The Problem with Blaming Hearts

Scary thing about this graphic: how many variations one finds when Googling "hearts guns."

This is not my first time at the shoot-em-up rodeo.

Many of the first essays I wrote in this space were about gun violence. They triggered fierce reactions from some gun enthusiasts I was acquainted with. For a short time, I humored those people by attempting to engage them in some back-and-forth conversation. A very short time. It quickly became clear that, as with any other matter of religion, politics, or addiction, the people who feel most threatened by those holding different views have got no thinking space left for listening to those views. I was talking and writing past them, rather than to or with them. So I quit answering their comments. Life's too short to spend it carefully crafting arguments the intended recipient will conveniently ignore as he or she throws out a fresh batch of distortions, false equivalences, and appeals to authority. Comment strings also miss the point of this blog: This is my space to write about things I am passionate about. You who read these ideas are absolutely free to celebrate, decry, or shrug your shoulders at what I say. You can even go to great length posting a counter-argument if you see fit. Just don't hold your breath waiting for my to respond to your comment.

Unless, that is, you say something that triggers a fresh essay.

Such is the case with a couple of comments to my last essay, "Ignoring the Obvious," on the occasion of the San Bernardino mass shooting. In this piece, I stated (probably for the first time in this blog) what I really believe about the "right" to bear arms: that it's a misunderstanding of the Bill of Rights, and that if we're going to insist that it means gun ownership without any of the reasonable restrictions we already place on our other rights (we require permits for protest marches, and when's the last time you heard somebody yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater?), then it's time for the majority of Americans who'd rather have nothing to do with the deadly weapons gun nuts hoard to amend that ambiguous line right out of the Constitution. Yes, that's right: I'm saying it's time to pry that gun out of your warm living fingers, melt it down, and make something useful out of it.

A couple of the comments threw back at me statistics about countries where, despite far stricter gun laws on the books, violence still exists. One was Great Britain, the other Mexico. In Britain, it was pointed out, there are still murders. People get stabbed. There's a simple answer to that: yes, but not 30,000 in a year. Not nine all at once at a prayer meeting, or fourteen dead and twenty-two wounded all at once at a holiday party. Guns maim and kill far more people, far more efficiently, than any other weapon legally available. As for Mexico: are we really going to compare the effectiveness of American law enforcement to our neighbor to the south? At least, having the law on the books, Mexico demonstrates that it understands mass gun ownership is a problem. In the USA, on the other hand, we regulate automobile use far more aggressively than assault weapons, perhaps because we're permitted to admit that abusing driving privileges is deadly; and while plenty of people routinely get away with exceeding the speed limit, I don't hear much anymore about eliminating it.

The most pernicious argument I've seen, though, is that the continued existence of violence in countries with strict gun laws demonstrates that the real issue is the human heart. If we could just address whatever is making these people so depressed, so scared, so angry, then we could stop fretting about guns and be happy with having enough in circulation to arm every man, woman, and baby in the USA.

There is definitely some solid reasoning behind that argument: of course the world will be a better place, and some people will be less inclined to beat up, stab, or shoot their neighbors when everyone has adequate food, clothing, shelter, and health care. That's been a part of the Democratic agenda at least as far back as FDR, one that, until Reagan, most Republicans were willing to accept to at least some extent. But while we're waiting to achieve that Star Trek economy, 30,000 Americans a year are dying of gun violence. Two thirds of them are taking their own lives with those guns in suicide attempts that, unlike other methods, are irreversible. Far too many of the other third are dying at the hands of small children who find loaded weapons lying around their homes because the owners of those weapons can't be bothered with unloading them and locking them away.

These people aren't dying because some gun owner has an angry or desperate heart. The suicides are dying because they don't think they can go on, and once they've put a bullet through the back of their heads, there's no possibility of convincing them otherwise. Those killed by babies are dying because of the irresponsibility of the adults in their homes. In my opinion, neither class of individual should be trusted with a gun. But the Second Amendment, as currently interpreted, grants these people the right to purchase as many of these tools of suicide, fratricide, and infanticide as they wish.

