Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guns and the Depletion of Civic Sanity

A few years ago, I was out camping with some friends. One evening, we were sitting around a campfire, sharing a little single malt and telling stories and cracking jokes. Conversation drifted from songs to movies to what the hell is going on in the world? Amidst this banter, one of the campers made a point that has intrigued me to this day.

He noted that resource depletion leads to wars and to oppressive governments. And with many resources in our world dwindling, major political upheavals and social disintegration are like to become the norm. Such resources include clean water and air, arable land, rare minerals used in manufacturing, fossil fuels and building materials. “I would add one other resource to that list,” he said. “Civic sanity.”

I asked him what he meant by civic sanity and he explained that it meant the expectation that people around you will act rationally—or at least not in a manner that will heedlessly endanger others. “When you are diving a car, you expect all other drivers to stay on their side of the road and not run into you. When you walk down the street in a city, you expect people will not come up behind you and whack you over the head with a baseball bat. Things like that. Now once in awhile, people do drive their cars into others, or assault strangers on the street. But currently, in most parts of the United States, this is an aberration. What happens, however, if it becomes the norm? What happens if you can't walk out your door to go to work without fearing a sniper is going to shoot you?”

Like other resources, he suggested, the depletion of civic sanity has a tipping point. After this week's gun massacres, I am wondering, are we approaching that tipping point? Have we gone over it?

The prevalent meme in America is that we value freedom more than security. Individual liberty, not the nanny state. Rather than ban certain types of weapons to keep us safe, just let us all strap on a gun and be able to shoot it out with the bad guy. Is that really how we think? Like most issues in our culture, we are a divided nation. I haven't seen any polls, but I'd venture that most Americans are smart enough to know that firing more guns in a crowded public place is going to result in more casualties, not less.

There are at least 300 million privately owned firearms in the United States—more than one for every adult—but a majority of American adults do not own even one. So most of us think it's unnecessary to own a gun. Many of us understand that households with guns are more likely to suffer gunshot wounds and deaths than households without guns.

Can we ban the kind of guns used in the slaughter of innocent children or people shopping at a mall at Christmas time? Gun advocates say banning these guns won't work because criminals won't respect the laws and will find illegal means of obtaining them. They cite our nation's experiment with Prohibition of alcohol in the early part of the 20th century. While I certainly wouldn't want to return to the days of speakeasies and bootleggers, the notion that Prohibition failed is debatable. During the 1920s, alcohol consumption declined significantly—initially to 30 percent of the level prior to the Volstead Act, rising to about 60 percent later on. And once Prohibition was repealed, most states instituted strict regulations on it sales and consumption.

Yes, illegal alcohol fueled the rise of organized crime syndicates. It should be noted that these crime syndicates existed well before Prohibition and were the outgrowth of the oppression of late 19th century immigrant minorities, mainly Italians, Irish and Jews. This was at the height of the last Gilded Age and since the Robber Baron rich were plundering everything in sight, they set an example for the lower classes. And, of course,the same thing is happening now, only the drugs are different.

But perhaps gun control is not the only answer to random slaughter. Given the power of the NRA, it may not be possible. Let's assume that the Second Amendment continues to be interpreted as an inviolable right to own whatever firearms any citizen desires. We keep that freedom. But to do so and yet make us safer in public, we will have to give up other freedoms. We already have.

Many people may not know that there was once a time when anyone could walk into a government building without going through a metal detector. Nowadays, almost all state and federal office buildings—or at least those who have offices for elected officials or other important people--are protected by some kind of security moat. The same applies to other institutions. I started working for The Oregonian in the sports department when I was in high school. At that time, anyone could walk into its building on Southwest Broadway and Jefferson, at any time of day or night. A little later, I worked for a couple of small town daily newspapers that had the same kind of open access. There were times I'd be writing a story and somebody off the street would interrupt me. Usually, the kind of person who bypassed the receptionist and strode straight for my desk was a crank, an annoying and garrulous fellow who would elaborately lay out a conspiracy theory and insist that I write it up. We also would get visited by gladhanding politicians, promoters with free tickets and homeowners angry at their neighbors. But once in awhile, a really good story would walk in the door, a story we might not have gotten if we didn't let the public have open access to our office.

In the late 1970s, I took a break from newspapering and worked a few years for a Congressman in his district office. There were no security checks there, either, and constituents would stream into our offices with tales of woe. These days, not only are your elected representatives hunkered down in their bunkers, but so are their staffs. A few years ago, Portland spent a big chunk of money building an underground parking garage below our courthouse, just so judges could go straight from their cars to their chambers without having to risk being on a street for even a second.

