Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thoughts on Guns

If the shootings at Virginia Tech catalyzed a more rationale, respectful debate about access to firearms, perhaps some good might emerge from all the horror and loss. Sadly, from what I've seen, the debate remains as sterile as ever, and even more vociferous. Let's see if we can do better here.

I think the reason gun ownership proponents and gun control proponents vilify each other so much is that each side is blind to the emotional bedrock on which the other side's position is built. If we can identify that bedrock, maybe some mutual respect will emerge. Out of that respect might even grow... sensible compromise?

Gun control proponents (let's call them GCPs) are most comfortable in environments where there are no guns. Whether such environments can in fact be created is a separate issue; GCPs sense that a society without guns would be safer for everyone. In other words, the core value for GCPs is a safer society, and GCPs are willing to give up their individual right and ability to protect themselves and their family if doing so buys greater safety for society as a whole.

Gun ownership proponents (let's call them GOPs, no Grand Old Party pun intended) are most comfortable in environments where they feel they can protect themselves. In other words, the core value to which GCPs adhere is the individual's right and ability to protect herself and her loved ones. I don't know for certain, but my sense is that even if you could convince a GOP that free access to guns would lead to more gun violence overall, the GOP would say the overall increase in violence is an acceptable price to pay for preserving the individual's right and ability to protect himself and his loved ones.

I can understand both worldviews. I've lived in Japan, where guns are extremely rare and there are typically fewer than 100 annual handgun deaths, most of them accidents (there are rare exceptions, of course). I enjoyed living in a country so safe that even in Tokyo -- a city of 13 million -- women walk home from the train station alone late at night. But at home in America, with a dramatically higher crime rate and something like 200 million handguns in circulation, I own firearms. I guess I subscribe to both values -- I want to live in as safe as a society as possible, and I want to be able to defend myself and my loved ones, too.

Maybe there's a way to reconcile these potentially competing values: societal safety, and personal defense?

Start with this: I have no patience with the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument. I understand why GOPs trot it out -- both sides are afraid that if they give an inch, the other side will take a mile. But let's be honest for a moment: guns are superb tools for killing people. The Virginia Tech killer couldn't have done nearly the damage he did with any other handheld weapon -- knife, sword, spear, baseball bat, bow and arrow. If someone is inclined to kill, a gun will make him better able to do it.

The more interesting question is, does the gun itself encourage killing -- that is, does some degree of the motivation itself derive from the tool? I think the answer is yes. Look at the way cell phones affect public behavior. Otherwise discreet, polite people forget they're in public and start shouting into this little device -- behavior in which they never would have engaged in the device's absence. Take away the phone, and the shouting stops, too. The question is, are guns and killing as to cell phones and public shouting?

If you think that all killing is equally likely regardless of the tool at hand, you'll answer no. But if you understand the way a finger roll and distance make killing easier, and the way the much more strenuous and intimate requirements of a knife or bludgeon make it hard, you'll accept that yes, a gun is a tool that converts a higher percentage of homicidal urges into homicidal acts.

Thought experiment: in which society would there be lower rates of murder and other violence -- one in which no one but law enforcement carried, or one in which anyone who was so inclined carried? My guess is, the law enforcement-only society would be safer, and this is indeed the core GCP argument. But we're not done yet.

Another thought experiment: if you're a GOP, are you more uncomfortable not carrying in Japan, or in America? What about airplanes, where there's very little chance anyone other than a Federal Air Marshall or a pilot is carrying? What about government facilities where you can be confident no one else is carrying? Conversely, would your ordinary concealed carry be enough in, say, Baghdad?

My point is, there is (or should be) an implicit calculus between the perception of danger and the urge to carry. Neither value -- societal safety, personal defense -- sensibly exists independent of the other.

If it were possible to make America as gun-free as, say, Japan, I'd be for it. I'd be willing to give up some of my own right and ability to protect myself and loved ones if there were a sufficiently low need for that right and ability. But an America as gun-free as Japan is an unrealistic goal; guns are too widely in circulation here, the country is too diverse, and guns and crime are too much a part of the culture.

So maybe there's some basis for compromise in there. If GOPs can understand the value of certain gun-free zones, maybe they can understand the GCP wish to live in such a zone full time. If GCPs can understand how difficult it is to create an actual gun-free zone (the only ones I could come up are airplanes and government facilities), maybe they can understand why GOPs want to carry.

I think what we should be attempting is a balance that would maximize to the extent possible the imperatives of a safe society and of personal protection -- probably by being realistic about the relationship between the two in America. If there's a compelling reason to create a gun-free zone, and it can actually be done (airplanes, for example), I'm for it. If there's no compelling reason, or a gun-free zone isn't possible (even if you think the Virginia Tech campus passed the "compelling need" test, you'd be hard put to argue that it passed the "possible to do" one), I'm in favor of an individual's right to carry.

I don't think guns should be available without restriction. I think it's perfectly natural, and desirable, that people have to take a driving test before being licensed -- and licensed is the operative word -- to drive a car. I don't think it's unreasonable to require people who want to own guns to take a stringent course and pass a test on gun use and safety. I don't think a background check and cooling down period (in California, it's ten days between purchase and pickup) are an undue burden to a GOP's rights and abilities. I think background checks should be extended to private sales (mostly that means gun shows), which account for something like 40% of gun purchases.

