|Pic: Christiaan Briggs|
It was those verses, from three different faiths, all swirling around my head as I watched the carnage in Sandy Hook on TV several weeks ago. 2012 marked a year in which many people I know had already lost so many loved ones. For a while, I had no thoughts, no analysis, no theories…just verses.“Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)
“Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do it.” (Proverbs 3:27)
“…and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.” (Surah 5:32)
Then the debates emerged. To say that they became poisoned by posturing, divisiveness and sanctimony is both understandable and an understatement. People’s anger, sadness and defensiveness charged a discussion in ways I haven’t seen since 9/11. In our current climate, it is increasingly hard to see how some of the alternating proposals flowing from these debates, namely, a “good guy with a gun” in every school or a generic “gun control” that bans all bad guns (“assault weapons”) and gun accessories (magazines, pistol grips etc.) will be anything but a distraction from truly understanding and addressing the root of what is causing people to die.
My own beliefs on the culture of violence have put me at odds with many friends. I consider myself a progressive to the bone. I am pro-immigrant, anti-war on drugs and anti just about any war based on false pretenses and built on destruction. Like many people, I have seen enough needless death and violence to know how much I hate it, whether it comes from the barrel of a gun, the blade of a knife, the missile of a drone, a US-issued Stinger in the hands of the Taliban or a baseball bat. But even though my parents never owned guns, I grew up around many people that did and I have always believed in what the Second Amendment fundamentally stands for. I never saw the label progressive as meaning a little left of liberal. To me, it always meant that we address the root cause of every problem we face in a way that challenges ourselves as much as we challenge the powers creating those problems.
As a community organizer, I witnessed with my own eyes a War on Drugs that left communities littered with drugs, violence and mass incarceration, a War on Terror that terrorized communities and an undeclared War on Immigrants meant to “secure communities” that has left many families torn apart. So when I hear folks recite the mantra of “gun control” or “a good guy with a gun” as the cure-all for the culture of violence in this country, I pause.
For another “banning of bad guns” or a “giving all good guys guns” proposal to be held up as a solution to any of this madness means that we are answering our own questions with self-serving facts that reinforce what we are already thinking. The actual facts don’t support any side of this debate completely and desperately scream out for new solutions.
The facts behind “the facts”
Among the most self-serving facts are the constant comparisons between violence in the US and what Piers Morgan calls “the civilized” world. So yes, America leads most of Europe in an intentionally misleading measure of violence called gun deaths. But over half of US gun deaths are suicides that may have still happened without a gun and over a third of US murders take place without any gun whatsoever. For perspective, if every suicide in gun death-less Japan happened with a gun, it would have a much higher gun death rate than the United States because it has way more suicides. If all gun murders in America miraculously disappeared, we would still have a much higher murder rate than Japan.
Gun rights advocates who point to Switzerland’s’ high rates of gun ownership and low rates of murder are rightly reminded by gun control advocates that the Swiss also have significantly stricter gun laws than the US. But gun control advocates, while pushing to ban “assault weapons,” also forget that hundreds of thousands of those Swiss guns are full-fledged automatic weapons which have been illegal to the general American public for decades and not semi-automatic “assault weapons” (a term that means virtually nothing). When comparing the US to countries that don’t have the same history, population, land mass or (lack of) access to a social safety net, people leave out the only country in Europe that even slightly compares to the US in size and population, Russia, which has way fewer guns per capita (9 vs. 89 per 100 people) but more than twice the murders. Even Yemen, which the media often describes as an anarchic open air gun market/haven for terrorists, has much less murder per capita than Russia.
|Murder Stats from 2009 UN Data, Gun Stats from Small Arms Survey|
Strangely, when you only compare European countries to other European countries (see graph), you see that all have stricter gun laws than the US but the ones with more guns tend to have fewer murders. While there is no proof that one causes the other, for how good the UK has been at eradicating gun possession (or not), it still has more murders than Germany or Switzerland which have five times more guns. European countries do have horrific mass killings far less frequently, but the scale of the ones that have taken place (even in the UK) are no less shocking. Norway, an extremely stable country with a strong social safety net, strict gun laws and extremely low murder rate had a horrible mass shooting in 2011 by a neo-Nazi at a youth camp that killed 69 people, twice as many as America’s worst modern-day mass shooting, the Virginia Tech Massacre. Even, peaceful, gun-less Japan had a deadly sarin gas attack on its subways that killed 13 people and injured thousands in 1995.
