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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Guns, power, and responsibility: Ending the killing

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've resisted writing about the Sandy Hook, Conn., school shooting, partly because the subject turns my stomach, partly because so much has been said to so little effect after past massacres. But there are some points that are getting too little attention, so I'll do what I can.

Adam Lanza committed his crime with guns designed to kill people. These were not guns well suited to the spots of target shooting or hunting. I'm fine with both of those sports. Killing people, not so much.

Adam got those guns from home. They belonged to his mother. The justification for selling guns to private individuals is that they serve the purpose of home defense. But why did Adam's mom need so many?

Nancy Lanza, it turns out, was a doomsday prepper, which is why so many of her guns were designed to kill people. The .223 ammunition her son fired into the bodies of primary school children were designed to get around the Geneva Convention's ban on dum-dum bullets, nowadays more commonly called hollow points. Hollow point bullets would mushroom or fragment in the body, leaving a huge exit wound, which under the laws of war was considered inhuman (so they are now used by police and private individuals.). The .223 was designed to get around this in spite of having a full metal jacket, by tumbling in the flesh. That's the kind of gun she kept at home.

Nancy Lanza feared that civilization would collapse, and she would need guns to fight off looters who would presumably be trying to steal her stuff.

Now, in a misspent part of my life many years ago, I covered the police beat for a daily paper. I covered a lot of burglaries, and soon noticed that one of the main possessions criminals targeted was guns.

So if you own a lot of guns to protect yourself, this will make you a target of crime. And fencing some antique muzzle loader is a daunting task well beyond the limited capabilities of the average criminal. They'd much rather steal a gun the can sell to the end user, someone who wants a gun to commit crimes. That's a market that calls for guns designed to kill people, which is why gangsta rap talks about Glocks and AK47s, not Kentucky squirrel rifles.


Now, you could do what Australia did, and buy back as many semi-automatic weapons as possible while banning the sale of new ones. I doubt that would work in America. There are too many guns out there and too many people that think they have a right to own whatever type of gun they want. I think we're just lucky we outlawed machine guns before the NRA reached its current level of power. In my opinion, however much good you may think such a program would do, you may as well forget about it and concentrate on something that can be done.

One idea is to arm teachers and train them to defend their students. However, the first victim in the Sandy Hook incident was a teacher well versed in gun use and owning several of them. Granted, she didn't bring her guns to school, her son did, and shot her first. Arming teachers is likely to be rejected by teachers, and for good reason; it ensures that there will be guns in schools.

In homes where there are guns, people are three times as likely to be murdered as in homes without guns. Do we have any real assurance that the same would not be true of schools?

Another idea is to have police in the schools. To my knowledge, no school with a police presence has had a mass killing incident. However, this is an expensive solution to a very rare problem.

Of course,  there's also the suggestion that the victims should fight back, even if the don't have guns. In a now infamous article, Megan McArdle offers this suggestion:
My guess is that we're going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity.  I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.  Would it work?  Would people do it?  I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips. 
Oddly enough, in the same article she offers this argument against banning the large ammunition magazines spree killers seem to favor:
Reducing the magazine sizes seems modestly more promising, but only modestly. It takes a few minutes of practicing to learn how to change a magazine in a few seconds.  Even if you banned magazines, forcing people to load the gun itself, people could just carry more guns; spree shooters seem to show up, as Lanza did, with more guns and ammunition than they actually need.  In this specific case, it might well not have helped at all. Would Lanza really have been gang-rushed by fast-thinking primary school students if he stopped to reload? 
The problem, then, is not whether a valiant charge by 7-year-olds would be effective, it is whether they can be trained to attack. Perhaps McArdel could recruit some organization with experience in training children for combat, like the Lord's Resistance Army.

(A note to the editors of The Daily Beast:  I am sure you are aware of what this poor woman is writing, and I must question your motives in employing her. It is a cruelty akin to selling tickets to Bedlam to expose her mad ramblings to a jeering public. Surely she should be in a place of refuge, where a kind, caring, and above all understanding staff can protect her from the ridicule her behavior naturally attracts. Not that I intend to stop jeering.)

This, of course, brings us to the question of mental health.

Some years ago, it came to the attention of well-meaning people that our mental health system was not working well. The 1961 Joint Commission on Mental Health recommended that community clinics take on the burden of early intervention and prevention of mental illness. Funding for the program appeared sufficient at first, but was not increased with inflation even in the1970s, when inflation ran high. It soon became evident that the community programs were not adequately funded, which became even more important when a 1975 case found that the Florida State Hospital had kept Kenneth Donaldson confined for 15 years against his will although he was not a threat to himself or others.

Now, it's hard to get help for those who don't want it. Walt Stawicki, whose 41-year-old son Ian killed five people at Cafe Racer coffee shop in Seattle this past May 30, said he could not get his well-armed son committed for his mental health problems without lying.

