Category Archives: GunsGunsGuns

Gunfight and Glock: Book Reviews

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much about Sandy Hook. I know roughly what happened, but that’s as far as I can get, because this is such an abominable failure of a society to keep its most vulnerable members safe. That’s not just Sandy Hook, of course – it’s every massacre. And nothing ever happens in the aftermath – no real efforts to curb gun violence, nothing that expands mental health care – and I’m with the Onion here.

But maybe I’m being too cynical and defeatist. Maybe this, this finally, is what will mobilize America to demand change from ourselves and our leadership; to undercut the grip the gun lobby has on politics; to recognize that there is a middle ground between arming everybody and total disarmament. So for those who are getting going on this issue and need some good background reading, and also because G&L is collecting Best Books We Read in 2012 (contribute on Twitter with #bestbooks!), I wanted to post two book reviews/opinions I’ve been sitting on for way too long.

NB: these are snarky reviews, as serious book reviews can be found in other places, and nobody reads serious book reviews, and I actually think Gunfight is worth reading, and if I can convince you to read it by being flip, then it was worth it. But I do not take the issue of gun violence lightly, and I hope this will not be read as making light of the tragedies of the past week/month/year/decades (gun violence is epidemic, and it is vital not to decontextualize any one incident).

Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms In America, by Adam Winkler (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.).

Should I ever be asked to explain the history of America’s relationship with guns, I intend to hand over a copy of Adam Winkler’s outstanding Gunfight. On the surface, Gunfight is the story of the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled DC’s ban on handguns unconstitutional and settled the question of whether the Second Amendment is an individual right or not. And while I find the term ‘legal thriller’ to be an oxymoron, Winkler gives life to the characters involved in the DC v. Heller case as it worked its way to the Supreme Court. So that’d be reason enough to read Gunfight; the strategic maneuvering around the case is pretty interesting.

But more usefully, Winkler traces the history of the tension between gun control and gun ownership in America, using the 2008 case as a backdrop. He gives a very readable, founding fathers-onward march through America’s weird love affair with guns. He covers the extensive regulations around guns in the colonial and post-colonial periods, providing an alternate (and well-researched) history that undercuts many of the “but the founding fathers said we could have guns!” arguments that seem to still hold water these days. Because it’s not just that the guns of yesteryear were slow to load and broadly inaccurate; they were also locked up most of the time. Likewise out in the Wild West; you gave your guns to the sheriff when you got to town, and you got them back on your way out.

Given the heat the NRA’s taken in the last week, it’s particularly instructive to look at the organization’s history, and Winkler does an excellent job here (and for those with short attention spans, so does Toobin). Once upon a time, the NRA wasn’t the trade association it’s essentially become (okay so technically the National Shooting Sports Foundation is the trade association. But the NRA’s funding comes mainly from gun manufacturers, and the NRA’s lobbying wing is the most active in the industry, and if there’s one thing gun manufacturers want, it’s to sell more guns, which means loosening laws and creating fear that those laws will be tightened ANY MINUTE BUY NOW OBAMA WANTS TO TAKE YOUR GUNS AWAY! It’s… weird. And really effective.)

Anyway! Once upon a time! Back in the 1930s! The NRA wasn’t like that. They actually lobbied for gun control. Karl T. Frederick, a past president of the NRA, was a conservationist and a crack shot who once said, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” (210-211) Madness! And none of the NRA’s advocacy was about the Second Amendment, because it wasn’t seen as a particularly strong argument against gun laws. Ah, the glorious 30s. Except for the Great Depression and the start of World War II, that was a real good decade, I tell you.

And then the 1950s came along (whatever, 1940s, nobody loves you), and the soldiers came home and there were just lots of cheap guns left over after WWII, and while there were purchasing restrictions, they weren’t that onerous, and that’s when proliferation in America really kicked off. And then we had the 1960s, with the social upheavals thereof, and crime started to rise, and people started to arm themselves more for self-defense than for hunting. The NRA’s membership started to shift from hunters and recreational shooters to self-defense-oriented folks.