An honest look at “civilized” Europe would tell us that our gun laws can use a few more regulations, our country can use a better social safety net, having more guns doesn't mean more murder, having “assault weapons” doesn’t mean they will be used in mass murder and sometimes, you can do everything right and still have insane mass killings. Oh, and calling European countries the “civilized world” is really dumb and freaking racist (that’s means you, Piers Morgan). You can’t fit that into a meme.
A basic accounting of mass killings on US soil, not “school shootings,” “mass shootings” or another carefully concocted term, should really help us question why anyone is recycling the idea of an assault weapons ban or more “good guys with guns” as a serious solution. The largest American school massacre took place in Bath, MI in 1927 after a deranged school board official set off bombs in a schoolhouse killing 45 people, mostly children. It is highly unlikely that any “good guy with a gun” would have known to stop a school official or that banning any gun could have prevented him from secretly planting bombs. The worst domestic violence-related mass killing took place in 1990 after an angry ex-boyfriend set fire to a Bronx club, killing 87. One of the first high profile mass shootings, the Texas Bell Tower shooting of 1966, was perpetrated by an ex-Marine who killed 16 people after shooting at University of Texas-Austin students and staff from a school clock tower using a Remington 700 bolt-action (non “semi-automatic”) hunting rifle still widely used today. The worst American school shooting, the Virginia Tech massacre, was committed in 2007 with zero “assault” or high-powered weapons. Many of the 33 murdered students were killed with a .22 caliber pistol (with no high capacity magazine), among the least powerful and least likely to be banned of any gun in America (or Europe). Both UT Austin and Virginia Tech had armed police on the scene at some point.
Perhaps the largest civilian massacre (with the exception of 9/11) on US soil since Wounded Knee, the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building, was perpetrated by a First Gulf War vet who chose a truck and fertilizer-laced explosives to blow up the relatively secure government office, killing 168 people including 19 children of the same age as those in Sandy Hook. Columbine, one of the most high profile school shootings in recent memory, took place six years after the Federal Assault Weapons Ban’s passage at a school with an armed security guard. Neither the banning of a bad gun nor the arming of good guys was enough to stop needless slaughter in any of the above circumstances.
To really grasp how much of a failure political quick fixes have been, one must only visit Stockton, California. A week after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Stockton marked the 23rd anniversary of a crazed gunman opening fire on a playground full of Asian American school children at the Cleveland Elementary School, killing six and injuring 30. The unreal bloodshed set the stage for the first Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. While many news outlets made the links between Sandy Hook and the Stockton schoolyard, none highlighted how much California’s conservative, liberal and “centrist” policies had failed the people of Stockton. California has by far the toughest gun laws in the country, laws so tough that some gun manufacturers refuse to do business in the state. It has the mandatory minimums and the three-strikes laws that conservatives hold up as the real answer to violent crime. It has every zero tolerance policy in schools and anti-gang injunction on the streets that would re-elect either party’s get-tough politicians. Yet even with the toughest of all types of laws, two decades after its own version of Sandy Hook, Stockton is considered one of the ten most dangerous US cities. Its murder rate in 2012 is set to double what it was in 2011.
Quite simply, policies like “assault weapons bans,” “SWAT Teams in Schools” or “Tech-9’s for Teachers” don’t and won’t eliminate violence because they are not meant to. They are proposed because they make politicians look good, make liberals and conservatives feel good in their respective positions and give us another excuse to put off working together to find real solutions to stopping violence.
Another Failed War?
Gun and accessory bans, specifically, don’t stop murder for the same reason the War on Drugs never stopped drug addiction or Prohibition never stopped alcoholism (except that neither drugs or alcohol have been enshrined in the Constitution). In addition to their inability to tame large illegal markets, the enforcement of our gun laws plays out on the street the same way the enforcement of our drug laws do…badly. Drug addiction has always been the disproportionate domain of White folks but the Drug War’s jail cells have always been disproportionately reserved for Black and Brown folks-so much so that the prison system has been called “the New Jim Crow.” Similarly, “common sense” gun laws are rarely enforced on middle class socially maladjusted rural/suburban kids like Adam Lanza. Black and Brown folks are far less likely to own guns than White folks, more likely to live in places (e.g. Washington DC, Chicago) where gun possession is severely restricted but also more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested and jailed on gun charges. The least unevenly enforced gun laws at the federal level still jail disproportionately more Black folks than Whites.