Is it any wonder Americans feel more alienated from their government now? Do we trust any of these big institutions, public or private, that make it virtually impossible to talk to someone in charge, either in person or on the phone? Most Americans have figured out that there is a small elite group of movers and shakers who never have to come in contact with the rest of us, never have to deal with the kind of annoyances and horrors that the rest of us endure every day. Very few, if any, politicians or corporate executives have been strip searched before boarding a plane. It's not necessary when you have your own airplane.

The rest of us shrug, adapt and carry on. It's surprising that there is not more resentment of the elites. Americans idolize success, thus if the privileged flaunt their privileges, it must be because they are better than us, and they must be protected at all costs because they are smarter, stronger, better looking, harder working and above all, irreplaceable. Never mind that most of them got to the top either through inheritance, or by being willing to do things that make the rest of us squeamish.

I keep thinking that one day, instead of mowing down shoppers, movie goers, school children or ex-wives, someone is going to open fire on the banksters at Goldman Sachs or the hate mongers on talk radio, or even the Supreme Court. In the minds of liberals, the world would be a better place without these people. But liberals believe in the sanctity of human life after birth and are not going to shoot anyone. Liberals still cling to the notion that democracy can work, even when all the cards are stacked against them. Liberals don't become suicide bombers. They'd rather talk than fight. Sometimes, liberals are too sane for their own good.

So back to freedom and sanity. Aside from banning certain types of guns, the most common plea since the Newtown massacre has been to increase access to mental health care. Mental health is the neglected stepchild of our health care system. It's true that no sane person would saunter into a public space, shoot as many people as possible and then commit suicide. However, it is also true that most of the shooters, including the last two, had not been diagnosed as being mentally ill, even though it's obvious that almost all of them suffered from clinical depression. People who are depressed normally don't seek out help, at least not explicitly. Many end up ending it all without taking the lives of other people.

It's possible to profile mass killers. Virtually all of them are male, predominantly between ages 15 and 30. They are likely to be depressed and suicidal. In addition, they may feel they have been grossly victimized by someone or something else, be it a school, employer or their fellow students/employees. Finally, they think that going out in a blaze of infamy will gain them posthumous respect and fame. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine killers, had speculated that Quentin Tarrantino would make a movie about him and fellow shooter Dylan Klebold. I'm sure, after in-depth studies have been done of all 62 mass shootings since 1982, that an even more sophisticated profile can be constructed.

But then what? Do we round up every male between 15 and 30 and make them take a comprehensive psychiatric exam? What do we do with the ones who test out as likely candidates to become mass killers? Sequester them and administer drugs? Attempt to reprogram them? Doesn't this remind you a little of what the Soviets did to dissidents in the bleak era of Breznev?

Certainly, counseling would help, especially in middle school and high school, where budget cuts have eliminated a lot of counseling positions.

On the other hand, given how so many crucial issues are captive to capitalism, more mental health services could make matters worse. Pharmaceutical companies drive the mental health field. Overbooked and underpaid counselors often have little time for talk. Unless you are able to pay top dollar, you don't get to lie on a couch for an hour and talk to a shrink. No, you get ten minutes and a prescription. If you are depressed, you get a prescription for Prozac or Zoloft. Unfortunately, anti-depressants backfire with a lot of people, making them even more depressed. Not to mention confused, angry and suicidal. One report I read after the Newtown massacre indicated that several shooters, though evidently not Adam Lanza, had been on anti-depressants.

Neither depression nor any other form of mental illness is unique to the United States. On the same day as the Newtown tragedy, a deranged man in China stabbed 23 school children with a knife. Americans are 12 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than people in other Western countries, but we do not have 12 times more psychologically disturbed people. In fact, rates of depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia in the U.S. are about the same as those in other developed countries. Children and teens play violent video games at the same rate in other countries, too—the Japanese are the world's video game champs. Hardly anyone in Japan, however, dies from a gunshot wound.

In reading the reactions to Newtown—and I've read hundreds of articles in the past week—I'm reminded of the adage, “If you only have a hammer, ever problem becomes a nail.” Everyone reacts according to their own experience and biases. Ardent gun advocates argue that more people should be toting guns to deter the criminals and crazy shooters. Mental health professionals, who believe their field is underfunded, want more counseling and intervention. The religious right wants to bring God back into schools, whatever that means. The radical left links gun violence to the oppressive economic inequality in the U.S., as well as rampant capitalism, thus the solution requires a complete reordering of American society. Second Amendment purists believe these shootings are the price we must pay to keep our country free from tyrants, as if a motley militia armed with semiautomatic weapons would last for very long against a force that has missiles and drones.