And then, in 1976, the executive vice president and de facto head of the organization decided to relocate the NRA headquarters out of Washington, DC, and get out of the lobbying business in favor of outdoorsman activities and environmental awareness programs. This did not sit well with the self-defense crowd. Harlon Carter, the head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, and Neal Knox, who thought the assassination of MLK, Jr. was a government plot to advance gun control, engineered a coup that turned the NRA into the organization that it is today. Oops. Moral of the story: know your bylaws.

Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, by Paul M. Barrett

For my birthday, some very dear friends bought me Paul Barrett’s new book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun after we wandered into his talk at Politics & Prose. And I wanted to like it, because hey, birthday present! Books about guns! This has been a winning combination in the past. But unless you care a lot about marketing strategies or are really into reporters’ notebooks, just borrow this one from the library.

Unfortunately for Mr. Barrett, the history of Glock, Inc. doesn’t span centuries, as American Rifle does, or involve global domination, as The Gun does, so there’s just not that much to write about that hasn’t been well-covered elsewhere. Here, I’ll sum up Glock:

  • In the early 1980s, a hard-working Austrian named Gaston Glock comes up with cheap semi-automatic pistol that holds 17 rounds at the same time American law enforcement begins to realize that revolvers are a pain to reload, especially when you’re getting shot at. Smith & Wesson fails to notice that revolvers are on their way out of law enforcement.
  • Glock hires a really, really good sales guy, Karl Walter. Really Really Good Sales guy is really really good. Boy, is he good. Strippers! Free training! Discounts for law enforcement and Hollywood!
  • Hard-working Austrian and Really Really Good Sales Guy manage to get their guns in the hands of law enforcement. The rest of the firearms industry, by contrast, twiddles their thumbs and looks sad.
  • Gun control advocates kick up a big fuss over the magazine size, light trigger pull, alleged undetectableness, whatever else they can find. Gun nuts buy them by the boatload. Some more pouting happens on the part of other manufacturers.
  • Really Really Good Sales Guy gets fired for being too good. Another sales guy is hired who eventually hires somebody to kill Gaston Glock. Assassination attempt fails. Exeunt.

There. That’s the book (okay, maybe there’s more, but I gave up around p200). It’s an interesting story, but it’s not 267 pages worth of interesting, and the writing isn’t particularly compelling. In short, Glock is synonymous with gun in America for the same reason Xerox is both a brand and a verb: good marketing and slow-footed competition. Glock holds this special place in the American psyche simply because it hit the ground running with a novel product and some smart business practices in the 80s; it captured the law enforcement market early in its existence, giving it a way to quickly scale up production and a stamp of approval for other marketing efforts.

Glock seems to be the work of a reporter who thought it’d be cool to write about guns and needed an excuse to do some research. And there’s a lot of research. To his credit, Barrett did his homework, and he’s got a lot of facts and figures and dates to report. Oh, and anecdotes. So very many “and then I talked to this other random person” anecdotes. There’s also the irrelevant story of Barrett learning to shoot by… entering a competition? Okay, whatever. There’s just so much fluff, but I suppose that at 267 pages with wide margins and large font, any editing for fluff would’ve made this too short to be worth publishing as a book.

Glock tries to situate itself in the pantheon of Definitive Books About Guns, but it’s better suited to the business section. Pass.


I know Americans aren’t a particularly history-oriented bunch, by and large, but the history of gun laws in America is one that needs to read and internalized. Many of the proposals and op-eds I’ve read in the last week are, frankly, rehashes of history. This is not to dismiss them; rather, I simply encourage anybody writing or reading or lobbying or agitating or whatever you’re doing around the effort to curbing gun violence and/or proliferation to do your homework. Start with Gunfight. Skip Glock.

