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Culture, Politics

Myths, Guns, and Politics

I’ve been mulling over the Arizona shootings for several days now, and trying to think of a way to condense my thoughts into one or two concise ideas.  I think I can finally do it.  Unfortunately, I’m going to have to wade into politics to do it, and that’s something I’ve tried to avoid like the plague here at Life Without a Net.   Even worse, I’m going to have to get into the 2nd Amendment debate, which I’m sure will aggravate some of my readers.  Nevertheless, I’m going to ask readers on both sides of this debate to wait for the punchline at the end of the article, and hopefully we can pull some sanity out of this thing.

Surviving Tragedy Without a Net

How do you feel about Jared Lee Loughner?  Are you enraged?  Do you think he’s evil?  FOX News doesn’t mind letting their commentators use the word freely.  Over the past few days, I’ve seen at least a half dozen instances of pundits calling for some sort of pogrom against those who would commit violence in the name of ideology.  Which is odd.  Since Jared seemed to think himself the leader of such a pogrom.

I can’t find an ounce of anger to direct towards the killer.  I have sympathy for him, and I hope he isn’t mistreated during his trial, sentencing, and incarceration.  I hope he is treated for his real problem — his malfunctioning brain.  He needs meds and a place where he can’t harm anyone.  And that’s it.  There’s no room for revenge here.

But we want to blame someone or something for this.  Prominent Democrats are blaming guns and political vitriol.  Republicans have returned to their rhetoric of personal responsibility.  NRA officials have urged us to go buy more guns to protect ourselves from evil people who would cause harm to our families.  I’m not going to play the blame game, though.  Instead, I want to look at several aspects of this case as tradeoffs.

Gun Control –  As far as I can see, the NRA is the only clear winner in this.  First, they oppose any kind of gun regulation, waving the Second Amendment around like a Holy Writ.  Then, when the inevitable happens, and someone prominent dies, they encourage us all to buy more guns to keep people from doing this again.

I am anti-gun.  I believe the Second Amendment, like the Eighteenth Amendment, has been a failure.  And like prohibition, it can be — and should be — repealed.  The arguments for it are all failures, and are all designed to appeal to our fears more than our intellects.

I am also a realist, and recognize that it’s impossible to somehow collect all the guns held privately in the U.S.  But rest assured, whenever there is a debate over gun regulation, I will probably come down on the side of the strictest regulations.   Jared Loughner is a great case study for this.  He legally bought a handgun even though his past is checkered with signs of mental illness, and even though the salesman felt weird about selling it to him.  He legally bought an extended clip, allowing him to kill even more people.  If he hadn’t had access to a gun, he’d still be in his parent’s basement, blogging incomprehensible paranoid rhetoric, and dozens of families would be happily living their lives.  Just like the families at Virginia Tech.  And the families of Dr. Gunn, Dr. Britton, and the other doctors who have been shot for performing abortions.  And the nine thousand plus families per year in the U.S. who lose someone to a gun murder.

Did a lack of gun control cause this tragedy?  No.  But it’s part of the picture.  In America, we have decided that we are OK with 9000+ deaths by gun per year.  We are willing to trade this number of deaths for the right to own guns. And that’s ok if it’s what we want to do.  But we cannot sugar coat this reality.  If Loughner didn’t have a gun, this wouldn’t have happened.

(I have to add — there were people at the rally with legal guns.  And do you know what happened?  They were told not to use them for fear the police would think they were accomplices.  Think about that next time you imagine yourself to be a hero with a 45.  It’s just as likely to get you killed as to actually help.  And while you’re at it, think about how you’d feel if your stray bullet had killed a 9 year old girl while you were trying to hit the perp.)

Political Rhetoric – Like gun control, I don’t believe we can blame political rhetoric.  But it does factor into the equation.  We encourage vitriol and hatred in politics.  Figures like Sarah Palin and George W. Bush are seen as a kind of Wild West movie hero, and they are applauded when they make speeches that sound like a script from Dirty Harry.  Vitriol is used to insulate and polarize the country.  It creates fear and anger.

And we’re using it on purpose.  FOX News is designed to propagate fear and hatred.  Talk radio is dominated by red-faced bombast.  We hate our political rivals.  We think they’re evil people out to destroy our way of life.  And the only thing to do when someone wants to destroy us is for us to hit them first.

