Will Gun Rights Ever Be Fair and Balanced?

Both proponents and would-be detractors of Second Amendment rights (or, as I’ve dubbed it, “the right to bear any type of arm, for any purpose, in any company, despite my mental health status, ability to shoot straight, or profligate yen for hurting people”) are now swarming out of the woodwork, lobbing potshots in the form of statistical interpretations and clever political cartoons and even accusations that opponents are “enemies of freedom” (bet you can’t guess which side that rhetoric comes from).

Charging political opportunism is the new, bi-partisan “You’re un-American/uninformed!,” but whether rallying around new gun legislation is opportunism in the same way it was “opportunistic” for the left wing to make good on promises to call out Sarah Palin when her target map resulted in injury or loss of life, or whether this really is classic hitchhiking off a tragedy to establish party leadership or please constituents or just to prove one embodies some vaguely sketched definition of political “chutzpah,” remains to be seen.

First, and in support of the latter, decidedly more jaded, argument that all our elected officials are sly, self-serving bastards, we need to question why we always wait until after tragedy strikes to evaluate our hand and undertake preventive, legislative measures.

While individuals are fallible and prone to leaving such things to the last minute as: paying the rent, buying a ticket to  one’s own child’s graduation, changing the oil, getting out of bed, etc., the collective power invested in our government officials ought to spur them on to reject a short-sighted, “leave to tomorrow” style of governance.

By way of example, the shooting at Columbine High School tipped off a nation-wide flurry of gun control law proposals. In Colorado, arguably the most invested of the individual states, laws were ultimately enacted that allowed law enforcement to arrest people who buy guns for criminals and/or children and re-authorized a background check program. It boggles my mind that, apparently, the indefensible, obviously illegal act of purchasing weapons for the under-aged or those prone to crime was not already grounds for arrest. And running background checks is simply common sense–they should be to buying a gun what showing your passport at the airport is to getting on an international flight.

And while those no-brainer laws finally received the stamp of official state approval, other preventive measures, such as requiring background checks at gun shows and increasing the age one can buy a handgun from 18 to 21, were ultimately struck down as needlessly encroaching on the people’s Second Amendment rights. Never mind that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris obtained two shotguns and a semi-automatic 9-mm. by convincing an 18-year-old friend to purchase the weapons through a “private sale” at a gun show, ensuring there would be no background check.*

Head-in-the-sand policies extend not only to failure to introduce preventive bills in a timely manner, but also to repealing measures already in place to protect citizens’ safety. Just last year, Arizona nixed all stipulations that individuals pass a background check and undertake training before qualifying for a license to carry a concealed weapon. In 2009, they legalized bringing a concealed weapon into a restaurant/bar, so long as the carrier is not drinking alcohol and the establishment doesn’t post signs disallowing weapons (because it’s so easy to spot people who are concealing handguns, especially when you’re not Kate Beckett or a member of the Law & Order team). And on the national level, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004, and anemic attempts to renew it have not even made it to the Congressional floor for a vote.

Essentially, legislators in Arizona and elsewhere have decided they value quick, easy transactions over time-consuming background checks, the freedom to shoot whatever the individual’s heart desires over delineating between weapons commonly used for sport and those commonly used for crime, the right of an individual to hide a weapon over the right of the majority to consider certain establishments “safe spaces.”

The tragedy in Tucson proffers up an excellent opportunity to evaluate and modify existing gun laws, but attention-garnering shootings mobilize the NRA at least as much they do members of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Legislative officials can’t rely solely on a groundswell of support after a shooting, but need to ape Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D ““ N.Y.), a well-known advocate for more restrictive gun control, whose crusade began the day she took office, two years before the landmark Columbine shooting, and continues, unabated, today. She’s suffered constant setbacks and defeat, but who knows how many lives have been saved as an effect of just one 1998 victory, legislating minimum sentences for gun crimes.

Now that I’ve built Rep. McCarthy up, I have to point out that one particular aspect of her approach (and that of other staunchly anti-gun advocates) is hurting the cause of balanced, fair Second Amendment rights, which I think is the obvious goal our nation should strive for.