I'm a public school music teacher. Every week, 500 children, aged 5-11, pass through my classes. Many of these children are as responsible as it's possible for children to be, enthusiastically following all the rules for safety and politeness that they've learned. From time to time, though, I'll see some of them engaged in dangerous horse play, and have to remind them about being safe. I've had them tell me that there's no rule against what they're doing, or they didn't know their was a rule or, every teacher's favorite, that so-and-so did it first, so why can't I? In all these cases, it's tempting to say "Use your common sense!"--except these are children, and common sense takes maturity. And that's the responsible kids. Every class I see has a small percentage of children who, for one reason or another, just don't get it. These children may have anger issues, triggered by whatever is going on at home, that lead them to lash out at their classmates. Sometimes they do so in violent ways. Sometimes they bully other children. They may use things they find lying around the classroom or in the hall as weapons. This is why teachers are very cautious about staples, push pins, and scissors: not for the 90% of children who know better, but for the 10% who might just use one of those innocuous items to injure another. The problem is not the pokey objects, it's the hearts of the children who might use them in anger. And there's no question but that they're only going to use those objects when an adult is supervising--if at all.

I know there are plenty of responsible gun-owners who lock up their weapons, keep ammunition in a separate place, take safety courses, require their children to take those courses, do everything they can to avoid the unspeakable horror of three-year-old Sally killing a playmate with Uncle Pete's Glock, or sixteen-year-old Spence getting over his breakup by putting that same Glock in his mouth and pulling the trigger--or taking it to school with him and shooting the jocks who've been picking on him. But as I've implied with the use of Uncle Pete's name, there are far too many irresponsible gun-owners who leave those weapons lying around for the minors in the house to use.

And that's not even counting the murderers: the gangsters, burglars, mass shooters who spill innocent blood to teach someone a lesson, make a statement, gain notoriety, or just have some bloody maniacal fun.

Yes, there's a problem with these people's hearts, but it's a problem that would be far easier to manage if we took away their damned guns.

And yes, I know it seems insurmountable: with such an epidemic of gun ownership and gun violence, perhaps we should just throw up our hands and concede that the price of liberty is the blood of 30,000 victims a year, a price that gun libertarians are clearly quite willing to make all of us pay.

In response to the futility argument, I offer two success stories: vaccines and nuclear disarmament.

I have a vaccination scar on my left shoulder, a relic of the delivery system used on my generation. Thanks to that scar, I've never had measles, polio, smallpox, or whooping cough. My children were vaccinated against additional illnesses, and the babies being born now against even more. A hundred years ago, these preventives didn't exist, and as a result, the average lifespan in the United States was far lower than it is today. This was an accepted cost of living in civilization: people couldn't help but be exposed to contagious diseases, many of which were lethal, so many more died younger than they do now. Medical science invented vaccines, and we all benefit from the result: longer, healthier lifespans. Getting there came at the expense of individual liberties, though: only by mandating vaccinations for school children could the herd immunity be built up to where some of these diseases are effectively extinct. (It should be noted here that many of the same people who advocate laissez-faire gun laws also defend the right of anti-vax parents to place their non-immunized children in public schools, leading to fresh outbreaks of diseases that had been controlled for generations prior to this unscientific health fad.)

As for disarmament: I grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. In middle school, I watched a seemingly endless string of "civil defense" films that taught me how to survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Through high school, college, and two rounds of grad school, I continued to hear about how insurmountable was the task of reducing nuclear arsenals--and yet, neither of the enemies in that struggle gave up on that task. Both the US and the Soviet Union stayed in communication throughout the Cold War, came to the summit table again and again, hammering out agreements to keep those weapons in their bunkers and, perhaps even more importantly, out of the hands of rogue nations and terrorists. And they succeeded: there have been no above-ground nuclear explosions since 1963.

If you're still not convinced that the Bill of Rights needs editing, perhaps we can look at this through the disarmament lens: the superpowers made their pacts and treaties because they knew no one could afford even a limited nuclear war. We haven't completely disarmed--this nation still has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world--but we've cut back significantly on the size of that arsenal.

We've reduced our nuclear arsenal, but the home arsenals of far too many Americans are overflowing with lethal weapons. Reducing the number of guns an individual can own, and the size of the magazines used by those guns, could cut back on the lethality of mass shootings, though it still would do nothing to mandate safety in the home, or to keep firearms out of the hands of suicides. But it would be a start.

But seriously, my fellow Americans: if your sick heart means you're going to use that gun to shoot up a classroom, I'd rather you couldn't get your hands on the damned thing in the first place.

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