Monday, December 17, 2012

Gun control the hard way

There is no easy way

As a member of the Ann Arbor City Council in the 1980s, I pushed a gun control measure that basically banned just about anything with a trigger. I didn't write the proposed ordinance. Advocates brought it to the Democratic council caucus looking for legislative sponsors.

None of the liberals in the caucus wanted to touch it, which surprised me. I thought it was a no-brainer, but, as it turned out, they were in some ways wiser than I, or at least clearer about what would happen once the ordinance actually hit our legislative agenda.

In any case, always looking for ways to rile up the unriled, I volunteered to lead the legislative fight. I've written briefly about what happened in an earlier post, "Gun control according to Harvey Wasserman," but it's worth repeating here that though the ordinance failed to pass, the public debate on the issue was both exciting and educational.

During public hearings, a good number of people on both sides found inflammatory and insulting ways to describe individuals and groups whose position they opposed. Speakers frequently claimed the moral high ground in the debate and the right to flat out dismiss both the personal character and the political positions of those on the other side. The fairly common and very human tendency to do such things made a calm public discussion difficult, at times impossible.

Now, after the killings at Sandy Hook, readers can see that form of near self-righteous indignation manifesting itself in a Washington Post column calling for renewed effort to pass gun control legislation by the normally reserved and diplomatic E.J. Dionne. "It is time to insist that such craven propaganda [opposing gun control] will no longer be taken seriously," he wrote. "If Congress does not act this time, we can deem it as totally bought and paid for by the representatives of gun manufacturers, gun dealers and their very well-compensated apologists."

Dionne may well be right, and he is not alone in saying so, but if a new debate about gun control is to begin, perhaps a delay in smearing the other side is in order. Certainly, opponents of new measures to ban automatic weapons, or register guns, or raise the rather minimal bar for gun ownership, in general, will wish to change the subject, or broaden it. "Guns," we have heard many times before, "don't kill people. People kill people."

We will hear that again, and more. But "we will have to avoid the paralysis induced by those who cast every mass shooting as the work of one deranged individual and never ever the result of flawed policies. We must beware of those who invoke complexity not to further understanding but to encourage passivity and resignation," Dionne insisted in his column.

Yes, well, but how will we know if someone raises the possibility that deranged individuals, not guns, are the problem because they really believe that to be true or, instead, because they wish to paralyze the rest of us with self-doubt? Perhaps, we will have to assume good intentions and, on the way to stricter laws, consider that there are, indeed, complexities.

The day after the shootings at Sandy Hook, the Post ran a sidebar that listed a baker's dozen incidents this year in which gunmen killed at least two people. In those 13 incidents, 90 people were killed, including seven shooters who shot themselves and one killed by police. The incident at Sandy Hook was the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The July killing of 12 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado would have tied for seventh deadliest (with four previous shootings) if the shooter himself had also been killed.

It does make sense to act as quickly as possible to better control the sale of automatic weapons to private individuals and to pass other restrictions as well, but how we proceed to consider the matter might affect the conclusion at which we arrive.

Dionne wants quick action. "After mass shootings, its always said we must improve our mental-health system and the treatment of those who may be prone to violence," he wrote, but "...this noble sentiment is too often part of a strategy to evade any action on guns themselves".

"Not this time. Americans are not the only people in the world who confront mental-health problems. We are the only country that regularly experiences horrors of this sort. The difference, as the writer Garry Wills has said, is that the United States treats the gun as a secular god, immune to rational analysis and human intervention.

"We must depose the false deity. We must act now to curb gun violence, or we never will," he concluded.

I'm sorry to be the one arguing against that notion. But mental illness is certainly part of the problem. And for many years gun control advocates have helped polarize the debate over gun control, retarding progress, by sending the message that the people who own guns are the problem. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that many gun owners are opposed to all sorts of reasonable efforts to regulate gun ownership. But I learned in the rowdy debate over gun control in Ann Arbor that if one can't hear the objections of those who oppose gun control, one can't very easily change the conditions of the debate.

Dionne's concluding sentiment to the contrary, we will one day curb gun violence when we acknowledge that guns and mental illness and the availability of treatment are all part of the problem. We will one day curb gun violence when our rhetoric ceases to divide us.

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