Yesterday, in light of recent events, my friend Adam and I engaged in a thorough conversation over what the next step is in changing the national discourse on gun control. The truth is that I have no idea. I figured I’d lead with that before writing this post. I’ve never worked on any gun control issue, and I’m not even that well-read on the issue. But I have a lot of thoughts on it, because it’s something that enters my thoughts pretty often.
When looking at the recent history of gun violence and massacres in the United States, it’s hard to parse out a strategy or narrative that’s deals solely with guns. The perceived importance of guns is tied up with our Constitution’s Second Amendment, and any conversation about preventing such tragic events must include talk of access to, funding for, and reduced stigma of mental healthcare and increased support for victims of domestic violence. And when you talk about political or legal solutions to gun proliferation, you involve the political system, the powerful gun lobby, and the ideologues of the Republican Party along with unequal state laws, a Supreme Court that strikes down bans, and a Democratic Party scared to use its strength.
So, eschewing the question of when it’s right to talk about gun control, I ask: what will be done? We can’t really accept that nothing will be done, even though a lot of us have reluctantly muttered the question “how many more times will this have to happen before we do something about it?” at least a few times in the past week, month, year, or decade. But if we refuse the idea that nothing will be done, if we decide that something will be done, what will that something be?
A relative of mine recently tried to take advantage of some gun sales at a hunting store in Arizona, and the guns had all sold out almost immediately. When my dad asked him why, the relative reiterated the fear that Obama will be banning all guns any day now, so a lot of Republicans are getting them while they can. Nevermind the fact that Obama hasn’t had the gumption to do anything when it comes to gun violence, and has actually helped facilitate the militarizing of a host of countries around the world. What do we do about gun control when people are already hoarding weaponry to face both the apocalypse and the specter of a government crackdown on guns, both of which are completely unfounded?
It will be a long and arduous campaign to shift the cultural mindset. The NRA and similar organizations have always had a tight grip on the lawmakers of this country, and they have also fostered a deep love for guns among the citizenry. The recent radical turn of the Republican Party has only exacerbated this as more and more people feel tied to their right to bear arms. There’s no easy way to reverse this trend, but a long and committed campaign could slowly chip away at the power of firearms.
It is, of course, my dream that I could live in an America where there is either a full gun ban or something close. But that’s all it is. It’s a dream, and it will remain that way. After all, yesterday’s tragedy, and many gun-related tragedies, was carried out by legal weapons. But there has to be some argument that, if killing sprees and this easy while ostensibly following the law, maybe we should change the law. The fight against gun violence and mass killings needs to start locally, and it needs to start with conversation.
Starting at Home
When I did my student teaching, I worked with 200 students in the heart of one of Arizona’s many conservative towns. We talked politics a lot (I taught U.S. History and Government), and I’d wager a substantial number of my students had fired a gun at some point in their lives. If I were teaching still, I would start there. As a teacher, you shouldn’t act like this didn’t happen, or couldn’t happen again. It happened in a school. I think most teachers have thought about whether or not it could happen at their school. You need to talk about it. A classroom should be a secure place or discussion, and a number of students in many communities have experience with guns. Tap into that, and ask the questions we’re all asking: why do you think this happened? what do you think could keep it from happening again? how could we do it and still have the support of gun-owners? In a social studies class, it’s easy to transition to coursework: what could local government do about this? state government? federal government? what are the economics of a buy-back program or raising taxes on guns? If you spend your weekend preparing, the right facts and the right questions should lead a fruitful discussion about possible places of compromise. The tricky part is asking your students to talk to their parents about the issue, but , a lot of e-mails with parents later, I think the conversation would be beginning.
Like anti-tobacco campaigns and advertisements against drunk driving, a sustained public media campaign needs to get bigger and stronger. Guns do kill people, but it shouldn’t be that way. The fact of the matter is that getting rid of some guns won’t deal with the gun-culture that has been fostered in this country for a century. We need to deal with the rational things first, then push back against the all-powerful gun-culture brought to you by the NRA/GOP alliance. Inform the public: No hunter needs an automatic sniper rifle. It’s not a big deal to have to fill out forms to purchase weapons in exchange for a safer society. If you’re buying guns, you better have a gun safe. More guns mean more dead children. Statistics, when shown in a powerful way, drive the point home. If you were to effectively show the number of people killed in accidental gun deaths in the past month, you’d scare a lot of them. If you told their stories, you’d draw tears. But this needs to be tied to each of us and it needs to be tied to action, because all of us need to take action. This includes encouraging people to not have guns, but also imploring that those who do practice the utmost safety. If we can simultaneously work on any of a number of gun-related laws, that would help.
The problem of passing laws isn’t that people don’t support them. Politicians are unwilling to vote for effective legislation, and judges are all too happy to strike down the bit that makes it through the pipeline. But if we start locally, we can make progress. If guns are going to make our communities more dangerous, we need to safeguard against it, and we need to make the costs of owning a gun that much higher. Demanding that gun-owners purchase insurance for any damage caused by their weapons is a start. If you couple it with a tax hike (which is reasonable, since the city will have to respond to any incidents involving the weapons), it will be more difficult to obtain guns. As the national conversation continues, automatic weapons bans and tougher purchasing requirements need to take the stage. Castle doctrine laws need to be repealed. Gun safety classes need to be mandated and thorough. A weapons buy-back program should be started.
But without an outright ban, there will still be as many guns as there are people in this country. Funding and access for programs aimed at helping those suffering mental or emotional health disorders and domestic violence victims needs to be greatly expanded. Obviously, not all people with mental health problems are violent. But a seemingly large number of the most tragic incidents have been perpetrated by people that weren’t thinking clearly. A startlingly high number of murder-suicides are perpetrated by men against women trying to leave the relationship. I don’t know the best ways to address the stigma of mental health or the dangers of domestic violence, but more needs to be done on all fronts. Funding for care, public information campaigns about seeking help, and other campaigns need to be increased.
Local and state government may be best to deal with local issues, and to parse the unique state-level gun laws. But this leads to inequality and, as my friend Adam argued, conservative states bolstering their opinions when violence occurs in states like Connecticut, where gun laws are actually quite strict. People are already writing about arming teachers, and I haven’t looked this time – but after virtually every incident a cadre of conservative Facebook friends laments that none of the victims were armed. I’ve always thought that liberals and progressives have ignored local politics for too long, but am wondering on what level something like effective, SCOTUS-proof but passable gun legislation needs to happen.
What will we do?
This post has been me thinking out loud, for the most part, and I needed to write something because I can’t really concentrate on anything else (and I have work to do). So I turn to you, readers. Please help me figure this out. If we commit ourselves to doing something – in politics, in society – what should we do? What will we do?