events, which might have led to fewer people being shot, and/or more people surviving after having been shot. The hour of inaction that elapsed in Uvalde is particularly infuriating in this regard. Why did no one go in? It might be disguised as a tactical decision, but ultimately there seems to be no more fundamental answer than fear. Fear of being shot along with children and teachers by a soulless man with superior firepower. AR-15 bullets can pierce even the armor police wear, which means any attempt to move in was likely going to lead to wounded or worse police officers in the ensuing firefight. The SRO at Parkland was not willing to take that risk. Whoever commanded the situation in Uvalde was also unwilling. There are undoubtedly plenty of police officers out there who would go ahead and take the risk anyway, putting their own lives at risk to save others. But that is apparently not a universal truth in law enforcement, which is not an indictment of police officers, but just a recognition that there are humans of all kinds in professions of all kinds. Further complicating matters is the chain of command, which cannot be tossed aside without setting a dangerous precedent. So all it takes is one fearful person in the group, regardless of how the others may see things.

Ok, let’s pivot to the even worse idea of arming teachers. If fully trained officers, many of whom have been in the heat of battle either in law enforcement or in previous military experience, are too fearful for their own safety to challenge someone with an AR-15, then how many teachers would be able to overcome that kind of fear in the moment? And why do we think it’s ok to be in a situation where we’d be asking teachers to lay down their lives in order to take down a shooter?

There is one common denominator in all of these tragedies: a mass murderer with superior weaponry to those who would otherwise be willing and able to protect. We have come full circle: the only way more police officers and armed teachers would make any kind of difference in mass shootings is if the superior weaponry was unavailable to the shooter in the first place. The only way to ensure that is to enact meaningful gun control measures.

Enough with the Excuses, Part 5: Patriot Games

It’s fairly certain that the framers of the Constitution, James Madison most specifically in this case, did not intend the Second Amendment to refer to guns as a means of self-defense, as it began to be interpreted in the last several decades. But it’s also not entirely clear that the Second Amendment was intended to protect the citizenry from a corrupted Government. It may have traced back to something sounding a little like that in England, but that was more of a dispute between prevailing religions. And there are some indications the Second Amendment was simply put in place to appease white southerners and their “militias”, so the balance of the Bill of Rights could be ratified.

In any case, gun control opponents generally vehemently insist that citizens be able to arm themselves for protection from their Government. Perhaps at some point during the forming of that worldview, citizens really were afraid of their Government. But to paraphrase Yoda, that fear has led to hate. And just as Darth Sidious fictionally fed off that hate to destroy the Republic, and just as Adolf Hitler historically fed off that hate to empower Nazi Germany, so did our previous President feed off that hate to nearly topple American democracy. It is fitting that we are seeing hearings about January 6, 2021, just as we are in the middle of the newest legislative debate (weak though it may be) over gun control. The two are much more closely tied than one might initially think.

The kinds of egomaniacal narcissists that rise to power in the manner of Hitler and Trump learn to wield a fascinating but terrifying power – the ability to use a cult of personality to convince their subjects that they are the real good guys, and that every other part of the Government is corrupt. The folks that already hate their Government for whatever other reasons are easily drawn in, because this message confirms their existing biases. And then it happens: the notion of storming the Capitol in their minds becomes not an act of treason, but an act of patriotism. They equate themselves with the bold souls who broke free from the oppression of King George to form the new American republic. Once you start down that road, it becomes narrower and steeper the farther you go.

Ironically, while the one person who definitely did not want to stop the siege of the Capitol sat back and did nothing from the White House, the rest of the “oppressive” Government did not do what Second Amendment worshippers insist it would do – they did not open wide-spread fire on the rioters. Let’s be clear – if ordinary citizens can defend their homes with guns, then surely there would have been legal backing for law enforcement to fire at will with little to no discretion as a horde broke into the most important building to our democracy with intent to injure and/or kill. But law enforcement did not do that, a profound rebuttal of one of gun control opponents’ fundamental tenets.

We have come full circle. The biggest threats to our democracy are wannabe dictators combined with their willing and self-appointed patriots, not the bulk of the Government itself. To preserve our democracy, including the sacred Second Amendment, we must therefore have controls in place to ensure those “patriots” can’t amass sufficient arms to execute the coup they so dearly desire.

Enough with the Excuses, Part 4: Hunting for a Need

Governmental bodies at all levels are wrestling with some common issues right now, among them:

  1. What sort of process should be in place to vet any particular person that wants to buy a hyper-lethal weapon?
  2. How old should such a person be before they are allowed to have that kind of power?
  3. Wait a second, who the hell needs an AR-15 in the first place, regardless of age?

So let’s zero in on number 3 for a minute, remembering that in the time it takes you to read what the Machine has to say here, dozens of people can be taken down by a single AR-15.