Posted in Book Reviews, GunsGunsGuns, Small Arms | Comments Off

“I’m Not Dead Yet!”: The UN’s Arms Trade Treaty is Still a Thing

The month of July was an acrimonious one for those on opposite sides of the arms control debate. More so than usual, that is. Hosted by the United Nations, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Conference met this summer with the goal of producing a binding document that would regulate the legal sale of arms between states. That didn’t quite happen. But rumors of the Treaty’s death are extremely exaggerated.

In the waning hours of the conference, the ‘final’ text that was under debate satisfied absolutely nobody. NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International insisted that it was riddled with too many loopholes that would prevent meaningful implementation. Gun rights advocates in the United States had been on a four-week bender to ensure that it would receive absolutely no domestic support if the text passed. They needn’t have worried; seemingly impervious to the raucous debate going on outside of Turtle Bay, the most drama that emerged on the last day had little to do with the issues being discussed externally. While the United States has taken the heat for ‘torpedoing’ the Treaty and ending the Conference in failure, it wasn’t alone – several other states, from those with questionable motives like Russia to democracies like India, quickly lined up behind the US proposal to delay acceptance.

The key word there is ‘delay’. A Report of the Conference was adopted in lieu of an actual vote, so the document wasn’t actually rejected, pushing the text back to the General Assembly. And that’s where the fun begins anew.

There are six Main Committees of the General Assembly, each composed of the full 193 Member States of the UN. Two of them have a credible mandate to allow for the debate of the text: the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) and the Sixth Committee (Legal). While either one of them, or potentially both, could have the Arms Trade Treaty on their agenda when the Committees open for business in October, it’s likely that it will stay with GA1, which had the item during the last session.

From there, Member States will determine whether to utilize the GA for editing the draft of the ATT or whether a second round of negotiations would take place at another Conference. The United States would clearly prefer the latter; when the Obama Administration shifted from the Bush years’ opposition to the Treaty talks, it wasn’t without hesitation. In the 2009 General Assembly Resolution that provided the framework for the Conference (A/RES/64/48), it was determined that the talks would proceed by consensus. That provision proved a major stumbling block to adopting the text in July.

This veto ability may have had several delegations grumbling, but it was the smart choice for the United States. Much like Soviet insistence on a veto in the Security Council back in 1945, the United States was covering its flank both on policy and politics. On policy, they could make sure that any treaty wouldn’t necessarily go against US interests. Politically, the Administration could ensure that the US has the power to stop any treaty from being adopted that displeased us. It is certainly in the US’s best interest to push through another GA Resolution that sets a date for a new Conference.

But it’s far from certain that the US will get its way this time. Now that the text of the ATT is with the General Assembly, it is entirely possible that, with a few edits, the Assembly could hold a vote sometime this year. If that happens, a 2/3s vote of the GA could be enough to approve the text and open the Arms Trade Treaty for signature. It’s impossible to do a whip count for a text that may or may not exist yet, but it would definitely be close.

A final vote in November could also serve what could be a lame-duck Obama Administration in poking a victorious Romney in the eye. Rumor around the United Nations is that the acceptance of the Treaty was delayed in the first place to put off the acceptance of a document that would likely be controversial domestically until after the election. It’s highly probable that, should Romney take the White House, the US’s support for the concept of the ATT would be revoked once more. So it may be better to get something in November over certain rejection after January.

Would that really be for the best? A treaty adopted by two-thirds of the Assembly would likely not have the support of the major arms producers, save maybe Germany and France. And until enough states had ratified to put it into force, it would be just another piece of paper. Which isn’t to say that the enforcement mechanisms within the text were at all strong enough to bring violators in line; they most certainly are not. But the process would run far smoother when those actually producing the weapons being regulated are voluntarily cooperating with the laws surrounding them.

In any case, supporters of a stronger Arms Trade Treaty would be well served by accepting this delay and the US urging for a new round of negotiations. More time would allow supporters to draw on lessons learned from what was a very expensive lobbying effort. And now that there’s an initial text, it will be easier to determine what might discussed in a hypothetical ATT Conference II.