In exchange for the temporary hassles of proving competence in gun use and safety, a clean record, and a cool head, GOPs could maintain the core of their self defense rights and abilities. In exchange for living in an armed society, GCPs would gain greater assurance that GOPs are neither criminal nor incompetent.

From what I've read so far, neither existing, nor my proposed, restrictions on gun ownership would have prevented the Virginia Tech killer from acquiring his guns (it does seem that the killer had some documented history of mental illness, though, something that ought to be a disqualification for firearms ownership, if such a thing is logistically possible). But if responsible students had been carrying, I doubt he could have done the damage he did. In fact, it's possible he wouldn't have attacked as he did to begin with. After all, if you accept that the presence of a gun makes murder more likely, I think you have to logically reach the same conclusion with regard to places, like the Virginia Tech campus, that are advertised as gun-free. If you had a gun and wanted to kill as many people as you could, would you choose, say, a school where students can carry only at the risk of expulsion? Or, say, at a bar popular with off-duty cops? If you're a GCP, before you answer "A killer like the Virginia Tech one would just find another way to kill," ask yourself why that wouldn't also be true if you denied him his gun. I don't think you can argue the one without also arguing the other.

Think of it as a layered defense for society. Appropriate restrictions would lessen the chances that deranged, pathetic individuals like the Virginia Tech specimen could acquire a gun. More citizens carrying would lessen the damage he could do if the first layer of defense failed. That's the kind of balance I think we should be going for -- and that we'll probably never achieve in the midst of so much political distrust, shouting, and vilification.


Lingering Light Photography said...

I am so happy to have found your blog. Wonderful, thoughtful, and dare I say objective, analysis of an issue so desperately in need of it. I will be back.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we could do without the guns. We've proven that America cant handle the reponsibility of gun ownership. The trouble is getting Pandora back in the box. I dont think this debate will ever be solved as neither side has any room for compromise, as is normal for a topic such as this.

People need to re-learn how to think. In the absence of removal of guns from our society, maybe it's time we begin to stress tolerance and respect for human life and start teaching kids the skills they need to deal with the issues they'll inevitably run into at an earlier age.

I think this will prove to be important to the future of humanity, and getting adults to educate themselves and to become open to new ideas oftentimes is like pulling teeth. It seems most people would rather go down in flames than open their minds a little (okay- for most people a lot) and to learn some temperance and tolerance.

Thanks for writing this. Too much on this topic wont be enough. Aloha- Toby

Anonymous said...

Interesting thinking there Barry. I personally would be for guns if I lived in the states. Living in the UK I know what a virtually gun free society is, but unfortunately we still have people with them, the vast majority being gang members and criminals, and they're becoming more common. For that reason I would buy one for personal defence if they were available.
However, I'm in the forces, and my dad was a soldier until I was 16, so I'm no stranger to firearms. I was taught to shoot the standard issue rifle for the british army (at the time it was the SLR), and since then have used many different weapons. Due to the people that taught me to use weapons, I have a great respect for what damage you can cause with one.
So, would I be a suitable owner of a firearm for defence? Who knows?
I feel that it would be a hard call for anyone to make, after all, a lot of these tragic incidents happen due to someone being emotionally unstable, for example when they feel jilted or rejected. Sometimes the perpetrator of such a crime is just genuinely nuts, but nobody knew till it was too late. How do you tell if someone is likely to have such a catastrophic mental breakdown?
An argument against private ownership is that "spur of the moment" decisions to shoot somebody would disappear if people don't have guns.
An argument for them is defending your family against the possibility of serious crime.
I have a great respect for weapons as I said, having been trained firstly on the safety aspects of them, and THEN how to use them. I enjoy shooting, but I only shoot at paper targets on firing ranges. It is enjoyable for me. I would own a gun in America, but I think that maybe a way to slow down the influx of guns to american society is to make the only place that you can buy one is from the police.
In this way, they would have a record of who they were sold to, can do background checks quite readily and deny them to known criminals and drug addicts with impunity. There would also be the benefit that if the police sold the guns, they could take the details of the weapons rifling before giving it to anyone.
Hopefully these measures would be enough to deter gun crime, but if not, it would at least make it easier to trace down the weapon and/or the owner should a crime happen.

Anonymous said...

If students of a college were permitted to own a gun, then that ownership would by the process of acknowledging the majority, would thwart an assailant from even considering the scenario of a shoot out.
Adam Young of CA

dkgoodman said...

I agree with the majority of your points. Well thought out and conveyed.

The use of background checks and licensing makes sense, but once there's a database of who has a gun and who doesn't, it becomes possible to abuse that database, which scares many people.

You talk about handheld weapons making it easier for the VA Tech killer to do so much damage, but what if he had no access to handheld weapons? Would that have stopped him? Or would he instead have used fire, poison or explosives to do mass damage? Outlawing handheld weapons might (or might not) reduce the use of those weapons, and might (or might not) reduce an attack of convenience or opportunity, but a determined nutjob can do even worse damage with a truck of fertilizer, a commandeered airplane or simply a batch of household chemicals.

It's easier to stop a madman who has handheld weapons than it is stopping one with WMDs. We can't outlaw all the things that can be used to do massive damage. It's better and easier, I think, to concentrate on identifying and treating the madman, and training to nullify one, than to make the country baby-proof.

dkgoodman said...

One more thought on this:

As Kennedy said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

There is a problem in schools of bullies and the bullied. Schools often turn a blind eye to the issue, leaving kids who are picked on defenseless against their tormenters. This does damage to both the bullies and the victims, with the effect on the victims accumulating until they reach a breaking point.

I believe this concept applies to terrorists world-wide as well as the local school variety. We need to work on better ways of resolving conflicts and preventing them from escalating. The first step is to stop ignoring the problem.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog, and much more rationalised than other commentary I have read since the Virginia incident. I live in the UK where obviously guns are outlawed. People still seem to find a way round this, but at much greater risk to their liberty. Perhaps Cho would have found a way to purchase a gun or two if the UK laws existed in Virginia, but it strikes me as amazing that someone is able to just go in to a shop, show a couple of forms of ID and be sold a gun like that. Whether it is a tool of protection or not, how can someone just be sold something designed to kill and not much else? The argument that if some are out there, we should all be allowed to carry them as protection does not wash with me. For guns in US, reads knives in the UK. We have had an ever rising reportage of stabbings, particularly among youths, and coming from one such affected community (a young man has recently been jailed for stabbing to death two friends of his in a frenzy, boys who went to the school where I used to attend and where my Mum still works), quite why he had a knife on him I don't know, but he was at little risk to himself legally by carrying it, it had been sold to him by a sports shop. My point is, people will always probably find a way to find guns as they already exist in great number, but why make the problem even worse by handing them out like sweets?

Spy Scribbler said...

"I enjoyed living in a country so safe that even in Tokyo -- a city of 13 million -- women walk home from the train station alone late at night."

Holy crap, really? Wow, that's disappeared from even the realm of my imagination. I would love to live in a country like that, but, as Toby said so well, "the trouble is getting Pandora back in her box."

I definitely think your ideas are fair, reasonable, and could decrease the murder-by-gun rate. I'm not at all crazy about the right to bear arms, but I grudgingly believe it's a right.

Personally, if I had to defend myself against someone, I'd rather have us both unarmed than both armed. Tokyo sure sounds a little closer to Utopia than we are, in this regard.

Lisa Rowley said...

I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to find an American point of view that so concisely and compellingly states the case for both sides. I’ve always been of the mind that if you want to successfully argue your own point of view you should be able and willing to see things from the other perspective as well. Unfortunately, I’ve been hearing and reading an awful lot of arguments in black and white that ignore the shades of grey.

Myself, I would much rather live in a gun free society. However, being a realist, I believe that more stringent regulations are called for instead. I would go so far to suggest that psychological testing in addition to a 30 day waiting period before anyone was able to take possession of a firearm would go a long way toward preventing the kind of tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech.

“The more interesting question is, does the gun itself encourage killing -- that is, does some degree of the motivation itself derive from the tool?” B.E.

My answer to that is a resounding “yes”. The ability to kill from a distance allows for a greater sense of disassociation. There’s something inherently impersonal about killing with a gun as opposed to a knife or a blunt object, which require close proximity and are thought to be much more personal crimes in nature.

Anonymous said...

Gun ownership is a bigger issue than what you are trying to project here. Your blog only considers the person who wants to defend themselves with a handgun. What about the millions of target shooters and hunters in this country? It is primarily because of them that the individual right to keep and bear arms has been so strenuously defended. If there were no shooting sports then there would be little desire for personal ownership and your police only state would probably be more acceptable.
I carry a gun while on duty as a deputy sheriff. I do not carry off duty unless I'm going to the shooting range or out hunting but I would never want to give up that right just to "feel" safer. I put that in quotes because from the law enforcement side I have seen countless ways where criminals have deflected the laws and aquired firearms illegally. As long as firearms are manufactured someone will find a way to sneak them out to those who are willing to pay for them. Bottom line here is that we need to educate our people on firearms use and abuse and enforce the laws already on the books. By law, it is illigal to sell a firearm to someone who is under psychiatric care. This is a law that is seldom used or enforced because of the potential of violating someones civil rights by accessing their medical history and the doctor-patient confidentiallity issue. In the case of the Virginia Tech situation it might have saved some lives. So whose rights should we infringe, the gun owners or the mentally disfunctional?

aaron said...

I would never feel comfortable not carrying. I understand that Japan is a very different culture, but I do not beleive it is so different that violence has been eliminated fromt he national character.

Without the gun, the equitability of force shifts back to who can fight best, which, in the unskilled, typically means who is larger. For those of us in the less than 150 lbs non-black belt category, where does that go?

Guns make women and small men capable of defending themselves against large men. They allow one man a realistic possibility of defending himself against multiple assailants. Not to be paranoid, you understand-but I have lawfully employed a firearm for both of those uses.

Anonymous said...

I do understand the logic of letting students carry guns on a campus, that in the event of a Cho, Harris, or Klebold becoming motivated to cause trouble, that the situation could potentially be taken care of. However, in that logic, one could also say, why no just tighten gun control so only American citizens with no previous history of mental illness be allowed to purchases a firearm. They're both only half measure solutions to a problem.

Also, university campuses are places of learning, not potential battlegrounds. So, along with making measures that would require a more thorough background check on a particular buyer, the social problems of someone Cho must also be addressed.

For those who gun control isn't the answer, you're absolutely right, it's not THE answer, but one of several. The fact remains, Cho bought handguns legally from a dealer, he didn't acquire through unlawful means - then used them to shoot up the school. And I'm hearing in the news he had an established history of recognized mental illness, so why shouldn't further controls be put to those kinds of people from buying firearms? It's hardly limiting anyone's rights - you're a citizen, mentally stable, you can own a gun.

That and combined with better social programs to help the emotionally distressed that are far more accessible to people (particularly students) would be a good start.

As far as Americans being afraid of themselves being tracked through a national weapons registry, how is that any different than registering a vehicle to drive? Or maintaining a passport, driver's license, a social security number? I mean, let's face it, guns are meant to kill living things. And for all the libertarian views about maintaining the right to bear arms (no grizzlies though...sorry!) as a personal right, to hunt, to target shoot, whatever, it's still only a very thin line to cross in that those same guns can be used on a human being.

That's what bothers me most about the current interpretation of the Second Amendment, people's perceptions of "inalienable rights", and just the pure and simple economics of the whole arms industry, though most (the vast majority, I dare say) gun owners are responsible with their firearms, it's still sad there is still a number of people killed each year that are considered acceptable losses to maintain the guns.

PBI said...

Excellent post, Barry, and one that provides a framework that I think is valuable for people like myself, who are still thinking this issue through. So while it's certainly not going to generate enough traffic to shut down your servers or anything, in the interests of spreading the word, I am linking to you from my own blog, Sensen No Sen. (That and several dollars will get you a tall latte, but I do what I can!)

Sensen No Sen

Anonymous said...

Your blog is one of the most impartial looks at the gun ownership/gun control debate I have ever read. As the daughter of a markmanship instructor, my viewpoints have been inbred (skewed?) since birth. But I do not believe in the possibility of the abolishment of firearms in America. As you say, guns are too prevalent in our culture. (And if there was a way to confiscate them, I fear only the criminal element would still possess their guns.) I am also not sure with the "safety nets" you recommend, the Virginia Tech killer's mental issues would have come to light in the common background check (since it mainly checks for criminal offenses.) There is no centralized database (that famed permanent record?) that includes everything about a person. And the creation of such would certainly impinge upon freedoms since we realize most things can be hacked. Anyway, I am glad to see a reasonable analysis of this years-long debate.

ZenPupDog said...

An armed society is a polite one. If Cho was denied guns - he'd have jumped into a car and mowed down innocents. Neither Japan or the UK can assert that restrictions on guns make their societies safer. I 've read their crime news. Criminals or sick puppies don't give a fig for laws.

Arm and train everyone. Let them understand the ramifications of gun violence. And offer therapy for those who seem to relish it. Our world isn't a reasonable place. Perhaps training and thought will assist in making it a little more peaceable?

Anonymous said...

"Arm and train everyone"
Couple thoughts on that...
1.) Do you really think that sitting half-asleep in a classroom, and then waving a pistol at a piece of paper will make everyone as good as a professional law enforcement officer?
2.) What about the handicapped? The blind? Not everyone can shoot a gun. Some people can't open a can of tuna. Who will protect them? These two questions lead us more to the other direction, the GCPs...

Anonymous said...

It is not likely that you'll screen out people like Cho in any kind of test you could come up with for deciding who should get a gun.

Accurate diagnosis in psychiatry is still difficult.

Just getting someone to even consider being treated is even more difficult. A lot of people never get past "I'm normal. I don't need a doctor.".

Even if you happen to convince them to seek treatment, if they land in the "talk therapy" camp when they really need medication, you're no safer than you were when they didn't have a diagnosis.

Substance abuse can also contribute greatly to violence through its effects on the brain (even more so when that brain is already impaired). Drug testing isn't always effective either. Some people lie to their psychiatrists about what they're taking too. Or, they don't mention it because they don't think it isn't relevant.

Even if you somehow manage to get all of their underlying psychiatric conditions accurately diagnosed, it still takes time to get the medications right.

Even then, you aren't sure their condition is treated adequately to prevent problems in a stressful situation because most people aren't pushed to their limits of tolerance in their daily lives.

Most people think of "depression" as "sadness". Major depression by itself is dangerous. Depression is sometimes associated with low levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin has an inhibitory effect on aggression.

There are many other areas of the brain where dysfunction could lead to violence. If you add a serious case of depression on top of that, you have something even more dangerous.



Amen found aggressive individuals show significant differences from nonviolent individuals. First, there is decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex; decreased functioning would result in less impulse control, less ability to focus attention, and poor judgment of highly charged situations. He found increased activity in the left side only of the basal ganglia and limbic system. Among multiple complex functions, he noticed that overactivity in the basal ganglia is associated with anxiety, and overactivity in that part of the limbic system is associated with negative mood and a higher chance of violent behavior. He found increased activity in the temporal lobes, which, among other functions, have been connected to temper outburst and rapid mood shifts, especially noted for the left temporal lobe. He found increased activity in the anteromedial portions of the frontal lobes (anterior cingulate area), which, among other functions, results in obsessive inability to stop thinking about negative events or ideas.

Joshua James said...

"An armed society is a polite one."

This is an interesting slogan, but not based in fact or observation. My experiences in Japan and UK actually tell me the opposite - an unarmed society is a polite one . . .

I mean, American's do have a reputation for rudeness . . . we are called Rude Americans , in other countries . . . and I've observed it ourselves, shoot, you can see it on our television shows . . .

Now whether or not our rudeness comes from guns or cultural heritage (1st Amendment) and Japan's politiness comes from no-guns or cultural heritage, that's debatable, sure. But it's not correct to say that our culture is more polite because we have guns.

The second point: "Neither Japan or the UK can assert that restrictions on guns make their societies safer."

You're basing this on what, exactly? Actually, if you compared their numbers of gun deaths to our number of gun deaths, empirical evidences says theirs is safer, right?

Last point: Cho could have jumped in a car and mowed people down, but it would have been MUCH more difficult for him to kill the number of people he did in the amount of time he did. A Glock semi-automatic makes killing ten or more people in less than thirty seconds a breeze.

Jumping a sidewalk with an SUV, (which has happened in nyc) will cause death, but no one has killed 30 or more people that way, simply because that's not the function of an SUV and therefore it's much more difficult to acheive that objective before someone stops you.

And it's easier to avoid a swerving SUV to save oneself, whereas a calm and collected madman walking around picking people off with a Glock is a tough situation to defend against.

Anonymous said...

Barry -
I appreciate your ability to discuss/debate things based upon rational thought instead of an emotional base. This avoids so much of the name-calling, playground-mentality that so many topics seem to spur.

Agree or disagree, I always appreciate The Heart of the Matter.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Barry! It was easily one of te most balanced I've read since the VT tragedy.

Another thing to throw into the pot: several years ago a friend of mine did a story for a local newpaper on how easy it was to buy guns on the street... He met a local gangmember in a parking lot at "oh-dark-thirty" one morning and bought a Glock 9mm with a full clip for $75. It was clean, shiney, and worked without a problem...

How do you legislate that kind of thing?

dkgoodman said...

When George Weller drove into a crowd in Santa Monica a few years ago, he killed 10 people and injured 63.

People are occasionally killed in the dozens in train wrecks.

In 1984, a chemical leak in Bhopal left hundreds dead.

I'd love to hear Barry's thoughts on the roots of courtesy in Tokyo. High population density? Paper walls? Gun laws there haven't stopped gun killings.

We live in a dangerous world.

Anonymous said...

The problem with any gunlaws is that criminals don't care what the gunlaws are. You only remove the ordinary right of civilians to defend themselves if you take guns away. The criminals will always have guns. If you can import a container load of heroin, you can import a container load of guns.

Dana Kaye said...

I agree that it would be wonderful to live in a gun-free society, but you're right, American cannot accomplish that. I do, however, feel that we should up the restrictions in obtaining hand guns and licenses to carry concealed weapons. If someone wants a gun, they have to know how to shoot it and respect it.

I also love Chris Rock's theory on this: don't control the guns, control the bullets. If one bullet cost a million dollars, there would be no more innocent bystanders. He has a point...

Anonymous said...

About the weapon - gun law in Germany...the former chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder once said that he protects his citizens by having such strict gun laws (no is almost impossible to legally own a gun in Germany)! His thoughts were that if he would come home and catch his wife cheating on him and there was a gun in near reach, he would use it, kill, then go to jail and most likely regret his action afterwards...who would not? Since guns are illegal, this scenario could never happen in Germany!

Anonymous said...

The reality of the situation is that America is saturated with firearms...with about 250,000 there's nearly one for each and every person in the USA.

A second reality is the undeniable violence that pervades our society. In L.A. alone there are over 40,000 gang-bangers; which doesn't include your garden variety rapists, muggers, etc.

Though raised anti-gun (despite the fact my father was a marksman with a carbine and a forward observer who saw combat for over 2 years in WWII) I own a gun and know how to use it. I do not "carry" but also cannot see a good reason for ever turning in my firearms.

P.S. Good post Barry

Rick said...

A good post, Barry. I am also a gun owner, ex-military, and a supporter of the right to bear arms but I would also be willing to give the right up if I felt it was safe enough to do so. But America will not be gun free.

I'm also wondering, since you lived in Japan, could it also be a cultural difference?

Oblivious to oblivion said...

Always with an incident like this we look back and try to discover what went wrong, what could have been done to stop this, what can be done to make sure it doesn't happen again? - But truth be told, hindsight is 20/20, and it is very easy to sit back and point at all the warning signs and or mistakes leading up to an incident. But realistically, in a free society as we Westerners enjoy, there is not a lot that can be done. Sure, we can crack down on firearms, we can increase security, we can play Big Brother and start weeding out the 'crazies' in grade school - - - but that will not stop incidents like this from happening again. It won't. It won't because there will always be that odd one out, the one that slips through the system, that one individual whose lights are on, but nobody is home, that one person who may someday snap.

There is not a realistic proactive approach to this situation. The only thing we can do is learn how to react that much faster. And I don’t just mean Law Enforcement and First Responders – I mean you, me and everyone else – we must learn to react to an incident, we must do what we can to stop the attack, WE must take action.
Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho was as mysterious in death as he was in life, leaving behind few clues for medical examiners. Dr. William Massello, the assistant state medical examiner based in Roanoke, said Sunday that Cho died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his temple after firing enough shots to wound his 32 victims more than 100 times.
Those victims apparently did not fight back against Cho's ambush. Massello said he did not recall any injuries suggesting a struggle. Many victims had defensive wounds, indicating they tried to shield themselves from Cho's gunfire, he said.
Over 100 cartridges expended. That means Cho must have reloaded several times, during which lulls in his rampage, not a single individual so much as lobbed a chair at him, tackle him, or attack him in any sort of fashion. Certainly he had a gun, but how about showing a little intestinal fortitude and fighting back? I, myself, would like to believe I would go out swinging. I like living, it’s one of my favorite pastimes, and I dare say I would not have given it up so easily. But who is to say how I, or anyone, would react in the face of death and carnage? I hope that I never have to – but I still like think I’d go out swinging.