And that’s what Jared Loughner believed he was doing.  Destroying the government before it destroyed him.  Americans have decided to trade civil discourse for black and white political lines.  And we’re paying the price for it in the growing fringe groups like the ones Jared Loughner listened to and believed.

Mental Health Issues – I’ve been shocked and appalled at the discussions I’ve heard about Loughner’s mental health.  While it’s unclear whether he is a paranoid schizophrenic or not, it is clear that he has a history of mental problems.  Even so, the FOX News reporter describing his appearance in court seemed very badly to want to discredit this fact.  He described Loughner as calm, well-spoken, and aware of his surroundings.  And he might well have been all of those things, but that doesn’t have anything to do with whether he’s mentally ill.

This highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness that pervades our society.  We believe it’s an on-off switch.  If someone is coherent enough to understand that they’re in court for murder, they are mentally stable enough to be tried for murder.

The facts are much trickier.  We know now that many factors beyond our conscious control lead to bizarre and extreme behaviors.  As an example, we’ve discovered that a medicine given to Parkinson’s patients leads to compulsive gambling.  Elderly people who have never set foot in a casino have gambled away their family fortune after going on the medication.  Crazy, isn’t it?

Or… is it?

Mental illness is a huge spectrum of scientific inquiry, and the more we learn, the more it becomes clear that our notions of sanity and insanity are not nearly as clear-cut as we’d like to believe.  But politically, we have decided to ignore this.  We would rather proceed with our penal system as it is.  We must punish criminals who are sane and institutionalize those who are insane.  Which amounts to the same thing.  Incarceration is the only route we approve of politically — because we are told to be afraid by those who would pander to our emotions.

We have chosen to trade public safety for the myth of sanity and insanity.  Rather than spend real money and political capital on the compassionate and early treatment of mental illness, we prefer to allow sick men like Jared Loughner to commit their crimes, and then lock them up so that we can forget about them.

Big Causes for Big Effects – It is a quirk of human nature that we want a huge cause for a huge effect.  We see a “national tragedy” like the shooting of a public figure and a cute little white girl, and we demand some kind of equal and opposite political solution.  In doing so, we ignore the fact that we’ve already consented to allowing this kind of thing to happen.  If a crazed man with brown skin had driven through downtown Compton with a 9mm and an extended clip, killing half a dozen gang-bangers, we might notice the blurb on the back page of the newspaper.  But we wouldn’t be up in arms about gun control laws, nor would we be having a public discussion on the nature of political rhetoric.

The truth is, we allow this kind of thing to happen on a regular basis.  We politely push the disturbed young men out of our classrooms and let someone else deal with them.  We lovingly clean our own 9mm handguns and store them in expensive cases — until we are involved in some kind of gun tragedy.  We just turn off FOX News instead of demanding journalistic responsibility.

We are all responsible for the Arizona shooting.  We are all participants in a society which has decided to trade the occasional act of violence for our “rights” to be cowboys and use violent political rhetoric.  We’ve decided that it’s ok for children to watch dozens of hours of violence on TV.  It’s ok to quietly push mentally disturbed people from one place to another instead of incorporating real mental health care into our schools.

And if that’s what we want, then fine.  But we don’t get the privilege of acting surprised or outraged when things like this happen.  This is the price we must pay for the society we live in.  I’m very sorry for the families of the fallen.  I’m also sorry for Jared Loughner.  He’s a victim, too.  In a way, we are all victims.  But maybe in understanding the trades we’ve made, we can learn to either accept it or make real changes to prevent things like this in the future.



7 thoughts on “Myths, Guns, and Politics

  1. As always, Mr. Hamby, your writing is excellent, and I was “in” from beggining to end. Although you and i share many sensibilities, on this issue we seem to differ. But , as always, you make valid, lucid points. Another terrific read, sir.