If you never want to read another headline about a shooting massacre in America, the facts make it clear what to do: pass legislation that strictly regulates gun ownership and prohibits certain kinds of weapons entirely. A true ban on assault weapons (not the wimpy version that was in force from 1994 to 2004) will greatly reduce mass shootings. So will a ban on large capacity clips. It won't do much to reduce the number of common, more personal gun homicides (about 10,000 per year) or gun suicides (nearly 20,000 per year). Women in particular still will be vulnerable to being shot by ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends or deluded stalkers. Children will also continue be be gunned down gang conflicts or family melt downs (about 2,800 children die from gunshot wounds every year).

To further reduce gun violence, we'll have to adopt measures similar to those in other countries. Set up a licensing procedure that includes both training in gun use and safety and a test. Require that if you want to purchase a gun, two of your friends or family members must vouch for you. Restrict people from buying more than one gun a year. Upgrade the background check database and make it universally accessible. Require that guns be stored in safes or have trigger locks, perhaps even fingerprint locks that would prevent anyone else from firing the owner's guns.

If you look at all of the statistical data on guns and gun violence from all of the countries in the developed world, you are forced to the conclusion that fewer guns equals more safety. Of course the NRA and other pro-gun folks will obscure those facts or cherry pick ones to their advantage. They'll point out that in Norway, which has very strict gun control, a madman killed 77 people in one shooting spree. They won't, however, note that Norway averages about 10 gun homicides a year.

If you were proposing legislation to promote cleaner air or fuel economy, you wouldn't necessarily let the American Petroleum Institute write the bill. If you sought to increase the FDA's oversight of new drugs, you probably would not leave the details up to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. If you were developing a universal health care bill that would also reduce the costs of health care, you wouldn't let insurance companies...well, actually you did and instead of single payer insurance, we ended up with the Rube Goldberg mechanism of Obamacare.

The National Rifle Association tries to pass itself off as a grass roots citizen's organization. In reality, it is a trade organization representing gun manufacturers and dealers. It's overarching goal is not the protection of the Second Amendment, but to expand the market for firearms. A large majority of the NRA's members supports regulations such as criminal background checks for purchases at gun shows, mandating the owners immediately notify the police when their guns are stolen, prohibiting anyone under 21 to have a concealed carry permit and requiring gun safety training for such permits. The NRA leadership opposes all of these rather mild measures. The members pay dues, but the manufacturers call the shots.

And the shots they call result in bullet-riddled little children.

A week after the Newtown tragedy, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre finally addressed the nation and offered the NRA's solution to school shootings: armed security guards in every school. Ingeniously, the NRA turned the clamor for gun regulation into an opportunity to sell more guns. Unfortunately, LaPierre did not take questions and thus never explained how financially strapped school districts throughout the land would pay for armed guards. Perhaps a hefty tax on every gun sold? I wouldn't bet on it.

The NRA would have us all packing a firearm, because, in LaPierre's words, “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.” But then, what about stopping a perceived bad guy who doesn't have a gun? It hasn't been that long since Trayvon Martin was gunned down under the rationale of Florida's “stand your ground” law. What if the person you think is a bad guy isn't threatening you at all, but you think this person is evil? Say you oppose abortion and thus take aim at doctors who perform abortions? Or you think clear cutting is killing the earth and fire shots at loggers? And then they start firing back. Eventually, your home town resembles Baghdad in 2004.

Suddenly, you are in the middle of a Mad Max movie. Civic sanity has evaporated.

And when you trace it back, if you survive to do so, you discover it's not because we have all gone mad or turned into zombies by video games. No, it occurs because of unfettered, insatiable capitalistic gun manufacturers whose only goal is increasing sales and profits. The gun dealers don't care, or maybe they believe their own lies. They are no different than the oil company executives who deny the existence of climate change.

We're not going to become a rerun of Mad Max, not unless we face real physical resource depletion—not enough food, not enough water, not enough energy. That all could happen, of course. And if it does, it will affect our mental health and our culture drastically. But as for now, American is not overrun by crazy people. The vast majority of us still are repelled by the thought of taking another person's life. It's just that we are, as usual, complacent until it gets personal, until something bad happens to us.

For better or worse, maybe it;s gotten personal to enough of us to make a difference.

Further reading: