Sunday, April 22, 2007

Are We A Country?

For all the polarization that exists in America along political, racial, religious and class lines, we’re all part of a larger community. As a New Yorker I felt that in the early days following 9/11. I had that feeling after the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. Sadly, our sense of community has eroded in recent years as the gap between rich and poor has widened while cynical politicians exploited wedge issues in “base elections.”

The shooting spree of Seung-Hui Cho illustrates a breakdown in the American community. Seung-Hui Cho is not an aberration. Plenty of mentally ill people in this country go untreated. Some are incarcerated for petty crimes and commit suicide. Others, such as Seung-Hui Cho, are able to purchase guns and reconcile their cumulative rage against the world through mass murder. In this instance, Virginia Tech University was powerless to intervene and respond to warning signs without the threat of litigation.

There is also the horrifying fact that the judicial system declared Seung-Hui Cho a danger to himself. Yet he was still able to purchase firearms. The ongoing debate between those who are pro-gun rights and people like me who strongly advocate gun control is an example of our community breakdown. The debate has become a zero sum game instead of a national dialogue to come together and propose solutions.

Extremists in the pro-gun camp would have you believe it better to arm more Americans. Their rationale is an armed citizenry can better protect itself from the Seung-Hui Chos of the world. With all due respect to these citizens, an armed America in schools and shopping malls is utterly moronic. Their pathological fetish to transform America into the wild-west captured in television programs such as Bonanza or Gun Smoke won’t curb violence and senseless killing.

Gun control however is only part of the answer. American society itself is regulated by a jugular instinct. Greed and consumption is valued over sacrifice and a sense of responsibility towards the greater good. On that score we’re all to blame in some measure.

Ultimately, we’re not likely to see gun control anytime soon in this country. Neither party has the strength or will to take on the gun lobby. Hopefully, all sides of the divide in urban and rural American can reach a consensus on three core points:

1) Too many guns wind up in the wrong hands;

2) Only law abiding and mentally competent people should possess firearms;

3) Greater investment combined with a sensible balance between privacy rights and society's needs are required for our mental health system to work.

If Americans can’t come together on those three points we don’t deserve to be called a country.


Christian_Left said...

You're right, this is one issue that Americans seem to polarize over to the extreme--and not always in the usual alignments you would expect. (I have been frankly amazed by some of the pro-gun apologists whose postings I've seen on Progressive websites...maybe it's reflexive hostility against the current government?) What seems like sanity to one side seems like insanity to the other...and vice versa. This is one of the most polarized, knee-jerk, emotional issues there is out there.

Myself, I just cannot fathom why people can sincerely believe that having MORE guns out there will help things. I've even heard some absolutely crazy, beyond the pale suggestions about arming teachers and students in the classroom. (I shudder to think of the death toll that would result just from simple mistakes and accidents, not to mention from the shoot-out that might ensue in the extremely rare chance that a murderer with a gun does show up...!) The small town where I went to high school had one of the highest murder rates in the whole country, and they were basically all due to domestic violence (husband shoots wife, etc.) or accidents, such as when a child shot a cousin--all due to the easy availability of the means to kill. Yes, of course, guns all by themselves won't kill anyone, but they certainly do make it easier for people in bad situations to make them even worse.

I agree very much with your common-sense approach to dealing with mental illness and making it hard for the most problematic people to get ahold of guns. But I also wonder if we will ever be able to sort the world into "good guys" and "bad guys". Some gun violence is committed by truly messed up people, whose mental instability is obvious, such as the guy at Va. Tech. But so much of gun violence is committed by ordinary people, who would have been described as normal in other situations. Any effort to enact tougher gun control just on a few bad apples is not likely to do much about the problem in the long run. We need a comprehensive approach to gun control that makes them harder to get everywhere, period. I know that position will mark me out as as pro-gun control, but so be it. I think I'm in pretty good and numerous company--the timidity of both Republican and Democratic politicans to do anything about it notwithstanding.

My best wishes for your effort to work out some compromise to get the problem solved. I'm on board with you, even if I don't think you go nearly far enough.

Nelson said...

I know I'm departing from traditional liberal orthodoxy, Rob, and I'm going to disagree with you. I was in the pro-gun control camp for a long time, so I know where you're coming from.

The only way to prevent what Cho did was incarcerate him. A person as deranged and determined to kill large numbers of people as him could have killed similar numbers through use of homemade bombs, grenades, or even use of a gun purchased on the black market. Or he could drive a vehicle through VTech's campus at lunchtime and mow down hundreds. All the gun control laws in the world wouldn't have stopped him.

If incarceration or detention is, then, the only remedy in this type of situation--the question is do we want to go to that point? Do we want to give government or schools the legal authority to force Rx drugs or detain untold numbers of people for doing nothing wrong, just for the one in 300 million chance that they might massacre people?

I think most of us would say no to that. If that is the case, then we are choosing liberty over security (or what we deem is security). And in most contexts that is a good choice because the state either cannot stop threats (or do so fast enough) or the goverment itself uses its power to threaten.

Finally, gun laws hurt the law abiding, not those who wish to commit crimes. If I'm correct, there are 80 million legal gun owners. The vast majority of these folks will never commit a crime. The instances of accidents from guns are also overblown. The number of laws on the books with regards to safeties and lockboxes (in their own homes) are so great that in some cases, it almost disarms someone who wishes to keep a gun for their own protection. I think it's unfair to punish millions for the actions of a few.

Anonymous said...

I think it might have been a good idea for Virginia to follow the Federal law and report people who have been deemed dangerous to themselves or others to the national database. We'll never know what might have happened if Cho hadn't been able to easily purchase two handguns, despite his history, will we?

I don't know if he would have been organized enough to implement Plan B, but it couldn't have hurt for him to have been reported to be turned down for a handgun purchase...or two.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rob,

I suspect we see the gun problem fairly similarly. It's far too late to restrict access to guns. They are out there. If they can't be gotten legally, they will be gotten illegally. Besides, as LJ says, the vast majority of gun owners are no more dangerous than stamp collectors. I don't own a gun, I'm not that interested in them, but I don't want to think that I couldn't buy one if I wanted one.

Although, as an aside, did you know that it is illegal to buy a Dildo in some states and municipalities while it is perfectly legal to buy and carry a concealed handgun?

Christ, one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry...

We *do* need to do more about how guns are acquired. I suspect that someone like Cho, an apparent schizophrenic, would not have acquired guns if the proper federal laws were in place or existent. Someone needs to have the guts to stand up to the NRA. They're loud and noisy but the NRA isn't as monolithic or powerful as they themselves would like us to believe.

Someone needs to point out to the NRA's most diffident members that the best way to protect all of our access to guns is to keep them out of the hands of sociopaths, schizophrenics, etc... I fear these people more than the garden variety thugs and criminals who want my wallet.

As it is, expect to see the annual or semi-annual high-school and college slaughter...