Even when the will and the resources are there, it isn't easy

While financing for mental health care is a  low priority, defense spending has steadily increased. Perhaps if we could convince the military the mentally ill were in some way useful to them, we could get the funding. In the meantime. our cities have an increasingly medieval feel to them, with beggars, madmen, strolling players, all contributing to a feeling that society has lost control in some way. The mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

But pause a moment. Gun deaths are common, and gun violence is even more common. The annual number of homicides has fallen despite an increase in the number of shootings because of advances in treating them. Killing sprees like the one at Sandy Hook focus our attention, but shootings involving one or two people account for most of the deaths. Yes, we could focus on the large-capacity magazines that figure in so many of these sprees, but shouldn't we act in ways that will help with the larger and broader problem?

The shootings in Sandy Hook and in Aurora, Colorado, involved guns taken from the collections of family members. Can't we ask that those gun owners control their weapons better?

Trigger locks vary in quality, and many are easy to get around. Cable locks that go through the magazine and the breach prevent the gun from being loaded or fired, but can not be used on all guns and can be removed with bolt cutters. Gun safes also vary in quality, but if I felt a need to own a gun, a good safe is about the first thing I'd buy.

These all come down to safe storage. They might not keep a determined criminal from using the weapons, but they might keep a moody kid from taking the weapons and doing something rash.

People wouldn't dream of owning a car you didn't need a key to start and use. We have steering wheel locks to prevent thieves who hotwire cars from driving them. But too many people leave a loaded gun in an unlocked bedside drawer, or leave an entire case of prized rifles in a glass-fronted case.

I understand the glass case. Guns are cool, they symbolize power, they often relate to interesting history. Once, they were essential for survival on the frontier, and Americans don't want to let go of the frontier.

But this is a matter of life and death. Personal responsibility for who uses your firearms doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Gun culture has changed. It wasn't so long ago that for most of the people who owned them, they were tools. My grandpa Howard used his to put meat on the table, and it was a tool he used like the shovel he used to dig clams, the family's other main source of protein.

Now, fewer and fewer people own more and more guns. The number owning guns has declined:

http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/07/21/the-declining-culture-of-guns-and-violence-in-the-united-states/

 ...while the number of guns purchased has not:

http://richardbrenneman.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/theres-one-industry-going-great-guns-in-the-crash/

Thing is, I understand why my friends like guns. I like their efficient, functional and ergonomic design. I think they are an area where Americans still lead the world. If their function was to take pictures or drill holes, I'd see the point of owning one. But of course, it's the fact that they are intended to kill things that makes them a symbol of power, which is the real allure for most people. Their usefulness has declined, and their symbolism has become more important.

They are a symbol of power for those who feel threatened. Whether you feel threatened by burglars, people who might attack you on the street, a government that seems bent on changing the patterns of privilege in your country or, like Nancy Lanza, the collapse of civilization, they give the gun owner a feeling that they have personal power in answer to their fears.

But as Spiderman has taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. Whether you live on Kodiak Island and need that power because you have a quite justified fear of bears or live in the suburbs and have a more nebulous fear of  the collapse of civilization, or you just own a gun because you like it, you have a duty to make sure your guns are not used to commit crimes.

If we need to pass laws to make people take responsibility for keeping their weapons from being used for criminal purposes, let's pass them.

If you're a private individual who wants to sell your weapon, why shouldn't you be required to do a background check? Sure, it's inconvenient for you and the buyer, especially if the buyer can't pass the check, but getting shot by some gang banger is immeasurably worse for the victim if the gun gets into the wrong hands, and I'm sure local law enforcement would be happy to provide the service for a nominal fee.

Yes, it's inconvenient to take a trigger lock off the .357 magnum if you think a burglar is trying to break in, but you've got to keep in mind how much more likely it is that a loaded weapon in your home will hurt the wrong person.

Here are some statistics from close to home (I live in King County):
Kellermann tabulated gunshot deaths occurring in King County, Washington, from 1978 to 1983. Table 1 below is taken from Kellermann's paper (Table 3 on p. 1559).
Table 1. Classification of 398 Gunshot Deaths involving a Firearm Kept in the Home

Type of Death No.
Unintentional deaths 12
Criminal homicide 41
Suicide 333
Unknown 3


Total 389
Self-protection homicide 9
As we see from Table 1, a ratio of 389 violent deaths to 9 justifiable homicides gives us the famous 43 to 1 ratio.
This is an example of the difference between usefulness and power. In nine of these cases the gun proved useful for the purpose claimed (I say claimed because when there was a five-day waiting period for buying a gun, suicides among seniors dropped. I'm sure they gave the reason for the purchase as home defense, knowing that no one would sell the gun for the purpose of suicide.)

Of course, we don't know if in those nine cases some other alternative, like calling the cops and not confronting an intruder, might have worked. Confrontation is part of the fantasy of power.

But whether it's the power to feed your family, to defend your home, or to deal with the collapse of civilization, those who hold the power hold the responsibility for how it is used. We must insist that they take that responsibility.

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