Inherently unequal gun law enforcement is nothing new and predates the War on Drugs by a couple centuries. In fact, most of the country’s early gun laws were obsessed with preventing Black and Native American folks from owning guns. What has hundreds of years of gun control in Black communities, through the eras of the old and new Jim Crows, produced? Today, Black men are six times more likely to be victims of homicide than White men.
The liberal understanding that the Drug War failed miserably and destroyed communities it claimed to protect doesn’t seem to translate into an understanding that the same criminal justice system tasked with leading the failed War on Drugs would be tasked with making a “War on Gun Violence” successful. Whenever I ask my friends what would be different, I am merely told, “we have to do something” or “it’s a start.”
Proposed gun bans are effective, however, at creating artificially high demand that floods the country with whatever gun or accessory is at threat of being banned. In this respect, they do the opposite of what they were meant to, much the same way those Parental Advisory warnings from the 1990’s probably encouraged my friends to listen to more violent music. Several older gun shop owners have told me that there wasn’t such large-scale demand for “assault weapons” until the first push to ban assault weapons in the early 90’s. As we speak, AR-15’s (one of the guns used at Sandy Hook) are moving off the shelves at guns shops and gun shows at a rate as high as a dozen an hour per dealer. By the time the ink is dry on any weapons or magazine ban, at least a million more AR-15’s and even more high capacity magazines will be in the hands of Americans. Regardless of the rhetoric, assault weapons ban proponents admit that no ban will retroactively seize any of these newly acquired guns or magazines. But none of this seems to stop the same media outlets, who refuse to make the man that shot the children at Sandy Hook a household name, from running a virtual 24 hour infomercial for the AR-15, selling more than any Bushmaster ad campaign could imagine. Is that really a good “start?”
Much distresses me about this entire debate. For one, some of my liberal friends that lament “the other side’s” ignorance on things like climate change similarly ignore the basic statistics saying that more Americans are killed with bats, knives or bare fists than assault weapons or the government research describing the last assault weapons ban’s effectiveness as tenuous at best. They also keep insisting on banning things that are already illegal (machine guns ), that semiautomatic rifles are never used for hunting, or that rifles used to kill a 400 lbs. deer at 250 yards away are somehow less powerful, not as “armor piercing,” or less deadly than “assault weapons.” While hoisting up the need for gun bans and gun buyback programs, which are among the least effective anti-violence measures, they allow all sides of the debate to ignore proactive things like gang intervention programs and other successful anti-violence efforts that are constantly left starving for resources.
Meanwhile, using a culture war on guns as a stand in for stopping violence also gives some conservative gun owners a codependent crutch for fatalistic views on violence that run counter to their own values (personal responsibility, etc.). Many swear off American violence as the inevitable product of evil intent, making stopping it with force the only logical solution. I swear, for how many gun owners I know that call themselves Christians, you would forget that they belong to a faith that puts a premium on redemption, responsibility and reconciliation.
In either case, the responsibility to stop violence is always someone else’s and can never happen until a mythical world is created where the Brady Campaign and the NRA either completely agree with each other or, depending on whose world, cease to exist.
False Prophets of Peace
Perhaps the worst part of the current debate is that it lionizes politicians as prophets of peace that are anything but. New York State has hosted some of the most egregious examples. George Pataki, New York’s Republican Governor from 1995-2006, was often lauded as a voice of reason in the gun debate for passing some of the strictest gun laws in the country, making the assault weapons ban in New York permanent (which the current Governor promises to make more permanent). These same gun laws couldn’t prevent William Spengler from killing two firefighters in Webster, New York barely a week after Sandy Hook. But few of the forces that anointed Pataki a centrist savior want to remember that he also cut college programs for incarcerated people. These programs moved scores of people that I know personally from being participants in the culture of violence to being social workers, computer programmers and legitimate small businesspeople.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become a Mahatma Gandhi/Daddy Warbucks of the gun control world while overseeing a police force (NYPD) that he affectionately calls his personal army (no he really said that). On his watch, rogue members of his “army” have been accused of planting evidence, murdering unarmed men with impunity, stealing guns and selling them to drug dealers, creating a mass shooting by trying to stop one and many other things that Gandhi would never ever do.
