Thu, Aug 21, 2014 ●
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The View From Away: Gun control? First, control the rhetoric

Opinion

The View From Away: Gun control? First, control the rhetoric

The gun control debate highlights my main deficiency as a lawyer.

I did not have a moral objection to learning to talk out of both sides out of my mouth – that is, argue either side of a case. I did not have a problem billing my time by the hour. With that training, any halfway decent attorney would see dollar signs all over gun control. This is a dispute between implacable enemies with deep pockets and no apparent interest in finding common ground. In short, a gold mine.

My failure as a lawyer lies in believing that the stakes are too high to keep this conflict going. The combatants need to stop trying to win and start looking for ways to settle the conflict.

They – and by “they,” I mean “we,” since we are all responsible for this problem – could start by cooling down the rhetoric. All sane people abhor the recent horrific shootings. We grieve. We get angry. The scale sickens us. The randomness frightens us. That goes for supporters of private gun ownership as much as for the most rabid gun-control advocates, despite the impression made by certain tone-deaf lobbyists.

It is natural to push for fast action in the wake of senseless acts of mad people. However, we should be very skeptical of feel-good legislation passed in the heat of the moment, especially if it is passed in lieu of seeking a deeper, more lasting societal solution.

America was born and built largely by force of arms. We see ourselves as self reliant and independent, and we have a strong streak of the contrarian. Over the years, violence has become a symptom of and camouflage for deeper problems. For example, we make a big show of our determination to defend our freedoms, but we seem far less keen on accepting the responsibilities that make those freedoms work. We all agree about how much we prize equality, but those of us who have more disagree sharply with those who have less about what equality means. We act more than we reflect. We like our problems simple and quickly solved.

Is there a better metaphor for fast action and rapid conflict resolution than firearms?

This may sound like I hate guns. I don’t. I grew up with them. I admire their craftsmanship and am interested in their history. I even belonged to the National Rifle Association years ago, before their press releases started to sound like some guy in a tin foil hat – for example, the proposal to address the danger of elementary school shootings by arming the faculty, because it’s a known fact that the training of a kindergarten teacher and a SWAT team member are virtually identical.

I believe the Supreme Court is correct in saying our Constitution protects an individual right to own a gun. Also, firearms are very dangerous and too easy to get, but gun-control advocates do not do themselves any favors with rhetoric that is little more than judgement dressed up as public safety regulation. They equate terrible acts with the means used to carry them out, then claim that the guns themselves are the problem. Attempts at gun control born of this bias are fatally flawed attempts to treat with a Band-Aid deeper cultural problems that need to be solved by a generational shift in the way we think as a society.

There is plenty that we could do while we are waiting for that shift, if the two sides are more interested in making the country safer than in claiming the moral high ground. They could agree on a uniform federal standard for background checks and waiting periods. Those who fear "Big Brother" could put their energy into building safeguards against regulatory abuse into the system. Both sides could cooperate on the biggest obstacle to any effective legislation: funding. Laws are only as good as our financial commitment to enforcement.

Interim steps would have some effect on the incidence of gun violence. They could keep some guns out of the hands of people who are already known to be too unstable or too dangerous to have them. We need to be realistic about the legislation. It would be a stop-gap at best. It would not stop people from becoming suicidal after they own a firearm, or being careless, or getting drunk or high or despondent, and shooting somebody. No law will stop a determined individual from acquiring and using a firearm.

Long term, gun violence will only be significantly reduced by working on the problems that cause it. Ending the demonization of guns and teaching the average citizen how to be safe around them would be useful. Starting a national conversation about violence would help. Teaching kids cooperation and problem-solving skills at an early age would make a difference, as would dialing down the rampant consumerism that highlights the gulf between the haves and the have nots.

These are some of the real problems behind gun violence. They cannot be solved overnight, and they will require the kind of national will we usually only show when we are at war. That’s the problem with these intractable problems. They’re so intractable.