The people we pay to protect us and make us feel safe cannot be everywhere, (nor would we want them to be), and so it is up to the individual to take responsibility for the things that happen around him/her.

It is a sad state of affairs, and a poor reflection on our society as a whole – but the only ones who can make this right are the ones we face every morning in the bathroom mirror.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting in that you give both sides of the issue. Your blog shows that environment effects where people stand on the issue(i.e. U.S. vs. Japan) I don't own a gun. I live in a town with low crime. I do believe if a student or professor could carry it would have stopped the massacre at Virginia Tech. Thanks for your comments.
P.s. I found your name on a book search, now I have to order them...
John R.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful blog, Barry. Both sides of the gun issue have valid points. Being from TN, I grew up around guns and they don't bother me at all. I've been target shooting and find it a lot of fun to try my skill there. My brother goes to gun shows, has owned guns on and off, makes them, makes his own bullets, participates in turkey shoots (not real turkeys), restores them, etc. He and my father have taught me gun safety and respect for the power and danger in guns. I'm all for strict terms on buying guns. Waiting periods, background checks, etc...all good things. Of course, how often does a background check go as far as asking a neighbor if they think a person is a little off? Would they ask a college professor what he thinks of a young man in his class? I don't know. Until someone commits a crime, how do we say whether they are insane or not? Same premise of not being able to say someone is guilty until they've gone through a trial and been convicted. I wouldn't like it very much if someone told another I was insane because they didn't like me for some reason and then I was declared so just on their word. There's no easy solution.

Unknown said...

As always, I've enjoyed stopping by.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Barry.


FishNoGeek said...

Great post...I appreciate your measured approach. I've always found it difficult to have this debate within the decibel range of normal conversation, but precisely what it needs is more impartiality and less impassioned rhetoric.

One angle that you didn't tackle directly (not that you evaded it) strikes me as pertinent: the difference between "good" guns and "bad" guns.

As one of your commentators pointed out, there are plenty of guns used for largely wholesome and constructive sporting and target shooting purposes rather than intimidation or homicide. In addition, there are lots of antique and collectible guns that nobody really wants to shoot -- they're essentially art, high craftsmanship to be appreciated.

In addition to the arguments about self-defense and individualism and privacy, this is one of the things that really burns the GOP crowd: why should we give up these beautiful old pieces, these time-honored and legitimate traditions? And if we did, would that really make our world safer?

By way of caveat, I grew up fully within the GOP fold: hunting, carrying a handgun in the field, NRA member, trading and collecting guns, standing by the 2nd Amendment as a bulwark against an encroaching and evil government, keeping a handgun at home for self-defense, and shooting rifle competition as a youngster (before discovering basketball and girls).

Since then I've spent a considerable amount of time living, working and touring abroad. My world got bigger, and somewhere along the line it became clear that my own particular worldview wasn't the only one, nor were my own solutions appropriate for everyone else. My black and white faded into shades of gray.

Likewise, I've lived in places without guns, and I felt neither unsafe nor that my privacy or rights had been tread upon -- quite the contrary. Sure, I didn't shoot much trap in Singapore, but I never locked my doors either. It was a reasonable trade-off.

Thus, I can see both sides of the argument -- not only that, I'd like to have it both ways! I'd love to be able to live in a safe society but also have free access to go target shooting, hunting and gun collecting at my leisure. But since that's rather unlikely in contemporary America, I would gladly (finally, as it took awhile to get past "reluctantly") give up my hobbies if it would really make this part of the world safer.

But this is where things get dicey again: in contemporary America, it doesn't seem possible to me to eliminate *all* guns. You have to choose to eliminate *some* guns. Which guns do you target?

Now it gets downright messy: most of the "good" guns, those used for hunting, target shooting and wall-hanging, tend to be owned by honest, law-abiding folks who aren't using them to shoot up college campuses. Can those weapons be used to kill? Certainly. But using a measure of practicality, many of those "good" guns would be more useful in a fight as bludgeons than firearms.

It follows that the answer to your "more interesting question" should be further qualified: some guns definitely do inspire violence, but others much less so. To me, and probably to many others, an ornate, intricately engraved black powder rifle from the early 1900s asks to be hung in a museum, not to be used in a convenience store hold-up.

The next step is a numbers game: what percentage of guns fall into which category? I honestly don't know. I've spent a lot of time at gun shows all over the Western US, and my guess is that it's 80/20: 80% so-called "good" guns and 20% "bad" guns. Others may dispute that guess -- I'd very much welcome feedback on that point.

But if that estimate is close, then to simply outlaw "guns" without discriminating actually has a negative effect: in economic terms, it would limit the supply of "good" guns while doing nothing about the demand for "bad" guns, many of which are (or were) illegal anyway.

It seems clear to me that the gun problem, like the drug problem, is a demand issue: bad people want bad guns, and in real-life America, they're going to get them one way or another. Gang bangers aren't carrying old lever-action Winchesters, and no target shooter in their right mind wants to shoot a Saturday Night Special at the range.