Many gun control advocates still hold up the Empire State as a success story. But anyone that has actually worked in New York City neighborhoods for longer than five minutes can tell you that the “safe” New York is more a product of policies that turned the city into a playground for the superrich (who feel safe no matter where they live) while pushing many working people into significantly less safe locales both within (Buffalo, Poughkeepsie) and outside the state (New Haven, Philadelphia and Orlando). Cities in the “safe” New York State like Buffalo and Poughkeepsie have murder rates nearly three times the national average.
Connecticut politicians, whose tears post Sandy Hook are no doubt genuine, are similarly credited with being strong enough to stand up to the NRA, making Connecticut’s gun laws the fourth toughest in the country. Unfortunately, they never stood up to the realities of a state where one of the wealthiest and most prestigious universities in the world, Yale, runs a virtual company town, New Haven, that is considered one of America’s most violent cities.
Sadly, pro gun and anti-gun politicians share much in common. Both crave a zero tolerance, low intensity police state that uses violence and force whenever it makes their rich friends happy, whether it is conducting selectively dehumanizing stops and frisks, the use of eminent domain for questionable “community development” or breaking up completely legitimate First Amendment activity. At the same time, almost all have stood in the way of real community strategies that actually stop violence.
A New Way Forward?
With all of that said, there is far too much violence in America. Facts, politicians and politics be damned; when you are a parent attending a child’s funeral, one death is a statistic too many and a problem in need of an immediate solution. Finding real solutions means coming together to do practical things now to stop violence that are based in reality.
America’s reality is 1) the Second Amendment will never ever be repealed and guns will never be banned or even restricted to the point where we will become the UK or Japan. 2) Americans will never have enough “good guys with guns” to stop every murder or insane act of violence. 3) There is far too much violence in America, with or without guns. 4) The things we have tried rarely address the root causes of violence. 5) No one in their right mind wants people to die.
Taking collective responsibility to stop the culture of violence now means working with people we disagree with to come up with solutions not contingent on our collective agreement on the Second Amendment. After talking to many people I trust for the past month, I have heard of a few things we can do now.
1. Preventative gun policy (vs. prohibition). Calling everything “gun control” doesn’t distinguish between policies that ban things, which just make politicians look good, don’t stop violence but have bad side effects (disproportionate incarceration and increased demand) and preventative gun policies. Amazingly, researchers cited by pro and anti gun control camps who disagree bitterly on everything seem to agree that strengthened background checks (possibly even Joe Biden’s “universal background checks”) work in reducing violence without confiscating anything or putting anyone in jail. Many gun owners I have spoken to tell me that they oppose any ban but believe that everyone buying firearms should have a reasonably thorough background check to prevent, for example, the severely mentally ill or perpetrators of domestic violence from obtaining guns. Some have even suggested being ok with background checks for high capacity magazines while opposing their prohibition. Even if the NRA would oppose expanded background checks, very few of their members would. While stronger background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Sandy Hook killings, they may have stopped the Virginia Tech massacre, the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona that injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Besides better background checks, there are plenty of other preventative gun policies that would significantly reduce violence way better than banning anything.
2. Tax credits and incentives for gun safes and smartgun technology. Connecticut already had an assault weapons ban and strict gun laws. While no law was enough to stop Adam Lanza from getting his mother’s guns, securing those guns might have stopped something. It is easy to balk at a proposal to proactively help gun owners better secure their firearms until you consider that every year, at least 500,000 guns are stolen, sometimes by relatives and often from homes without quality gun safes. Those guns are exponentially more likely to be used in the 300,000 or so gun-related violent crimes yearly than the 270 million guns that aren’t stolen. Most gun owners want and would use a quality safe. Using incentives, as opposed to requirements, to encourage investment in high quality safes could over time potentially keep millions of guns out of the illegal gun market and away from violent crime scenes. Although controversial, research is also underway for smartgun technology that customizes guns so that only the owner may use them. While requiring gun owners to invest in controversial and untested technology would be a non-starter, encouraging more research and incentives for future use opens doors to new strategies to drastically reduce death.