After the Virginia Tech massacre, McCarthy went on Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show, where she was asked to respond to accusations that her statement, “The unfortunate situation in Virginia could have been avoided if congressional leaders stood up to the gun lobby,” was essentially making “sweeping judgments about public policy from an incident we barely understand.” McCarthy simply pointed out that, in the context of her work on gun control, her statement was neither sweeping, nor a true “judgment”:

Because I get up on the floor in Congress every single week and talk about the gun violence that is happening in this country on a daily basis.

I applaud her for both waging a daily war and being proud of the same, but the interview with Carlson quickly soured. When he questioned her about the particulars of the new Assault Weapons Ban she was sponsoring, particularly what constitutes a barrel shroud and why it should be illegal, McCarthy had no answer.

A barrel shroud is a covering used on automatic and semi-automatic weapons to keep an overheated barrel from burning its user, and, compared to high-capacity clips (under the old Federal Assault Ban, defined as any clip that holds more than 10 rounds), it is of relatively low importance to gun control advocates concerned about mass killings. But McCarthy didn’t know that, couldn’t defend her position, and came off as an overly fervent, uninformed liberal who wants to take away people’s guns just because.

This post isn’t the place to get into a debate about whether features like pistol grips or barrel shrouds should be legal, but that is the type of detailed, blow-by-blow debate that McCarthy and her colleagues need to have. If they can do the research and present compelling arguments for limiting those features (as opposed to simply focusing on the obvious, like high-capacity clips, and then throwing in a few unaddressed gray areas for good measure), it would go a long way to silencing those gun rights defenders who constantly cite inane restrictions as an example of a left-wing conspiracy that’s grounded in nothing more than a desire to control the population.

Part of getting the word out in America necessitates using statistics, and lots of them. Who doesn’t love and respect statistics? They constitute a powerful weapon, one of the only quantifiers of human behavior, the only mode of information that can be beautifully divided into primary colors on a crisply delineated pie chart. Something in people responds to statistics, generally positively.

Bearing that in mind, it can’t hurt to point out that a 1994 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that, out of 88,649 gun deaths reported by the world’s 36 wealthiest counties, the U.S. had the highest per capita gun-related death rate (14.24 deaths/100,000 people) and U.S. deaths accounted for 45% (39,882) of the total deaths reported. That should give people vociferously defending the NRA and undiluted Second Amendment rights some serious pause.

The latest CDC stats I could obtain are from 2007, and indicate that 31,224 firearm-related deaths took place that year. While that is a significant improvement over the 1994 numbers, it is still extremely high, which is perhaps a contributing factor in many Americans recently beginning to relinquish arbitrary stances against background checks and prioritizing maintenance of government databases of the mentally ill and criminals.

Proof of this change of heart is upheld by HuffPo’s report that a poll shows, among other things:

-86 percent of Americans and 81 percent of gun owners support requiring all gun buyers to pass a background check, no matter where they buy the gun and no matter who they buy it from.

-91 percent of Americans and 93 percent of gun owners support requiring federal agencies to share information about suspected dangerous persons or terrorists to prevent them from buying guns.”

It has always been my belief that while bearing arms is technically a right, it needs to be legislated as a privilege that one may very well lose, whether on the basis of criminal behavior or history of mental health issues or substance abuse. It certainly appears that the vast majority of Americans agree. I’m not wild about keeping tabs on “suspected” terrorists and the mentally ill (all the racial profiling and prejudice-fomenting and privacy invading that list conjures makes me genuinely hesitant, scared even), but it appears we have to barter a few rights in order to build a culture where violent injuries and deaths occur so infrequently as to be shocking.

While this post may not showcase my affinity for shooting or my respect for Second Amendment rights, I do believe they are worth protecting. But defining and preserving the right to bear arms has to be done in a way that is intelligent, fact-based, and forward-thinking, a way that equally prioritizes personal freedom and public safety.

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