    Posted by Rich Woods | January 15, 2011, 9:28 pm
  2. Rich, thank you very much. To be honest, I’d much rather hear how awesome I am from someone who disagrees with me. It’s easy to ride the bandwagon when we agree, but if my “opponents” think I’m at least coherent and reasonable, that’s a big step.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 15, 2011, 10:02 pm
  3. One of the problems with the commentary on mental illnesses and its use as a defense is that it isn’t exactly a pleasant experience to be part of a psych ward. It’s not a get out of jail free card, yet commentators act as if it were. One is put into confinement still and they are confined with other individuals that suffer from a range of mental illnesses. Here is an account of the plea of insanity (Act 1):

    Posted by MKandefer | January 17, 2011, 3:45 pm
  4. Bill, maybe you read about the study of folks who committed similar crimes? I heard it on NPR, I believe, where a large % of those surveyed said they didn’t want ‘to be a nobody’ and that was a part of the reason they committed the violent act. With some positive experiences and a network of good relationships, it may not have happened – although that oversimplifies mental illness. I, too, feel sympathy for Jared and his family. As a society, we are too busy, don’t know how to reach out to these people, or know how to help them get needed resources. With a bit of wisdom gained with age, I always try to take the time to give an ear and acknowledge the worth of mentally challenged folks. Takes a bit of patience, but results in a good conscience!

    Posted by Sandy | January 17, 2011, 7:06 pm
  5. I believe the Second Amendment, like the Eighteenth Amendment, has been a failure. And like prohibition, it can be — and should be — repealed.


    it is clear that he has a history of mental problems. Even so, the FOX News reporter describing his appearance in court seemed very badly to want to discredit this fact.

    That may not be a bad thing. Mentally ill people really aren’t much more likely to commit crimes than the general population, so downplaying that aspect of the issue may help to avoid branding people with mental disorders as dangerous.

    It’s really up to the doctors to say whether Loughner’s sanity is so compromised that he isn’t mentally competent to stand trial for murder. So far, I haven’t heard anything to indicate that he isn’t. His insanity may have provided him with motivation to commit the crime, and it may have been a just act within his insane belief system, but abortion clinic bombers also believe their actions are just, and that doesn’t excuse them from criminal culpability.

    Americans have decided to trade civil discourse for black and white political lines. And we’re paying the price for it in the growing fringe groups like the ones Jared Loughner listened to and believed.

    That kind of rhetoric also makes it more difficult to distinguish between people who are passionate about politics, and people who are criminally insane. How am I suppose to know that people like Sarah Palin don’t want their political opponents to die? Or if I must assume that she doesn’t, then must I assume that the Jared Lee Loughners out there are likewise benign, and just using “vigorous rhetoric?”

    Posted by Ian | January 17, 2011, 7:29 pm
  6. Ian and Sandy,

    You both bring up very compelling points. Ian, your point is well taken, that the sanity or insanity of a perpetrator isn’t as critical as we would like to think. What’s the difference between a perfectly sane person who decides to commit murder and a bat-shit insane murderer? Both are equally dangerous outside of prison, so we put both of them in jail/mental institution.

    My main point with regard to sanity is that many mental “imbalances” can be cured these days. It’s not unreasonable to think that a pill can “cure” a murderer who is insane. Not so for the sane murderer, though. So I think it’s still a worthy distinction, even if I don’t have a grand plan for how to be equitable about it. I recognize the danger in allowing any kind of “treatment and release” sentence for people who successfully plead insanity.

    Sandy, there is considerable evidence that dense populations are literally damaging to the human psyche. We lived 99% of our evolutionary history in groups of 150 or less. We are simply not equipped to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people we encounter in a lifetime. So I think you’re exactly right that many such crimes are committed at least partially as a way to be “somebody.”

    Posted by hambydammit | January 17, 2011, 9:24 pm
  7. Whenever something like this happens emotions rule the day.

    We seem to see Jared do a horrible thing and don’t want to accept that he may not have had the mental capacity to know better.

    Mental Health issues don’t form overnight, it’s very likely that Jared had signs as early as 12 such as torturing animals for example, and it’s sad that nothing was done about it until he picked up a gun. Now it’s extremely unlikely he’ll get the help he desperatly needs, or others like him to get the help they need due to the negative congintation of these people.

    It’s undeniable that violence is part of our culture such as in video games and movies, but the companies that produce them do it to make money, which means pandering to what the audience wants, which is usually big guns and Brazilian volleyball players. But these seem to be an effect, rather than a cause. On the other hand they can take it to new levels.

    Such as the outrage of the Call Of Duty game for violence

    Which amounted to more finger pointing and more appeals to emotion, and less of getting stuff done, to prevent people with violent histories from getting guns or even getting them help.

    So in the end emotions rule the day and nothing gets done.

    I think you’re on the right track with population density, as that’s one of the major predictors of crime rates.

    I also notice that people who do this tend to be male.

    Posted by cptpineapple | January 18, 2011, 1:20 am

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