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Happiness is a Reasonable Debate on Gun Control

January 11, 2011

Domestic gun politics are not my favorite subject. There’s a lot of passionate, willful ignorance on both sides of the issue, and a lot of it seems to stem from a basic disagreement about whether there’s any legitimate use for a gun outside law enforcement or the military. I happen to believe there is, but I spent years in the other camp as well. Generally I just avoid the topic.

That said, Jared Loughner’s actions have produced a flurry of histrionic rants and strident op-eds about the evils of guns and how criminally insane people can just walk in and buy assault weapons and oh god what is this world coming to? From Gawker:

… no one’s even bothering to put up a heartfelt argument about whether we should consider enacting barriers to the purchase of semi-automatic weapons by plainly insane people…  A consensus has emerged that preserving access to firearms for the public at large is worth the occasional mass killing because the alternative—registering firearms, requiring competency evaluations before selling them—is too onerous.

To which I say: deep breath, team. Let’s all go get our terminology straight and regroup here in a few minutes. Let’s stop using the term semi-automatic as a way to whip people into a frenzy.  In fact, let’s tone down the inflammatory rhetoric in general.

Gawker, further:

Ask yourself which measure, had it been in place in the three years prior to the killings, would have been more likely to prevent them: A pledge from Sarah Palin to refrain from violent rhetoric, or a requirement in Arizona that all gun sales be accompanied by a note from a mental health professional certifying competence. Thousands have been demanding the former for the past two days; I haven’t heard anyone propose the latter.

There’s a reason you haven’t heard anyone propose the latter – it’s a terrible idea. Getting a note from a mental health professional certifying “competence” (what’s that?) isn’t like getting a note from your doctor that you’re up to date on your shots. Are you really suggesting that mental health professionals should declare sanity before gun purchases go through? Do you know how difficult it is to get an appointment with a mental health professional? Do you know how expensive and time-consuming it is? Just some possible externalities of a policy like this, none of which are a real stretch of the imagination:

  • Overburdened “mental health professionals” (again, can we define some terms?) are suddenly expected to evaluate whether somebody is a danger to society and/or to themselves, based on… what standards? How many evaluations? Certainly nobody would dare lie to a mental health professional. Is there an appeal process? What if Dr. X says I seem depressed today and for my own safety shouldn’t be allowed to purchase a gun? What if Dr. X hates guns and denies me out of hand? Can I get a second opinion?
  • Health insurance plans would decrease mental health coverage because there would be a sudden spike in demand. Mental health is already misunderstood, poorly treated, and insufficiently covered – yes, let’s break that system a little more. That’ll have the desired results.
  • The working class is unfairly penalized, because they will find it more difficult to take time off during normal working hours to go to a mental health professional. But I’m sure you normally champion the working class, right? Just not when they want things you don’t think they should have, like guns.

Clearly you didn’t think this through. You can’t possibly believe this is a good idea; you’re just inflaming the left. You represent the standard entrenchment pattern for every gun control debate, and you are why that debate is always over before it starts. Thanks for playing.

Let’s go find somebody with authority and a track record of general reasonableness. Let’s see what the New York Times has to say:

Mr. Loughner was rejected by the military for failing a drug test, and had five run-ins with the Pima Community College police before being suspended for disruptive activity. Why can’t Congress require a background check — without loopholes for gun shows or private sales — that would detect this sort of history? If the military didn’t want someone like Mr. Loughner to be given a firearm, neither should the public at large.

New York Times, is that really you? Military eligibility as a standard by which to allow or disallow gun ownership? What are you doing on this crazytrain?

Military eligibility has nothing to do with your fitness to own and operate a gun in a safe and legal way, and it has nothing to do with how sane or rational an actor you are. Until, oh, a few weeks ago, the military didn’t want to give gay people guns either. Does that mean the Pink Pistols should pack it up? And hey, #fulldisclosure: I’m ineligible to join the military cause I have asthma. Should I not be allowed to own guns in case I… have an asthmatic attack?

Or are we hating on people who fail drug tests now? This is equally pernicious, because Loughner’s drug test (note: I said test, not ongoing drug use) has nothing to do with his decision to go on a rampage, but ohmygod DRUGS ARE BAD GUNS ARE BAD DO YOU NOT SEE THE CONNECTION?!?! BAN EVERYTHING!!!! Guns should never be under the influence of mind-altering substances, but claiming drug use should automatically disqualify you from gun ownership is both impractical and far too general to warrant inclusion in a NYT op-ed. What drugs? Is there a threshold for how much drug use is too much? How will a seller know? Are we proposing to create a database of known drug users? Where do we draw the line on privacy?