If you haven’t seen it, there is a tremendous article here about why people want AR-15s and why nobody really needs one. Knowing the people I know who own or would want to own an AR-15, I am fairly convinced that most of those people don’t need to own an AR-15, but rather want to own an AR-15, for the same reason I want to buy various electronic toys: because they geek out on it. Obviously, if that were the only reason in public discourse for owning an AR-15, we’d be having a different conversation right now. But of course, there are people out there who also claim the need. And that need quite often boils down to hunting out of self defense, and most specifically to feral hogs.

Here’s the narrative: hogs multiply like rabbits, and the wild variety with the fangs can do serious damage to a human being in one-on-one combat. There are folks living in various places where these hogs represent a constant threat, to the point where there could be a whole bunch of them threatening the very lives of one’s children, and henceforth the need for a killing machine that can dispatch this porcine threat in short order.

In the 1980’s, the late comedian Sam Kinison infamously asked why hungry people don’t move to where the food is. It was as momentarily hilarious a statement as it was impractical. So I won’t start here by asking why people are choosing to live in proximity to evil bacon. But let’s go ahead and take the “need” at face value. Why is an AR-15 the only answer? In my naive brain, it’s because one doesn’t have to put the energy into learning how to effectively utilize a different kind of gun. An AR-15 is apparently only slightly more challenging than a video game in that regard. But it’s also been noted by far more gun-savvy people than me that other rifles are in fact more effective in this situation. Either way, one must wonder how things got to this point.

Below is a graph of the ability of feral hogs and human beings to inflict damage upon one another as a function of time. I can’t tell you what the units are, but I can tell you the graph is not wrong. As you can see, there is probably a point somewhere before the AR-15 where we should have felt pretty comfortable about being able to win this fight. The flip side of that is, why stop with an AR-15? Why not send these porkers packing with a rocket-propelled grenade? A dirty bomb? Phasers set to kill?

The other question is, how many 18-year-olds find themselves in a situation where it’s spray an oncoming hoard of hogs with bullets or lose your entire family? Was that the motivating factor for any mass shooter in recent memory to have obtained their weapon in the first place? The Machine puts the probability pretty low on that.

We’ve come full circle. If the AR-15 is the only way to escape terminal boar-dom, then it’s important enough to require some training and maturity, which means there need to be checks in place to ensure that both 1) the person with the gun knows how and when to use it, and 2) the person with the gun needed it in the first place.

Enough with the Excuses, Part 3: Red Tape

At one point in the movie “Die Hard 2: Die Harder”, the bad guys stage a false battle against each other, using blue tape to mark cartridges with blanks, and red tape to mark cartridges with live rounds. This is the one and only time in human history where gun enthusiasts have wanted red tape anywhere near their guns. Generally speaking, gun control opponents want it to be easier to obtain a gun than just about anything else you can imagine trying to obtain. This is part of their absolute mentality: any slightest attempt to make it harder to obtain a gun is trampling on the Second Amendment, and suddenly nobody will have guns anywhere in the country except criminals and the Government (many of these folks equate those two groups of course).

Despite having access to the most exotic fractal equations in the known universe, the Machine is unable to compute exactly why guns have attained this lofty status in so many minds. Think about all the other things that are such a ginormous process to obtain. For example, if you want to drive a car, you need to have a license. In order to get a license, you need to demonstrate that you understand all the rules of the road, both with a written test and actually driving a car with someone who can say whether you are ready or not. If you commit even a few violations once you’ve got your license, it can be taken away. If you combine driving with drinking, it can be taken away very quickly. Where is the public outcry over the rules surrounding being able to drive?

If the average citizen needs to have access to classified information, generally because their job requires it, there is a many-month-long process involving a background investigation, fingerprints, and often a polygraph. Once that access is granted, even a single violation of the associated policy can lead to revocation. Yet there isn’t an entire political party clamoring for that process to be streamlined or removed altogether.

If you want to play music in a public setting, you will often need to file paperwork with the city. If you want faster processing through the airports through Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check, you need to go through a process. If you want to start your own business, you need to jump through a fair number of hoops. If you want to ride a motorcycle, you need to get training and certification above and beyond a normal license. If you want to become an aesthetician, you need to get trained and certified to perform certain services. If you want to eat at a really nice restaurant, you may have to reserve weeks in advance. Costco won’t let you in if you don’t have a card. You can’t win Trivial Pursuit until you roll the exact right number on the dice. I could go on and on and…

Can somebody please explain why, of all things under whatever heavens may exist, the need to fire a gun is the one thing we can’t wait a single additional second to do?

Here’s what happens when somebody can just walk into the store and buy a gun: somebody with a grudge or a mental issue or just having a really bad day can bring their new toy to the grocery store and gun me down just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That will severely hamper my own ability to buy a gun, therefore trampling on my Second Amendment rights. We have come full circle: the only way to ensure that each of us has the maximum probability of being able to obtain a gun is to put some red tape in the way.

Enough with the Excuses, Part 2: Mental Block

It’s become a common theme with gun control opponents lately: the problem isn’t guns, it’s mental health. This is just a morphed version of “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It’s also a brilliant diversionary tactic, delaying the real conversation until the outrage over the most recent tragedy has faded.