I'm all for licensing, background checks (especially at gun shows) and enforceable gun-free zones. But again, all of those tackle the supply side of the equation, and I don't see how this problem can be fixed by limiting the supply, no matter whether you discriminate between the "good" and "bad" guns or not.

Unfortunately, this is where I get stuck. How do we eliminate the demand for "bad" guns? I'd love to have some sensible, impartial suggestion worthy of this blog, but I don't. Still, I think it worthwhile to take a closer inventory of what, precisely, we want to eliminate -- and why.

If nothing else, this approach encourages the fundamental mutual respect of which you speak. To want to ban ALL guns is reactionary; a ban on some guns in some places for some people is something that even the most stalwart among the GOP folks must eventually reckon towards.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks everyone for all your thoughts -- and for keeping it civil, given how strong opinions are on this topic.

In addition to the 30+ comments posted here, I've received over 70 on my MySpace page, and quite a few emails, too. So many, in fact, that I'm working on a Part 2 now. Stay tuned -- and thanks again.


Jim Ness said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Ness said...

I am just curious if there is any statistical analysis that shows that stronger gun laws actually work? In 1997 the UK they banned most guns (I believe you can still purchase and own guns used for bird hunting). What were the results? From 1998 to 2005 the number of deaths and injuries from guns increased 340 percent. And the two years following the ban of guns crime rates rose 40%. One European study of 21 countries recently found no significant correlations between the number of guns in a society and the corresponding suicide or homicide rates. Another study comparing suicide and homicide data for 36 countries including the U.S. between 1990 and 1995 found the same thing. Another study done in 2007 compared gun ownership and murder rates in almost every European country. It found that countries with more widespread gun ownership had fewer murders while countries with less gun ownership had more murders.
I am not aware of any area that has banned "hand guns" or banned "Assault rifles" (which is actually already banned, unless you are willing to go through massive expense and massive legal paper work to obtain what I believe it called a class 5 license you cannot purchase an assault rifle. An assault rifle is a shoulder fired weapon that is capable of firing in single fire and fully automatic and possibly burst fire. Any of the weapons commonly found in the stores to do not fire in fully automatic and no matter what anyone tells you they are not easily convertible to fully automatic). Washington DC tried banning guns and violent crime actually increased. Interestingly enough when they reversed the ban on guns violent crime dropped. This is a trend that has repeated itself over and over again in places like California, New York City, Illinois. And other places.
Mr. Eisler compares being able to walk the streets of Tokyo to walking the streets of New York. Now I have not lived in either city so I cannot speak as an expert. But I have visited New York. We walked the streets late at night and felt relatively safe. Now there are some areas of New York City I am not sure I would feel safe inside an Abrahms Tank. And I am sure there are areas of Tokyo where people can walk the streets at all hours and feel safe but I would also imagine that there are sections of the city that one would not feel safe in the President’s armored Limousine (Those Ninja’s are resourceful devils). So I guess I think that comparison is a little unfair.

Jim Ness said...

Next the author in so many words says that the tool somehow encourages the act. This also I disagree with. Because someone has a high performance car are they more inclined to drive recklessly? I doubt the statistical data would back such a claim up. If you own a sword are you more inclined to run down the street hacking and slashing people to death? Probably not. But crazy people will always find a way to act crazy.

Next the author suggests creating gun free zones. But my simple question to him is where do all these mass shootings take place? You never hear of a mass shooting at a gun where an over whelming majority of the people would have the means to mitigate that level of violence. Now the author addresses this point by simply saying if we denied him a gun we would have pre-emptively solved the problem. But I would have to respond, if he wanted a gun he would obtain one no matter what. If we cannot prevent nations from obtaining highly engineered and massively complex nuclear material and devices for making nuclear bombs the idea that you are going to prevent individuals from obtaining weapons that are common place and easy to manufacture is preposterous. There will always be someone who has is motivated by profit to sell these weapons to whoever has the money.

Let’s also look at the simple raw numbers. The number of people who are killed by firearms pales in comparison to the number of people who are killed by motor vehicles. But I never hear anyone (except the environmentalists and most of them I am questioning how sane they are as compared to most of these mass shooters) call for banning cars. Why is it that every time an airplane crashes we do not hear cries to ban airplane travel ….. well aside from the previously mentioned groups of people.
I would first encourage people to read all the John Rain series books by Mr. Eisler, but after that I would highly recommend a book by Mr. John R. Lott titled More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, Third Edition. I will tell you the book is no where near as exciting to read then the John Rain series books and in fact the book is kind of a dry read. But it is very informative and provides a very clinical look at the statistical data.

nikki broadwell said...

I just think it's sad that in a 'civilized' country people need to carry guns to feel 'safe'--I don't believe we need to get rid of all guns, but I do think we need to address what's underneath all of this--we as a nation glorify violence--you see it in the media, in movies, in magazines..until we take a hard look at these underpinnings no amount of 'gun control' will help.

Barry Eisler said...

Jim said:

"Next the author in so many words says that the tool somehow encourages the act. This also I disagree with. Because someone has a high performance car are they more inclined to drive recklessly? I doubt the statistical data would back such a claim up. If you own a sword are you more inclined to run down the street hacking and slashing people to death? Probably not. But crazy people will always find a way to act crazy."

I imagine some tools encourage certain behaviors and some tools might encourage no different behavior at all. Are you arguing that no tool encourages certain behaviors, that all behavior is tool-independent? Why have you ignored my cell phone/shouting in public example?