It’s also not guaranteed that a push to get the treaty through the General Assembly would work. Among the issues still to be resolved is whether or not ammunition would join Small Arms and Light Weapons and those systems included in the UN Register on Conventional Weapons under the purview of the Treaty. Western Europe and the African Union are an unlikely pair united on this front, and have been urging its inclusion since Day One – to the dismay of many other states.

Less core to the debate, but still notable, the Arab Group spent the last few hours of the conference pressing that the right to sell arms for groups seeking “self-determination” should be included. Israel was less than sold on this idea – and with good reason. The issue of who would be considered a legitimate buyer will come up again, regardless of where the treaty goes – and could potentially delay acceptance further.

For now, this is a lot of inside baseball on what has the potential to be a wide-reaching text, affecting many aspects of the estimated $60B annual arms trade. Both sides of the debate are regrouping in an attempt to sway the outcome more solidly in their favor, but neither Oxfam nor the NRA will actually be casting a vote in the GA Hall. In the end, it will be the States who decide whether the Treaty lives or dies.

Posted in GunsGunsGuns, Slightly Larger Arms, Small Arms | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A one-sentence review of Emily Miller’s WaTimes DC-gun-control story

Emily Miller’s “Emily Gets Her Gun” series won’t document the District’s obfuscatory and difficult bureaucracy impeding innocent citizens from getting the guns they have a right to own; instead, I imagine it’ll document heroic government workers stopping an unqualified person from getting a gun she probably doesn’t know how to load, much less use safely.

Bonus sentence: Going into the Gun Registry and saying “I’ve heard of a Glock [from] TV” is like going into the DMV and saying “I’ve heard of a Toyota”: neither entitles you to own the device in question, nor can you fault the DMV employees for being annoyed with your lack of research.

Bonus tweet: 

Bonus link: The much, much, much better Washington Post article on the same subject.

Bonus throwing-her-a-bone: At least she’s got some trigger control in those photos…?

UPDATE:  This post written in collaboration with The Drinksnob. He demanded credit, and also scotch. 

Posted in GunsGunsGuns | 3 Comments

Amnesty, Cluster Munitions, and Gunfight

 For UN Dispatch, I wrote about Amnesty International’s rather remarkable win last week:

Amnesty International won a remarkable victory last week when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) agreed to end its dealings with companies known to produce cluster munitions. RBS is primarily taxpayer owned, and as a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), the United Kingdom is prohibited from investing in the direct production of cluster munitions, though not from investing in arms manufacturers more generally.

In mid-August, Amnesty International launched an intense campaign to pressure RBS to divest from cluster bomb manufacturers, arguing that the legal gap that permitted companies to invest in manufacturers as long as they did not directly invest in the production of cluster munitions violated the spirit of the cluster bomb treaty.

Pressuring a bank to change its behavior based on the spirit – not the legality, but the spirit - of an international treaty? Impressively done. Read the rest over here.

It’s a good thing I wrote this pre-Oklahoma, because my post-vacation ability to string words together  is at an all-time low. I’ll have more on the evolving international law around cluster munitions later this week, when I can write again.

I also got my copy of Adam Winkler’s Gunfight, which I was plowing through on the plane. It’s fantastic and narrative-busting and I highly recommend you pick up a copy right now. I’ll have a review up as soon as I’m done, but really, you should just read it for yourself. It’s everything you never knew about the Second Amendment and America’s history with guns! What could be better?

Posted in GunsGunsGuns, Slightly Larger Arms | 2 Comments

The Dust That Pancho Bit Down South Ended Up in Lefty’s Mouth

Two weeks ago I had a piece up at the Atlantic about American guns and the Mexican drug war. I really have nothing more to say about the subject; I’m just putting the link up here for posterity as I’m doing some housekeeping tonight.

By the by, I highly recommend not reading the comments; the whole thread is Godwinized by the third, and the first suggests we seal the border. Like most public conversations about American gun laws, it’s a lot of shouting without a lot of critical thinking, which is a damn shame.

Posted in GunsGunsGuns, Metablogging, Small Arms | Tagged , | Comments Off

Grandma Got Run Over By a Gun Buyback

This piece about yesterday’s gun buyback in Buffalo has me thinking (a dangerous pastime, I know). This is the fourth of these buybacks, the last of which was held in 2009, and all told over 3,000 firearms have been purchased for $10 – $100 each. Of this year’s haul of 600+ guns, a third were non-functional.

Buying back nonfunctional guns could be useful, depending on what kind of guns and how nonfunctional they are. Unless firearms are properly disposed of, they can be broken down and the parts re-used. Your average suburbanite lacks the toolsto ensure their broken guns aren’t repairable – I myself can’t find any hydraulic shears or armored fighting vehicles in my garage, and I imagine most people aren’t any better equipped. So if the alternative is that the gun goes into the trash (which… what? is that even legal, even if you remove the firing pin?), I suppose it’s worth the $50 to ensure safe storage or disposal.

Only one of these is in my garage.

But the mayor’s take on the whole thing feels a little… off, somehow:

[Mayor Byron W. Brown] noted that seldom-used guns could unintentionally get into the hands of children or grandchildren—and that some could be stolen in burglaries. He also said some young people involved in crime might have a change of heart and want to sell their weapons, and that one community activist had persuaded some young people to sell their guns.

“At some of these locations, we’ve had mothers and grandmothers turn in sawed-off shotguns and assault rifles,” Brown said. “We know they are not the owners of those weapons. We know they’re turning them in for family members who might use them in a moment of anger or in a crime.”

It sounds good, but the article also says only three assault rifles were collected, so it’s not like the grannies of Buffalo are solving gang violence once and for all here. Basically, the whole thing sounds good, with a strong emphasis on the word “sounds.” But is it actually worth the time, effort, and money expended to get these guns “off the street”? I’m just not convinced.
Posted in GunsGunsGuns | 2 Comments

Sniper Rifles to Afghanistan? Yes Please! Wait. No.

Jason Sigger over at Armchair Generalist highlights a recent defense contract announcement for $8.9M that provides 1,212 M24 sniper rifles to the government of Afghanistan. He’s just spot-on with his assessment:

What exactly do you think is going to happen when the Afghan National Army gets more than a thousand sniper rifles while our troops are still in theater? Just as our government did with Iraq, there is this strange rush to give Afghanistan all the top-of-the-line US military gear that is possible, without any thought as to whether that country can sustain – or safely retain – said weapon systems. Do you think DOD learned anything when thousands of military guns went unaccounted for in Iraq? Insanely stupid.

Quite. I’d even take it a step further than our current conflict. One of the primary ways for firearms to enter the global black market is through theft of government supplies. And remember how well-cared-for guns can take a long time to become nonfunctional? Hopefully our troops won’t see these from the wrong end down the road, but y’never know. Danger’s too high for my tastes, but hey, what do I know? Maybe the Afghans have a legitimate need for over a thousand sniper rifles. Maybe this is what’ll turn the war around!

Maybe I just injured myself with sarcasm.

Posted in Afghanistan, GunsGunsGuns, War | Comments Off

Hyperbole: The Only Way to Debate

I know, I know. I need to stop. I could do this every day for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t change anything. Melodramatic op-eds seem to be the way to go; well-reasoned argumentation is for suckers.

In the Las Vegas Review-Journal (the Sports section, no less!), one C. Douglas Nielsen makes sure he’s no sucker! He starts out by voicing a quasi-legitimate concern:

If you have felt a little weighted down and sluggish the past few days, you are not alone — not if you legally own a firearm, anyway. Because along with the weighty responsibility that comes with being a gun owner is the even heavier matter of the blame you and I now carry for the terrible events that unfolded Saturday in Tucson, Ariz.