If the political party most tightly affiliated with the gun lobby and resistance to gun control truly believes mental health is the crux of the issue with mass shootings, then why has that same party continuously gone after Medicaid, which is the single largest payer for mental health services in the United States? The Trump administration sought over a trillion dollars in cuts to Medicaid, and hundreds of billions to Medicare, the second largest payer of mental health services. Billions more were targeted in substance abuse treatment programs, which go hand in hand with mental health. And then there is Texas, which you can read all about here. Governor Greg Abbott has singled out mental health as the reason for tragedies like the one in Uvalde. But he has also routinely refused to expand Medicaid despite being offered federal incentives that would have put the state ahead in revenue. Texas also moved over 200 million dollars from Health and Human Services to border protection, just this April. These are just a couple of the ways you get your state to rank last of all 50 states in overall access to mental health care. And in these ways, like so many others, Texas is a microcosm of the United States: let’s blame mental health without ever doing anything about it.

So let’s say we get everybody to magically agree that more money will be spent on truly solving the issues associated with mental health. What does the end state look like? Are mental disorders eradicated like some sort of viral disease? Of course not. Mental disorders are deeply rooted in the human brain, down to the cellular level, and how those cells interact with all the other parts of our bodies. They won’t evolve away naturally, and we may never understand their physiology well enough to completely prevent them. They are a part of the human condition. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to minimize their impacts, for both the afflicted and the people around them. But it also means there will always be folks out there with mental health issues, and there will always be a danger that one of them walks into a store to buy a gun, all the way up to and including semi-automatic weapons. It is never explicitly discussed enough, the speed with which any gun, much less a semi-automatic one, can turn a person in an agitated state into a killer. How anyone could think that power should not be curbed in even the slightest way for a person dealing with mental health issues is inexplicable.

We have come full circle: by asserting that the real issue is mental health, we have established the necessity to not only provide more resources to address mental health, but also to ensure that people dealing with these issues are unable to buy a weapon that can kill another human being instantly.

Enough with the Excuses, Part 1: That’s Just the Way It Is

Yes, we agree, the Machine has been too quiet lately. Oh wait, nobody was actually saying that?…

It’s also been a while since the Machine issued a series of related posts on a subject. So whether you’re ready or not, let’s jump right into it: an eight-post series on why every excuse for not implementing gun control actually ends up being an argument for gun control.

And how about inaugurating this series with a depressingly common take: we just have to accept that there will be more mass shootings than days in each year, because, well, you know, Second Amendment. The Machine posted about this topic a few years back. In case you don’t have the Bill of Rights in your back pocket, here is what the Second Amendment says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

It’s startling that a sentence with such bad structure has become the centerpiece of so many worldviews. Nevertheless, no Amendment gets more publicity in recent decades. It’s probably fair to assert that most of the people who use the Second Amendment as an excuse against gun control are unable to summarize the content in most of the other 26 Amendments without looking them up. But nowhere in the Constitution is there any implication that one part is more important than any other. One might think the ordering of the Amendments implies some priority, but James Madison only ordered them the way he did because that’s the order of the original sections they were intended to modify. And here’s where we run into the challenge of maintaining a republic whose fundamental tenets are 226 years old and counting: what happens when one set of rights impedes on another?

Speaking of which, the First Amendment reads thusly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Take note of this text in particular: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”. Where should we be able to peaceably assemble? How about schools? Movie theaters? Shopping malls? Concerts? Places of work? Now, of course, somebody will say “that’s not what was meant by assemble”. But then I’ll just play the “guns were muskets in the 18th century” card, so why don’t we just avoid wasting each other’s time?

The Machine asserts with 100% confidence that the right to bear arms has thus far been interpreted in a way that infringes on the right to peaceably assemble. And when two parts of the most important document in our nation are at odds, there is no escaping that there must be a conversation. And that is the most maddening part of this perpetual cycle: every time another tragedy occurs, the gun lobby and its minions put up the same resistance to even the slightest hint of a conversation. There is justifiable precedent in placing limits on a right prescribed by the Constitution, and one need look no further than the First Amendment. Freedom of speech ends at well-defined points: slander and libel are against the law, as is threatening a public figure. The idea that only the Second Amendment is immutable is preposterous and completely at odds with the words of Thomas Jefferson:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

For some reason, gun control opponents believe that the instant any law is passed to make to make the purchase of even select types of guns more difficult, suddenly every gun will be taken away from every gun owner in the entire nation. This does not seem to have happened with cars, houses, or adopted children, each of which requires a process to purchase and/or operate, and each of which can be taken away if the associated rules are not followed.

So we come full circle: the assertion of the sacredness of the Second Amendment necessarily implies the equal sacredness of the First Amendment, which inevitably leads to the requirement that limits be imposed on the reach of the Second Amendment. In case you didn’t feel like clicking the link earlier in this post, I can’t say it any better than one Antonin Scalia in one of the defining rulings of the Supreme Court on this subject:

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose:  For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Oh, the Machine is just getting started on this one.