The debate over gun control and gun rights seems to remain the same, no matter what happens. Both sides have to remain within their camp, and any efforts to reach across that divide are immediately crushed. We can’t have a productive debate if nobody can point out absurdity on their own side. On Twitter, CJ Chivers pointed me to the case of Jim Zumbo, who became a pariah in the firearms community in 2007 for speaking out against AR-15s and AK-47s being used as hunting rifles. Assault rifles. For hunting. No.

Bringing this back to Loughner: high-capacity magazines are also absurd. I can’t think of a legitimate civilian need for a high-cap magazine, just as I can’t think of a legitimate civilian need for a fully-automatic weapon of any kind. What the hell could you possibly do with 33 rounds that you couldn’t do with 10 or 15, besides massacre people? At the shooting range, I generally use a 15-round magazine, which is considered high-cap in some states, because I don’t want to reload every five minutes. If that were illegal, I’d sigh, get a 10-round magazine, and move on with my life. In the argument between, “I should be allowed to own any gun and any accessories I want” and “Public availability of some weapons/accessories poses a substantial risk to society,” I come down firmly on the side of the collective good. That’s what civilization is about.

So let’s be civilized. Let’s have a gun control debate that is reasonable and practical, and let’s write accurately and honestly about guns. Ban high-capacity magazines, but don’t even propose introducing mental health professionals into the equation. That doesn’t further the debate; that shuts it down.

More than anything, I think this tragedy points to the need for a re-evaluation of the mental health system. We should be asking how Jared Loughner slipped through the cracks of society to end up in that Safeway parking lot, and finding ways to get people like him the help they need, not proposing thoroughly impractical solutions to questions of gun control.

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2 Comments
  1. Caroline permalink
    January 12, 2011 10:15 pm

    I love that you have this blog now. There is wit and wisdom in the world of politics again. Clearly you must throw over…what are you doing at that new job? and become the nationally syndicated commentator of WHERE ARE YOUR BRAINS YOU FLOCK OF IDIOT SHEEP?!

    Ahem.

    What you highlight very well and what everyone else is ignoring spectacularly is the lack of pragmatism in the gun control debate. It would be all well and good if we could prevent people who were kept out of the military for suspected mental instability from buying guns…but records of military rejections don’t work that way. My understanding is that they’re sealed, and well they should be. The world simply should not get to look up someone’s medical history or test scores or whatever. And of course the suggestion that all gun owners should be certified sane is ridiculous (although it does sound kinda nice…but also kinda 1984 at the same time).

    Personally I can see the advantages of the system in some European countries where private citizens simply don’t get to own guns. Most of us are never going to need them, God willing. But there are people who eat what they hunt, and since I think Bambi is tasty too, I can see an argument for the regulated ownership of certain kinds of firearms.

    Uh, so, here’s the pacifist girl saying hunters should be able to buy rifles, what?

    Well, not so fast. No AKs. I do not understand why ANYBODY (that is, any private citizen) needs to own some of these things. I am not a gun expert, but I can tell that some guns fire bigger, nastier bullets, and faster, and with less reloading, than other guns, and I just can’t think of a legitimate reason one would need to keep those under one’s bed. Hunting rifle? OK. Handgun? Maybe. If you know what you’re doing with it. Assault rifle with a jumbo magazine, like you say? Hell no.

    I think gun control needs to address three essential questions much more comprehensively than it does. First, what is being sold? Is there a legitimate reason for a peaceful private citizen to have such a weapon? If not, it probably shouldn’t be available. Also–probably a good plan to put a registration database into place that prevents any given person from going out and buying multiple weapons and a horde of ammunition in a short amount of time. If they can do it for pseudephedrine, you’d think they could do it for guns. Second, who’s doing the buying? I think inevitably first-time offenders and people whose craziness is just emerging may slip through the cracks, but it’s nuts to me that there are any situations in which basic background checks on gun buyers might be waived. Anybody with felonies on their record, or a known history of violent mental problems should not be able to buy a gun. And finally, does the buyer know how to handle a firearm? Perhaps all gun buyers, or buyers of certain types of guns, should have to show up with evidence that they have taken a basic gun safety course. God knows the NRA would love the fundraising opportunity. This might even provide a last-ditch opportunity for somebody to notice a person who seemed a little “off,” although that could be pushing it.

    I don’t think it’s actually possible to prevent nutballs from acquiring weapons. Wouldn’t life be nice if it were? If half the energy that goes into the histrionic over-my-literally-dead-body debate about guns went into improving the state of mental health care for those who can’t afford it, maybe they wouldn’t be nutballs anymore.

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