Not that you, I or the other 80 million American gun owners had anything to do with the vicious attack on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as she met with her constituents outside of a busy supermarket. … But in today’s world, the fact that 79,999,999 other gun owners had nothing to do with the Tucson shooting doesn’t seem to matter, not in a day when some people are quick to place blame on anyone or anything but the perpetrator of the crime.

I get where you’re going with this, Doug. Public discourse has been pretty quick to jump to “guns are bad” because that’s generally what happens when massacres happen (at least, when they happen in American Safeways; we’re less concerned when they happen in Juarez, even if the guns came from America). That’s not cool; you’re absolutely right that millions of Americans manage to own guns without killing anybody. Somehow. Magically. I’m with you on this one, Doug, though I’d point out that blame seems to have been placed pretty squarely on Mr. Loughner, and if there’s additional blame being passed around, it may just be an effort to make sure this can’t happen again.

However, I don’t think anybody’s gone to their gun-owning next door neighbor and accused them of murdering a 9-year-old. There’s blame, and then there’s collective responsibility. Those gun owners who’ve fought for unrestricted access to guns and accessories bear some responsibility for massacres, because their words and their money has enabled lobbyists to keep gun control down to the bare minimum.

So anyway:

In essence, all American gun owners are being lined up for a spanking because someone else used a firearm to do something terribly wrong. While I think we need to discuss ways of identifying the ticking time bombs among us, those discussions need to be carried out in an environment that is not heated by rhetoric and driven by freedom-quashing agendas. What we don’t need is some kind of secret police force patrolling the streets for people who someday possibly might do something wrong.

Oh. Well, yes, that is clearly what a debate about reasonable restrictions on guns would come down to. A secret police force patrolling the streets for people who someday possibly might do something wrong. Yes. Clearly. You are contributing valuable ideas to this debate, Doug. I’m gonna go join the NRA to make sure no secret police get into my airtight fortress RIGHT THE HELL NOW.

I don’t even want to touch his comment about “freedom-quashing agendas.” He takes the freedom-to approach, and I take the freedom-from approach, and we can dance until our feet are numb and we’ll still get nowhere.

Honestly. I just… I don’t know. Maybe this is as good as this discourse gets? Maybe hyperbole and fear-mongering is the best way to go? Maybe I’ll try that tomorrow.

Posted in GunsGunsGuns | 2 Comments

Gun Owners… Beware?

Kudos to Ruth Marcus over at the Washington Post for her spot-on op-ed this morning. This is a journalist who gets it and who doesn’t go over the top with fantastical notions of mental health practitioners and military eligibility. She gets to the heart of this event and its policy implications, calls for a perfectly reasonable cap on magazine capacity, and doesn’t get out of breath arguing the dangers of guns.

She also quite succinctly gets at the political climate around gun control:

The modern politics of gun control do not favor those who back restrictions. Success, such as it is, consists of defending existing limits, not imposing new ones. Democrats were scared off from the issue after passing the assault-weapons ban and then losing control of Congress in 1994. Candidate Obama vowed to reinstate the assault weapons ban; President Obama, after a single year in office, had signed into law more repeals of federal gun-control policies than did President George W. Bush during his two full terms, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

As a matter of political self-preservation, I would not advise Democrats to mount a full-scale push for new gun-control measures.

At least political hay is being made (and oh, Republicans, don’t you even dare try to claim that you don’t capitalize on tragedy to pass laws) now. Hopefully Lautenberg and McCarthy make some headway on banning high-capacity magazines. It’s a good, small step that shouldn’t be too scary to pass.

Too bad the Gun Owners of America don’t see it like that:

“There is no okay number with Carolyn McCarthy and her allies in the Congress,” Velleco said. “They will only start with the number. . . . If the government can ban magazines with 10 or more rounds, it can ban a magazine that holds five or more rounds. There is no way to stop the arbitrariness of that sort of legislating.”

