Monday, February 6, 2006

"With a Gun, With a Gun, You Will Be What You Are Just The Same"

I have a friend who is a big proponent of gun owners' rights. I'm not myself a gun owner, and I have struggled not to let the stereotypical "gun nut" determine my stance on an important subject. But (again, working around a group of guys who have gun backgrounds and gun proclivities) I never hear the subject discussed without my thinking that gun rights people sound, well, a little off-kilter. I'm not decided on the subject, in spite of my liberal leanings on social issues; but this is how I try to work through these issues.

My friend argues that, far from it being a gift granted to us by a too-lenient or ungrasping government, gun ownership (or the right to it) is something fundamental to our nation's identity and existence, and it has the status of constitutional protection as a reflection of this. The ability, he argues, for us to forcibly take control of our government--and to overthrow it if need be--goes to the very core of who we are as a people. Well, that seems to have settled all of us into a place where neither I nor most people I know have even visited, but I try to grasp the essential point. Our country was born of rebellion, of a forceful overthrow of existing governing entities, so that we might determine our own, different, way.

But even if I grant this, is it realistically applicable today? If I and a large group of concerned citizens today went to the Wisconsin Capitol and, deer rifles in hand, ushered the government out on the street, could it ever stand? And if it came to that, could militias take control of our national government? How sensible is this? And does its break from practical reality, as I'm implying, invalidate the concept?

All of this skirts around the edges of more traditional gun control issues: do guns cause violence? Or, more specifically, would banning or restricting gun ownership make our society less violent? Should assault weapons be banned? And, if so, on what legal ground do we differentiate these advanced weapons from older weapons which are now allowed but which were once dangerously advanced? Are handguns necessarily bad? Don't they exist solely to kill people? Is brandishing it enough? Or must one be prepared always to use the weapon?

My own questions are more likely to follow along practical lines--asking, say, whether carrying a concealed weapon doesn't statistically increase the likelihood of a crime being committed, or of someone--possibly the gun owner--getting injured or killed? Gun magazines are full of stories about how an armed citizen prevented bad things from happening with his or her gun. Naturally, those same magazines don't run the headline "Ignorant, Wimpy Fat Bald Man Cedes Registered Handgun to Robbers, Invites Looting and Pillaging of House." Conversely, I've heard the arguments: guns don't cause violence; we're a violent society that uses guns instead of (or in addition to) knives and bats and whatever else; it's a gun-ignorant population that lives in fear of guns (interestingly, an argument I would make about sex education and contraception). I can't argue with any of these statements, though I seem unable to find in them the rails that lead to a single, coherent place.

Again, I feel as though the information that is readily available is spun heavily because the topic is so politically charged. How well-informed are we about this topic? Myself, not so well, I'm afraid.

I got to thinking about all this anew a week or so ago when I flew with a fella who was about as pro-gun as any I've yet to meet. His main thrust was hunting, but this is, for me, another door into the vast halls of gun ownership and the attendant issues. He lives in Alaska, apparently solely so that he can kill things on his days off (this is his explanation, anyway). Family photos showcase the kids displaying their letter-perfect archery stances, and an endless parade of slain trophy animals posed for the camera before "processing."

My first reaction to all this was maybe predictable. To have as one's prime enthusiasm in life the taking of the lives of other creatures seemed to me reprehensible. Despicable. That reaction was tempered a bit over the course of the week (I listened to all of this going on between the other two pilots without myself engaging) by frequent references to respecting the animals, and for always using what one shoots. He apparently uses everything, hide, tallow, meat. The upshot for him was that he had not purchased any animal products from a supermarket for years. There was thrill in the hunt, but the shooting was not merely for sport, so much as making the business of procuring sustenance an enjoyable thing. (This is a spin, I'm afraid, but this was the best light I could put it in.)

If I did not enjoy my occasional prime rib or quarter pound cheeseburger, I'm aware that I'd be in a much stronger place to oppose this philosophy. It's a big subject, I know, because this now touches on vegetarianism, a place I'm even less prepared to wander. But I'm not sure I'm tending inevitably there. I just want to wash what seems an icky film off of myself after a week spent in that environment. I appreciate that my colleague lives an aggressively outdoor life, camping and living for long periods off the land. That does not, in itself, seem so disagreeable.

But I'd still take a Manhattan multiplex and a tub of popcorn. I suppose I'm beyond reach, an incurable softy just waiting to be rolled over.


Joshua said...

As an Eagle Scout, and one who ran a rifle range at boyscout camp, I guess it is easy to tell where I sit on this issue.

However, I think the proper stewardship and control needs to be taught for firearms. As your friend seems to know, the idea is not only to hunt, but to hunt and USE what is hunted.

Some might argue that in modern society, that trait is obsolete, and they would tend towards supermarkets. Hey, good for them. I think, though, the practice of "harvesting" your own meat is no less or more voilent than what a cow goes through before he is "processed" and sent to those markets. In fact, when done properly, hunting is/should be painless for the animal.

Now, when firearms become weapons (the boyscouts actually teach that no such thing can EVER happen), the issue changes. I have never seen a hunter use a fully automatic weapon. I have seen a backwards hick use one to hunt. It is awefully hard to harvest the meat from a deer that has one hole per square inch in a rapidly tattooed patternm accrossed his hide.

And I am not sure what place automaitc firearms have. It seem to me they are only good for falling large numbers of things at once. Of course, the chance of finding a group of deer, not on the highway at night, is slim enough that few straight faced people could agrue the use of fully auto while hunting. So it seems they are for killing people.

The problem with that is banning them doesn't change the landscape. No fewer guns will be produced, becuase the majority of fully automatic firearms are not made in America, so no fewer will be on the streets. Perhaps bannign the import might be more effective, but I think that just prevents the lower level thug from getting one (a big step, to be sure, but not really totally effective). Getting bans on production would be key, but try to stop isreal from making Tavors or Galils.

I guess I am no closer to figuring this one out than you are. I still think they have a place in our society, for sport. I am not sure how effective they are as a tool of overthrow. Perhaps stocks and bonds would be a more effective way to go. But I would hate to see gun ownership threatened, as well.

Turns out it's just not a black and white issue. Damn.

Kate said...

Due to my husband's career, we've discussed this long and often. To keep it short because this is a complex issue, I see no reason for the general public to have assault weapons or handguns.

Hunting rifles are an essential up in rural West Virginia where my Dad is from. Many of the folks up there only get by because of the meat they can put on the table.

But I despise the NRA and their sway over Congress and most of their arguments are weak. They use the slippery sloppe argument more than any pro-choice activist.

wunelle said...

I appreciate this comment. You're so right, it isn't a black and white issue, which is why I struggle with it. I think in politics it's easy to find an ugly manifestation of any point of view, and so often an argument is mounted to oppose the most disfunctional stance available. This may not be healthy, but there it is.

But it's exactly because the disfunctional fringe of the issue of guns is so, well, particularly deadly and dangerous that I waffle. I know, I know: it's not the guns that make it so; these are deadly and dangerous people, and they will be so with or without a gun. And I know lots of responsible and recreational gun users whose interface with the issue gives me no pause at all. But we don't get them and their rights without enabling something that seems so dark and spooky to me.

Maybe that's the bottom line: I live a soft, modern, urban lifestyle that's in stark contrast to life as viewed by a Soldier of Fortune. It's not the first time we are called upon to embrace, or at least do our part to enable, a diverse viewpoint not our own.

wunelle said...

Kate--you snuck in there between Joshua and my reply to him!

I totally agree about the NRA. Completely. And I struggle to not let them define the issue, though they're about enough to sway me. (And yes, crazy like the freaky side of the "pro-life" movement.)

And I too can see no real legitimate reason to have handguns or, especially, assault rifles except this: if we accept the right to bear arms as a constitutional thing, for the purpose of taking control of our government in a crisis, we won't do very well against M-16s with our Remington 30-30. And again, I just don't know whether this whole rebellion-in-waiting argument touches reality one iota.

I appreciate these differing views as an eye-opener.

Esbee said...

If it was me versus the corrupt-government-that-needs-overthrowing, anything I could carry legally isn't worth squat against what they have, fire-powerwise. That rationale's as outdated as muskets.

wunelle said...

Ah, but that leaves us with another can o'worms, doesn't it? That means we're left ultimately with only ballot box control over this hypothesized corrupt government. Ideally, that's all that a softie liberal like me should need, but that's without figuring in the corruption part. It's worth noting that we're an independent country now exactly because we were able to step outside those bounds when needed. Another time and place, I know.

It's an interesting point of contemplation that a seemingly small group of insurgents in the Middle East, with stockpiles of the kinds of weapons in question, are able to keep a huge first-world army rather pinned down (certainly moreso than I expected initially). How that intersects with domestic gun owners' rights I leave to your imaginations. But no serious popular uprising would leave the entire armed forces intact at the government's disposal.

I'm sorry this is so pie-in-the-sky. But I'm hoping that lights around the perimeter will serve to illuminate the center. My own tendency is to think we'd all be better off if handguns were simply illegal. But I'm trying to look at this from someone else's perspective.

BrianAlt said...

Interesting thing is if you try to take over the governemnt and fail it is considered treason. The penalty for treason is death by hanging. Interesting that they don't shoot you intstead.

Joshua said...

This is a bit off topic, but I am not sure gun ownership has much to do with the overthrow of a government anymore. I should rephrase that, it doesn't have anything to do with the overthrow of OUR government.

First, and most obviously, it was pointed out that we have not the man or weapon power to stage an assault on the government.

But more importantly, I think, is we would have to attack an IDEA. Think about how terrbily large our goverment is, how many people and resources in employs, how much of our every day mundane life it controls. How tell me what the rebel army would attack? The white house? The pentagon? Simply simbols of power. Take out all of capitol hill, and what have you done? Would it cripple the government? Sure it would. Would it stop it from functioning? Nope. I don't think it would, at all.

It's not quite 1982, but our government is as much in our heads as it is in the law books, the structures that house it, and the legislation it passes. We could no sooner overthrow government than we could overthrow love.

Joshua said...

Dear word, sorry for these long posts.

Oh, and I just reread JUST the last line of your original post. Sicko!


wunelle said...

Joshua--I tend to agree that, practically-speaking, gun ownership rights have little to do with overthrowing governments anymore. But is this not the basis for its constitutional protection? If we admit that not to be a legitimate motivation, have we not emasculated our claim to own instruments of violence?

Thinking hypothetically, of course, I imagine an armed rebellion would not be against the whole entity of government and all its civil service tentacles, but against a rogue contingent who had overstepped their mandate or somehow circumvented the popular will (think Hitler & Co. if his real aims had been reported in a free press). This would give a focus and a target, if you will.

The converse--again, in the service of trying to define the issue better--is to wonder exactly how vulnerable we might be as a people if NO ONE were allowed to have the implements of self-defense, or, if you prefer, the defense of one's family. This might constitute an opportunity for an unseemly sort.

Yeah, I'm not helping the long-windedness of all this. But hey, that's my stock-in-trade!

Mandy said...

My first thought is a quote from my favorite comedian: The NRA likes to say that guns don't kill people - people do. Well, I think the gun helps.

Re: hunting, I have no problem with *responsible* hunters - particularly those that use what they kill. Thanks to years of environmental manipulation, the deer population has exploded because we've gotten rid of their natural predators. I think it's far more humane for an animal to die quickly and (relatively) painlessly at the hands of a skilled hunter than to slowly starve to death. Hunting, however, is not my thing at all - nor is mounting parts of a slain animal on my wall.

HOWEVER, what kind of hunter needs armor-piercing bullets? Or a machine gun? I have yet to hear anyone make an even remotely convincing argument why instruments that are created solely for the purpose (as someone else said) of killing as much in as little time as possible should be available to the general public. It's absurd.

It's true that criminals will continue to find guns regardless of their legality (heck, here in Yemen there are *four* guns for every person, it's one of the most heavily armed countries in the world). But is that a good reason to legalize assault weapons? I don't think so.

BrianAlt said...

I think hunting to kill for food is great! If you want to "protect your home", own a shotgun. 1) They scare the shit out of whoever you point it at, 2) they probably won't kill, except at close range and 3) it doesn't look like a toy like a hnadgun. Otherwise, take all the damn guns and melt them down!

There's no rational reason to have an AK-47 in your house, I don't care that the Constitution says we can. Ever hear of amendments?

Froyd said...

This argument has already covered quite a bit of ground that I would have already covered.

As for the "no rational reason to have an AK-47" I agree. However, I've shot one, and one that my brother had made(obviously not an AK, but built up to semi-auto specifications using parts), and it is fun to shoot at a range. When does fun have anything to do with rationality?

When he isn't shooting it at the range, it's locked in a gun cabinet. He used it once, I believe, to hunt warthogs in Florida. The point of his owning it, not only the pride of having created it, is that it is a sport for him. I think it's a bit of a disservice so far that you are taking two stances on weapons: either they are to kill things, or they are to protect/overthrow things. There is no focus, either in the national debate or in the mini-debates, on the sport aspect of a firearm.

Sports != rationality.(that's a not equals for you non computer people)

Now, I am in complete agreement that handguns are not necessarily NEEDED, but for a sport shooter, they are enjoyable to shoot. So goes too for the AK-47. does that mean that people need a conceal and carry permit? No. It's kind of silly. So are fully auto rifles. There is NO NEED for that kind of firepower in private hands. Armor piercing rounds are ridiculous as well.

but I think other kinds of weapons shouldn't be illegal if you're using them for sport reasons.

Joshua said...

Mandy, the idea isn't that criminals being able to get fully automatic rifles is a reason to legalize them, rather it is an illustration that, under the current climate and system, making fully atuomatic weapons illegal would just increase the disparity between legal and illegal gun ownership. There probably aren;t too many people who think fully automatic firearms have a place in the home, but there is still a need to address HOW to remove them without giving more power to the people who use them for harm. (I wish I had an answer for this one).

Froyd touches on a good point: firearms for sport. Several people I know use their guns at a range. One even KEEPS his at the range, simply because he does not want it in his house.

But at what cost, and I think that is what we are all worried about here, are we championing sport? I am not nieve enough to think that EVERY sport hunter is pure at heart, or EVERY person who takes a gun safety course is safe with guns, or even EVERY fully automatic owner is a killer. So the problem remains: how do we get the guns OUT of the hands of the people who would use them for harm, without harming the people who would use them for sport (or, some might argue, good)? And at what point do we step on whose toes to get this done? If the hunters outnumber the killers, is firearm ownership OK? If the reverse is true, shoudl we ban all firearms?

It's muddled from the begining when, as I think someone pointed out, technology was so unadvanced that firearms used my military, crooks, and farmers were all the same. The law sort of makes sense, in that light. Sort of makes us all equal (thank you Sam Colt). But, and I think most people would agree, that is not the case today, and we are still relying on those laws.

wunelle said...

Thanks everyone for their thoughtful comments--Mandy, BrianAlt, Froyd (hello!), Joshua. There's lots of stuff to digest here, which is what I hoped for.

I acknowldege Froyd's sport angle, and I myself have done just a little handgun shooting at a range. I've always been fascinated by them, but for me it would be a toy, something to do for fun. And from that perspective (not to tell others what they must feel) the idea of using one in normal circumstances for self-protection seems a bit scary / delusional (not that I cannot conjure scenarios where it would make sense). I just think there's an element of fantasy to the idea of using one for self-protection that seems a bit unrealistic to me.

But I have to say that the "sport" side of things exists, I think, to keep one's hand in the skills involved in being adept at gun use. It seems unlikely that there is a very sizeable sport side of things separate from hunting / killing / protecting.

In a way, if it were really about sports purely, I wonder if we wouldn't be OK with, say, laser pointers or paintball. But what we're choosing for recreation in this case is something not only deadly, but intended for this at its very essence. (As Joshua says, "At what cost are we championing sport?" Good question.)

What I come back to again and again (sorry to be a broken record) is the constitutional standing and its relevance and foundations. The rest seems to me kind of clothing on the beast; the skeleton seems more this bedrock assurance of a "right to keep and bear arms."

Sue Ellen Mischke said...

What I want to know is, why does anyone need armor-piercing bullets? I saw an ad in a gun magazine (don't know why exactly I was looking at one) where they were selling armor-piercing bullets! My boyfriend is a cop in arguably the most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago and, hence, one of the most dangerous ghettos in this country. And people can get their hands on armor-piercing bullets. Last I checked, the only people wearing armor were cops, and killing one of them is a federal offense. So why do we need this? I genuinely would like an answer for this. I really want to believe there is some animal out there in the wild that has armor because it scares me to think that there are people buying special bullets designed to kill cops.

Wunelle- I agree with your predicament on this issue. I know there are people out there that aren't trying to kill cops or innocent people with their guns. But it seems like there are just too many out there that are using them for reasons that have nothing to do with our constitution.

Incidentally, there was a time when just seeing a gun would have freaked me out. But my boyfriend never leaves home without his. He's not an idiot about it though; he never drinks because he knows handguns and impaired judgement don't mix. If he is going to drink, he locks it up at home. He's never even touched it outside of taking it out to put it away at the end of a night. There is no joking around with the gun.

Anyway, good topic for a post.