November 20th, 2017

storyteller doll

Political Rant #1 - Guns

This was somewhat triggered by the Law Vegas shooting, but I always like to take a bigger picture approach to what is going on. And, also, I write too slowly for timely responses to news stories. There have been several more mass shootings since, so this is, alas, still timely.

So, first of all, the 2nd Amendment is the Elephant in the Room for a lot of people. I am of the school that believes that the clause "a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" actually means what it says. That is, that the right to keep and bear Arms applies exactly in the context of providing the security of a free State, not for private purposes. The counterarguments are ahistorical and ignore the development of a federalized military system within the U.S. I am, frankly, not interested in debating this point, because nobody will ever change another person’s mind. (Note that I tend to be more on the Federalist vs. States’ Rights side of almost any discussion about U.S. politics.)

At any rate, there is no doubting that some level of gun control is permissible under the 2nd Amendment. Nobody is arguing that felons should have easy access to firearms, for example. I used to say that nobody would argue that the mentally ill should have easy access to firearms, but there are politicians who have proven otherwise. Nobody is arguing for individual rights to own, say, sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. The question is where to draw the lines.

I should start by pointing out that mass killings refers to incidents in which at least 4 people, not including the perpetrator, are killed in a single incident, typically in a single location. If there are multiple locations, it becomes a spree killing. And if the incidents are separated by sufficient time for a cooling-off period, we are talking about a serial killer. I am not sure the distinction between mass killings and spree killings is useful, but serial killers seem to be sufficiently separate not to include in this discussion. I am basing that on the idea that serial killers choose their targets, rather than acting indiscriminately. (Spree killers may be in-between, There seems to be less info regarding them.)

Even though mass killers are indiscriminate, there are differences in motivation. I’d say the broad categories are: 1) mental illness,2) targeting of specific people with others caught in the cross-fire, 3) hate crimes towards specific groups, and 4) terrorism. There’s an overlap between terrorism and hate crimes, but there are enough differences in what one would do to prevent those that it seems worth it to me to make a distinction. This is why it annoys me when people claim that all mass killings are terrorism. Terrorism has an actual definition. Actually, several definitions, but they are all based on the idea of trying to cause a political or social effect. None of the differences have anything to do with the race of the killer. The reason that the media and politicians characterized Las Vegas mass shooter Stephen Paddock as a "lone wolf," not a terrorist was not that he was white but that they were quoting the police deputy in charge of the case who had no evidence of a political or social motive.

It is also blatantly untrue that white people don’t get characterized as terrorism. Since 9/11, there have been 620 people convicted of terrorism-related offenses in the U.S. 100 of those were Moslems, 87 of whom were home-grown radicals, with only 13 immigrants. The rest were a mixture of white supremacists, anti-government extremists, animal liberationists, anti-abortion activists, and people protesting various foreign governments (e.g. attacks on foreign diplomats). (My primary sources for this are the Heritage Foundation and the Rand Worldwide Terrorism Database).

The reason this matters is that it affects responses. The way we deal with terrorism (not always appropriately) tends to be by cracking down on the groups perceived to be causing that terrorism. That is a case where there does appear to be some level of bias at work, at least in some states. But it does very little for random mass shootings. Note that not all mass shootings are all that random. The majority of cases seem to involve things like spill-over from domestic violence and/or workplace violence. The way to deal with those is via appropriate gun control. I think there are some common sense measures, starting with allowing research into what does and doesn’t work. We do know, for example, that when the rule in Virginia that limited gun purchases to one a month was overturned, shootings in Virginia increased.

I also see no reason for any private citizen to own systems that can fire large numbers of rounds in a short time.

But the biggest thing is to keep guns out of the hands of people who have proven they are dangerous. We have too many cases of people who are demonstrably mentally ill being able to acquire weapons, largely because of inadequacies in the background check systems. We know lots of warning signs like domestic violence and violence against animals. (The latter is one of the hallmarks of sociopaths and often starts at a young age, by the way.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that the biggest danger we face is not the random shooting. It’s the argument that results in a shooting because a gun was handy. Or the accidental shooting because a gun was handy. So far in 2017, there have been 54,630 gun violence incidents in the U.S., resulting in 13,783 deaths. (This does not include suicides, which run to 22,000 a year.) Only 321 of those involved mass shooting. For those arguing about the utility of guns for defense, there were 1801 incidents involving defensive use of guns. There are nearly as many (1781) unintentional shootings. My source on these figures is Gun Violence Archive.

Let’s be alert to the warning signs among people we know and try to get the right law enforcement and mental health responses. If you have children, don't let them play at houses where there are unsecured guns.

Above all, let's talk about this like adults.

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