Saturday, April 28, 2007

more thoughts on the gun question (while I hear helicopters overhead)

Adam Gopnik has a great piece leading off The Talk of the Town in this week's New Yorker. He delves into some of the questions we should be asking in the aftermath of the Tech shootings, particularly the insistence by officials and others (I'll leave it to you to sort the others, for now) that questions about gun control would unnecessarily politicize the incident. For instance:

If the facts weren’t so horrible, there might be something touching in the Governor’s deeply American belief that “healing” can take place magically, without the intervening practice called “treating.” The logic is unusual but striking: the aftermath of a terrorist attack is the wrong time to talk about security, the aftermath of a death from lung cancer is the wrong time to talk about smoking and the tobacco industry, and the aftermath of a car crash is the wrong time to talk about seat belts.

The point is dead-on. How often does a tragedy strike, and we're told not to talk about the causes--as though that would somehow dishonor the dead. Or in my case, more than a few people wondered whether I wanted to get a gun for protection. And when I argued that the answer was fewer guns, their answers were often that tighter gun laws wouldn't have kept the kid from getting his hand on that .44.

Then again, wouldn't having fewer handguns anywhere reduce the likelihood of something like this happening? Gopnik goes on to reference the tragedy ten years ago in Dunblane, Scotland, after which the British government tightened their already-restrictive handgun ownership laws. It is now illegal for a private citizen to own the sort of weapons used at Tech, the gun used to shoot John Locke, the gun used to shoot me, and so on and so forth. After all, a handgun exists for no other purpose than to shoot people; such things have no place in a civilized, democratic society. As Gopnik writes:

It’s true that in renewing the expired ban on assault weapons we can’t guarantee that someone won’t shoot people with a semi-automatic pistol, and that by controlling semi-automatic pistols we can’t reduce the chances of someone killing people with a rifle. But the point of lawmaking is not to act as precisely as possible, in order to punish the latest crime; it is to act as comprehensively as possible, in order to prevent the next one. Semi-automatic Glocks and Walthers, Cho’s weapons, are for killing people.

I understand the essentially libertarian arguments against government intervention in our private affairs--and our rights to private ownership and private choice. What I do not understand is the insistence on these "rights" in the face of obvious evidence that such "rights" continue to damage the civility and sanity of our society. It's like the arguments defending smoking in restaurants, bars, and other public places--that it's an individual's "right" to do as he pleases. The problem is these "rights" and behaviors cause harm to people who do not choose to partake in them. After all, shouldn't it be our collective goal to make our society a safer, better place in every way possible? Doesn't the common good outweigh the privileges of the individual?

Gopnik ends with this:

Rural America is hunting country, and hunters need rifles and shotguns—with proper licensing, we’ll live with the risk. There is no reason that any private citizen in a democracy should own a handgun. At some point, that simple truth will register.

He's right.

I've stayed away from commenting directly on these things for too long. Unfortunately, I have now been too close to the harm handguns can do too many times. I have been witness to a man dying. I was lucky enough to be hit and survive. People I know knew victims at Tech. The shooter in Arkansas--just like the shooter at Tech--bought his ammunition at Wal-Mart. Just like that, walked into a store that claims to be family-friendly and purchased hundreds of units of death and destruction.