Here’s a thought: let’s cross that bridge when we get to it. I bet Mr. Velleco will find that support, both Congressional and public, for decreasing magazine capacity starts to trail off pretty quickly after we get down to 10.

He continues:

“Who knows how many rounds a law-abiding person might need to protect themselves?”

Gosh. I bet somebody’s done some unbiased studies on the average number of rounds your typical citizen gets off in self-defense. This isn’t theology here, buddy. Just shrugging your shoulders and going “who knows?” is unacceptable – go find some data before implying that 30+ rounds is necessary to defend against an attack. Also, clarify what you think people are protecting themselves from. The next Jared Loughner? A pack of wild dogs? How will 30+ rounds help us there? Marcus again:

So a gun-carrying citizen is at the shooting, tries to stop Loughner and 10 rounds isn’t enough? A high-capacity magazine in the hands of such a bystander would be more likely to inflict more damage on other innocent observers than to take down the shooter.

Bingo. If you can’t hit him with one of the first 10, should you really be the guy holding 30 rounds in a crowd?


As a sidenote, I’d also like to call out the Washington Post’s web editors for this little graphic that I found on the home page this morning. “Gun owners, beware”? Beware what, exactly? Beware, they’re coming to take away your ability to fire 10+ rounds without reloading? Harden the fuck up and see yesterday’s remarks about inflammatory rhetoric.

It’s sweet that they didn’t feel the irony of juxtaposing that headline with “Culture of paranoia” was too much for a Tuesday.

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Happiness is a Reasonable Debate on Gun Control

Domestic gun politics are not my favorite subject. There’s a lot of passionate, willful ignorance on both sides of the issue, and a lot of it seems to stem from a basic disagreement about whether there’s any legitimate use for a gun outside law enforcement or the military. I happen to believe there is, but I spent years in the other camp as well. Generally I just avoid the topic.

That said, Jared Loughner’s actions have produced a flurry of histrionic rants and strident op-eds about the evils of guns and how criminally insane people can just walk in and buy assault weapons and oh god what is this world coming to? From Gawker:

… no one’s even bothering to put up a heartfelt argument about whether we should consider enacting barriers to the purchase of semi-automatic weapons by plainly insane people…  A consensus has emerged that preserving access to firearms for the public at large is worth the occasional mass killing because the alternative—registering firearms, requiring competency evaluations before selling them—is too onerous.

To which I say: deep breath, team. Let’s all go get our terminology straight and regroup here in a few minutes. Let’s stop using the term semi-automatic as a way to whip people into a frenzy.  In fact, let’s tone down the inflammatory rhetoric in general.

Gawker, further:

Ask yourself which measure, had it been in place in the three years prior to the killings, would have been more likely to prevent them: A pledge from Sarah Palin to refrain from violent rhetoric, or a requirement in Arizona that all gun sales be accompanied by a note from a mental health professional certifying competence. Thousands have been demanding the former for the past two days; I haven’t heard anyone propose the latter.

There’s a reason you haven’t heard anyone propose the latter – it’s a terrible idea. Getting a note from a mental health professional certifying “competence” (what’s that?) isn’t like getting a note from your doctor that you’re up to date on your shots. Are you really suggesting that mental health professionals should declare sanity before gun purchases go through? Do you know how difficult it is to get an appointment with a mental health professional? Do you know how expensive and time-consuming it is? Just some possible externalities of a policy like this, none of which are a real stretch of the imagination:

  • Overburdened “mental health professionals” (again, can we define some terms?) are suddenly expected to evaluate whether somebody is a danger to society and/or to themselves, based on… what standards? How many evaluations? Certainly nobody would dare lie to a mental health professional. Is there an appeal process? What if Dr. X says I seem depressed today and for my own safety shouldn’t be allowed to purchase a gun? What if Dr. X hates guns and denies me out of hand? Can I get a second opinion?
  • Health insurance plans would decrease mental health coverage because there would be a sudden spike in demand. Mental health is already misunderstood, poorly treated, and insufficiently covered – yes, let’s break that system a little more. That’ll have the desired results.
  • The working class is unfairly penalized, because they will find it more difficult to take time off during normal working hours to go to a mental health professional. But I’m sure you normally champion the working class, right? Just not when they want things you don’t think they should have, like guns.

