If Anyone is Serious about Gun Control, Start Talking Specifics (and get Creative!)

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” ~Dr./Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break the Silence”

As one who spent the better part of my last two years living in South Carolina, it broke my heart to hear about the recent shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Church. Admittedly, I don’t read or watch that much “news,” which means I hear about current events first and foremost from social media. Facebook and Twitter, to be exact. Like other events such as this one, I immediately cringed when I started hearing about it because I knew posts would go from expressions of sympathy and condolence too quickly to people trumpeting their political agenda of the day. Inevitably these posts are filled with simplistic, blame-filled rhetoric. We sure do love our sound bites, don’t we?

Don’t hear me wrong. There’s definitely a place for political reform, particularly when a social problem (like continued massacres in public places, for example) keeps rearing its ugly head. But I have a confession to make. A lot of contemporary progressive activism annoys me. Not because I think activism is bad or because we don’t need it — in fact, I think in some ways I am an activist — but because so much of today’s activism seems at best, vague and aimless, or at worse, aimed more at blaming or trying to solicit some kind of admission from a person or people that, “Oh, I really have been wrong all along!” Scapegoating.

The Occupy Movement is an first example that comes to mind here, but it could also be the looting in Baltimore. What were these political movements trying to accomplish? Perhaps in cases like Ferguson, what is wanted is either a disarming of police or at least better training procedures for officers-in-training? But some people would probably say, plain and simple, we want people to stop being racist or: we want a guilty verdict. I’m not sure how to stop people from hating each other, but I do think activism is more effectively directed at legislators, where we can have some influence, rather than at the courts, where I daresay we shouldn’t have all that much influence. Bottom line, I’m still not sure what a lot of contemporary activist groups want, and I think that’s a failure by the activists in question. They’re communicating anger and resistance without an objective (or objectives). I suspect this is a new problem.

Sometimes “activism” is a platform for one to release his or her rage. Rage isn’t “bad,” and it’s probably necessary, especially when an injustice keeps happening. But so much of the social media variety appears and feels misdirected. Like I’m doing my best to show everyone how mad I am about RFFA, but what I’m really mad about is the fact that my dad left my family at a young age or my own marriage didn’t work out or I have an illness that causes me a lot of discomfort or I’m lonely or I lost my job and I’m broke or whatever. To be sure, I’ve been that activist myself at times. Focus on the external as a distraction from what’s going on internally. And even if the rage isn’t misdirected, as I think it often is, rage should still translate into political objectives. The LBGQT lobby has done a nice job with this. What do they want? Recognized marriage across the United States. And other things, too, but certainly no less than that.

I started this post with a Reverend/Dr. Martin Luther King quote, so I suppose I have to bring him in at some point. He’s worth mentioning. He is known for his civil resistance, and rightly so, but again, the point is that he always did what he did and led what he led because he wanted something; he had goals that were directly connected to whatever was happening politically. Thousands of people marched on Selma. Why? For the right of African Americans to vote without a poll tax or literacy test keeping them out.

Now some people are using the shooting in Charleston as a way to gain momentum toward taking the Confederate Flag down from the statehouse lawn. I think it’s a stretch to connect those two things, but at least an objective is getting articulated.

The objective (or objectives) that I’m interested in at the moment, surely for my own personal reasons, is gun control. I’ll get specific in a moment, but I know this can go really array, too, so let me first say that I don’t think “gun control” is any kind of silver bullet. It annoys the hell out of me when people just throw out the phrase, without any specificity about what they mean, and act like it’s a panacea. It’s worth noting that Dylann Roof did his dirty work in Charleston with a handgun.

I also don’t think guns are the core problem. As I’ve written before, the real problem is we’ve built and continue to build a society full of sad and angry men. That’s a much harder problem to fix or even begin to deal with, but I think it would be worth our time and energy to do the uncomfortable work of wading in that direction anyway. What guns do is create a really easy “out” for desperate/depressed/mentally-ill/angry/racist/sexist/violent (name your other preferred adjective here) men.* So perhaps a band-aid is appropriate here, even if it doesn’t “solve” the problem completely.

I’m thinking specifically about guns, both handguns and rifles, that have automatic or semi-automatic capacity. In other words, guns that spray. Guns that don’t require a person to stop and reload. I don’t think we’d really lose all that much as a society without those kinds of weapons. So that’s I would draw the line, although I’d be interested in hearing other potential lines, especially from people who know guns better than I do. And I also think this is only the beginning of the conversation; there are a lot of other specifics we’d need to consider. Such as:

  •  State or Federal legislation? My understanding is that right now there is quite a bit of discrepancy in terms of what the laws are from state to state. Do we want Federal legislation or should we continue to give this right to states?
  • What about the Second Amendment? I think this is totally a fair point, although I don’t think it kills the conversation or solves the dilemma. Just so we’re clear, the exact language of the Amendment is as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The language itself seems to beg the question of whether or not we’re talking about individuals or formal militias, but I’ll set that aside for a moment. To go in the direction of stricter gun control, we could, of course, change the Constitution. This would be really difficult to do, which is why we settle for throwing out vague Facebook posts. Another option, though, seems to be interpreting the Amendment as saying we have a right to bear arms. But which arms? As far as I know, I can’t roll up to downtown Indianapolis in an active tank. I cannot make an atomic bomb. These are limitations on my right to “bear arms.” Why couldn’t machine guns be added to that list?
  • How are we going to work with and not against responsible, non-violent owners of these kinds of weapons? Obviously legislation would have to include some kind of collection process. Okay, so there are all these guns out there, how are we going to ensure that people don’t just keep them? Could some money be freed up — maybe the cost of the gun plus some — to reward compliant people for laying their guns down? So instead of “Cash for Clunkers,” “Cash for Machine Guns?”
  • What about jobs? In doesn’t take an economist to realize that if you kill a manufacturing industry, people are going to lose jobs, and the economy is going to take a hit. That definitely doesn’t mean gun control isn’t worth pursuing, but it’s an important concern, nonetheless. What would/could we do to help people in the business of gun manufacturing to find equitable employment elsewhere?
  • What will we do with the people who don’t comply? How is the gun issue different than, as one example, drugs? Or abortion? (Or cars?!) How will we avoid simply piling up the prison system even more? Because God knows some people would refuse to comply with extreme measures of gun control. One of the things that gets me about this particular issue, and I often notice this with partisan politics, is that the language and and arguments at stake are very similar at least among these three issues. But ultimately, most Democrats want to strictly regulate guns, but leave drugs and abortions alone, while many Republicans want to leave guns alone but regulate abortions and drugs. I would hope that no matter where an honest person ultimately lands, that he or she could concede that all three of these matters have great potential to harm. So how can we develop a coherent consistent governing principle for all three issues?
  • What would/could we do, what measures would we take, to address the strengthened Black Market that would surely develop in the case of more stringent gun control? 
  • What measures could the government take to lesson the perception that they are simply hypocrites, condemning violence in one breath while condoning it in the next? What weapons will the military or the secret service or the police force give up in the spirit of becoming less violent? Could we, for example, take a few more steps in the direction nuclear nonproliferation?

These are undoubtedly only a few of the issues that would need to be addressed. The rashest reform tends to only cause new problems. I would love to hear from you: what else did I miss?


*I use men here rather than a more inclusive men and/or women because for this particular “genre” of violence, the walk-into-a-public(ish)-place-and-start-destroying-whichever-lives-get-in-the-way, the perpetrators have tended to be men. I am not suggesting that women could or have never committed crimes like these.

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