3. Invest in domestic violence intervention and prevention. To understand domestic violence is to understand Adam Lanza’s mother, who intimated to community members that she feared her son’s mental trajectory, as a victim. The Justice Department says that over half of murder victims were killed by someone they know (almost a quarter by family members). A boyfriend or spouse kills a shocking third of all female murder victims, regardless of weapon used. Violent intimate partners have also been involved in their fair share of mass killings. Making sure that there are better support services for survivors and perpetrators while investing in best practices to keep survivors away from violent circumstances and keep high-risk perpetrators away from survivors and weapons can have immediate and lasting impacts on violence. Ensuring that domestic violence institutions are fully equpped to deal with these circumstances is something that pro and anti gun control people can support regardless of their politics. For example, former US Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, one of the Senate’s most respected progressive members, was both a strong supporter of gun rights and a strong supporter of policies protecting survivors of domestic violence.
4. Invest in other creative violence intervention/prevention projects. Gang truces, college degrees for the incarcerated, street violence “interrupter” projects. Many of us have seen all of these programs have a direct and dramatic impact on reducing “street” violence and transforming lives. But these programs are labor intensive and often require investing in the redemption of people walking away from the culture of violence. Research shows that these programs are much more effective than feel-good things like gun buy back programs. But when budgets are cut, they are often the first programs to go, when they are funded at all. Whether it’s the government, Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns or the NRA funding them, ensuring that they are effective and well resourced must become a cornerstone of any fight against the culture of violence.
5. Create holistic treatment of the violently mentally ill or chemically addicted. The most welcome, yet first to be dismissed, conversations post-Sandy Hook emphasized this country’s crisis in mental health and substance abuse treatment. The mental health link to Sandy Hook was downplayed partly by well meaning activists with legitimate fears that folks with mental illness (who are more likely to be victims than perps) would be scapegoated as potential serial killers. That doesn’t change the fact that in Florida, where I live, the number of people that are being declared a threat to themselves or others is skyrocketing while the services for them are disintegrating. Yes we need better background checks to prevent the sliver of mentally ill/chemically addicted that are a threat to others from obtaining weapons, something that is completely doable. But we also need to make sure that we are creating holistic and effective care.
6. Create more peace building institutions. A big mistakes made in this debate is assuming that you can create a peaceful society by forcing people to give up their guns (even rhetorically). Martin Luther King, a gun owner, didn’t become a proponent of peaceful resistance because of gun laws. He made a conscious commitment to it. To create a peaceful society, we need to spend way more time encouraging the creation of things like effective conflict resolution programs in schools (that aren’t just for overachievers) and less time getting boiling mad over divisive debates.
7. Creating a different gun culture. America’s gun culture isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to be inherently intertwined with the culture of violence. Martial arts instructors, despite knowing twelve different ways of killing someone with their fists, are in my experience among the least violent people I know. Additionally, acknowledging that we had 14,000 too many murders last year (about 9,300 with a gun) is to acknowledge that murder and violent crime have dropped for five straight years and that we have over a 100 million gun owners from all walks of life that aren’t committing murderous acts of violence. Gun club organizers, firearms instructors and gun shop owners are, in fact, in a unique and far better position to positively stop gun violence than those that want to wish them out of existence. In Aurora, Colorado before the theater shooting, there were two people that thought something was not right with the shooter, his psychiatrist and the owner of the gun range that the shooter unsuccessfully tried to join. Our current culture war has created a scenario where that intuition never prevented tragedy. Encouraging a culture where people that spend every day with people with guns can detect early warning signs and find proactive, non-“creepy big brother” ways to address those signs could stop scores of violent acts before they start. Additionally, encouraging a culture where gun owners actively support anti-violence work seems like a better use of time than demanding that Mayor Bloomberg and the NRA’s Wayne La Pierre shake hands.
Will these things stop all murder 100%? No. Will they stop much more violence than any unproductive culture war debate with mostly symbolic legislation? Absolutely. Will they give us ways to work with people we don’t agree with to stop violence that we all agree has to stop? Definitely.
The starting point can’t be waiting for the right law or right fully armed/disarmed society. We(I) have to take the collective responsibility to address our culture of violence as it appears in our lives. As a man, that means taking the responsibility to address the way that us men are often socialized to express anger, depression and cries for help. As a friend, that means investing in the redemption of friends and family that wish to walk away from the culture of violence they once participated in. As a community member, it means making sure the institutions that keep people truly safe and healthy survive. It also means challenging ourselves to come correct with our best thinking and actions. After talking to tons of gun owners and non-gun owners, I realize that the best parts of us believe in building a better and safer world for the people we care about. The sooner we can put our best beliefs forward, the sooner we can do that.
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