Clearly you didn’t think this through. You can’t possibly believe this is a good idea; you’re just inflaming the left. You represent the standard entrenchment pattern for every gun control debate, and you are why that debate is always over before it starts. Thanks for playing.

Let’s go find somebody with authority and a track record of general reasonableness. Let’s see what the New York Times has to say:

Mr. Loughner was rejected by the military for failing a drug test, and had five run-ins with the Pima Community College police before being suspended for disruptive activity. Why can’t Congress require a background check — without loopholes for gun shows or private sales — that would detect this sort of history? If the military didn’t want someone like Mr. Loughner to be given a firearm, neither should the public at large.

New York Times, is that really you? Military eligibility as a standard by which to allow or disallow gun ownership? What are you doing on this crazytrain?

Military eligibility has nothing to do with your fitness to own and operate a gun in a safe and legal way, and it has nothing to do with how sane or rational an actor you are. Until, oh, a few weeks ago, the military didn’t want to give gay people guns either. Does that mean the Pink Pistols should pack it up? And hey, #fulldisclosure: I’m ineligible to join the military cause I have asthma. Should I not be allowed to own guns in case I… have an asthmatic attack?

Or are we hating on people who fail drug tests now? This is equally pernicious, because Loughner’s drug test (note: I said test, not ongoing drug use) has nothing to do with his decision to go on a rampage, but ohmygod DRUGS ARE BAD GUNS ARE BAD DO YOU NOT SEE THE CONNECTION?!?! BAN EVERYTHING!!!! Guns should never be under the influence of mind-altering substances, but claiming drug use should automatically disqualify you from gun ownership is both impractical and far too general to warrant inclusion in a NYT op-ed. What drugs? Is there a threshold for how much drug use is too much? How will a seller know? Are we proposing to create a database of known drug users? Where do we draw the line on privacy?

The debate over gun control and gun rights seems to remain the same, no matter what happens. Both sides have to remain within their camp, and any efforts to reach across that divide are immediately crushed. We can’t have a productive debate if nobody can point out absurdity on their own side. On Twitter, CJ Chivers pointed me to the case of Jim Zumbo, who became a pariah in the firearms community in 2007 for speaking out against AR-15s and AK-47s being used as hunting rifles. Assault rifles. For hunting. No.

Bringing this back to Loughner: high-capacity magazines are also absurd. I can’t think of a legitimate civilian need for a high-cap magazine, just as I can’t think of a legitimate civilian need for a fully-automatic weapon of any kind. What the hell could you possibly do with 33 rounds that you couldn’t do with 10 or 15, besides massacre people? At the shooting range, I generally use a 15-round magazine, which is considered high-cap in some states, because I don’t want to reload every five minutes. If that were illegal, I’d sigh, get a 10-round magazine, and move on with my life. In the argument between, “I should be allowed to own any gun and any accessories I want” and “Public availability of some weapons/accessories poses a substantial risk to society,” I come down firmly on the side of the collective good. That’s what civilization is about.

So let’s be civilized. Let’s have a gun control debate that is reasonable and practical, and let’s write accurately and honestly about guns. Ban high-capacity magazines, but don’t even propose introducing mental health professionals into the equation. That doesn’t further the debate; that shuts it down.

More than anything, I think this tragedy points to the need for a re-evaluation of the mental health system. We should be asking how Jared Loughner slipped through the cracks of society to end up in that Safeway parking lot, and finding ways to get people like him the help they need, not proposing thoroughly impractical solutions to questions of gun control.

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