It seems obvious that certain tools encourage certain behaviors. The question is, are guns such a class of tool. You mention swords. The incidence of mass murder by sword is rare. You also mention cars -- certainly a deadly weapon, but it's rare that someone drives one into a crowded area. You could do at least as much damage with a car, and yet murderers seem to prefer guns. It seems worth asking whether there is something about this tool that encourages certain aberrant behaviors.

"Next the author suggests creating gun free zones."

Where did I suggest this? Could you quote me verbatim, please? There already are gun-free zones, the Aurora theater and the Virginia Tech campus being two of them. I don't advocate such things outside very special environments such as airplanes.

"Now the author addresses this point by simply saying if we denied him a gun we would have pre-emptively solved the problem."

Again, where did I suggest this, except as a hypothetical that I was deliberately contrasting with what could actually be accomplished? Could you quote me verbatim, please?

Barry Eisler said...

"But I would have to respond, if he wanted a gun he would obtain one no matter what."

Forgive me, Jim, but I get so tired of this argument. Why is murder illegal? If people want to murder, they're just going to murder, right? In fact, why do we have laws against anything? If people want to do it, they just will. Why do stores bother with anti-shoplifting measures? If people want to shoplift, they're always going to find a way, right? Why do I bother locking my door and otherwise securing my house? If someone wants to break in, he'll always find a way, right? Why not allow people to sell drugs at schools? Hell, if the kids want drugs, they're always going to find a way to get them, so it can't make a difference if drugs are for sale right there in homeroom, right?

I imagine by your logic that you leave your door wide open at night? After all, locking it won't do any good, because if a burglar wants in, he'll always find a way. You can't stop someone from doing what he wants to do, right?

"If we cannot prevent nations from obtaining highly engineered and massively complex nuclear material and devices for making nuclear bombs the idea that you are going to prevent individuals from obtaining weapons that are common place and easy to manufacture is preposterous."

Do you advocate the lifting of all restrictions on the manufacture and sale of nuclear know-how and materiel? By your argument, if you want to be consistent, you must. This isn't a hypothetical question. Please answer it.

"There will always be someone who has is motivated by profit to sell these weapons to whoever has the money."

I don't understand why when it comes to guns some people switch off everything they know through common sense and life experience about human behavior. We all know human behavior isn't a binary thing, with "no desire at all" on one side of the switch, and "total need, will stop at nothing" on the other side. In most things there is a range of motivation, and by making a given act marginally more or less difficult, we can decrease or increase the incidence of the behavior in question. You have to be profoundly motivated by something other than reason to pretend this isn't so. The way you've attributed to me things I never said makes me suspect you are one such, but I could be wrong, too.

Unknown said...

I agree with most of this but strongly disagree with one thing, the idea that having armed people in schools and colleges would in some way reduce the risk for the people in those schools.

You layered the argument so please let me answer to both parts of it.

The first thing you say that I do not agree with is that if those zones were not gun free then people would not perceive them as easy targets and therefore not got there to kill people. This argument is not correct.

The places for those mass shootings are generally not selected at random from a pool of options. People have a reason to select them. A bullied student will go to his school and start killing the people who bullied him, then, drunk with power and mad with fear, will continue killing. Or a scorned lover will kill his ex and her family.

Those people often end killing sprees with suicide so the fear of dying does not factor into their calculation. A bullied student who fully plans to die anyway will not go and shoot up a diner full of random people because some of the people he really wants to kill could be armed.

The second, and greater, problem is that the people in those places, those you refer to as responsible gun owners, are generally not that responsible. When I was in University I would not have trusted most of the people there with a pocket knife, much less a firearm.

But even if they were truly responsible, they would still not be trained professionals. There is a reason that the police calls SWAT when they are faced with people who are armed and have hostages and/or other civilians are in close proximity. There have been too many cases where cops panicked and shot bystanders or where bystanders got caught in the crossfire.

Imagine how much worse this would be if you add people who have virtually no training and no actual experience with the consequences of violence (I have seen people shooting under the influence of large doses of adrenaline...I was happy if they at least fired in the generally right direction). And how do you decide who are the good guys and who are the bad guys if suddenly 4 or 5 people are shooting. Are you going to know who started and shoot that person or are you going to start to shoot everybody who has his gun out? This is a question that every one of those responsible gun owners would have to face.

Billy pulls out a gun and shoots John. Ted and James pull their guns and shoot Billy. Henry, having only heard gunfire, turns around and sees Billy and John dead on the ground and Ted and James with smoking guns in their hands. What do you think how long it will take before the room in ankle deep in blood?

And finally, you mentioned that you own guns to protect yourself and your family. While I respect you enough and know enough of your background to know that you are capable of that, I have to point out that statistically having a gun in your house makes you more likely to become the victim of a violent crime.

Most violent crimes are not committed by strangers but by people you know. A gun is not very likely to protect you against those. According to a study, 44% of homicides are the result of a quarrel getting violent, 4% are murder/suicides and 7% are the result of love affairs gone wrong. Only 21% of all homicides get committed by people you do not know.

In all those cases the gun in your house is not very likely to protect you. In fact, it is very likely to be used against you.

To summarize this, you have bought into the gun lobby narrative without really checking the background of what is said. And I have to say, as a great fan of your writing, I am very disappointed to see that.


Barry Eisler said...

Peter, thanks for the very thoughtful comments. Here's another article I think is worth considering.